Texas Santa Fe Expedition

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The Republic of Texas. The present-day outlines of the U.S. states are superimposed on the boundaries of 1836–1845.
Map of the Santa Fe Trail (in red) in 1845. A detailed present-day map is also available.[1]

The Texas Santa Fe Expedition was a commercial and military expedition to secure the Republic of Texas's claims to parts of Northern New Mexico for Texas in 1841.[2][3] The expedition was unofficially initiated by the then President of Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar, in an attempt to gain control over the lucrative Santa Fe Trail and further develop the trade links between Texas and New Mexico. Lamar had already started courting the New Mexicans, sending out a commissioner in 1840, and many Texans thought that they might be favorable to the idea of joining the Republic of Texas.

The expedition set out from Kenney's Fort near Austin on June 19, 1841. The expedition included 21 ox-drawn wagons carrying merchandise estimated to be worth about $200,000. Among the men were merchants that were promised transportation and protection of their merchandise during the expedition, as well as commissioners William G. Cooke, Richard F. Brenham, José Antonio Navarro, and George Van Ness. Although officially a trading expedition, the Texas merchants and businessmen were accompanied by a military escort of some 320 men. The military escort was led by Hugh McCleod and included a company of artillery.

The journey to New Mexico during the summer was blighted by poor preparation and organization, sporadic Indian attacks and a lack of supplies and fresh water. After losing their Mexican guide, the group struggled to find its way, with no one knowing exactly how far away Santa Fe even was. McCleod was eventually forced to split his force and sent out an advance guard to find a route.

Map showing route of the first Santa Fe expedition

The expedition finally arrived in New Mexico in mid-September 1841. Several of their scouts were captured, including Capt. William G. Lewis. Having expected to be welcomed on their arrival, the expedition was surprised to be met by a detachment from the Mexican Army of about 1500 men sent out by the governor of New Mexico, Manuel Armijo. One of Armijo's relatives who spoke English, probably Manuel Chaves or Mariano Chaves, parleyed with the Texans, with Captain Lewis supporting his statements. Both said that Armijo would give the Texans safe conduct and an escort to the border, and Lewis swore to it "on his Masonic faith".[4] After the Texans' arduous journey, they were in no state to fight a force that outnumbered them so heavily, so they surrendered. The New Mexicans gave them some supplies. However, the following morning, Armijo arrived with his army, had the Texans bound and treated harshly, and demanded the Texans be killed, putting the matter up to a vote of his officers. That night, the prisoners listened to the council debating the idea. By one vote, the council decided to spare the Texans. The latter were forced to march the 2000 miles from Santa Fe to Mexico City, where they were held until United States diplomatic efforts secured their release the following year.


Lewis was widely considered[by whom?] a traitor, but the options facing the Texans were stark, and standing and fighting would almost certainly have led to their annihilation. Furthermore, there is no information on whether Lewis or Chaves knew Armijo's real intentions.

Lamar was widely held responsible for the disaster and the expedition tarnished his presidency. The controversy over the prisoners helped to increase tensions between the United States and Mexico, leading up to the Mexican-American War.[5]

In popular culture[edit]

The expedition forms the backdrop to Larry McMurtry’s novel Dead Man's Walk, which is part of the Lonesome Dove series.

A Texas Ranger is mentioned as being a "Santa Fe expeditioner" in The Lone Ranch: A Tale of the Staked Plain (1860) by Capt. Thomas Mayne Reid, having "spent over twelve months in Mexican prisons".

Notes and sources[edit]

  1. ^ "Sante Fe National Historic Trail Map" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-07-20. 
  2. ^ "Santa Fe Expedition". Lone Star Junction. 1998. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  3. ^ Kendall, George Wilkins (1846). Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition: Comprising a Tour Through Texas and Capture of the Texans. London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper. Retrieved 2007-07-08. 
  4. ^ Simmons, Marc (1973). The Little Lion of the Southwest: a life of Manuel Antonio Chaves. Chicago: The Swallow Press. ISBN 978-0-8040-0633-0. 
  5. ^ [1]

External links[edit]