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1841 Texan-Santa Fe Expedition
by William H. Wroth
With the establishment of the Republic of Texas in 1836 Sam Houston was elected as its first president. As president, Houston unsuccessfully advocated the annexation of Texas to the United States. He also sought to avoid further conflicts with the Republic of Mexico, quelling some of the hotter heads among the officers in the Texas army, and seeking to make peace treaties with the Indians to insure them fair treatment. The constitution of the Republic of Texas forbade the succession of oneself as president, and in 1838 Mirabeau B. Lamar was elected to replace Houston as President of the Republic. Lamar’s goals and policies were quite opposed to those of Houston. He was a powerful promoter of Texas nationalism and was against annexation to the United States. One of his goals was the expansion of Texas to the Pacific coast, including much of northern Mexico as well. Relations with Mexico remained hostile during his regime. Mexico would not recognize the Republic of Texas, and Lamar gave support to revolutionaries in Yucatan in their unsuccessful bid for independence from Mexico. The expansionist and militaristic attitudes of the Lamar government was succinctly stated by his Vice-President David G. Burnet: “Texas proper is bounded by the Rio Grande: Texas, as defined by the sword, may comprehend the Sierra del Madre. Let the sword do its proper work.” Lamar also abandoned Houston’s reasonable policy towards the Indians, turning to force instead of diplomacy and initiating brutal campaigns against the Cherokees, Caddos and Comanches.
In Lamar’s presidency the Republic of Texas was in shaky condition with the treasury depleted and only the United States giving the Republic diplomatic recognition. By 1841 the Republic was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Lamar was increasingly unpopular with the citizenry. In the spring of that year he authorized a military expedition to New Mexico which had several purposes. One was to gain control of the Santa Fe Trail and divert some of the trade to Texas to gain much needed goods and commerce. A second was to initiate trade directly with New Mexico, thus bypassing the strictures of the hostile Mexican government. The third and most important goal was to take possession of New Mexico, “liberating” the territory from Mexican sovereignty.
In 1840 Lamar had already begun efforts to achieve this goal. He appointed three residents of Santa Fe, William G. Dryden, John Rowland and William Workman, as commissioners for Texas, and he sent a letter with them in April 1840 to try to entice New Mexicans to join the Republic of Texas. These efforts were soon followed by the proposed Santa Fe expedition. In spite of the Texas congressional vote against it in 1841, Lamar went ahead with the expedition’s organization, appointing several prominent Texans to take part in the expedition. The military leader was General Hugh McLeod, a graduate of West Point who later became Lamar’s cousin by marriage. Second in command was the notorious Indian fighter Major George Thomas Howard. Both McLeod and Howard played leading roles in the infamous Council House Fight at San Antonio in 1840 in which a Comanche peace delegation, including five women and children, was entrapped and slaughtered in the midst of negotiations with the Texans.
McLeod and Howard’s forces made up five companies of infantry and one of artillery. The expedition included four appointed commissioners, William G. Cooke, Richard F. Brenham, George Van Ness, and José Antonio Navarro, and a number of merchants. Navarro, born in San Antonio in 1795, was the only prominent Hispano to accompany the expedition. He had long been a proponent of Texas independence from Mexico; he was one of three Mexican signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836. Several non-Texans also accompanied the expedition including Franklin Combs (son of the governor of Kentucky), Thomas Falconer (British lawyer recently arrived in Texas), and George Wilkins Kendall (journalist from New Orleans). Falconer and Kendall later published important book-length accounts of the expedition.
In June 1841 starting from a rendezvous on Brushy Creek twelve miles north of Austin, a total of 321 men set out on the expedition. They traveled with their ammunition, supplies, and trade goods, said to be valued at over $200,000, in twenty-one wagons and drove a herd of 70 head of cattle. The expedition was poorly planned; the leaders lacked a clear idea of the distance to Santa Fe or the best routes to travel. Within weeks they were lost. Near today’s Wichita Falls, they mistook the Wichita River for the Red River and spent twelve days following the Wichita until finally realizing their error. A scout was sent north to find the Red River and the party set out over dry land to the northwest. They were soon abandoned by their Mexican guides and began to suffer the effects of inadequate food provisioning and lack of water. In early September they were attacked by Kiowa Indians who killed Lieutenant George R. Hull and five other men. A few days later in another attack, Kiowas stampeded all the cattle and ran off 83 horses which were never recovered. The Kiowas were at that time allied with the Comanches and no doubt were well aware of the entrapment and murder of the Comanche peace delegation by the Texans in the 1840 Council House massacre.
In New Mexico Governor Manuel Armijo was cognizant of the expansionist intentions of the Republic of Texas and had been in close touch with authorities in Mexico who gave him material aid in order to resist the invasion. He had up-to-date news on the progress of the Texans, thanks to the arrival in Taos in early September 1841, of the two guides who had deserted the expedition. In Santa Fe his main concern was the sympathy and possible support of the American merchants for the Texans. The Americans on their part were afraid of violence against them, and through the United States consul in Santa Fe, Manuel Alvarez, they appealed to Armijo for protection. Tensions rose to such an extent that on September 16, while Armijo was in San Miguel dealing with the Texans, a group led by his nephew Tomás Martín attacked the residence of Alvarez and almost killed him. His life was saved only by the intervention of Armijo’s secretary Guadalupe Miranda, whereupon the merchants appealed to the United States government for protection.
At the Llano Estacado in northwest Texas, due to the difficulty of proceeding further with wagons, McLeod divided the expedition and sent one party, led by Commissioner William G. Cooke, ahead on horseback to New Mexico. On September 12 the advance party met Mexican traders who gave them route instructions, and a guide was sent back to the main party to accompany them to the New Mexico settlements. The advance party arrived near Anton Chico on September 15. A smaller group led by Captain William Lewis and Commissioner George Van Ness, both of whom spoke Spanish, went ahead. Near San Miguel del Bado they were apprehended by a party of 100 New Mexican soldiers led by Captain Damasio Salazar, the alcalde of San Miguel, who had been appointed by Governor Armijo to guard the eastern approaches along the Rio Pecos. The Texans had expected to be welcomed by the New Mexicans who they mistakenly and naively thought would want to change from Mexican to Texan sovereignty. They pretended to have only peaceful intentions of opening trade with New Mexico, but Salazar did not believe them, and they were marched to San Miguel, passing another contingent of 1000 Mexican soldiers on the way. At San Miguel they were brought before Governor Manuel Armijo.
William Lewis served as translator for the Texans. He realized that they had no chance against the overwhelming numbers of well-armed New Mexicans and he convinced Cooke’s advanced party and then McLeod and the main party that they should surrender. Lewis has served as the scapegoat for the ignominious defeat of the expedition, which surrendered without a shot being fired. He was accused at the time of being a traitor, and that charge continues to be repeated in recent literature, but in fact the Texans were in desperate condition from the long march, exhausted, and nearly without food and water. They had no reasonable choice but to surrender or be slaughtered and were fortunate to survive with their lives. In New Mexico the defeat and capture of the Texans was cause for celebration. In the plaza at Las Vegas the festivities included burning printed copies of President Lamar’s proclamations to commemorate the victory. Vicar Juan Felipe Ortiz in Santa Fe called for masses of thanksgiving to be celebrated in every parish, and a play, The Texans, was written and performed, depicting the events of the expedition.
The main party of the expedition surrendered on October 5 near Tucumcari. They were first marched to San Miguel, and then to El Paso and on to Mexico City. Most of the prisoners ended up in the fortress at Veracruz known as the Perote prison, arriving in December 1841. When word reached Texas of the embarrassing conclusion of the Santa Fe expedition, there was anger, and many blamed Lamar for the catastrophe. A letter in an Austin newspaper in January 1842, most likely written by Anson Jones (an enemy of Lamar and future president of the Republic of Texas), proposed that Lamar be exchanged for the Texan prisoners. Lamar avoided this fate, and the prisoners continued to languish at Perote. In April 1842 after pressure from Waddy Thompson, the United States minister in Mexico, the Mexican government released most of them and they returned to Texas. One prisoner who was not released was José Antonio Navarro. As a Mexican citizen he was charged with treason and sentenced to death. However, he was able to escape and return to Texas.
In reaction to the embarrassing conclusion of the Santa Fe expedition, Texans attempted several further invasions of Mexican territory. In 1842 the so-called Mier expedition of 261 men crossed the Rio Grande with the intent of acquiring a large territory in northern Mexico for Texas. They were met in the town of Mier and defeated and taken prisoner by the Mexican army, most of them ending up in the Perote prison. The Warfield and Snively expeditions of 1843 were less ambitious repeats of the Santa Fe expedition. Charles Warfield with a small group of adventurers attempted to attack the town of Mora but was driven off by a superior New Mexican force. Warfield disbanded his group, though one contingent of the group under the command of John McDaniel killed Antonio Chavez, a New Mexican trader on the Santa Fe Trail.
Jacob Snively with the approval of the Texas government led about 200 men to prey on New Mexican merchants along the Santa Fe Trail under the pretext that they had crossed Texas territory. The ultimate goal of the expedition was to attack Santa Fe and wrest New Mexico and perhaps even Chihuahua from Mexico. However, the United States government was not pleased with the murder of Chavez by the Warfield expedition and sent a company of dragoons under command of Captain Philip St. George Cooke to protect the next wagon train leaving from Missouri. Cooke confronted and disarmed Snively and his men, thus bringing to an end Texas aggression against New Mexico.
Binkley, William Campbell. “New Mexico and the Texan Santa Fé Expedition,” Volume 27, Number 2, Southwestern Historical Quarterly Online, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/publications/journals/shq/online/v027/n2/contrib_DIVL866.html
Binkley, William Campbell. “Last Stage of Texan Military Operations against Mexico, 1843,” Volume 22, Number 3, Southwestern Historical Quarterly Online, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/publications/journals/shq/online/v022/n3/contrib_DIVL2931.html
Carroll, H. Bailey. The Texan Santa Fe Trail. (Canyon, Texas: Panhandle-Plains Historical Society, 1951.
Carroll, H. Bailey. “Texan-Santa Fe Expedition,” Handbook of Texas Online http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/TT/qyt3.html
Chavez, Fray Angélico and Thomas E. Chavez. Wake for a Fat Vicar. Albuquerque: LPD Press, 2004.
Falconer, Thomas. Letters and Notes on the Texan Santa Fe Expedition, 1841-1842. New York: Dauber and Pine Bookshops, 1930.
Graham, Philip. The Life and Poems of Mirabeau B. Lamar. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1938.
Kendall, George Wilkins. Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition. New York: Harper, 1844.
Loomis, Noel M. Texan-Santa Fe Pioneers. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.
Reséndez, Andrés. Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.