Heroes of the Santa Fe Trail: 1821-1900


Randy D. Smith


Table of Contents



Maps of the Santa Fe Trail

Chapter 1 ‑ Culture of Isolation                            

For hundreds of years the New Mexicans lived on a knife edge balance of survival, the stability of power in danger of tilting at any moment.

Chapter 2 ‑ The Trailblazer                                  

William Becknell was not the first to use the Santa Fe Trail but he was the one who made the first successful trading venture from Missouri to Santa Fe.  Ironically, he probably would not have made the trip if he had not been forced into it.

Chapter 3 ‑ Standoff Along the Cimarron, McKnight‑James Santa Fe Expedition of 1821

While William Becknell blazed the Santa Fe Trail, another group of men attempted an alternative route.  It was a journey that almost ended in disaster.

Chapter 4 ‑ Jornada Crossing  

By almost any standard, Jedediah Smith, not John C. Fremont, should be remembered as the West’s great Pathfinder.  Yet, perhaps the irony of history or perhaps simply his bad luck, one of the West’s greatest explorers was defeated by a 60-mile stretch of the Cimarron Cut‑off of the Santa Fe Trail.

Chapter 5 ‑ Tough Night in Taos, the Death of Charles Bent    

Together with Ceran St. Vrain, William and Charles Bent established a vast adobe castle on the banks of the Arkansas River along the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail that became the spearhead of American expansion to the Southwest.  The success of the Bent‑St.Vrain trading empire, however, was not gained without a terrible toll.

Chapter 6 ‑ Mexican Traders of Santa Fe           

Although generally overlooked by historians, a powerful group of New Mexican natives took advantage of the Santa Fe Trail and exerted substantial influence upon trade, regulation, government and even justice.

Chapter 7 ‑ With Riley, On the Border  

The First Military Escort of the Santa Fe Trail was an adventure of Indian fighting, bravery, cowardice and endurance.

Chapter 8 ‑ Nathan Boone’s Expedition of the Prairies

Investigating the Chavez murder of 1843, Daniel Boone’s youngest son made a significant trek through the heart of Indian country as a Captain of Dragoons.

Chapter 9 ‑ Fiasco of the Battalion of Invincibles, The Warfield‑Snively Texas Invasion of the Santa Fe Trail ‑ 1843.    

Chapter 10 ‑ Fort Garland’s Tom Tobin    

Fated to remain in the shadows of men with greater reputations, trapper, scout and Indian fighter, Tom Tobin was a major figure in the turbulent history of the Southwest.

Chapter 11 ‑ Lucien Maxwell and Rayado Ranch        

Destined to become one of the largest and richest landholdings of the frontier, the early years of settlement of the Rayado Ranch were plagued by hostile encounters with Indians along the Santa Fe Trail.

Chapter 12 ‑ Fort Larned, The Central Anchor      

Once a military guardian of the central leg of the Santa Fe Trail, Fort Larned is now a national historic site.  It is the best remaining example of Santa Fe Trail garrisons.

Chapter 13 ‑ Kit Carson & the First Battle of Adobe Walls

An almost‑forgotten battle between Indians and whites for control of the Santa Fe Trail demonstrates the brilliant leadership capabilities of one of the West’s most famous names.

Chapter 14 ‑ Booth & Helliwell’s Race for Life 

Throughout the annals of the West, few men experienced such a narrow escape and lived to tell about it.

Chapter 15 - Early Years of the Mud Fort                                                 

Medical records of the early years of Fort Dodge, Kansas are marked with sacrifice, sickness, exposure and death.  The problem was that military engagements against hostiles accounted for a small percentage of the soldiers’ ailments.

Chapter 16 ‑ The Buffalo Runners 

Myths, misunderstanding and legends abound surrounding the American Bison and the men who hunted it.

Chapter 17 ‑ Battle Canyon and Squaws’ Den    

Only the wind sings a sad song of confrontation and survival at the lonely site of Battle Canyon and Squaws’ Den.

Chapter 18 - The Ranch at Cimarron Crossing             

For two years men struggled to maintain a lonely outpost at the Santa Fe Trail Cimarron Crossing of the Arkansas River.  Isolation and the threat of death from Indian raids constantly skewed their lives and their fortunes.

Chapter 19 ‑ Winter Campaign                

While George Custer found glory along the banks of the Washita River during the winter of 1868‑69, a force of soldiers left Fort Lyon, Colorado, for a campaign of suffering, near‑starvation and freezing death.  Some of the most legendary names in the West were involved in this forgotten saga of survival.

Chapter 20 ‑ Charlie Rath, Kansas Frontiersman    

One act of heroism exemplifies the character and strength of a man who may be one of the most overlooked figures in the history of the settlement of Kansas.

Chapter 21 ‑ Fort Union, Defender of the Union Southwest    

An earthen star fort was built to defend the Santa Fe Trail that one officer claimed “All Texas Cannot Take.”  The entire structure was a boondoggle that could be pounded to dust by artillery if the Confederacy took the mesa to the west.

Chapter 22 - Ham Bell, The Quiet Lawman

An acquaintance of the likes of Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman and Pat Sughrue during Dodge City’s most turbulent era, Hamilton Butler Bell served as a lawman for thirty-six years, arresting more people for warrants handled than any other western lawman, and never shot a man.

Chapter 1

Culture of Isolation


For hundreds of years the New Mexicans lived on a knife edged balance of survival, the stability of power in danger of tilting at any moment.

For all intents and purposes the settlements of the United States ended at St. Louis at the turn of the 19th century.  In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte of France sold a huge tract of land, known as Louisiana, to President Thomas Jefferson.  Bonaparte was literally in such a political position that he either sold the territory to the United States or lost it in a war with England that he had no hope of winning.  Better to take what he could and use the money to bolster his position on the continent of Europe and protect his interests in Santo Domingo.

Thomas Jefferson had a far different problem.  Bonaparte’s offer was a bargain, but the American President, a strict constructionist, had no Constitutional precedence for making such a purchase.  On this issue, Jefferson sat aside his political theories and pushed the purchase forward.  In one farsighted act, Jefferson increased the size of his young country by almost a third.  On December 20, 1803, the vast Louisiana Territory became part of the United States.

Other men moved quickly to take advantage of the newly acquired territory.  In 1804, William Morrison, an Illinois merchant, dispatched an agent, Baptiste Lalande, on a trip up the Platte River to trade with Indians with added instructions to go to Santa Fe to establish a trading relationship with the New Mexicans.  Lalande made it to Santa Fe and used Morrison's investment to establish himself there, without bothering to repay his employer.

In 1806, General James Wilkinson, provisional governor of Louisiana, and Aaron Burr, a well-known political figure of the day, devised a plot to occupy Spanish lands to the south of Louisiana and create an independent country of their own.  In order to carry out their scheme the men needed intelligence regarding the political situation in New Mexico.

Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike was dispatched on the mission under the official military objective of exploring the country west of St. Louis.  Pike set out with twenty men, including Wilkinson's grandson, from the Missouri River town of Belle Fontaine with surveying instruments to explore the Arkansas and Red Rivers.  He had also been engaged by Morrison to find LeLande and try to obtain a settlement on his debt.

Once locating the Arkansas, Pike followed it west until he reached the Rocky Mountains and gave his name to Pike's Peak.  Pike then turned south until he came upon a substantial river.  He halted his expedition and built a fort to make it through the winter.  His men were scattered and hungry with many suffering from frostbite.  Believing the stream to be the Red and needing time to allow his men time to recover, Pike raised the United State flag and took up residence.  He also sent Dr. John Robinson to Santa Fe alone to look the place over and collect from LeLande.

Pike did not know that he had been double-crossed by Wilkinson.  Knowing that Pike would be taken to Santa Fe if captured by the Spanish, Wilkinson wrote a letter to the Spanish authorities telling of Pike's approach.  Pike was also wrong about his location.  Rather than being on the banks of the Red, he was flying the colors on the Spanish soil of the Rio Grande.  One month later, a force of 100 New Mexican dragoons and militia, arrived and arrested Pike.  The dragoons were cautious in their approach.  They believed Pike's small band to be the advance guard of a much larger invasion force.  They were greatly relieved to find that Pike and his ragged, starving band were the only Americans within hundreds of square miles.

Pike and his men were taken to Santa Fe where they were received by Governor Joaquin del Real Alencaster.  Although the governor was courteous, Pike acted suspicious and insolent.  He was placed on conditional parole and allowed to wonder about the city.  When the governor requested to review Pike's papers of authority, the lieutenant hid them.  Alencaster learned of the subversion and took them from Pike.  He then sent Pike to Chihuahua for further interrogation.

Pike was impressed with what he found in New Mexico.  Santa Fe was the largest Spanish settlement in New Mexico but it was far from metropolitan with barely 4,000 inhabitants.  It was the major settlement of a territory that included most of Colorado, and Arizona, and parts of Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.  In all those lands there were no more than 20,000 people of Spanish heritage.  In the two hundred years of Spanish occupation, they had established major settlements in Santa Fe, Santa Cruz, Albuquerque and Taos along a narrow band of the Rio Grande valley.  None of these pueblos except Santa Fe had more than a few hundred inhabitants.

The Rio Grande River and the Spanish ability to irrigate crops of corn, wheat, barley, European vegetables, grapes and peaches created a mildly pleasant land of plenty.  Vast flocks of sheep laced the slopes of mesas and hills.  Except of some copper mines and a small buffalo hide trade, the principal product of the area was sheep.  As many as 500,000 head were driven to the main market of Chihuahua, 600 miles to the south.  It took nearly two months for supplies to get from Mexico to the New Mexican settlements, and the capital of Mexico City was nearly five months away.  The government in Mexico City considered New Mexico as little more than a buffer state between the mountains and richer states to the south.  Outnumbered and alone in their valley, the New Mexicans were often at the mercy of the Apache and Comanche Indians.  As recently as 1774, Albuquerque and Santa Cruz had to be temporarily abandoned because of Indian raids.  Only Santa Fe was large enough to be secure from attack.  Franciscan monks, who led the Spanish settlement of the Americas by establishing monasteries, had never been successful at converting the majority of the natives of New Mexico to the Catholic religion.  Their repressive standards of expectation did not sit well with the independent and warlike tribes of the mountains.  The progression north of Spanish civilization ended when advance monasteries were massacred or disheartened priests deserted their isolated posts.

During most of their time in the area, the Spanish were not that much more technologically advanced than the Indian.  A typically equipped Mexican lancer wore a heavy leather vest and shield to ward off arrows and was usually equipped with broadsword, single shot flint musket or crossbow, and heavy lance, the latter being the main weapon.  Other than the outdated smooth bore muskets, they possessed no more weaponry than a mounted Comanche and could not hope to match the firing rate of his bow.  Gunpowder was so expensive that troops seldom used their firearms unless in extreme peril, knowing they would have to pay to replace it.  Many preferred the crossbow to the fusil because of accuracy and dependability factors.  There was no such thing as firearms target practice.  Soldiers were rationed less than two pounds of powder for the year and were expected to purchase their own supplies for such activities.  The entire garrison at Santa Fe seldom had more than 100 soldiers.  Every able-bodied man was expected to come to the defense of a pueblo if attacked.  Most were armed with crude hoes, axes and knives.  The same style of bow and arrow that the Indians used remained the standard long-range defense weapon of the general populace.

The New Mexicans existed in small medieval agricultural settlements behind fortified walls of adobe never farther than a few miles distant unless in large heavily armed force.  The smaller settlements often found themselves paying tribute to the Indians or arranging independent treaties for survival.  One community even agreed to pledge the daughter of the leading citizen to a Comanche chief for marriage to his son in order to enjoy a few years of peace.  When the Spaniards reneged, the Comanche rode into the village at will, slaughtered the father, local priest, many of the villagers and took the girl.  The New Mexicans lived on a knife-edge of survival, the balance of power in danger of tilting at any moment.

They were also a cash poor society, except for a few wealthy landowners.  Most of their economy was based on village square bartering for locally made clothing and supplies.  Even the wealthier citizens possessed few imported goods, a single piece of imported furniture often being a source of pride representing wealth, heritage and status.  Items such as tobacco, gunpowder or fine cloth were extremely expensive.  It was against the law to trade with foreigners and all goods from Chihuahua were heavily taxed.

Society was rigidly structured with virtually no professional class other than priests.  Local government officials served as judge and jury, making decisions as the matter stuck them.  A poor man was often of mixed blood and little more than a feudal serf with no rights if a rich man thought otherwise.  The common class could be imprisoned or punished for the slightest affront.  Many were jailed for debt or poverty.  There were no trained physicians, no lawyers, no professional teachers and only a handful of craftsmen.  If a wealthy family wanted a male child to have a formal education it could turn to local priests for simple reading and writing skills or far away Mexico City for advanced training.  Illiteracy was common in all but the noblest born.

The poor lived little better than agricultural Indians, surviving on gardens and the products of sheep and goats.  Santa Fe itself was a community of small adobe structures without glass windows, scattered through a maze of narrow twisting streets and dirt floors.  Most slept on beds of straw under homespun blankets.  Eating utensils other than large wooden spoons for dipping were unheard of.  The poor ate with their hands with the universal culinary tool being the tortilla, a flat unleavened bread made of lye-soaked stone ground corn flour.  It was fried thin over open fireplaces with a metal sheet called a comal, and used for dipping up chile and frijoles.  The principal dish was atole, a thin gruel made by stirring flour into boiling milk or water.  It was so commonly used that it was called el cafe de los Mexicanos.  Meat was uncommon except when buffalo hunters returned from the Comanche plains or a goat was dressed for special occasions.

During lean times the peasants resorted to the prickly-pear cactus, neither particularly palatable nor wholesome.  The universal spice was the fiery red pepper, which was used in almost every dish.  The one gourmet luxury was a thick, aromatic chocolate, out of reach to all but the most wealthy.

New Mexican clothing, although of homespun cotton or wool, was garishly decorated.  The fandango, a native feast day, was celebrated for a variety of special occasions.  Such celebrations were usually signaled with the ringing of the church bell summoning the populace to the central courtyard.  Large amounts of a pale, strong alcoholic beverage called aguardiente were served freely to men and women.  The women usually braided their lustrous black hair and decorated themselves with earrings, necklaces, heavy bracelets and massive crosses of gold and silver.

Pike saw something more attractive in Santa Fe society: 

Being cut off from the more inhabited parts of the kingdom…they are the bravest and most hardy subjects of New Spain…we saw men, women and children of all ages and sexes at the joyful labor which was to crown with rich abundance the future harvest and insure them plenty for the coming year…they exhibit a superior degree of heaven—like qualities of hospitality and kindness in which they appear to endeavor to fulfill the injunction of the scripture, which enjoins us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give comfort to the oppressed in spirit. 

This description proved to be far different than what later, more racist chroniclers saw.  Many were disappointed with the towns, describing them as "drab," "squalid" and "poor"; and saw the people as "lazy," "ignorant" or "indolent."  The actual fact of the matter is that the cultural differences between the New Mexican and the United States citizen accounts for harsh judgments from puritanical Anglos and suspicion from the Latinos.  The main difference between the societies lay in the severe social and religious structure of the Spanish and the more independent structure of the Americans.  Where Anglo society allowed a commoner to rise from his station, the Mexican was generally held to his.  The poor Mexican was not denied the salvation of the church while the repressive Puritan society of the Anglos tended to believe that the "poor were disfavored by God."  These critical differences accounted for much of the misunderstandings between the two cultures for centuries.  It can also help us understand the ethnocentric comments and judgments made by many of the Missouri chroniclers of later years.

Eventually, Pike was paroled and sent back to the United States as Wilkinson had planned.  Wilkinson and Burr were soon discredited and their scheme of an Empire of the Southwest evaporated.  Pike was killed in action during the War of 1812.

Although most of his papers were confiscated, Pike saved a journal by rolling the pages tightly and inserting them in gun barrels.  Upon his return the journal, published in 1810, created a stir of interest in the States.  The aggressive entrepreneur of the western frontier saw New Mexico as a potential source of profitable revenue.  Other, less scrupulous factions viewed the colony as a weak link in the Spanish Empire that could be rather easily absorbed by the larger more dynamic economy of the United States.  As it turned out, both were right.



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