V. The Santa Fe Trade

Nov. 3, 1821 return of Thomas Thewt summons on William Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32820, Missouri State Archives)

Nov. 3, 1821 return of Thomas Thewt summons on William Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32820, Missouri State Archives)

While Becknell was away on his expedition to Santa Fe, the lawsuit that Joseph Cooper had filed against him proceeded. In November 1821, the court gave judgment to Cooper without a jury trial. (Note 1.)

In the meantime, on September 28, Thomas Thewt sued the absent Becknell—along with Jesse Morrison and James Morrison—for failure to pay his $108.50 note when due. (Note 2.) On October 12, the sheriff of St. Charles County served a writ of summons on the Morrison brothers in the township of St. Charles. (Note 3.) On November 3, the Howard County sheriff served a writ of summons on Becknell by leaving a copy with his wife at their “usual place of abode.” (Note 4.)

Feb. 2, 1822 judgment order in favor of Thomas Thewt (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 414)

Feb. 2, 1822 judgment order in favor of Thomas Thewt (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 414)

Although John Payne was representing Becknell in the Cooper case, A.G. Redd filed an answer on behalf of the defendants in the Thewt case during the November term of the court. The court heard the case without a jury on February 2, 1822, and awarded Thewt the amount that he had claimed. (Note 5.)

Excerpt of 1821 complaint filed by Henry V. Bingham, administrator of Daniel Fall estate (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32822, Missouri State Archives)

Excerpt of 1821 complaint filed by Henry V. Bingham, administrator of Daniel Fall estate (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32822, Missouri State Archives)

The prior year, Daniel Fall had died shortly after loaning Becknell nearly $500 as described in Part IV. The court appointed Henry V. Bingham administrator of Fall’s estate. Bingham himself would die in 1823 at age 38, leaving a wife and young children, including son George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), who would gain fame as a painter of the Missouri frontier.

On behalf of the Fall estate, Bingham filed a complaint against Becknell on September 17, 1821, to recover his unpaid debt. (Note 6.)

September 1821 attachment of Becknell’s property by Henry V. Bingham, administrator of Daniel Fall estate (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32822, Missouri State Archives)

September 1821 attachment of Becknell’s property by Henry V. Bingham, administrator of Daniel Fall estate (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32822, Missouri State Archives)

Upon filing of the complaint, the Howard County court authorized the sheriff to attach Becknell’s property sufficient to pay a judgment in the case. That September, the sheriff seized the following property, as shown in the accompanying document image:

  • 100 salt kettles;
  • 20 barrels of salt;
  • a Negro girl slave named Sally;
  • the Northwest and Southwest quarters of Section 6, Township 49, Range 17; and
  • the Southwest quarter of Section 31, Township 50, Range 17.

The land parcels are those shown in the detail map of property at Boone’s Lick in Part III.

May 1822 orders dismissing suits by Henry V. Bingham and Hardage Lane (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 446)

May 1822 orders dismissing suits by Henry V. Bingham and Hardage Lane (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 446)

During the January 1822 court term, Amos Ashcraft also sued Becknell and the Morrison brothers to recover his unpaid $120 loan. (Note 7.) These were the legal troubles awaiting Becknell when he returned to Franklin on January 30, 1822. (Note 8.) His profits from the trip were apparently sufficient to pay off at least some of his debts, and the court order book for May 1822 records the dismissal of Bingham’s suit on behalf of Daniel Fall’s estate. (Note 9.) The same page of the order book also records the dismissal of a suit that Hardage Lane had filed in Becknell’s absence. (Note 10.)

Becknell’s debts (as well as his new interest in the Santa Fe trade) appear to have prompted him to sell to the Morrison brothers his remaining interest in the Boone’s Lick properties. The deed reflecting the sale for $1,000 was made and acknowledged by the Becknells on May 23, 1822. (Note 11.)

May 1822 judgment for Thomas A. Smith (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 457)

May 1822 judgment for Thomas A. Smith (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 457)

Becknell didn’t have enough to pay the amount he owed Thomas A. Smith, however. Or perhaps Becknell contested what he owed Smith. In any event, Smith’s claim went to trial during May 1822 and resulted in a judgment against Becknell. (Note 12.)

On the same day of court, yet another lawsuit was launched against Becknell—this one by Henry E. Dever that resulted not from a business deal but concerned the ownership of a slave named Sally. (Note 13.) It seems that in 1819 two sons of an elderly resident of Christian County, Kentucky, named William Dever were about to depart for Missouri. The elder Dever “loaned” some of his slaves to each son, including a young female slave named Sally, who was loaned to William E. Dever. A transcription of most of the available documents describing the matter is included on the page “1822 – Dever v. Becknell.”

The lawsuit filed three years later against Becknell in Howard County was not by either the elder or younger William Dever but, for reasons that aren’t apparent, by the other son, Henry E. Dever. The gist of Dever’s claim, which was formally filed “for the use of William Dever,” was that he had

casually lost the said negro woman [Sally] out of his possession, and the same afterwards . . . came to the possession of the said Becknell by finding[,] yet the said Becknell well knowing she the said negro woman to be the property of the said Henry and of right to belong & appertain to him hath not as yet delivered the said negro woman to him the said Henry . . . .

Sally, the subject of the lawsuit, was likely the same slave who was part of the property attached by the sheriff during the Bingham case that had just been dismissed.

Sept. 25, 1822 witness summons of Elizabeth Prichard (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32823, Missouri State Archives)

Sept. 25, 1822 witness summons of Elizabeth Prichard (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32823, Missouri State Archives)

The filing of this lawsuit had no more effect on Becknell’s activities than the legal claims that had been filed against him the previous year. In late May 1822, he set off on a return trip to Santa Fe, this time taking with him one or more wagons loaded with goods for trade. (Note 14.) It was this expedition that would earn him the reputation as the “father of the Santa Fe trade” or “father of the Santa Fe Trail.” This trip, like the previous one, would also be described in the account he published in 1823, included in full on the page “1823 – Journal of William Becknell.” Josiah Gregg also described the second trip in his book, The Commerce of the Prairies, providing more harrowing details. (Note 15.)

Alphonso Wetmore, in his August 19, 1824 letter written at Franklin to Congressman John Scott, briefly described Becknell’s second trip. (Note 16.)

In the summer of 1822, there were two expeditions fitted out from this town and its vicinity. The one commanded by Col. Cooper was composed of sixteen persons; they carried with them but little merchandise, and received in exchange, specie, jacks, jennets, and mules. Col. Cooper and party transported their goods upon pack horses and mules. Mr. Becknal, the leader of the second party, (of twenty-one men,) took with him a wagon, as did also two or three of his associates. These parties both returned the same season that they went out.

Receipt for Elizabeth Prichard’s witness fee for trial in Dever v. Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32823, Missouri State Archives)

1823 receipt for Elizabeth Prichard’s witness fee for Sept. 1822 trial in Dever v. Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32823, Missouri State Archives)

On a more personal level, Becknell’s departure came less than four months after he had returned home. He and Mary had four young children: two daughters and two sons, all between two and seven years old. (Note 17.) While his travel was risky and challenging, Mary was left the task of managing the household and business affairs in his absence.

By this time, her stepfather had likely died, and her mother, Elizabeth Prichard, was living with the Becknell family. Elizabeth was a witness to whatever had transpired with the Dever slave named Sally and was accordingly summoned to testify at the September 1822 trial. (Note 18.) It appears that the Becknells were now living at the Arrow Rock (probably on the north side of the river) because, according to her witness fee receipt, Elizabeth traveled 20 miles round trip to Franklin to testify.

The date of Becknell’s second return from Santa Fe is not established but apparently did not occur by the time the Dever trial took place on September 26. On October 8, the following article appeared in the Missouri Intelligencer, stating that Becknell was still expected from Santa Fe. (Note 19.)

Article on Santa Fe expeditions (Missouri Intelligencer, Franklin, Mo., Oct. 8, 1822, p. 2)

Article on Santa Fe expeditions (Missouri Intelligencer, Franklin, Mo., Oct. 8, 1822, p. 2)

The arrival of the greater part of the company under the superintendence of Col. Cooper from Santa Fe, happily contradicts the report afloat a few weeks since, of their having been “robbed, and left in a starving condition.” The company met with some trifling losses on their return, but we understand, from a respectable gentleman of the company, with whom we have conversed, that nothing serious occurred to interrupt their progress during their absence.

Many have also returned who composed the party under the direction of Capt. Becknell. Those of both these parties who remained at Santa Fe, (among whom is Capt. Becknell) may be expected in a few weeks.

In the meantime, Henry Dever had gone to the trouble of obtaining various depositions in Kentucky to establish the circumstances of the elder Dever loaning slaves to his sons. He also obtained a power of attorney executed by the elder Dever to authorize a suit in his behalf.

Sept. 26, 1822 jury verdict in Dever v. Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32823, Missouri State Archives)

Sept. 26, 1822 jury verdict in Dever v. Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C32823, Missouri State Archives)

Although what had taken place in Kentucky is described in the surviving documents, unfortunately nothing has been recorded to explain how Sally was “casually lost” by the Devers and “came to the possession” of the Becknells. The power of attorney authorizing Henry to file the suit on his father’s behalf was not accepted into evidence, however. Whether that information was crucial to the jury’s conclusion, the jury issued a verdict in Becknell’s favor. (Note 20.)

Henry Dever’s attorney appealed the verdict during the April 1823 term of the Missouri Supreme Court, arguing that the power of attorney was wrongly excluded. In September of that year, the court issued a brief opinion affirming the result of the jury’s verdict, stating only that Henry Dever as his father’s agent or attorney-in-fact did not have the legal right to bring the suit. (Note 21.)

Excerpt of judgment order in Ashcraft v. Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 479)

Excerpt of judgment order in Ashcraft v. Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 479)

The September 1822 term of the Howard County Circuit Court saw the resolution of another case against Becknell, but this one was not in his favor. In the lawsuit Amos Ashcraft had filed against Becknell and the Morrison brothers, the parties waived a jury trial, and the judge found that the defendants owed Ashcraft $170 as he had claimed. (Note 22.)

The following February, a short article appeared in the Missouri Intelligencer that is probably the most authoritative source on the question of who first took a wagon from Missouri to Santa Fe, how many were taken and when. (Note 23.) The newspaper’s editors wrote:

Missouri Intelligencer, Feb. 13, 1823, p. 3

Article on Santa Fe expeditions (Missouri Intelligencer, Feb. 18, 1823, p. 3)

Mr. Floyd’s Speech—the Santa Fe trade, &c.

Some very interesting extracts from a speech delivered by the Hon. Mr. Floyd, in Congress, upon the occupation of the Columbia River by the U. States, will be found on the first page of this paper.

We are well pleased with the remarks made by this gentleman, and confidently hope that the subject of them will be considered in the important light to which it is so justly entitled. There is, however, a trifling inaccuracy in that part of the speech in which it is stated that a waggon returned from Santa Fe last summer, “bringing with it $10,000,” &c. Although we do not doubt that $10,000, or even a much larger sum, was brought into this state during last summer, from Santa Fe, yet the amount was conveyed upon pack-horses, &c. and not in a waggon. But one waggon has ever gone from this state to Santa Fe, and that was taken by Capt. Wm. Becknell, (from the vicinity of this place, and not from St. Louis, as stated by Mr. Floyd) in the early part of last spring, and sold there for seven hundred dollars, which cost here $150. This information we obtained from Capt. B. personally, who at the same time mentioned his intention of starting again for Santa Fe next fall, with three waggons for the same purpose.

We are promised by Capt. B. that in a few weeks he will furnish us with such information relative to Santa Fe as will be useful and entertaining to our readers.

Becknell fulfilled his promise to the editors of the Missouri Intelligencer within several weeks after this article was published. The April 22 edition of the newspaper published Becknell’s “Journal of two Expeditions from Boon’s Lick to Santa Fe,” which described both his September 1821-January 1822 trip and his May-October 1822 trip. (Note 24.)

Publication of Becknell’s account of the trips, whose details would have been common knowledge in and around Franklin, appears to have been spurred by local pride and the editors’ desire to establish the historical record for a more distant reading audience.

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Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks

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