(Revised September, 2013)
THE LIFE OF CAPTAIN WILLIAM BECKNELL, FOUNDER OF THE SANTA FE TRAIL – A Warrior, Trader, Explorer, Judge, Legislator, Farmer and Rancher
This paper was compiled by Allan J. Wheeler of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the purpose of organizing and documenting a script used to present a Chautauqua-type, first person reenactment of William Becknell’s life. It also provides, in one location, the most up-to-date information related to the entire life of Becknell from his birth in 1788 to his death in 1856. Most previous works related to Becknell omit his ancestry, his early life, the effect of the “Panic of 1819” as a causual factor related to his compelling need for Spanish silver coin in 1821 and his life after he returned from Santa Fe the third time in 1825 as well as his contributions to the history of Texas.
It is anticipated that this information will also assist others to understand and to appreciate the contribution of Becknell to the history of America. It is further hoped that this effort is useful to historical researchers as both an overview and as a source for further research and documentation.
Introduction To The Writing Style Used:
Generally history is written by scholars in a style which is off-putting to much of the general public. That often dry and somewhat ponderously detailed style is meant to be read by other scholars, researchers and students who are motivated by the need to know in order to further their own work. Due to the author’s experience related to comments received as a tour guide, explaining the history of Santa Fe to over 5,000 visitors, this “scholar’s style” is viewed as discouraging many of the general public from enjoying the reading of history and thus is not used here. Those performing research are encouraged to utilize the bibliography and notes below to further that research.
William Alexander Becknell was an example of the type of 19th Century American who’s qualities of individualism, self-sufficency and determination helped tame the frontier-borderlands of the United States and made his reputation and his living doing so. He is largely unknown today because he never attracted the attention of the press of his day, or of Hollywood later on, as did the more colorful Davy Crockett or Kit Carson, both of whom he had met. But, his deeds and the lasting impact of some of these deeds closely matched his more famous contemporaries.
For serious readers who would like an overview of the whole story related to Becknell, his experiences on the Trail can be better appreciated by also reading the “Story of the Santa Fe Trail” which is also included in this web site.
According to Amherst County Virginia records, William Becknell was born in 1788 (some sources say 1786 or 1787) in Rockfish Creek (Amherst County, now Nelson County) Virginia. His parents were Micajah and Phoebe (Landrum) married in 1782. William had, as best as can be determined from census records, three brothers: Micajah (Jr.),Thomas and John.
His father had been a soldier in the American Revolution along with William’s two uncles (Thomas and James) both of whom were killed in the Revolutionary War (possibly at the Battle of Saratoga, New York). Their is some indication, in Amherst/Albermarle County records, that a another uncle, John, existed. William’s great grandfather (apparently also named William) had been a soldier during the French and Indian War. William’s grandfather was named Samuel (born 1745, died 1819) and married Anne Linsfield).
Our William’s mother, Phoebe Landrum, had a father, Young Landrum, who had been a Revolutionary soldier of some renown. Thus, adventure, fighting and rough living as a soldier was common in our William’s background.
His father made his living in western Virginia farming, hunting and as a trader. The family name, Becknell and its variant, Bicknell, was derived from a place called Beckley in County Sussex, England. It is not documented when William’s ancestors arrived in the Colonies. However, Amherst County records record, in 1758, the transfer of 100 acres of land to a William Becknell by Howard Cash. Apparently Cash was father to that William’s wife, Hannah. Records show that that William was our William’s great grandfather and there is some indication that he was born in Amherst County in 1714 and died in 1780.
Apparently, young William was not much of a student. He spent most of his childhood farming, hunting and trading. It was reported that William was well schooled in woodcraft, marksmanship and survival. Those skills added to an instinct for commerce and for leading men in various endeavors defined his life. Becknell, himself, was described as: a redhead, 5’8” tall, about 160 pounds, and strong in both constitution and in body. He was said to possess a good character but had a quick temper and a firm sense of right and wrong which he defended. He was seen as a brave and persuasive leader. He is also reported to regularly take calculated risks of all kinds. Apparently he was innately intelligent but poorly educated although it seems that he could read and write.
During his 68 years the census records show that he had two wives (Jane Trusler, who he married in 1807 and who records indicate died “before 1817” and Mary Cribbs who he married ”about 1814”). He had five children: a girl in 1815, twin boys born in 1817, a girl in 1818 and a daughter born in 1827. Note: records indicate that a child was born in 1829 but it appears that it died soon thereafter since it is not listed in the census of 1830.
Arrival in Missouri
Information from the Missouri Historical Society places William in the St. Louis area by 1811. He served on a jury in St. Charles in 1812 while he worked for two local entrepreneurs, the Morrison brothers. Then William moved westward to the middle of the state locating along the frontier in the new town of Franklin which was located on the edge of the Missouri River.
In 1813 William joined Daniel Boone’s son Captain Nathan Boone’s mounted militia as a sergeant. He served under Nathan Boone’s cousin, Captain James Callaway, an Indian fighter of some renown and grandson of Daniel Boone, Sr. The War of 1812 had enveloped the entire country from the Atlantic to the frontier.
In the Missouri area British agents from Detroit had persuaded the local Indian tribes including the Sac, Fox and Cree to attack American settlers. Becknell fought in several battles, in particular the Battle of Credit Island near present day Davenport Iowa. That fight was led by the eventual U.S. President, Major Zachary Taylor. In 1814 Becknell was promoted to the rank of Ensign (Second Lieutenant) still under the command of Captain Callaway. Then in 1815, while participating in the last major conflict with the Indians, he suddenly had to command the militia troops when Captain Callaway was killed. The militia was defending Fort Clemson on Louter Island (located in the Missouri River west of St. Louis and important to the defense of the northeastern part of Missouri). The spirited defense of the island, under his leadership, finally won the day for the Americans. Becknell was then promoted to the rank of Captain. During his lifetime he held the rank or description of “Captain” at least four different times.
After Being Discharged
In 1815 Becknell returned to farming, trading horses and freighting. In 1816 he obtained a license to operate a ferry at the busy Arrow Rock crossing of the Missouri River. At this point the documentation relating to this stage of his life becomes vague.
Some where between probably 1814 and “before 1817” his wife, Jane, died apparently childless. It is documented that by 1818 Becknell was married to a Methodist from Pennsylvania, Mary Ann (?) Cribbs. Also documented are the births of a girl, in 1815, and twin boys, in 1817. Given the morals of Anglo society of that period it is logical to believe that Becknell and Cribbs were married some time around 1814 and that all of the children which Becknell fathered were by Mary Cribbs (See end note number two).
At this time Becknell began to borrow money to further his ambitions. He bought two lots in Franklin and engaged in the trading of salt mined from the Boone’s Lick salt spring. At first he was a manager of the salt venture then he and the Morrison brothers bought out the Boone brothers, Nathan and Morgan. (Note: Daniel Boone was still alive then, living in the area and Becknell may have known him. Daniel Boone died in 1820). Then, in 1820, Becknell decided to run for a position in the Missouri Legislature but he lost. He had also borrowed money for this and now owed five creditors debts totaling almost $1,200.00 (about $20,000.00 in 2012 dollars).
The “Panic of 1819”
As it turned and out this was a bad time to be in debt. In 1819 the country experienced a major recession. The “Panic of 1819” was caused by a combination of events which were to become a familiar cause of the nation’s future periodic financial downturns. The Bank of the United States, in 1818 adopted a policy of contracting its lending to local banks. Prior to that, just after the end of the War of 1812, there was land speculation in the Great Lakes area which was uncontrolled. It fueled inflation and was dependent upon bank credit.
That contraction of bank credit, combined with the debt incurred by the US as a result of paying for fighting the War of 1812 (from 1812 to 1815 the US debt went from $45 million to $127 million) in addition to the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, meant that very little money was in circulation. The eventual result was the calling-in of most debts by both local banks and individual lenders. This immediately caused the economic stagnation or bankrupting of both individuals and businesses.
This was what caused the personal, technical bankruptcy of Becknell. Apparently Becknell had assets in both land and in livestock as well as his various businesses in excess of what he owed. However his creditors would accept only hard currency- gold or silver coin. The Federal government had allowed local banks to print money that was not backed suficently by hard currency or bullion. Because creditors had no confidence in the paper currency system and because they usually had little need for goods or land in exchange for the settlement of the debts owed to them, they insisted upon being paid in hard currency only.
However, due to the Federal government not minting enough hard currency, people had to rely upon Spanish silver and gold coin. But, there was very little of that available and what existed was hoarded. Coins were so scarce that people began to cut Spanish coins into eight pieces (from which the term “bits” was derived-such as in “two bits”). Thus debtors, like Becknell, had no practical way of paying back their debts.
Note: Today’s valuable coin collector’s source catalogue, at GovMint.com, has the following to say relative to the early minting of US coins and the deliberate reliance upon the Spanish doubloon and reales. “There were no US dollars or higher denominations minted between 1803 and 1840. There after, between 1840 and 1873 due to a lack of silver in the US, very few silver coins were minted. And the first US gold eagles were not struck until 1849 when gold from California was first available in quantity. So, Americas’s first “dollar” was officially the the world-wide standard for trade at that time- the Spanish 8 Reales. Congress in 1776, at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson, adopted the Spanish Reales as as America’s official dollar. Because it was often cut-up into eight pieces in order to meet the demand for smaller value coins it was often called “pieces of eight”.
Now debtors were in trouble. Since there was no hard currency available they could not resort to selling their land or their goods to pay off their debts. But the law provided that if debtors could not meet their creditor’s demands for repayment those debtor’s could be thrown into “debtors prison”. Eventually, later in the 1800s, the US created a system which allowed for a court administered declaration of bankruptcy.
Becknell was put in the local jail and only released because a friend, James Jackson, paid to bail him out. The judge gave Becknell until early 1822 to come up with the money to pay his debts or he would be returned to jail. By his account, recorded in the later published “Journals”, Becknell was outraged at being put in jail when he had not committed a crime and was still a well-thought- of war hero and still a Captain in the militia protecting the people of Missouri.
One can only assume that he was now angrily determined to payoff his debts and to redeem his good name no matter how it had to be accomplished. Given this background information, it can be better understood why Becknell decided to go to Santa Fe to trade. Santa Fe was where the hard (silver) money was. And why he would attempt to do so in spite of the potential danger or hardships involved.
Note: The various documented accounts of Becknell’s life and also his founding of what became to be called the “Santa Fe Trail” do not completely supply all of the background information necessary to avoid the use of some logical deduction. In addition, other missing data throughout his story also requires that “educated deductions” be made throughout the telling of his history. But, from the existing available documentation aided by some deductive reasoning, a reasonably accurate history can be told- at least until some one else discovers some previously hidden document some where and part of the story has to be rewritten.
Looking Toward The West
No documentation, attributed to Becknell, exists as to exactly how he made his decision to focus upon Santa Fe as the solution to his need to obtain hard currency. What is known is that over the years since 1806, when Lt. Zebulon Pike led an expedition for the Army to explore the Colorado area and also probably to map out the area just north of Spanish Santa Fe, American traders had tried to establish trade with Santa Fe. Pike was captured by the Spanish during this expedition. After he was freed by his captors, in 1809 he published information about his experiences.
This information included a detailed comparison between what goods sold for in the Spanish territories and the cost of those goods in Missouri. It indicated that a good profit could be made by trading with the Spanish and that payment could be received in silver coin. It is not unreasonable to surmise that this information was common knowledge some ten years later and was known by Becknell.
A few Americans, during the period of 1809 to 1820, who decided to pursue this trade were lucky and avoided Spanish officials. The lucky few returned with large profits. But most were captured by Spanish soldiers because Spain was in the process of losing control of her vast empire and feared that the Americans would take over New Mexico. Thus, if captured, American traders were imprisoned, their goods confiscated and some of them were even sent to Mexico as prisoners.
The idea of Becknell going to Santa Fe as a solution to his problem, in spite of the chance of being captured by the Spanish authorities or attacked by Indians, makes sense when the background information is known especially in relation to his time in debtor’s prison and his proud character.
Preparing For The Trip
Now Becknell had to not only gather the supplies and the trade goods and the pack horses but he also need information about the route to take and the political situation in New Mexico. We know from his “Journals” that he was familiar with an old trapper and trader named Zeke Williams who had illegally trapped beaver in the Colorado area. It is reasonable to believe that Becknell conferred with Williams.
It is also likely that either Becknell knew of or was referred to Zeb Pike’s former second in command, a Doctor Robinson who lived in the area. With just these two sources alone Becknell could have had access to the basic information that he needed. Williams could have told him about the type of supplies and the trade goods required as well as providing information about the established trapper’s route which Becknell followed on his first trip.
Dr. Robertson, who had extensive political contacts in both Mexico and the US, would have known about the fact that, since 1808, the Mexican peasants had been fighting to throw out the repressive Spanish government. He may have also known that the conclusion to the expulsion of the Spanish was only a matter of months before it happened. He may also have suspected that, upon the expulsion of the Spanish, the Spanish then would blockade the Mexican’s primary port of Vera Cruz (In actuality, while the Spanish vacated the mainland of Mexico they retained control of an island fort located in the harbor at Santa Cruz. From this fort, during the period 1822-1827, they often bombarded shipping and the town itself and stopped the flow of most imported goods to Mexico). A blockade would increase the need for Mexicans to obtain trade goods from the US. This information seems not to have been a secret during that time. So, if Becknell was given this information, the trading trip to Santa Fe probably would not have appeared unreasonably risky to him.
Did he really Intend To Trade With Indians?
The next step would have been for Becknell to advertise for participants in the venture. This is what Becknell did. He placed an ad in the “Missouri Intelligencer” asking for interested individuals to join in his expedition. However some confusion, by historians, has resulted from this ad. Becknell did not specify just where he was going and mentioned trading for horses and mules “in the west”. The assumption, by some historians since then, is that he wanted to trade with the Plains Indians but somehow wound up in Santa Fe. However, in the “Journals” Becknell states that he was quite happy not to have met any Indians on his first trip (”…seen no Indians…the absence…will be of no regret”). So trading with Indians, it can be deduced, was not his goal but Santa Fe was. Perhaps lending credence to this deduction is the fact that Becknell mentioned trading for mules. Except for a few captured mules Indians did not have access to mules at that point. The most persuasive evidence is the fact that Becknell’s sole purpose for his first trip was to obtain silver coins. Only the Spanish in Santa Fe could be expected to have those coins.
Why the deception?
Possibly Becknell had heard talk among other traders that they too intended to trade with Santa Fe as soon as it was safe to do so and Becknell did not want competition. He was desperate to pay-off his debts. Response to Becknell’s ad was enthusiastic but when it became September 1,1821, the day to depart, only five other men showed-up with trade goods and with the pack- horses required to transport those goods.
Zeke Williams had most likely warned Becknell about the need to have a large body of well armed men to protect against Indians attacking or their extracting large bribes for passing through their territory. But Becknell was possibly committed, at least in part, because he was still angry about his having been in jail and the resultant blight upon his good name. And it is known that Becknell was described as “stubborn”.
Note: Some confusion exists as to exactly how many men accompanied Becknell on his first trip out to Santa Fe. A first-hand account in the diary of a Mexican soldier, Pedro Gallegos, can shed some light on this question., Pedro Gallegos was leading a party of Mexican soldiers when they came across Becknell’s little group just west of Las Vegas, New Mexico (November 13,1821). Gallego’s states in his diary that there were six men in Becknell’s group. He said that the party consisted of: Becknell, Ewing Young, a Mr. Laughlin and three others who are not named. One of these could have been William’s brother, Thomas, (more about this appears below).
The trip involved heading southwest across Kansas to the Arkansas River. Then following that river until it reached the Purgatoire River in what is now the state of Colorado. They then headed south along this river to a stream. Next, they had to negotiate the steep, rock-strewn Raton Mountains (a spur of the Rocky Mountain chain ). However, it seems that they did not go through Raton Pass itself but went through another pass somewhere to the east of it (Trinchera Pass or Emory Gap?).
After getting through the mountains, with some difficulty according to the “Journals”, the group headed across the mesas and the plains on a southwest route where they met Gallego’s soldiers at a location just west of what is now the town of Las Vegas. Although neither man could speak the other’s language, Gallego’s actions indicated that trade with Santa Fe and the Mexico was now desired by Mexico.
Later, Becknell learned, probably in Santa Fe, that Mexican independence had been secured in mid-August. Note: it is not known as to exactly when the news of the official split with Spain reached Santa Fe but the then Governor, Facundo Melgares, took an oath of allegiance to Mexico on September 11th. However, no danger as to imprisonment for illegal trading now existed for the men from Missouri.
By the time that they reached Santa Fe in mid-November, Becknell’s party had been on the trail seventy-seven days. Later trips to Santa Fe would average 48 to 50 days each way by pack train and around 62 days by wagon train.
The Mexican governor, Facundo Melgares, welcomed the trading party. He entertained Becknell, asked questions about conditions in the US and requested that Becknell inform the American government that Mexico was desirous of trade with the US.
Note: This was the same Melgares who, as a Spanish soldier, had accompanied Pike to his interrogation in Mexico some fourteen years prior.
Becknell spent until early December trading and on the 13th was back at San Miguel which was the eastern most Mexican settlement. From there he began his return to Franklin. For company he had only Mr. Laughlin and two other unnamed men. These two may have been from the James party or one may have been his brother, Tom. The rest of his men appeared to have gone north into Colorado to trap after being supplied with permits from Governor Melgares.
Note: Becknell was not alone on the trip from Missouri that year. Possibly due to Becknell’s vagueness about his original, advertized, intent and his destination the other two parties traveled separately and arrived in Santa Fe weeks after Becknell’s party did . The first party to reach Santa Fe, ten days after Becknell, was that of Thomas James and John McKnight who had their own set of extreme adventures on their trip to Santa Fe. Their party had actually left Missouri somewhat earlier than Becknell’s party. Their route to Santa Fe was much longer, and as it turned out, was much more perilous. They went by water down the Mississippi River to the Canadian (“colored” in Spanish ) River. Then they went up that river until it ran out of navigatable water where they traded for horses. Somewhere between that point and Santa Fe they were detained by various elements of Comanche Indians at least two times. In order to save their lives and to gain their freedom they ended up giving away most of their trade goods. By the time that they were rescued by Mexican troops the had very little left to trade in Santa Fe. The second party arrived in mid-December and was led by Hugh Glenn and Jacob Fowler who had little to trade but who wanted to gain permission to trap in Colorado.
On January 30, 1822 the Becknell party arrived back in Franklin. They had been gone for five months. From reports of the excitement caused by their arrival in the town square it seems that they had been thought to have been killed. A Mr. H.H.Harris witnessed the arrival and said in his diary that upon arrival Becknell sliced open one of the rawhide bags which was filled with silver coins. The coins dropped into the gutter and his creditors grabbed them up, mud and all, in great disbelief that the debts had been repaid. Becknell had turned about $300.00 worth of trade goods into about $6,000.00 in silver coins and had gained a wealth of knowledge and experience in the bargain.
Blazing The Trail
Becknell spent the next few months preparing to return to Santa Fe. Only this time he showed his inventiveness as well as his ever-present determination to succeed. On his way back from San Miguel he had used his compass and had led his party basically straight northeast toward the Arkansas River and avoided the mountains. His intuitive understanding of the lay of the land and the ways of nature prompted him to follow the paths used by game and by generations of Indians. This new route allowed travel that was far less difficult and quicker because it avoided any mountains and was a somewhat more level and straighter route than that which he had traveled on the way out.
In the future this route would become to be called the Cimarron Route/Road (the term Cut–Off was not used until sometime after the Trail closed ). It was one variation of what, collectively, became the Santa Fe Trail or Road and, eventually, amounted to about 1,600 miles of related trails, military roads and “cut-offs” or short-cuts.
Later, when he began his second trip, departing on May 22, 1822, he was able to cross the Arkansas River many miles sooner, avoid the mountains and head in a southwest direction toward the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains.
This maneuver allowed him to take the first wagons to Santa Fe. This enabled him to carry far more in the way of trade goods and trail supplies. The use of wagons rather than pack animals also set the pattern for most of the future users of the Trail for the next fifty-eight years. His caravan consisted of three farm- type wagons, fitted with canvas tops mounted on bows, and a smaller wagon to carry food and other trail supplies. He had about twenty men (possibly including his brother Tom since Becknell’s later published “Journals” were attributed to a ‘Thomas Becknell”) and extra draft animals.
This time his trade goods had a value of about $3,000.00 in terms of cost in Missouri. Becknell’s talks with Governor Malgares during his first trip could lead to the assumption that he knew what goods he should return with in order to maximize his profit.
Again Becknell was not alone on the trail that season. Behind him and following his wagon tracks was another party led by John Heath. Eventually these two parties joined forces. Also going to Santa Fe was a third party led by a Col. Benjaman Cooper. Cooper’s pack horse party had left Franklin three days before Becknell’s but had their horses stolen by Indians. Eventually they did reach Taos and traded their goods.
Later accounts of this trip, retold by others, indicate that shortly after the augmented Becknell party crossed the Arkansas River they experienced a period of hardship caused by the absence of water for the next sixty miles. Stories about this part of Becknell’s journey sometimes mention that his caravan almost died from a lack of water during the four-day journey to reach the first source of water. Maybe this was true but perhaps this happened to another party later on since there is no mention it in the “Journals”. However, it serves to illustrate the fact that venturing into an unknown land could easily lead to potentially deadly consequences.
According to his “Journals” the trip was relatively uneventful with the exception of three of his men being caught by Osage Indians, stripped, beaten and retrieved by Becknell. They reached Santa Fe in forty-eight days instead of the grueling seventy-seven days experienced on the first trip. There they quickly sold all of their goods and were back in Franklin by October 15, 1822.
This time Becknell had hit the jackpot. Prior to his second trip he had augmented his investment in trade goods for the second trip by selling shares to local people so that he could carry a maximum amount of goods to sell. In the “Journals” it is told that his profits were so great that an investment by a school- teacher, Miss Fanny Marshall, of $50.00 repaid her $912.00. The entire profit made from about $3,000.00 worth of goods yielded a return of some $91,000.00.
Note: Some historians claim that Becknell’s 1822 trip was actually led by the famous explorer and mountain man, Jedediah Smith. This is most likely not true since Smith was working for the American Fur Co. at that time and that year (1822). He was located in the upper Missouri River/Yellowstone River area where he was engaged in a fight with the Arikara Indians during that summer. Then, shortly thereafter Smith was appointed the Captain of the fur company’s men thus he would not have either had the time or the opportunity to work with Becknell that year.
Note: Becknell’s Journals do not give a detailed, day- by- day account of events and of locations or landmarks on the Trail. For that information see M.M.Marmaduke’s Journals, Missouri Historical Review, October 1911, Vol. 6, (Google under “Missouri Intelligencer”).
Staying Home For Awhile
William Becknell was now financially well- off thanks to the profits from his two trading ventures. He apparently decided to stay near home for a while. He invested his time and new money in local business opportunities since that area of Missouri was rapidly developing in part because he had awakened a commercial giant by starting the Santa Fe Trail.
During 1823 some local farmers and small merchants followed Becknell’s trail to Santa Fe and some engaged in fights with Indians who were upset at the increasing presence of strangers in their lands.
Becknell stayed near Franklin for the next twenty-two months apparently buying and selling land and operating the ferry at the Arrow Rock Crossing. He probably also engaged in his love for trading things. During this time the “The Journals of Capt. ”Thomas” Becknell From Boone’s Lick To Santa Fe…” was published in the local newspaper, ”The Missouri Intelligencer”.
Becknell’s “Journals” –Who Wrote Them?
A great deal of speculation surrounds this event. For all practical purposes William Becknell was not a literate person much less a studious author type (witness his existing note to Governor Malgares conveying some promised medicine). So, who actually wrote this journal? Why did the title attribute it to “ Captain Thomas” not to “Captain William”? It would seem, from the nature of the information set-forth in the publication, that this was first-hand information and that it was written down shortly after the events happened. So who actually wrote and edited the Journals?
It is known that William had a brother named Thomas. Therefore, one must ask the question, did Thomas accompany William on one or on both of his trips? Some researchers speculate that the “Journals” were edited by Nathan Patton the publisher of the newspaper in which they were printed (The Journals were first published in the paper on April 22, 1823). If that is correct then why was Thomas’s name used in the title since Patton certainly knew who William was? The answer could be that Thomas went on the trips, kept the diaries and actually wrote the “Journals”. If this is the case then history has not recorded this fact.
Profits Decline- The Casual Trader Replaced.
By 1824 the rush of traders to Santa Fe had saturated that small market and depleted their financial resources. The commerce of New Mexico was based upon a barter economy which required almost no coin. Thus, hard money would not have been in great supply in 1821 and 1822.
. Note: Not too much later this currency situation was relieved. In the 1820’s deposits of gold were being extracted from the Ortiz Mountains and later from the San Pedro Mountains some forty miles south of Santa Fe). This coupled with silver coins from Mexico, supplied by Mexican merchants lured to Santa Fe by the availability of goods to resell, eventually provided the coins necessary to purchases goods for cash. However, due to the growing competition and the small market, the large profits made by Becknell were increasingly difficult to come by.
In 1821 and 1822 Becknell was able to purchase calico cloth for less than one dollar a yard. He sold it for two fifty to three dollars a yard in Santa Fe. In 1824 that selling price had dropped to about one fifty per yard thus making a quick, huge profit impossible in Santa Fe. Now only the large volume merchant operation could justify the cost and the danger of the trade. In addition, in order to make the profits which they wanted, traders now had to journey down the El Camino Real some three hundred or more additional miles to the Mexican border and beyond. This was now a business venture better suited to a better financed business organization.
Also other competition developed because about this time Mexican merchants from Mexico began to travel to Missouri to buy goods and resell them in their stores in their country thus by-passing the American based merchants. Accompanying these developments were the increasing number of attacks upon the wagon trains by Indians resentful of the incursion into their territories by these strangers. The result of these new events was the shifting from farmers who were summertime traders with small wagon trains to large, well- financed merchant-traders with large wagon trains who could meet the demands from competition and the losses from Indian raids. Often they did this by establishing retail and wholesale distribution stores or by partnering with such outlets located in the southwest.
A Third Trip
In 1824 Becknell made his third trip to Santa Fe to trade. This was the last time he visited any place that far west. Probably because of the need to have a larger wagon train for protection, as mentioned above, he joined with Augustus Storrs and M. M. Maraduke both of whom were to become major factors in the trade with the southwest. This was the first large wagon train to trade with Santa Fe. It consisted of 25 wagons and carts, 81 men, 150 to 200 horses and mules and $30,000.00 in trade goods. The expedition returned with $180,000.00 in coins, and $10,000.00 in fur pelts. How this was accomplished in view of the above market factors and shortage of coin has not been recorded. Becknell’s portion is also not recorded but the little information which is available leads to the conclusion that his main reason for making that trip was to go fur trapping in Colorado which required a license from the governor in Santa Fe. Why he wanted to engage in trapping is not known.
When he reached Santa Fe this time Becknell then proceeded north to Santa Cruz (near Espanola, New Mexico). He evidently believed that he could become a profitable trapper. So he and nine others left Santa Cruz on December 9th. They ventured as far as today’s Green River in Wyoming. What possessed an experienced woodsman like Becknell to venture into the mountains in winter is not known but it proved to have been one of his biggest mistakes. His trapping trip proved to be a disaster. After suffering from frostbite, starvation and losing what few furs they managed to trap or to shoot his party barely made it out of the mountains to Taos alive. However, this event does shed some light upon the adventurous and reckless nature of the man. At that point Becknell was 36 years old. At that time in history the average male lived to be only in his mid-40’s so he was not a young man when he under took this adventure. His Journals record the fact that he must have passed by what is now called Mesa Verde. He notes the presence of many old stone buildings and of much broken painted pottery.
Back To Businesses
Becknell arrived back in Franklin on June 11, 1825. He returned to his many business interests which apparently included raising mules by breeding some of the stock which he had acquired during his trips to Santa Fe. Some stories about Becknell mention that in 1826 he participated in the effort to map and to mark the Santa Fe Trail. This venture resulted from the far-sightedness of Missouri’s Senator Tomas Hart Benton, an influential figure in the US Congress. Missouri had become a state in 1821.
Senator Thomas Hart Benton father-in-law to the explorer, John Charles Fremont, wanted the Trail to continue to bring hard currency into the US. He also saw the economic benefit that the Trail had upon his state. Therefore he obtained an appropriation from Congress to finance a survey of the Trail. The extent or nature of Becknell’s participation in this effort is not sufficiently well documented to allow comment.
A Judge and A Legislator
During the years 1827 to 1831 Becknell tried his hand at indoor jobs. He first became a judge in Saline County in 1827 and then was elected in 1828 and 1830 to be a representative to the Missouri Legislature as a Jacksonian Democrat. What success he had at these tasks is not known. But, it would seem that Becknell had always been an out of doors person so taking indoor jobs does not seem to be where he would have been at his best or happiest.
The Black Hawk War
In 1832 the Black Hawk War flared up over the land rights of Indians. Becknell again volunteered and served in this brief fight as a Captain of Militia. At this point in his life he had served in the position of “‘captain” three times: as a Captain of Militia in three wars and as the “Captain” of several wagon and pack trains. Clearly he was recognized as a natural leader of men.
On To Texas
After that war, for reasons apparently known only to him, Becknell began to gradually sell- off his businesses and his various land holdings. By December of 1835 he had moved most of his family, his slaves and some friends to the Red River Valley in the Mexican province of Texas (Some of his relations still live in Missouri as well as Texas).
His caravan entered Texas from the Oklahoma Territory at a point about twenty-five miles just north of Clarksville, Texas. It was here that a ferry allowed passage over the Red River and, thus, served as the “gateway” to Texas for travelers from the north. There is some speculation that Becknell’s group was headed for the Gulf Coast area but that the Comanche Indians were raiding mid- Texas at that time so the travelers decided to settle in the Clarksville area.
Becknell settled his family on a richly soiled track of grass and treed land that today is known locally as “Becknell’s Prairie“ and is located south of the Red River and just west of Clarksville. There, soon after building a temporary home, Becknell played host to Davey Crockett who was on his way from Tennessee to the Alamo where he lost his life in the famous fight against the Army of Mexico.
Crocket had apparently never hunted buffalo and along with Becknell’s new friend, Billy Stiles who knew Crockett, they hunted for several days before Crockett left to meet his fate. Texas had not yet gained her independence from Mexico. Mexico’s President and senior general, Santa Anna/Santanna was in the process of bringing an army to punish the effort of the ‘Texians” to declare their freedom from Mexico. Into this volatile situation came Becknell apparently ready to fight if necessary.
It was not long after Crockett’s visit that Becknell, “Billy” Stiles, Isaiah Lawson and James Clark, for whom Clarksville is named, decided to join in the fight for the freedom of Texas. Now Becknell again became a Captain of Militia leading a group of mounted soldiers. They called themselves the “Red River Blues”. They were part of T.J. Rusk’s brigade of the Texas Cavalry and proceeded south over 300 miles to the pivotal battle at San Jacinto which occurred in late March, 1836.
At San Jacinto Santa Anna’s vastly larger army was defeated in about twenty minutes time by the much smaller group of Texans led by Sam Houston. The sketchy information about Becknell’s participation in this well-known event indicates that his troops arrived too late to actually fight in the short battle. But, when they did arrive the pursuit and killing of the Mexican soldiers was still going on. Blood lust was apparently at a fever pitch probably because of the Mexican’s killing of all of the Texan forces at The Alamo and the slaughter of over 300 Texans who had surrendered to the Mexican Army at Goliad earlier in the year.
Guarding Santa Anna
A story, written down in 1936 as part of a WPA effort, exists that Becknell and his troops were given the task of guarding General Santa Anna who had been captured and who some Texans wanted killed for the previous killings at the Alamo and at Goliad. The man who led the Texans into battle and had led the Mexican troops into a trap in the swamps of San Jacinto was Sam Houston. Huston had the presence of mind to realize that if Texas was to ever be free of the Mexican government and its army it would be through the capitulation of General Santa Anna. So he wanted the General kept safe and the story is that he assigned that task to Captain Becknell and his militia.
While some of this information may be only local folk- lore there is some hard evidence to support parts of the story. Today, on display at the Huston Masonic Museum is a Masonic apron and a shaving kit which belonged to Santa Anna. The story maintains that Billy Stiles of Clarksville looted these items from the remains of Santa Anna’s tent while his troop was guarding the General
At first some people may doubt that a Mexican President could be a member of the non-Catholic Masons. But the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Mexican governments of that time was not cordial. Santa Anna was anti-Catholic, so this display of a Masonic apron is quite reasonable and would tend to prove at least part of the story about Becknell’s command having had some kind of contact with the Mexican President for some reason (see end notes and bibliography for more details).
For his participation in the Texas War of Independence and for being the militia Captain in the Red River Valley until 1843, Becknell received a “head right”. This was a grant of land given by the new government of Texas to some of the participants in that war. Now Becknell’s land holdings were substantial especially considering that they were of rich soil, with grass and trees and they were well watered. At his death his estate consisted of some 3,000 acres but some people in the area say that he had sold or traded at least 1,000 acres sometime prior to his death. Another undocumented story indicates that he had traded that 1,000 acres of land for a supply of anti-malaria pills. This part of Becknell’s story may never be proven.
The Later Years
At the end of his participation in the War Becknell was 47 years old (the average life-span for a white male of his time). While he lived to be 68/69 he may have at this time felt the passage of time and the affects of the rough life which he had lived. After his return from San Jacinto he seems to have limited his activities to his landholdings, a toll bridge over the Sulphur River south of Clarksville and being the Captain of the Militia until 1842 and also to supervising elections.
The exception may have been a three- month period of service with the Texas Rangers in 1853. If this story is correct, then what he did for them can only be guessed at. But, it is known that that famous group of lawmen and Indian fighters had been basically individual fighters up until about that time. Perhaps old William helped, using his experience as a militia leader, to train them how to fight as a unit instead of individually.
Becknell died of what seems to have been natural causes in April 1856 at the age of 68 or 69. He left an estate valued at $12,615.00 about one-half of which was in land. He was buried on his land and his gravesite can be visited today although the date of death on his headstone is not correct.
As of the summer of 2012 some people belonging to the Clarksville Historical Sociery, are in the process of restoring Becknell’s grave site, placing interruptive signage and making it more accessible to the public.
Becknell’s second wife, Mary Cribbs Becknell, died in 1864 and their land is no longer owned by their descendents. Their house has been moved to another location in the area about two miles east of the original location and restored.
Much interest in this dynamic man exists today in the region around Clarksville. However with the passage of time, the name, William Becknell, is increasingly less known elsewhere.
INFORMATION STILL MISSING
In spite of some six years of periodic research by the author, there is still some information about Becknell’s life which is still missing. Some of the most important missing information includes the following:
1. We do not know anything about the disappearance of his first wife, Jane Trusler, during the period of approximately 1812 to 1817. The 1820 US Census only indicates that she disappeared from record some where prior to 1817. Also missing is the date of his marriage to his second wife, Mary Cribbs.
2. We do not know the extent of Becknell’s possible participation in the mid-1820’s survey of the Santa Fe Trail.
3. We do not know who actually wrote or edited “Becknell’s Journals” which were published in the Missouri Intellenger in 1823. It is known, from a note which Becknell sent to the Mexican Governor, Malgares, that Becknell’s grasp of the English language was, at best, primitive. Those Journals are attributed in their title to a “Captain Thomas Becknell” not William Becknell. Becknell had a brother Thomas. Did he accompany William in 1822 and also in 1821? Or did Nathan Patton, the editor of the newspaper, actually edit those papers from notes made on the trail by William Becknell?
4. If Becknell actually depleted Santa Fe of most or of all of its hard currency in 1821, how did he manage to sell his goods in 1822 for a reported $191,000. most of which was paid for by the buyers in silver or gold coin? And how did the 1824 28 wagon expedition to Santa Fe of 1824 manage to bring back $190,000 in coin? Was that paid for by newly discovered gold in the Ortiz Mountains south of santa Fe?
5. Why did Becknell decide to go fur trapping in the Colorado/Utah wilderness in December 1824? For an experienced frontiersman leaving in mid-winter was not logical. Experienced trappers were in those mountains during winter because the beaver pelts were prime then. But those trappers were already in place and did not have to travel long distances in order to trap while Becknell’s party almost died due to the heavy snow and the lack of proper shelter because they had to travel as well as to trap.
6. Why did Becknell decide to move to Texas in 1835 when he was well established in the Franklin area of Missouri?
7. Did Becknell actually barter some 1,000 acres of valuable grasslands in Clarksville Texas for quinine pills?
SOURCES AND NOTES RELATING TO THE DOCUMENTING OF THE “LIFE OF WILLIAM BECKNELL”:
Beachum, Larry Mahon. “William Becknell the Father of the Santa Fe Trail”. El Paso: Texas Western Univ. Press. 1982. This is, perhaps, the single most informative and comprehensive document about Becknell’s life. Written by the author as his master’s thesis, it covers Becknell’s life from his birth to his death. However, it does leave out some valuable information. For example: Becknell’s siblings as well as his children and the disappearance from all records of his first wife, Jane, and his remarriage to Mary Cribs.. This information was obtained from old US Census documents available at AncestryLibrary.Com.
Beachum, “The Many Careers of William Becknell” ( Dallas: Texas, Southern Methodist Univ., 1979- out of print but maybe still available by contacting the University). The primary value of this source is to confirm the information contained in other sources.
“The Journals of Captain Thomas Becknell…” (“ Missouri Historical Review”, Jan. 1910, Vol.5) see also Vol. 6, Oct. 1911 for additional information. This can be obtained from the NM State Univ. Interlibrary Loan- Lending Library or from Google. The Journals describe the writer’s (William or perhaps his brother, Thomas) experiences during both trips to Santa Fe in 1821 and in 1822.
M. Olsen and H. Meyers ”The Diary of Pedro Ignacio Gallego”, (Santa Fe Trail Association’s “Best of Wagon Tracks”, Vol.7, Nov.1992, No. 1). The source related to how many men were in Becknell’s party and the welcome which they received in 1821 as they approached Santa Fe.
M.M. Marmaduke “Journal From Franklin to Santa Fe in 1824”, (Missouri Historical Review, Vol. VI, No. 1). More information related to the earlier days of the Trail and the logistics and experiences related to traveling the Trail.
Gregg, Josiah. ”Commerce of the Prairies”. Edited by Max L. Moorhead. Norman: Univ.of Oklahoma Press. 1950. This, the most referenced documentation about the Trail, provided an overview as to the basic operation of the Trail and its importance as well as to verify Becknell’s involvement in the early days of the Trail (p.13 and pp.37-43).
Cleland, Robert G. “This Reckless Breed of Men”. New York: Random House, 1950. This book provides a look at early attempts by Anglos to trade with the Spanish in Santa Fe and their disastrous results It underscores the risk which Becknell took and the emotional and legal (debt) implication which influenced his desperate journey to Santa Fe with only five companions in spite of this history. To understand Becknell one must understand not only his character which demanded that he pay his debts but also his anger at being in debtor’s prison. Pages 128-132 describe Becknell’s trading trips to Santa Fe (1821-24). See Chapter Four for the early history of trade with the area west of Missouri, Zebulon Pikes’ Expedition, Becknell’s physical features and character are described and other pertinent information.
Stanly Vestal “The Old Santa Fe Trail”, (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1939). Worth reading in order to see how information about the Trail has been expanded over recent years.
Ralph E. Twichell, “Leading Facts of New Mexico History” (Cedar Rapids, Torch Press, 1911,, 1950) 2 Vols.). Lots of Trail related information. Some of this information is nor included in other sources and maybe interputation made by the author. But worth reading as an aid to putting the pieces of the Becknell puzzle together.
Simmons, Mark. “Opening the Santa Fe Trail”. Cerrillos: Galisteo Press. 1971. A good, contemporary overview of the history of the Trail written by a recognized historian who has specialized in the history of New Mexico. Simmons’ reputation for accuracy is held in high regard.
Hulbert, Archer B. “Southwest on the Turquoise Trail”. 1933. Information about the history of trade with Mexico including trade from Missouri to Mexico City.
Pat B. Clark, “The History of Clarksville and Old Red River County”, Mathis Van Nort and Co., Dallas, 1937,pp.10-17. This out of print book contains information about Becknell’s troops in 1836 and their experiences at the Battle of San Jacinto. In addition it documents to some degree the stories about Davy Crocket’s visit to Becknell in 1835, Santa Anna’s Masonic apron and razors as well as Becknell’s service, for three months, with the Texas Rangers in 1853. Note: Some historians are loathe to include mention of out-of-print sources but, sometimes, knowing about them enables the researcher to locate a copy somewhere and to profit from the information obtained.
“The Journals of Capt. Thomas (i.e. William) Becknell from Boone’s Lick to Santa Fe.” Missouri Historical Review, Vol.: 4, Issue: 2, Jan. 1910. Becknell’s accounts of his first and second trips to Santa Fe. Printed in 1823 in the local newspaper in Franklin MO, it is not clear who actually wrote it as it finally appeared.However this should be considered a primary source.
“The Expulsion Of Spanish From Mexico”, Harold Dana Sims, The Pitt Latin American Series, 1991, p.13. Mention is made on p.13 of the Spanish occupation of a fort (San Juan de Ulua) located on an island in the harbor of Mexico’s principal port of Vera Cruz. Bombardments by the Spanish forces, located there from 1822 to 1828, discouraged foreign commerce which provided most of Mexico’s imported items. Logically this made Mexico more dependent upon trade via the Santa Fe Trail/El Camino Real.
“Heros Of The Santa Fe Trail”, Randy D. Smith, Boson Books, Raleigh, 2006. Useful information about The background/ history preceding the opening of the Trail, The James-Mc Knight Party, Becknell, Mexican Traders, The Texas Invasion of the Trail in 1843 and Jed Smith.
“Best of Wagon Tracks “(Santa Fe Trail Association, Larned KS.). The official publication of The Santa Fe Trail Association ,this source is known for its carefully researched articles written mainly by scholars who are interested in various facets of the Trail.
Note: My friendship with the former Association’s Operations Manager, Mr. Harry C. Myers of Santa Fe, as well as my being a past officer of the “End of Trail Chapter” and a current (2012) member of the board, has opened up doors of information, which, while available to others, is not often sought. An example is Harry showing me the location of Becknell’s encounter with the Mexican troops near Las Vegas NM in 1821. He has also led many field trips to various locations along the trail, which have served to help me envision what Becknell actually saw and experienced when I “become” Becknell during my reenactments.
Parrish, William E., Oklahoma Historical Society ”Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture”. Basically valuable to support information about Becknell but with the understanding that much information about Becknell may have been gathered from the same sources years ago and just repeated. So beware.
“A Guide to Muster Roles ,1836-1874”, University of Texas- Austin, This contains the names of soldiers who served under Captain William A. Becknell in 1836. It appears that two muster roles were made that year. The first role was made in April 1836 and the second in July of that year. It seems to indicate that the first role was made up of volunteers who participated at the time of the San Jacinto battle (fought April 21,1836). The second role may consist of volunteers who served later in 1836 to help protect the territory against marauding Indians and bandits.
“The Handbook of Texas” (The Texas Historical Association) provides an overview of Becknell’s life including his years in Texas to help tie together the vast amount of Becknell/SF Trail information available.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. A good starting point for basic background information about: the War of 1812, William Becknell, The Santa Fe Trail’s history, Trade with Mexico, El Camino Real, Clarksville and Red River County Texas, the Battle of San Jacinto, Davy Crockett, Thomas H. Benton, Kit Carson, Zeke Williams, James Clark, John Stiles, Jedediah Smith, Franklin Missouri, Independence and Westport Missouri and wagons of the Santa Fe trail. Useful to see how others have organized the information about these subject and to acquire a basic frame-of-reference related to these subjects.
“American History”, Weidner History Group. Vol. 48,No.2, June 2013, p.33. “O Say Can You See…”, provided the amount of debt caused by the War Of 1812.
Bicknellnet/beckhome.htm> Mentions Billy Stiles’ and Becknell’s experiences during the Battle of San Jacinto including the guarding of General Santa Anna and Stiles’ acquiring General Santa Anna’s Masonic Apron and shaving kit. This may not qualify as historical “proof” but it lends substance to the tale. Also see ” 10,000 Famous Freemasons”, K-Z,vol.3, p.97, (available through Amazon.com)for information which contends that Santa Anna actually gave those items to Billy Stiles who also was a freemason. The claimed location of those items, circa 1937, is also stated as well as the current location is given as the Houston (Texas) Masonic Library (verified under Googling the same institution where a picture of the apron is shown).
Ancestry Library.com and Ancestory.com provided access to census and other records dating back as far as 1714 and useful to establish Becknell’s name, ancestry and descendents. This site is a subscription site accessed by me at the New Mexico Archives in Santa Fe.
GovMint.com, Contains information relating to the early minting of US coins.
“The Handbook of Texas Online.” Beachum, Larry M. . Texas State Historical Ass’n. Basically a brief summary of Beachum’s earlier thesis but with a few additional bits of later discovered information of minor importance added. . This site provides much information related to Becknell’s presence in Texas from 1835 on. For example, under “Billy Stiles”, Becknell’s friend and fellow soldier during the Texas War for Independence in 1836, is an indication that Becknell’s militia arrived one day after the Battle of San Jacinto and was given the task of guarding Santa Anna.
1. Becknell’s children, as reflected in various US Census records, were: 1. Mary Jane- born in 1815 and died in 1858 in “Red River”; 2. John Calhoun. – born 1817 and died in 1883 in “Maraposa”; 3. William Alexander – born 1817 and died in 1858 in “Red River”; 4. Lucy – born in 1818 and died in 1850 in Titus, Missouri, and 5. Cornelia- born in1827 and died in 1868 in Titus, 6. Apparently there was a child born about 1830 but it seems to have died soon after birth.Conflicting this information drawn from US census records is a claim by a frw historians that a boy was born to Jane Trusler Becknell in 1812 and that Jane died giving birth to a second boy in 1813 with William then marrying Mary Cribbs in 1814. This author has found no evidence to support this claim and evidence (the Census) supports the other dates of birth which would indicate that all of the Becknell children were born to William and Mary.
2. There exists some conflicting information about when Becknell’s first wife, Jane Trusler, actually died (He married her in 1807 in Virginia). Thus, confusion exists as to who, exactly, is the mother of Becknell’s children: Mary Jane, John, William Jr. and Lucy. Becknell’s marriage to Mary Cribbs is given variously as 1817 and 1818 in public census records. But, adding to confuse this issue, various family postings to Ancestory.Com, on the Internet, claim Becknell married Mary Cribbs as early as 1814. While this issue needs to be explored to arrive at what can be considered as fact, the subject of his children and the death of his first wife or marriage to his second wife has little impact in regard to telling Becknell’s life story or relating his accomplishments and impact upon history.
3. Confusion exists among Becknell scholars as to his date of his birth (1786, 1787 or 1788) as well as the date of his death (1856 or 1865). Nothing which I can find is enlightening as to his date of birth and it is given as “about 1788”. As to his date of death, he is listed in the Census of 1850 but not listed in the 1860 Census while his wife is listed in that Census (she died in 1864). Thus, I suspect that someone, at sometime, transposed the numbers of his date of death (1856) to read “1865”. This information can be found in the subscription web site: “AncestoryLibrary.Com.
4. Mr. Marion Lowe, Clarksville, Texas has been active in locating Becknell’s home and making improvements to the gravesite including making corrections to the date of Becknell’s dearth which appears, erroneously, as 1865 on the tombstone located there. He has also provided information regarding the items taken from Santa Anna by John “Billy” Stiles.
5. In Mary Cribbs Becknell’s will, executed October 7, 1862, she states her desire to have a monument put over William’s grave: “…with this inscription, Capt. Wm. Becknell, born in the state of Virginia, Amherst County, died in the state of Texas Red River County, on the 30th day of April 1856 A.D., aged sixty-eight years. He whose merit deserves a temple can scarce find a tomb.” No such tombstone or markers exists today at the Clarksville Texas grave site. The only tombstone at that location is the one placed there by the State of Texas in the 1950′s which incorrectly lists Becknell’s date of death as 1865.
6. For contextual information about life and personal deeds in the early Clarksville, Texas area and the type of men who participated in the settlement of the west in general see: “Frontiersman James Selen Stout” at: Records Ancestory.com.
© Copyrighted 2012 by Allan J. Wheeler. All rights reserved.
One Response to THE LIFE OF WILLIAM BECKNELL (Revised March, 2012)
. Alex Milanoski says: April 3, 2012 at 7:58 am This is the best account of my great, great grandfathers life that I have read to date. My family owns a very old copy of Beachum’s “William Becknell the Father of the Santa Fe Trail” My grandfather is Max Becknell and I believe that we still own a sword that was worn by William. Thanks