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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Portraits of the Past: Fortunes were made and lost on Santa Fe Trail

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  • The beginning of overland commerce along the Santa Fe Trail was like the dedication of a business street through the wilderness.
    There were wagons and carriages of almost every description and the amount of merchandise carried back and forth to New Mexico was staggering.
    Many fortunes were made and lost along the trail, and nearly one third of the men employed from 1825-1830 lost their lives to either accidents or Indian attacks.
    The flow of livestock, merchandise, gold and silver was a tremendous temptation to the Indians, especially the Comanche.
    The Santa Fe trade began from Franklin, Mo., near Booneville in the beginning back in 1824. After only a couple of years, a spring flood on the Missouri River took the town for a wild ride further down stream and Independence became the launching pad for the trail trade.
    Likewise, Independence eventually lost the trade to Westport during the 1850s for a similar reason.
    A flood left a huge sandbar in front of the Independence Landing, making it impossible for steamboats to dock. Other river towns such as Leavenworth, Weston, Lexington, St. Joe, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, were also known for the overland trail business.
    The peak years were from the 1830s-1850s.
    Thousands of wagons, each drawn by mules or oxen, left from the little frontier outposts loaded with general merchandise suitable for trade with the Mexicans.
    The merchandise was paid for mainly in silver and gold, although furs, robes, blankets, and Mexican jewelry were sometimes bartered for. Some returning caravans included jacks, jennets, and mules. The Santa Fe mules were sold back here for $200-$300 a pair.
    One returning trader was sporting $70,710 worth of corn, $25,770 in silver bullion, $1,487 in gold bullion, 13,182 pounds of beaver pelts, 355 pounds of buffalo robes, about 1,300 mules, 17 jackasses and 35 burrows, all from one trip to the Southwest.
    Sometimes when the traders were only paid in money they would sell their wagons in Santa Fe and ride horseback back home and start all over again with newly built prairie schooners.
    The Mexicans who bought the wagons would then load them up and head this way with merchandise to sell to the Americans; over half of the Santa Fe trade was conducted by Mexicans delivering goods to this end.
    One unfortunate trader in September 1828 was returning with 150 mules and horses, four wagons, and a quantity of silver bullion when Comanche warriors attacked, scattering their livestock and killing and scalping some of the men.
    A handful managed to escape, but were followed and harassed by the Indians for some distance. They lost their horses, wagons, and baggage, but set out on foot lugging the silver in tow. They got tired and buried the heavy silver in Arkansas near Chouteau’s Island and headed on toward home.
    Page 2 of 2 - Suffering from hunger and exhaustion, they collapsed near Crow Creek. A rescue party was finally sent to their aid and $46,000 worth of the buried silver was recovered.
    The Indian raids finally got so bad the traders petitioned the government for assistance. Their belief was the government should be “bound in good faith to protect every citizen’s lawful rights and property … inasmuch as they were at the time pursuing lawful commerce.”
    Apparently the government agreed and appointed Major Bennett Riley, of Cantonment Leavenworth, to proceed to the Santa Fe Trail and give protection to the Mexican-bound caravans, guarding their way through the most dangerous places.
     
    Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school group. He can be reached at teddy.stillwell@yahoo.com or (816) 252-9909.
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