William G. Cutler's History of the State of Kansas


[TOC] [part 8] [part 6] [Cutler's History]


The overland trade with Santa Fe, which opened up the first great Western line of travel through Kansas, was begun experimentally as soon after Pike's visit to the country as the revolutionary state of affairs in those Spanish provinces would permit. Baptiste La Laude, the faithless agent of Morrison, as will be remembered, was the first white man who carried goods overland from the American settlements to Santa Fe. He made his trip in 1804. As has been stated before, he never returned to the States. James Punley, trapper and hunter, had reached Santa Fe, with perhaps a few goods and his peltry, in l805, and was found a resident of the country, under Spanish surveillance, at the time of Pike's visit. He ended his life there. The delay of American traders in availing themselves of the brilliant trade opportunities disclosed by Pike was occasioned by the almost prohibitive restrictions placed on all foreign trade by the Spanish authorities. Except by Special permission by the Spanish Government, all commercial intercourse with foreigners had been prohibited. In consideration of the special and long-seated hatred and jealousy which was entertained toward the Americans, a safe or profitable trade was impossible. No profits, however enormous, could cover the risks incurred. In 1810, Hidalgo made an effort to achieve the independence of New Spain, and so far succeeded as to become the acknowledged head of the new republic. By the Declaration of lndependence, all restrictions on trade with the United States were removed. This first struggle ended in disaster, Hildalgo became a fugitive, was arrested, and executed, and for thereafter the country remained under Spanish rule. It was under the encouragement of Hidalgo's early successes and proclamations the first efforts were made to establish Santa Fe trade. Following is the history of them early ventures, as given in Gregg's `Commerce of the Prairies:'

In 1812, an expedition was fitted out under the auspices of Messrs. McKnight, Beard, Chambers and others (in all, about a dozen) who following the directions of Capt. Pike, across the dreary western wilds, finally reaching Sante Fe in safety. But these new adventurers were destined to experience trials and disappointments of which they had no conception. Believing that the Declaration of Independence by Hidalgo, in 1810, had completely removed those injurious restrictions which had hitherto rendered all foreign intercourse except by special permission from the Spanish Government, illegal, they were wholly unprepared to encounter the embarrassments with which despotism and tyranny inevitably obstruct the path of the stranger. They were doubtless ignorant that the patriotic chief Hidalgo had already been arrested and executed; that the royalists had once more regained the ascendancy, and that all foreigners but particularly Americans were now viewed with unusual suspicion. The result was that the luckless traders, immediately on their arrival, were seized as spies, their goods and chattels confiscated and themselves thrown calabozos of Chihuahua, where most of them were kept in rigorous confinement for the space of nine years, when the Republican forces, under Iturbide, get getting again in the ascendant, McKnight and his comrades were finally set at liberty. It is said that two of the party contrived, early in 1821, to return to the United States in a canoe, which they succeeded in forcing down the Canadian Fork of the Arkansaw. The stories promulgated by these men soon induced others to launch into the same field of enterprise, among whom was a merchant who was a merchant of Ohio named Glenn, who, at the time, had an Indian trading house near the mouth of Verdigris River. Having taken the circuitous route up the Arkansaw toward the mountains, this pioneer trader encountered a great deal of trouble and privation, but eventually reached Sante Fe, with his little caravan, before the close of 1821, in perfect safety.

During the same year, Capt. Becknell, of Missouri, with four trusty companions, went to Sante Fe by the southwest prairie route. This Intrepid little band started from the vicinity of Franklin, with the original purpose of trading with the Ietan of Commanche Indians, but having fallen in accidently with a party of Mexican rangers they were easily prevailed upon to accompany them to the new emporium, where, not withstanding the trifling amount of merchandise they were possessed of, they realized a handsome profit. The fact is that up to this date New Mexico had derived all her supplies from the internal provinces by way of Vera Cruz, but at such exorbitant rates that common calicoes, and even bleached and brown domestic goods, sold as high as $2 and $3 per vara (or Spanish yard of thirty-three inches). Becknell returned to the United States Alone the suceeding winter, leaving the rest of his company at Sante Fe.

The favorable reports brought by the enterprising Captain stimulated others to embark in the trade, and early in the following May, Col. Cooper and sons, from the same neighborhood, accompanied by several others (their whole number about fifteen), set out with four to five thousand dollars worth of goods, which they transported upon pack horses. They steered directly for Taos, where they arrived without any remarkable occurrence.

The next effort of Capt. Becknell was attended with very different success. With a company amounting to near thirty men, and perhaps $5000 worth of goods of various descriptions, he started from Missouri about a month after Col. Cooper. Being an excellent woodsman, and being anxious to avoid the circuitous route of the upper Arkansas, he resolved this time, after having reached that point on the river known as the "Caches", to steer more directly for Sante Fe, entertaining little or no suspicion of the terrible trials which awaited him across the pathless desert. With no other guide than the starry heavens, and, it may be, a pocket-compass, the party embarked on the arid plains which extended far and wide before them to the Cimarron River.

The adventurous band pursued their forward course without being able to procure any water, except in the scanty supply they carried in their canteens. As this source of relief was completely exhausted after two days march, the sufferings of both men and beasts had driven them almost to distraction. The forlorn band were at last reduced to the cruel necessity of killing their dogs and cutting off the ears of their mules in the vain hope of assuaging their burning thirst with their hot blood. This only served to irritate their parched palettes, and madden the senses of the sufferers. Frantic with despair, in prospect of the horrible death which now stared them in the face, they scattered in every direction in search of that element which they had left behind in such abundance, but without success.

Frequently led astray by the deceptive glimmer of the mirage, or false ponds, as those treacherous oases of the desert are called, and not suspecting (as was really the case) that they had already arrived near the banks of the Cimarron, they resolved to retrace their steps to the Arkansas. But they were now no longer equal to the task, and would undoubtedly have perished in those arid regions, had not a Buffalo, fresh from the rivers side, and with a stomach distended with water, been discovered by some of the party just as the last rays of hope were receding from their vision. The hapless intruder was immediately dispatched, and an invigorating drought procured from its stomach. I have since heard on of the parties to that expedition declare that nothing ever passed his lips which gave him such exquisite delight as his first drought of that filthy beverage.

This providential relief enabled some of the strongest men of the party to reach the river, where they filled their canteens, and then hurried back to the assistance of their comrades, many of whom they found prostrate on the ground, and incapable of further exertion. By degrees, however, they were enabled to resume their journey, and following the course of the Arkansas for several days, thereby avoiding the arid regions which had occasioned them so much suffering, they succeeded in reaching Taos (sixty or seventy miles north of Santa Fe) without further difficulty. Although travelers have since suffered excessively with thirst upon the same desert, yet, having become better acquainted with the topography of the country, no other equally thrilling incidents have subsequently transpired.

At the date at which the foregoing narrative closes, 1822, the Santa Fe trade was fairly begun, and the route, afterward known as the Santa Fe trail, projected as essentially followed by the immense travel which subsequently obtained. It was the first highway established through Kansas by white men, and remained the most important thoroughfare till superseded by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, which follows across Kansas and through New Mexico, essentially the same route. The dangerous journey of thirty days over the old trail is now accomplished in as many hours, in luxurious ease and safety.

From 1822, yearly expeditions were sent over the trail by enterprising merchants, some of whom gave up all other business and devoted their entire time, energies and capital to the overland traffic. At first, the ventures were small. and the trade was largely carried on by detached parties, each starting and traveling alone. It was several years before the dangers, inconveniences and losses incurred from the raids of hostile tribes along the route, suggested the idea of joining for common safety, and moving in immense trains. Until then, though the trade was pluckily and persistently carried on, and increased from year to year, it was too hazardous to win favor in the eyes of large capitalists.

Up to 1824, the goods had been transported entirely on the backs of mules and horses. During that year, the first attempt to cross the plains in loaded wagons was made by the largest company of traders that had thus far made the journey. The party numbered about eighty men. A portion of the merchandise was carried in the old-fashioned way, on pack mules, the rest being loaded in wagons. The vehicles numbered twenty-five -- two stout road wagons, two carts and twenty-one Dearborn carriages. The caravan reached Santa FA with much less difficulty than might have been expected, the route presenting no serious obstacles at any point.

At this time, the trade had reached sufficient magnitude to claim general attention, and its claims to the fostering care of the Government were urged in Congress by Hon. Thomas H. Benton and other western members. Congress accordingly passed a bill providing for the marketing of a road from Independence, Mo., through Kansas and New Mexico, subject to treaties to be made with the Indians in the American territory, and the Mexican Government. The commission appointed the President to carry out the provisions of the act were Messrs. Reeves, Sibely, and Mathers. In 1825, they held a council at Council Grove, with some bands of Osages, with whom they made a treaty whereby the Indians agreed to allow all citizens of the United States and Mexico to pass over the proposed road unmolested, and furthermore, to aid those engaged in the Sante Fe trade. For these privileges granted, the Indians were to receive $800 in merchandise. During the year, Maj. Sibely partially marked the route located, as far as the Arkansas, by raised mounds. Of its utility, Gregg states: "It seems to have been of but little service to the travelers, who continue to follow the trail previously made by the wagons, which is now (1845) the settled road to the region of the short 'buffalo grass'."

Mr. Benton, in presenting a statement made by Mr. Storrs, a gentleman then engaged in the trade, gave the following information as to it's magnitude and importance in 1824. He said:

This gentleman (Mr. Storrs) had been one of a caravan of eighty persons, one hundred and fifty-six horses and twenty-three wagons and carriages, which have made the expedition from Missouri to Santa Fe in the months of May and June last. His account was full of interest and novelty. It sounded like romance to hear of caravans of men, horses and wagons traversing with their merchandise the vast plain which lies between the Mississippi and the Rio del Norte. The story seemed better adapted to Asia than to North America. But as romantic as it might seem, the reality has already exceeded the visions of the wildest imagination. The journey to New Mexico, but lately deemed a chimerical project, has become in affair of ordinary occurrence. Santa Fe, but lately the Ultima Thule of American enterprise was now considered as a stage only in the progress, or rather a new point of departure to our invincible citizens. Instead of turning back from that point, the caravans broke up there, and the subdivisions branched off in different directions a search of new theaters for their enterprise. Some proceeded down the river to the Pasco del Norte; some to the mines of Chihuahua and Durango, in the province of New Biscay; some to Sinaloa and Sonora, on the Gulf of California; and some, seeking new lines of communication with the Pacific, had undertaken to descend the western slope of our continent, through the unexplored regions of Colorado. The fruit of these enterprises for the present year (1824), amounted to $190,000 in gold and silver bullion and coin and precious furs; a sum considerable in itself, in the commerce of an infant State, but chiefly deserving a statesmans notice of what might be expected from a regulated and protected trade. The principle article given in exchange is that of which we have the greatest abundance, and which has the peculiar advantage of making the circuit of the Union before it departs for the Territories of the Republic - cotton - which grows in the South, is manufactured in the East, and exported from the west.

In speaking of the location of the proposed road, Mr. Benton said:

"The road which is contemplated will trespass upon the soil or infringe upon the jurisdiction of no State whatever. It runs a course and a distance to avoid all that; for it begins on the outside line of the outside State, and runs directly off toward the setting sun. The Congress and the Indians are alone to be consulted, and the statute book is full of precedents.

The picture, as drawn by Mr. Benton in 1824, with the region as then described by him, beyond "the outside line of the outside State;" the annual traffic of $190,000, with the foreign population of the Mexican provinces; the present State of Kansas, peopled with a million souls; Colorado, still beyond; New Mexico, then a foreign land, now a part of the Government domain; the Indians, melted away in the fervid heat of civilization; and over the proposed road, speeding with feet of iron and breath of fire, the burden or a commerce far exceeding, each day, the annual aggregate of the statesman's wildest visions -- these present contrasts within the span of a human life seen never before in the history of men, nor elsewhere than in this American Republic.

[TOC] [part 8] [part 6] [Cutler's History]