VI. A Trapping Expedition

1823 dismissal entry in Rawlings v. Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 511)

1823 dismissal entry in Rawlings v. Becknell (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 511)

Becknell’s legal troubles continued. He and Julius and Ira Emmons were sued by John Rawlings, Jr., and the estate of John Rawlings, Sr. The county of the original proceeding (which was before a “Justice Warren”) isn’t known, but the defendants apparently lost and appealed in Howard County Circuit Court. The parties must have reached a settlement because a dismissal was entered by the court in February 1823. (Note 1.)

June 1823 bond for $100 made by William Becknell on claim by state of Missouri (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 531)

June 1823 bond for $100 made by William Becknell on claim by state of Missouri (Howard Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 2, p. 531)

The following June, Becknell was back in court in response to an unspecified allegation by the state of Missouri. (Note 2.) The only record of the proceeding is an entry describing a $100 bond by Becknell. As security, he obtained a similar bond by James Jackson.

The following year, Becknell was again named as a defendant by the state of Missouri—this time for assault and battery on a man named James Castner. The event was alleged to have taken place on May 1, 1824, in Cooper County, on the south side of the Missouri River across from Howard County. The following indictment was issued in July 1824 by a Cooper County grand jury under the direction of circuit attorney Abiel Leonard. (Note 3.)

July 1824 indictment of William Becknell for assault (Cooper Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C36911, Missouri State Archives)

July 1824 indictment of William Becknell for assault (Cooper Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C36911, Missouri State Archives)

The Grand Jurors of the State of Missouri for the body of the County of Cooper upon their oath present that William Becknell late of said County of Cooper labourer on the first day of May Eighteen hundred and twenty four

With force and arms at the County of Cooper aforesaid unlawfully an assault did make in and upon one James Castner then and there in the peace being and him the said James then and there did beat, bruise wound and ill treat and other wrongs to the said James then and there did to the great damage of the said James contrary to the form of the statute in such cases made and provided and against the peace and dignity of the State.

Over numerous succeeding court sessions, the witnesses (Castner, Robert Drinkwater, and Perry Brock) were summoned to testify. But Becknell, who was still residing in Howard County, was apparently not around when the sheriff tried to find him in October/November 1824, February/March 1825, April/May 1825, November/December 1825, or April/May 1826. (Note 4.)

Excerpt of June 20, 1826 bond provided by Becknell on Cooper County assault charge (Cooper Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C36911, Missouri State Archives)

Excerpt of June 20, 1826 bond provided by Becknell on assault charge (Cooper Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C36911, Missouri State Archives)

Finally, a capias issued by the Cooper County court on May 22, 1826, was served on Becknell on June 20, 1826, by the Howard County sheriff. Becknell apparently was attending the June 1826 session of the Howard County court. He and his surety, Robert Cooper, provided a $50 bond the same day.

The capias required Becknell to appear in court in Boonville for the August 1826 term. Unfortunately, neither the surviving case file documents nor the court order books contain any record of further proceedings. There is no record of whether he was found guilty of assault.

By the time that case came to trial in 1826, Abiel Leonard may or may not have still been prosecuting the case on behalf of the state. He was, however, by that time representing Becknell in another matter pending in the Howard County court. From “Arrow Roc” in May 1826, Mary Becknell wrote the following letter to Leonard in Franklin. (Note 5.)

I receved a letter from Mr. Becknell on the 26 of Aprile he wished me to right to you and tell you he prehapes might not returne in time to attend to the June Court if you think the evidence of my mother or Mr. Reams [Reeves?] necessary you will please to have them sumoned or any other witnesses that Mr. Barnes should know of he depends intirely on youre judgment, and if you find on the examination of what evidence you can get that it will be better to defer the suite untill next Court he wishes you to doe so if there is any thing that I can or aught to doe in this business while Mr. Becknell is absent you will doe me a perticuler favoure, Sir by sending me a few lines the first opertunity I feele considerable anxiety for the termination of this business but if Mr. Becknell should not be so fortunate as to returne in tim to attend Court, the confidence I have in your supperioure abilites will afford me some satisfaction.

The case that prompted the letter may have been one that had been filed in Howard County against Becknell by Henry E. Dever and James Bradley as executors of a decedent’s estate. Very little information about that case survives, however, including even the name of the deceased. (Note 6.) Perhaps Dever’s father had died and he was reasserting a claim for ownership of the slave Sally described in Part V and the page “1822 – Dever v. Becknell.”

Mary Becknell’s letter is noteworthy for multiple reasons. It demonstrates her writing ability and shows that she took responsibility for business affairs in her husband’s absence. The letter also provides further support for the idea that her mother, Elizabeth Prichard, was living in the Becknell household by that time.

Of course, Becknell did return in time for the June court in Howard County with the result that he was served with the assault charge pending in Cooper County as described above. Records in the Cooper County case show that Becknell was largely absent from Howard County from the fall of 1824 to the summer of 1826. He was almost certainly not running a ferry at Arrow Rock, even though his family was living there.

In the fall of 1824, Becknell was in the vicinity of Santa Fe and by that time may have made more trips there since his second return home in October 1822. Within three years after his first visit to Santa Fe, however, he had become disillusioned with trade expeditions from Missouri as a means for his livelihood.

On November 5, 1824, he and nine other men set out on a winter trapping expedition from what is now northern New Mexico across the mountains and plateaus of present-day Colorado and Utah as far as the Green River. The local inhabitants—both Spanish and Indians—must have thought he was crazy.

However ill-advised the trip may have been, Becknell had planned it well in advance. In late summer, at Franklin, he discussed his intentions with Alphonso Wetmore, who described what Becknell told him in an August 19 letter to Congressman John Scott. (Note 7.)

I have conversed with Mr. Becknal, who is about to depart for Santa Fe, accompanied by sixteen men. He intends to visit the Oregon before he returns. He will probably be absent about ten months.

Becknell obtained a license for the expedition from the Governor of New Mexico. From Santa Cruz on October 29, Becknell wrote the following letter to Governor Bartolomé Baca. (Note 8.)

Seur I have recvd the Lisance you granted me by the onrabel preste [priest] of santa Cruse Manuel Radar and will Comply with your orders and obay them punctaly. Thar is 10 of us to gether all amearican.

Those men at Tous I Have Nothing to Dew with. What thaar going to Dew I Know not. As you Requested me to Let you know of any that wars goin to trape I Cante say wheather tha ar or not. Tha Have sum trapes with them. If any Cums within my notis I shal give you notis of them as you requesid it of me.

I shal be in Next June if nothing Hapins to us. Your Exlantance wishus me to send you sum medison. I sende you sum Rubarb and sum Campher. The Rubarbe you Can take at any time what will Ly on the pinte [point] of a pocket Knif in sum shuger and a spunful of Cold warter. You May Eaeght or drinke any thing Hot or Cold. The Best time to take it is of a night when you go to Bed. It is not apecke [ipecac?] a gentil purge and wil futufy the Stumak when in Bad order. The Campor you can desolve in whiskey. Put a few dropes in a dram of whiskey in the morning will Help the stumake very much. I send you A few of the gusawit Barks. Put them in to a botel of whiskey I quart in [illegible] and let them stand in the sun for one or 2 Days and then drinke them as Biter in the morning what you Like of them.

The preste of santa Clarar wishes to go to the united States with me next spring if it is agreabel to your Excelances. My Friend Mr. Lagrand will translat this to your oner. I shal Cum an see you when I Cum in from the woods. The winte[r] is aprochin so near I Cante [find] time to Cum now but all orders from you Shal be apentual [punctually?] obad [obeyed] by me from your oner Seur.

Your moste obedante umbil Sarvunte.

By late spring 1825, he had returned to Franklin, where the following article briefly described the adventure. (Note 9.)

1825 Jun 11 Intelligencer masthead

Article on trapping expedition, Missouri Intelligencer, Franklin, Mo., June 11, 1825, p. 3)

Article on trapping expedition, Missouri Intelligencer, Franklin, Mo. (June 11, 1825), p. 3)

Latest from New Mexico.

By the arrival of Capt. Becknell, from Santa Fe, we learn that the company who left this place last summer for the purpose of trapping, have been unsuccessful. Three or four of the party are reported as missing, & one killed. The young gentleman who has thus fallen a victim to the hostility of the Indians, was George Armstrong, the son of Mrs. Means, of this town, an amiable young man, whose daring and enterprizing spirit led him to explore the mountains of a distant land for the improvement of his fortune. We feel much regret in having to record this unhappy catastrophe. The trade, however, in furs and merchandize to that country is still carried on with increasing vigor, and promises the adventurer a rich reward for his dangers and privations.

In the exploring of all new countries, difficulties and dangers must necessarily be the consequence; but those are soon removed when the advantages of commerce and gain invite to the undertaking large numbers, and when Government lends her protection. We look to this matter with the confident expectation that when the trade is properly organized, our country will realize great advantages from it, and our fellow-citizens reap a hundred fold the reward of their labors.

Such is the facility with which the country between this and New Mexico may be passed, that a single traveller left this place on Tuesday for Santa Fe, which journey he will be enabled to accomplish in thirty days—the time occupied in going from Franklin to Philadelphia.

The editors of the Missouri Intelligencer had put their best spin on Becknell’s endeavor. Two weeks later, on June 25, 1825, the newspaper published Becknell’s own account of his “tour,” which provided details of the harrowing experience. Images and a complete transcription of his account are included on the page “1825 – Capt. Becknell’s Tour.”

Although declining profits in the Santa Fe trade may have caused Becknell to lose interest, that commerce was just getting started. In early 1825, Congress passed legislation to mark a road and to make arrangements with Indian tribes to make passage safer. On March 16, 1825, President John Quincy Adams appointed a Santa Fe Road Commission consisting of Benjamin Reeves (Howard County), George Sibley (Fort Osage), and Pierre Menard (Kaskaskia, Illinois). Menard declined, however, and was replaced by Thomas Mather. Surveying between Fort Osage and Taos took place between July and October 1825. (Note 10.)

In a May 1, 1825 letter, Sibley provided a summary of the Santa Fe trade to date along with a personal portrait of Becknell. (Note 11.)

I now commence for your amusement a series of letters, which I hope to continue from place to place as I proceed, and which may or may not afford you the gratification you seem to expect from my report.

It is not necessary to go into a very particular account of the trade from Missouri to Santa Fe in N. Mexico—suffice it to say that it began on a very small scale in the year – and has been growing ever since in importance; the first adventurers were hardy enterprising men, who being tired of the dull & profitless pursuits of husbandry & the common mechanical arts on the frontier, determined to turn merchants or traders, and in the true spirit of western enterprise, dirrected their steps westward to the settlements of New Mexico, from whence many strange and marvelous stories of inexhaustible wealth in the precious metals, has long before, found their way to & were circulated and readily believed thro’ our settlements on the Missouri.

I believe the honour of the first enterprise of this sort belongs to William Becknell, a man of good character, great personal bravery, & by nature & habit hardy and enterprising. His pursuit immediately previous to his first trip to S[an]ta Fee was, as I am informed, that of a salt maker. He certainly had no knowledge of mercantile concerns, & is tho’ very shrewd and intelligent, very deficient in education. His outfit consisted of a few hundred dollars worth of coarse cotton goods. His followers were about – , in number all of the same description of persons or nearly so, & fitted out in the same manner. Their whole outfit of merchandise might probably have cost $– in Philadelphia. They left our frontier at Ft. Osage, in – and after suffering many hardships, and encountering many dangers, reached the settlements of Taos in N. Mexico where they were well received. In the following – Becknell & his party returned home, having disposed of their merchandise to some advantage, the procees of which they brought home in specie, mules, asses, & Spanish coverlids or blankets. This successful (for so it may be termed) expedition instantly excited many others to adventure to S[an]ta Fee; and among the rest were some few who had been partially bred to the retailing of merchandise in the U. States. The result of the experiments & observations of those best informed in commercial matters who visited S[an]ta Fee the next 3 years after the return of Becknell, was reported, & seemed decidedly to discountenance any further trade. It was at once discovered that the precious metals were far less abundant in N. Mexico than was at first supposed, & that the other resources of the country were for want of enterprise & industry in the inhabitants yet very partially developed, that the inhabitants were generally extremely poor & ignorant, and the local gov[ernmen]t tho’ a little emerged from its former servile state, & evidently fast improving in liberal principles, was yet very strongly biased against the proper encouragement of a liberal intercourse with our people.

Becknell played a role in marking the road. In July 1825, Archibald Gamble, the Commission’s secretary, wrote from Fort Osage that “William Becknell who lives at the Arrow Rock ferry twelve miles above Franklin” has “perfect knowledge of the country between this place and the Arkansas River [which] has induced the Commissioners to enquire, if he would undertake [an ‘express’] which he has promised to do.” (Note 12.) In other words, Becknell was to provide a communication service between Fort Osage and the surveying party.

He provided more material services to the Commission, as well. When the surveyors were on their return trip to Fort Osage in October 1825, Becknell met them at the Verdigris River in present-day eastern Kansas and supplied them with fresh oxen and horses. One of the party, Joseph Davis, kept a diary or journal that provides details. (Note 13.)

On the morning of Wednesday the 5th [of October 1825] we set out after breakfast, and after travelling 3 miles we found that the country was too steep to pursue the course of N 81° E consequently we directed it S 55° E. On which course after travelling a fiew miles we came to the original survey 9 miles from our place of destination (to wit) the cottonwood grove. But there to our great disappointment, stuck a paper upon a tree with intelligence of Capt Becknell’s having been there on that morning, with some papers from Government which we supposed to be instructions but here must remain on suspense untill he returns as he informs us he will returne in a fiew days. But to the relief of our suspense, and the disappointment of our expectations about 10 oclock we heard a gun just across the creek from the encampment, at which moment every man sprang to his gun to make ready for action. The night was very dark but directly he made himself known who proved to be the Capt, but no additional instructions; notwithstanding there were papers communicated to Colol Reeves; but we think relative to the internal government of our own State. At the cottonwood grove we intended lying at camp one day for the refreshment of our horses and mules which we did accordingly. This Creek which was spoken of in our first number [volume] Capt. Becknell informs us, is the stream called Verdigris; but we were before informed that none of the tributary streams of that river cam from a source as far northward as our road, and that cottonwood and other creeks near it were all streams that empty into the Neozho, however these facts will be ascertained in a future day, to the satisfaction of us all.

As above named we lay by on Thursday the 6th, on which day it rained considerably.

On the morning of Friday the 7th we set out after breakfast and travelled until in the night before coming to wood and water sufficiently to encamp at. . . .

Accordingly on the morning of Wednesday the 12th Col. Mather, Capt. Becknell, and Henly [sic] Cooper set out for Fort Osage to get horses and the two latter to bring them back to us. . . .

Thursday the 20th we set off, with expectations of meeting Capt. Becknell and his accompanyants with horses, to our relief. But we travelled all the day without seeing any persons but some Indians or rather one Indian who came to the waggons, and pretended that our party had put a cheat on him in the exchange of a mare for his mule in our travel out to the line. He showed simptoms likewise of wanting his mule back again, said that he had shot the mare, and that the white man who swapped with him “was a big liur.” . . .

On the morning of the 21st to wit Friday in consequence of the reduced state of our horses Col. Reeves concluded we had better lie at camp, and await Capt. Becknell’s arrival who had not come yet. Accordingly we did so, and some of the boys who went out on a hunt, found one of our horses about a mile and a half below us on the creek hoppled with an Indians rope, and alone hid in the brush. It was immediately brought back of course, and turned with the others. On this day about 10 oclock to our agreeable surprise Capt. Becknell arrived with his accompanyants, three ewks [yokes] of oxen, and 4 horses were brought to our relief. Likewise Mr. Joel Walker came with them, and assisted them in bringing one of our beeves which ran away from us on the 27th July which was spoken of in our first book. . . .

It is unnecessary to recapitulate the richness and beauty of this country; it is sufficient to say that it shews to much better advantage than it did in the summer season.

On Tuesday the 25th [of October 1825] we set out and after crossing little Blue, arrived at Fort Osage where we commenced our survey of the road on the 17th of July 1825.


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