Becknell’s in-laws did not stay long in Upper Cuivre Township of St. Charles County. By 1819, Drury Prichard was living in Franklin where, on May 7, he advertised in the Missouri Intelligencer that he was opening a tavern. (Note 1.) The full text reads:
(Formerly of St. Charles,)
INFORMS his friends and former customers that he has taken the house lately occupied by John Corum, as a tavern.
where he intends keeping ENTERTAINMENT for Man & Horse, on as reasonable and accommodating terms as circumstances and supplies will possibly admit of. Gentlemen call and see.
Prichard published another advertisement several months later that provides more details about his venture. (Note 2.)
The subscriber respectfully informs the public that he continues to keep a
in Franklin, Howard County near the Public Square, where travellers and others will be accommodated in the best manner.
His Stable has been fitted up in superior style, and is well stocked with Oats, Corn, &c.; and every attention will be paid, and every exertion used to give satisfaction to those who may call upon him.
During the time that Prichard was opening his tavern, a scientific expedition under the command of Major Stephen Long arrived at Franklin. (Note 3.) The group of scientists and military men was travelling on the steamboat Western Engineer as part of a larger effort, sometimes called the Atkinson-Long Expedition or Yellowstone Expedition, to explore and establish forts along the upper Missouri River. The group’s observations as well as their daily activities were compiled and published by Edwin James in 1823. (The portion concerning the Franklin area is included on the page “1819 – Long Expedition in Central Missouri.”)
The expedition arrived at Franklin on July 13, 1819, and departed on July 19. James recorded numerous observations about the town and its surroundings, including details about native plants and nearby salt works operations. Of the town itself, he wrote:
It then contained about one hundred and twenty log houses of one story, several framed dwellings of two stories, and two of brick, thirteen shops for the sale of merchandise, four taverns, two smiths’ shops, two large team mills, two billiard rooms, a court house, a log prison of two stories, a post office, and a printing press issuing a weekly paper. At this time bricks were sold at ten dollars per thousand, corn at twenty-five cents per bushel, wheat one dollar, bacon at twelve and an half cents per pound; uncleared lands from two to ten or fifteen dollars per acre. The price of labour was seventy-five cents per day.
James wrote that when the expedition departed, the “inhabitants of the village were assembled on the bank of the river to witness our departure, and signified their good wishes by repeated cheers and acclamations.”
On September 1, Drury Prichard was granted power of attorney by John Shehane, a former soldier, to sell Shehane’s bounty land. (Note 4.) On September 4, Prichard bought two parcels of Howard County land some distance from Franklin for a total of $550: a quarter section in what would eventually be Carroll County and a half interest in a quarter section 45 miles straight north of Franklin. (Note 5.)
On November 19, Prichard signed a short-term note to Abraham Barnes for a debt of $100 to be paid by December 16. (Note 6.) Prichard apparently didn’t pay by the due date, and Barnes assigned the note to William Bailey, who assigned it to James Riggins. In early 1820, Riggins sued Prichard, who filed an answer asserting that the debt had been paid. The case went to trial in July 1820, and the court issued a judgment against Prichard. (Note 7.) During this same period, Prichard was in arrears on taxes owed to St. Charles County for 1818. (Note 8.)
In the meantime, on January 8, 1820, Prichard had sold Becknell his half interest in the parcel 45 miles north of Franklin. (Note 9.) That land is within the borders of present-day Macon County, as shown on the map below. (Note 10.) There is no reason to think that the Becknell family ever lived there.
All of these events took place in the midst of the Panic of 1819, a financial crisis that would last into 1821 and severely challenge business activities for people like Becknell and Prichard. In such times, one would expect to see cascading business failures and lawsuits as each inability to pay a debt when due would tend to result in the creditor’s default on his own obligations.
In response, Congress passed the Relief for Public Land Debtors Act in 1821, which provided some measures to alleviate financial hardships on people who owed money on their purchases of land from the government. The action was applauded in the Missouri Territory, where, on July 28, 1821, a “splendid and elegant dinner was given at the Franklin Hotel by the citizens of Franklin and its vicinity, to those members of the legislature who voted for the Relief Bill.” (Note 11.) Toasts were offered, including the following by William Becknell:
The honorable Legislature; those who voted independently for the relief of the people of this state, may their zeal be duly appreciated by their constituents. 4 cheers.
During this same time, the process was underway for Missouri to become a state. A constitution had been adopted on July 19, 1820, and a general election in anticipation of statehood was held on August 28, 1820. Formal admission as a state would take place on August 10, 1821.
Becknell ran for a seat in the House of Representatives to represent Howard County. As a candidate, he was referred to as “Capt. William Becknell,” as shown in the accompanying newspaper notice. (Note 12.)
During his service in the U.S. Mounted Rangers during the War of 1812, the highest rank he had achieved was ensign. Abolished by the army after that war, the rank of ensign was a grade below second lieutenant. It is likely that Becknell served in the Missouri Territorial Militia after moving to Howard County and that this is the reason he was called “captain.”
In the August 1820 election, he received 431 votes, which was only about half of the number necessary to win. (Note 13.) The candidate receiving the most votes for one of the eight Howard County seats, James Allcorn, was Becknell’s distant relative by marriage. (Note 14.)
The court records of Howard County portray the financial stress that Becknell was experiencing in 1820 and 1821.
- On July 6, 1820, Becknell signed a note documenting a debt of $321 owed by “William Becknell & Co.” to Joseph Cooper to be paid in 10 days. (Note 15.)
- On July 21, 1820, Becknell signed a note to Daniel Fall for a debt of $497.75. (Note 16.)
- On February 9, 1821, he signed a note documenting a debt of $108.50 owed to Thomas Thewt. (Note 17.)
- In August 1821, he borrowed $120 from Amos Ashcraft. (Note 18.)
According to his creditors, Becknell failed to pay these amounts owed, and they would sue him to recover their money.
In the meantime, by the spring of 1821, he was making plans for a new venture. In what may have been the first concrete step toward that goal, he hired four slaves from Thomas A. Smith for a one-year period starting April 21, 1821. The transaction was recorded in the following agreement signed on August 18. (Note 19.)
An agreement between Thomas A. Smith and William Becknell & Co. The said Smith has hired to the said Becknell & Co. three negroe men to wit Aaron, Kain, and Tom for the time of one year from the twenty first day of April 1821 at the rate of twelve dollars & fifty cents each per month for the term aforesaid. And one negroe woman Lucy for one year at forty dollars a year. The said Becknell & Co. agrees to furnish the said negros with good and sufficient clothing suitable for the season and to pay the said Smith the amount of the hire of all the negroes at the [end] of the term.
Becknell obtained the slaves’ labor for the business styled as “William Becknell & Co.,” although the purpose for which they were used isn’t documented. (In a lawsuit Smith filed the following year, the complaint describes “William Becknell & Co.” as a partnership among Becknell, James Morrison, and Jesse Morrison.)
Then, in the June 25, 1821 issue of the Missouri Intelligencer, Becknell published a notice soliciting participants in a trip “to the westward for the purpose of trading for Horses & Mules, and catching Wild Animals of every description, that we may think advantageous.” (Note 20.) A complete transcription and images of the notice are included on the page “1821 – Notices of Expedition Westward.”
As Beachum has described, the notice was rather vague as to the venture’s ultimate goal. The location of an organizational meeting described in the notice, which was to be held on August 4 at the home of Ezekiel Williams, was noteworthy, however, given that Williams had traveled in the upper Arkansas River country between 1811 and 1814 and would have shared what he knew with the members of the upcoming expedition. (Note 21.) Becknell was also directly familiar with the 1812 trading attempt by Robert McKnight between Missouri and Santa Fe, as described in Part II.
In a second notice published in the Missouri Intelligencer on August 14, Becknell laid out the results of the August 4 meeting. (Note 22.)
A company of 17 men met at Ezekiel Williams’s, on the 4th of August destined to the westward. W. Becknell was chosen by a unanimous vote as Captain to the company. On the 18th inst. we are all to meet at Mr. Shaw’s, in Franklin, where two Lieutenant’s will be elected. We have concluded that thirty men will constitute a company sufficiently strong to proceed as far as we wish to go. All those who signed their names to the first article, and did not appear on the 4th of this month, are excluded from going in this company, and excused from paying any fine. On the first day of September the company will cross the Missouri at the Arrow Rock. Any persons who wish to go will do well to meet at the place appointed on the 18th. No signers will be received after that day.
While these preparations were underway, Joseph Cooper sued Becknell to recover his unpaid debt. On May 19, the capias was served on Becknell, who had his attorney file an answer during the July term of the court. (Note 23.) The case would be scheduled for trial while Becknell was away on his expedition.
Becknell and his company left for the west on September 1, as described in a lengthy account published a year and a half later in the Missouri Intelligencer. (Note 24.) A complete transcription along with images is included on the page “1823 – Journal of William Becknell.”
The account was published under the guise of being Becknell’s journal, although the writing is so much more sophisticated than any that is in his original handwriting he was plainly not the author in the ordinary sense of the word. Becknell’s wife had considerably more writing ability than he did and may well have served as the initial author. (Note 25.) More than 20 years later, Josiah Gregg published a shorter account of Becknell’s first trips to Santa Fe, differing from the “Journal” in some of the details. (Note 26.)
What Becknell knew about the progress of the Mexican War of Independence, which had been underway for 10 years, will probably always remain uncertain. It was not a foregone conclusion, however, that when he began preparations in the spring of 1821 for his expedition “to the westward” that Mexico would be independent of Spain by the end of the year. The Treaty of Córdoba, which established Mexican independence, was signed in Veracruz on August 24, 1821.
Whether Becknell had set off with Santa Fe as his destination will also probably remain unknown. Others were intent on opening up that trade route, even if he was not. Within two weeks of his arrival there, another party from Missouri made it to Santa Fe. (Note 27.) One of that party’s leaders was John McKnight, brother of Robert McKnight, to whom Becknell had provided a horse in 1812 for an ill-fated trip to Santa Fe.
Becknell and John McKnight were acquainted with each other, at the very least. In 1813, the two men had provided depositions at the same time and place in the lawsuit between the McKnight brothers and the Morrison brothers. (Note 28.) It is likely that they listened to each other testify. As both men were preparing separately to head west from Missouri in the autumn of 1821, they must have known of each other’s plans.
The following succinct description of Becknell’s trip was written within three years by Alphonso Wetmore, a resident of Franklin. (Note 29.)
In the autumn of 1821, Mr. Becknal . . . left this place for the uninhabited country that lies between Missouri and the upper province of Mexico, for the purpose of hunting game and to procure wild horses. In his wanderings, he had, either by accident or design, fallen into the Spanish settlements, and proceeded as far as the town of Santa Fe. He returned in the following December and January, having left one or two of his party behind him. To him we may, therefore, attribute the discovery of the route.
Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.