1823 – Journal of William Becknell

[as published in the Missouri Intelligencer, Vol. IV, No. 38, Franklin, Mo. (April 22, 1823), pp. 2-3]Journal of two Expeditions from Boon’s Lick to Santa Fe.

22 Apr 1823 Missouri Intelligencer, p. 2, col. 1-2The following is the journal of Capt. William Becknell, of two expeditions from Boon’s Lick to Santa Fe, in the Empire of Mexico, which we long since promised our readers. It is an unvarnished relation of circumstances, and perhaps may not present the reader with that entertainment and gratification of his curiosity which his fancy may anticipate. Considering, however, that national views are strongly turned towards the occupation of the territory adjacent to the mouth of Columbia River, and that this tour embraces a part of the route; that individual enterprise is again inducing many of our worthy citizens to push their speculations into the same quarter, and that probably new scenes of adventure will appear, and new sources of wealth be opened beyond the promise of these little beginnings, we trust the subject will excite an interest separate from the bare statement of facts and carry the mind to the contemplation of future results and benefits. It will open a free intercourse, acquaint us with the soil, climate and peculiarities of the interior of that interesting country, and give a new unexplored & profitable source of trade to Missouri. The adventurous enterprise and hardy habits of this frontier people will soon penetrate beyond the mountains, compete for trade on the shores of the Pacific, and investigate the advantages of that immense country which extends to the south. It is pleasing also to observe the great change which republican ideas and institutions have already effected in that country. Monarchy bound in chains and threw into prison all those of our unfortunate countrymen whom accident or business brought within its reach; while republicanism extends the hand of friendship & receives them with the welcome of hospitality. The one did not wish its people to be informed by an intercourse with those of other nations, because it would enable them to comprehend the wickedness, corruption, folly and illiberality of its administration; while the other cheerfully affords the means of diffusing intelligence, knowing that it contributes to the happiness of its people, the prosperity of its institutions and the permanence of its government. The circumstance, also, of taking waggons over an untraced wilderness of nearly one thousand miles, is a novel one, and will impress distant readers with an idea of the boldness and activity of their western brethren.


“Our company crossed the Missouri near the Arrow Rock ferry on the first day of September, 1821, and encamped six miles from the ferry. The next morning being warm and cloudless, we proceeded on our journey over a beautiful rolling prairie country, and travelled 33 miles, crossing the Petit Osage Plain which is justly accounted one of the most romantic and beautiful places in the state. The traveller approaches the plain over a very high point of adjoining prairie; suddenly the eye catches a distant view of the Missouri on the right, and a growth of lofty timber adjoining it, about two miles wide. In front is a perfectly level, rich and beautiful plain, of great extent, and diversified by small groves of distant timber, over which is a picturesque view of nearly twenty miles. On the left it is bounded by a branch of the La Mine river, which is handsomely skirted with timber while still further in this direction the view is bounded by the fanciful undulations of high prairie. Description cannot do justice to such a varied prospect, or the feelings which are excited in beholding it. This being about the time of equinoctial storms, we suffered some inconvenience for two or three days on account of rains and a cool and humid atmosphere. Arrived at Fort Osage, we wrote letters, purchased some medicines, and arranged such affairs as we thought necessary previous to leaving the confines of civilization. The country, for several days’ travel from Fort Osage, is very handsomely situated, being high prairie, of exceeding fertility; but timber, unfortunately, is scarce. On the fourth day after leaving the Fort, I was taken sick in consequence of heat and fatigue induced by chasing two elks which we had wounded the day before, but which had strength sufficient to elude our pursuit. Some others of the company complained of illness about this time; but determining not to surrender to trifles, or indulge in delay, until it became absolutely necessary, we continued to travel slowly.

On the 20th we crossed the main Osage, being nearly all sick and much discouraged. It rained severely, and we were under the necessity of stopping to dry our baggage. On the second day after crossing the Osage, we saw many buffaloe, one of which we killed; we also saw several goats, but they were so sharp sighted and wild that we could not shoot them. This day we encamped on the waters of the Arkansas, after travelling over much uneven prairie, almost entirely covered with flint rock. About this time we encountered two days’ incessant rain. We halted in a small grove to refresh ourselves, rest our horses and wash our clothes. We sent out two hunters who killed a deer, and saw some goats and large herds of buffaloe. Late in the evening of Monday the 24th, we reached the Arkansas, having travelled during the day in sight of buffaloe, which are here innumerable. The Arkansas at this place is about three hundred yards wide, very shallow, interrupted by bars, and confined by banks of entire sand—the water has every appearance of being as muddy as that of the Missouri; we, however, crossed one of its branches whose waters were limpid and beautiful, and which was one hundred yards wide a mile from its mouth. We gave this the name of Hope Creek. These streams afford no timber except a few scattered cottonwoods. It is a circumstance of surprise to us that we have not seen Indians, or fresh sight of them, although we have traversed their most frequented hunting ground; but considering their furtive habits, and predatory disposition, the absence of their company, during our journey, will not be a matter of regret. The next day we crossed the Arkansas at a place where it is not more than eighteen inches deep, and encamped on the south bank. We left our encampment early the next morning, and about noon came to a large settlement or town of prairie dogs, which appeared to cover a surface of ten acres. They burrow in the earth, are of a dark brown color, about the size of a pup five or six weeks old, which they nearly resemble in every respect except the ears, which are more like those of the opossum. Having a desire to taste its flesh, I killed one, a small part of which I roasted, but found it strong and unpalatable. Their sense of hearing is acute, and their apprehension of danger so great that the least noise of approach frightens them to their holes, from which they make continual and vehement barking until a person approaches within fifty of sixty yards of them; they then take to their holes, with their heads elevated above the ground, and continue barking until the approach is very near, when they disappear instantaneously. They often sit erect, with their fore legs hanging down like a bear. We found here a ludicrous looking animal, perfectly unknown to any one of our company; it was about the size of a racoon, of a light grey color, had uncommonly fine fur, small eyes, and was almost covered with long shaggy hair; its toe nails were from one and a half to two inches in length; its meat was tender and delicious. We also killed one of the rabbit species as large as our common fox; it was of a grey color, but its ears and tail were black. It exhibited an agility in running a short distance after it was shot which exceeded any thing of the kind we had ever witnessed. We regret the deficiency of our zoological information, which prevents our giving a more scientific and satisfactory account of those animals.

22 Apr 1823 Missouri Intelligencer, p. 2, col. 3-5The evening of the 28th brought us to some very high hills for this country, composed entirely of sand, which had been in sight all day, exhibiting at a distance a luminous or whitish appearance; they are very extensive, and entirely destitute of vegetation. We encamped here, substituting buffaloe manure for fuel. Our lodging was very uncomfortable, in consequence of being exposed to torrents of rain, which poured upon us incessantly till day. The next morning we started early, and killing a buffaloe for breakfast, proceeded again on our journey. At about one o’clock found ourselves on the celebrated salt plain of the Arkansas. It was about one mile wide; its length we did not ascertain. Its appearance was very different from the idea I had formed from the several descriptions which I had seen. This, however, might have been owing to the late heavy rains, that had covered the earth three inches deep with water, which we found to be a strong brine. Under the water was an apparent mixture of salt and sand; and in dry weather I have no doubt the appearance of salt would be much greater. So far as the eye can reach, on every side, the country here appears alive with buffaloe and other animals.

About this time we saw five wild horses, being the first we had seen. They had the appearance, at a distance, of being fine large animals. Some difficulties now presented themselves, especially the scarcity of food for our horses, and timber for fire.

A continual and almost uninterrupted scene of prairie meets the view as we advance, bringing to mind the lines of Goldsmith,

“Or onward where Campania’s plain, forsaken, lies
“A weary waste, extending to the skies.”

The immense number of animals, however, which roam undisturbed, and feed bountifully upon its fertility, gives some interest and variety to the scenery. The wolves sometimes attack the buffaloe; and whenever an attack is contemplated, a company of from ten to twenty divide into two parties, one of which separates a buffaloe from his herd, and pursues him, while the others head him. I counted twenty one wolves one morning in a chase of this kind.

We still continue meandering the Arkansas, but travel very slowly in consequence of the continued ill health of some of the party. Our horses here for the first time attempted to leave the encampment; and one strayed off which we never saw afterwards.

The water of the river is here clear, although the current is much more rapid than where we first struck it. Its bed has gradually become narrower, and its channel consequently deeper. The grass in the low lands is still verdant, but in the high prairie it is so short that a rattle-snake, of which there are vast numbers here, may be seen at the distance of fifty yards: they inhabit holes in the ground.

On the 15th, we discovered a lake, which had every appearance of being strongly impregnated with saltpetre. Our horses having become very weak from fatigue and the unfitness of their food, we encamped three days to recruit them and dress some skins for mocasins; during which time we killed three goats and some other game.

On the 21st we arrived at the forks of the river, & took the course of the lefthand one. The cliffs become immensely high, and the aspect of the country is rugged, wild and dreary. On the evening of the 23d, we heard the report of a gun, which is the first indication of our being in the neighborhood of Indians.

As yet we have encountered no difficulty for water, but have been destitute of [ ] or [ ] salt for several weeks.

On the 26th we saw large flocks of mountain sheep, one of which I killed. It had long thick hair; its color was of a dirty blue, with a very fine fur next the skin; a black streak extended from its head to its tail, which is short, and of a lighter color than the body; its rump and hams were very similar to those of our domestic sheep.

We now had some cliffs to ascend, which presented difficulties almost insurmountable, and we were laboriously engaged nearly two days in rolling away large rocks, before we attempted to get our horses up, and even then one fell and was bruised to death. At length we had the gratification of finding ourselves on the open plain; and two days’ travel brought us to the Canadian fork, whose rugged cliffs again threatened to interrupt our passage, which we finally effected with considerable difficulty.

Nov. 1st, we experienced a keen north-west wind, accompanied with some snow. Having been now travelling about fifty days our diet being altogether different from what we had been accustomed to; and unexpected hardships and obstacles occurring almost daily, our company is much discouraged; but the prospect of a near termination of our journey excites hope and redoubled exertion, although our horses are so reduced that we only travel from eight to fifteen miles per day. We found game scarce near the mountains, and one night encamped without wood or water. On the 4th, and several subsequent days, found the country more level and pleasant—discovered abundance of iron ore, and saw many wild horses. After several days’ descent towards Rock river, on Monday the 12th we struck a trail, and found several other indications which induced us to believe that the inhabitants had here herded their cattle and sheep. Timber, consisting of pine and cottonwood, is more plentiful than we have found it for some time.

On Tuesday morning the 13th, we had the satisfaction of meeting a party of Spanish troops. Although the difference of our language would not admit of conversation, yet the circumstances attending their reception of us, fully convinced us of their hospitable disposition and friendly feelings. Being likewise in a strange country, and subject to their disposition, our wishes lent their aid to increase our confidence in their manifestations of kindness. The discipline of the officers was strict, and the subjection of the men appeared almost servile. We encamped with them that night, and the next day about 1 o’clock, arrived at the village of St. Michael, the conduct of whose inhabitants gave us grateful evidence of civility and welcome. Fortunately I here met with a Frenchman, whose language I imperfectly understand, and hired him to proceed with us to Santa Fe, in the capacity of an interpreter. We left here early the next morning. During the day passed another village, named St. Baw, and the remains of an ancient fortification, supposed to have been constructed by the aboriginal Mexican Indians. The next day, after crossing a mountainous country, we arrived at Santa Fe and were received with apparent pleasure and joy. It is situated in a valley of the mountains, on a branch of the Rio del Norte or North river, and some twenty miles from it. It is the seat of government of the province; is about two miles long and one mile wide, and compactly settled. The day after my arrival I accepted an invitation to visit the Governor, whom I found to be well informed and gentlemanly in manners; his demeanor was courteous and friendly. He asked many questions respecting my country, its people, their manner of living, &c.; expressed a desire that the Americans would keep up an intercourse with that country, and said that if any of them wished to emigrate, it would give him pleasure to afford them every facility. The people are generally swarthy, and live in a state of extreme indolence and ignorance. Their mechanical improvements are very limited, and they appear to know little of the benefit of industry, or the advance of the arts. Corn, rice and wheat are their principal productions; they have very few garden vegetables, except the onion, which grows large and abundantly; the seeds are planted nearly a foot apart, and produce onions from four to six inches in diameter. Their atmosphere is remarkably dry, and rain is uncommon, except in the months of July and August. To remedy this inconvenience, they substitute, with tolerable advantage, the numerous streams which descend from the mountains, by daming them up, and conveying the water over their farms in ditches. Their domestic animals consist chiefly of sheep, goats, mules and asses. None but the wealthy have horses and hogs. Like the French they live in villages; the rich keeping the poor in dependance and subjection. Laborers are hired for about three dollars per month; their general employment is that of herdsmen, and to guard their stock from a nation of Indians called Navohoes, who sometimes murder the guards and drive away their mules and sheep. The circumstance of their farms being wholly unfenced, obliges them to keep their stock some distance from home. The walls of their houses are two or three feet thick, built of un-dryed brick, and are uniformly one story high, having a flat roof made of clay, and floors of the same material. They do not know the use of plank and have neither chairs nor tables although the rich have a rough imitation of our settee, which answers the treble purpose of chair, table and bedstead.

My company concluded to remain at St. Michael, except Mr. M’Laughlin, and we left that village December 13, on our return home, in company with two other men who had arrived there a few days before, by a different route. At the time we started the snow was eighteen inches deep, but the quantity diminished as we reach the high lands, which we thought an extraordinary circumstance. On the 17th day of our journey we arrived at the Arkansas, & thence shaped our course over the high land which separates the waters of that and the Caw rivers. Among the Caw Indians we were treated hospitably, purchased corn from them, and in forty-eight days from the time of our departure reached home, much to our satisfaction. We did not experience half the hardships anticipated, on our return. We had provisions in plenty, but [ ] was sometimes rude, whose unwelcome visits we could not avoid, and whose disagreeable effects our situation often precluded us from guarding against. We had, however, but one storm of snow or rain on our return, but were sometimes three or four days without a stick of timber, in such exigencies we again had recourse to buffaloe manure, which is a good substitute for fuel, and emits great heat.

22 Apr 1823 Missouri Intelligencer, p. 3, col. 1Having made arrangements to return, on the 22d day of May, 1822, I crossed the Arrow Rock ferry, and on the third day our company, consisting of 21 men, with three waggons, concentrated. No obstacle obstructed our progress until we arrived at the Arkansas, which river we crossed with some difficulty, and encamped on the south side. About midnight our horses were frightened by buffaloe, and all strayed—28 were missing. Eight of us after appointing a place of rendezvous, went in pursuit of them in different directions, and found eighteen. Two of this company discovered some Indians, and being suspicious of their intentions, thought to avoid them by returning to camp; but they were overtaken, stripped, barbarously whipped, and robbed of their horses, guns and clothes. They came in about midnight, and the circumstance occasioned considerable alarm. We had a strong desire to punish those rascally Osages, who commit outrages on those very citizens from whom they receive regular annuities. One other man was taken by the same party to their camp, and probably would have shared like treatment, had not the presence of Mr. Choteau restrained their savage dispositions. He sent word to me that he had recovered the horses & guns which had been taken from our men, and requested me to come on the next morning and receive them. On our arrival at his camp we found it evacuated, but a short note written on bark instructed me to follow him up the Autawage river. This we declined, thinking that his precipitate retreat indicated some stratagem or treachery. These Indians should be more cautiously avoided and strictly guarded against than any others on the route.

Mr. Heath’s company on the same route joined us here. The hilarity and sociability of this gentleman often contributed to disperse the gloomy images which very naturally presented themselves on a journey of such adventure and uncertainty. After six days of incessant fatigue in endeavoring to recover all our horses, we once more left our camp, and after travelling eight days up the Arkansas, struck a south-west course for the Spanish country. Our greatest difficulty was in the vicinity of Rock river, where we were under the necessity of taking our waggons up some high and rocky cliffs by hand.

We arrived again at St. Michael in 22 days from the Arkansas. We saluted the inhabitants with 3 rounds from our rifles, with which they appeared much pleased. With pleasure I here state, that the utmost harmony existed among our company on the whole route, & acknowledge the cheerfulness with which assistance was always rendered to each other. We separated at St. Michael for the purpose of trading more advantageously. Some of the company, among whom was Mr. Heath, remained there, and others I did not see again until my return. On our return we took a different course from that pursued on our way out, which considerably shortened the route, and arrived at Fort Osage in 48 days.

Those who visit that country for the purpose of vending merchandise will do well to take goods of excellent quality and unfaded colors. An idea prevails among the people there, which certainly is a very just one, that the goods hitherto imported into their country, were the remains of an old stock, & sometimes damaged. A very great advance is obtained on goods, and the trade very profitable; money and mules are plenty, and they do not hesitate to pay the price demanded for an article if it suits their purposes or their fancy The administration of their government, although its form is changed, is still very arbitrary, and the influence which monarchy had on the minds and manners of the people still remains, which is displayed by the servility of the lower orders to the wealthy.

An excellent road may be made from Fort Osage to Santa Fe. Few places would require much labor to render them passable; and a road might be so laid out as not to run more than thirty miles over the mountains.”