William Becknell

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William Becknell
Born 1787 or 1788
Amherst County, Virginia
Died April 30, 1865(1865-04-30)
near Clarksville, Red River County, Texas
Resting place
Private family plot off US 82 west of Clarksville, Texas.

William Becknell (1787 or 1788–30 April 1865) was a soldier, politician, and freight operator who established the Santa Fe Trail.

Early life[edit]

Map of the Santa Fe Trail, established by Becknell.

William Alexander Becknell was born in the Rockfish Creek area of Amherst County, Virginia to his parents Micajaha and Pheby (Landrum) Becknell. There are conflicting sources as to the year of his birth being 1787 or 1788.[1] Young Becknell's father was a veteran of the American Revolution, as were two uncles who died in the war.[2] Becknell married Jane Trusler in 1807 and in 1810 the young family arrived in the new Missouri Territory, homesteading west of present-day St. Charles, Missouri. During the War of 1812 Becknell served in the United States Mounted Rangers under Captain Daniel Morgan Boone, son of the famed explorer. He participated in several engagements, including the Battle of Credit Island and the defense of Fort Clemson, near St. Louis. In the latter engagement he took control of the defense after senior officers fell. For this he was promoted to the rank of Captain, and many times in the future he would be referred to as Captain Becknell.[2] Following his discharge from Federal service in June, 1815 Becknell moved to the area around Boone's Lick and Arrow Rock in central Missouri.[3]

Jane Becknell died of unknown circumstance around the time of William's military discharge, possibly in childbirth, and he remarried in January, 1817 to Mary Cribb. According to U.S. Census Bureau records William Becknell was the father of at least five children; Mary Jane born in 1815, John Calhoun born in 1817, William Alexander Jr. also born in 1817, Lucy born in 1818, and Cornelia born in 1827.[2] Becknell supported his family by working as a ferryman on the Missouri river and by managing the Boone's Lick Salt Works. In early 1820 he purchased 180 acres in Howard County, Missouri and moved the family there.[1]


In 1821 William Becknell was a man facing substantial debt.[1] He had bought out the Boone family interest in the aforementioned salt works around 1818. Then in 1820 Becknell ran unsuccessfully for the Missouri Legislature and borrowed money to finance the campaign. The Panic of 1819 also took its toll on his business activities by limiting the amount of further credit and hard currency available. Owing creditors more than $1,200 dollars ($20,000 in today's money) Becknell found himself jailed briefly until a friend posted bail. The judge in the case gave Becknell until early 1822 to pay his creditors or face more jail time.[2]

It was against this background that William Becknell left Franklin, Missouri in September 1821. According to an advertisement Becknell placed in the Missouri Intelligencer newspaper his intent was "for the purpose of trading for horses and mules and catching wild animals of every description."[3] Becknell and his group were not the only ones to leave in search of a convenient trade route to Santa Fe, but they were the first to arrive, in mid-November 1821.[1] Becknell's timing was near perfect. Mexico had recently shaken off rule by the Spanish, and with it a ban against trade with outsiders. The people of Santa Fe were very eager for the variety of goods Becknell's train of pack horses offered and were willing to pay high prices, some cotton cloth and calico bringing the then-unheard of sum of three dollars a yard. After a month of trading Becknell and his party left Santa Fe on December 13 with their saddlebags overflowing with silver,[4] having converted their three hundred dollars in goods to approximately six thousand dollars in coin.[2]

Arriving back in Missouri in January, 1822, Becknell almost immediately began planning his next voyage to Santa Fe. For his second journey he chose to haul trade goods by wagon instead of pack horse, and had to slightly alter his original route to accommodate them. The wagon train left Franklin in May, 1822 and after considerable hardship, including nearly dying of thirst in the parched Cimarron Desert, arrived in Santa Fe forty-eight days later. The second trip proved to be even more profitable than the first. Taking an estimated $3,000 dollars in goods to Santa Fe, Becknell's party returned with a profit of around $91,000 dollars. Some of that would be paid out as dividends to shareholders who had helped fund the trip, with even the smallest investor reaping great returns.[2] Becknell would make a third profitable trip to Santa Fe in 1824, and the following year helped map the trail for surveyors hired by the U.S. Congress. For his efforts in opening up a route for regular traffic and military movement William Becknell became known as the Father of the Santa Fe Trail

Later life[edit]

In 1827 William Becknell became a Justice of the Peace for Saline County, Missouri. The following year he was elected to the first of two terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. Still retaining his rank of Captain, Becknell served in the Missouri state militia during an native American uprising in 1829 and again during the 1832 Black Hawk War. In 1835 William Becknell sold all his Missouri property and business interests and moved to present-day Red River County in northeast Texas. During the Texas War of Independence William Becknell organized and led a cavalry unit known as the Red River Blues. Later he would serve briefly as a Texas Ranger and as a member of the legislature in the new Republic of Texas. William Becknell died on April 30, 1865, at his home. He is buried in a private family cemetery located off US 82 a few miles west of Clarksville, Texas.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d Dictionary of Missouri Biography", Lawrence O. Christensen, University of Missouri Press, 1999.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "The Life of William Becknell". Allan Wheeler. 2012. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "Becknell, William biography". Oklahoma Historical Society website. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  4. ^ "Captain Wm. Becknell". Kansas Geneaology Society. 2002. Retrieved 13 July 2012. 
  5. ^ Browning, James A. Violence Was No Stranger (1993). Barbed Wire Press. ISBN 0-935269-11-8.

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