The Way to Santa Fe

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by Tom Clavin

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Toward the end of Throne of Grace by Bob Drury and yours truly, the Santa Fe Trail plays an important role, especially in the life of our protagonist, Jedediah Smith. The Santa Fe Trail is the oldest overland trail in the Trans-Mississippi West. There were other famous trails in the West, including the Chisholm Trail and the Oregon Trail, but the Santa Fe Trail was the first. For better or worse, its existence had much to do with white settlers heading west across the country.

Arrival of a caravan at Santa Fe.
Arrival of a caravan at Santa Fe.

It was in September 1821 that William Becknell led a party out of Franklin, Missouri, bound for New Mexico. Becknell is a somewhat overlooked yet important figure in American history. He was born in the Rockfish Creek area of Amherst County, Virginia, in either 1787 or 1788. His father and grandfather were veterans of the American Revolution, as were two uncles who died in the war.

Becknell married Jane Trusler in 1807 in Virginia. In 1810, the young family migrated to the new Missouri Territory, homesteading west of present-day St. Charles. During the War of 1812, Becknell served in the U.S. Mounted Rangers under Captain Daniel Morgan Boone, a son of the famed explorer. (Much more about the Boone family can be found in Blood and Treasure.) He participated in several engagements, including the Battle of Credit Island and the defense of Fort Clemson, near St. Louis. In the latter engagement, he took control of the defense after senior officers fell. For this he was promoted to the rank of captain and was long known as Captain Becknell. Following his discharge from military service in June 1815, Becknell moved west to the area known as the Boone’s Lick along the Missouri River.

Jane Becknell died of unknown circumstance, possibly in childbirth, around this time. In January 1817, the widower married again, to Mary Cribb. Becknell was the father of at least five children in total. He supported his family by working as a ferryman on the Missouri River and by managing the Boone’s Lick Salt Works. In early 1820, he purchased 180 acres in Howard County, Missouri, and moved the family there.

In 1821, Becknell faced a financial crisis. He had bought out the Boone family interest in the salt works around 1818. Then, in 1820, he ran unsuccessfully for the Missouri Legislature, having borrowed money to finance the campaign. The Panic of 1819 had taken its toll on his business activities by limiting the amount of credit and hard currency available. Owing creditors more than $1,200—a substantial sum in those days—Becknell was briefly jailed until a friend posted bail. The judge in the case gave Becknell until early 1822 to pay his creditors or face further incarceration.

So, it was time to take a trip. Becknell published a notice in The Missouri Intelligencer announcing he was forming an expedition to travel west for the purpose of trading horses and mules. A bunch of people signed up for the adventure. They pulled out of Franklin, Missouri, in September 1821 and traveled through Indian Country, the Great Plains, and the Southwest, going through the rugged Raton Pass along the way. When they finally arrived in Santa Fe, they were welcomed. In this they were fortunate. Previous attempts to trade in Santa Fe had been rebuffed by the Spanish government. However, that same month, Mexico had declared independence from Spain and it was open to commerce. There was plenty of trading between the Americans and Mexicans of Santa Fe, and Becknell earned a 200 percent profit.

For the U.S., the significance of the trip was more than about Becknell’s bottom line. The 1,200-mile journey through five states—Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico—established a route that became a lifeline for the ever-expanding United States. Unfortunately for Mexico, the influx of American traders and settlers just made it that much easier for the U.S. to take over the Southwest from its southern neighbor.

In 1987, the National Park Service designated the Santa Fe Trail a National Historic Trail, and along it today there are 900 historic trail sites. What of the trailblazer William Becknell? He arrived back in Missouri in January 1822 and almost immediately began planning his next trading trip to Santa Fe. For his second journey, he chose to haul trade goods by wagon instead of pack horse. He had to slightly alter his original route in order to accommodate the width of wagons and draft teams.

The wagon train left Franklin in May and suffered considerable hardships, with both animals and people nearly dying of thirst in the parched Cimarron Desert. The wagon train arrived in Santa Fe after a 48-day ordeal. The good news was the second trip proved to be even more profitable than the first. Taking an estimated $3,000 in goods to Santa Fe, Becknell’s party returned with a profit of around $91,000. They paid some of that total as dividends to shareholders who had helped fund the trip, and even the smallest investor reaped great returns.

Becknell made a third profitable trip to Santa Fe in 1824. The following year he helped map the trail for surveyors hired by the U.S. Congress. In 1827, Becknell was appointed as a Justice of the Peace for Saline County, Missouri, and the following year he was elected to the first of two terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. Retaining his rank of captain, Becknell served in the Missouri state militia during a Native American uprising in 1829 and again during the 1832 Black Hawk War. 

In 1835, Becknell sold all his Missouri property and business interests and moved to present-day Red River County in northeast Texas. During the Texas revolution against Mexico, he organized and led a cavalry unit known as the Red River Blues. Later he would serve briefly as a Texas Ranger and be elected as a member of the legislature in the newly established Republic of Texas.

William Becknell died on April 30, 1865, at his home. He is buried in a private family cemetery. US 82 passes by the site a few miles west of Clarksville, Texas.

Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.

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Tom Clavin
Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—as well as Blood and Treasure, The Last Hill, and Throne of Grace with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.

The post The Way to Santa Fe appeared first on The History Reader.

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