The Santa Fe Expedition

Lamar’s Folly

Lone Star 001Mirabeau Lama served as the second president of the Republic of Texas.  He had a vision that one day, Texas would extend from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Coast —a somewhat linear projection not unlike the earliest maps depicting the eastern state territories extending from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River (the beginning of Spanish territory).  Lamar was a well-educated man, but also insufferably arrogant.  His hubris may have gotten in the way of common sense when he “unofficially” authorized the Santa Fe Expedition in 1841.  In his mind, the opportunity to transform the Republic of Texas into a continental power was limited; time was of the essence for two reasons: first, to hinder a growing sentiment in Texas to petition the United States for annexation, and second, to defeat the suggestion of other southern states (in connection with the concept of annexation) to break Texas up into (five) smaller states that might be admitted into the Union as slave states [Note 1]. 

Lamar’s intent, in addition to transforming Texas into a continental power, was to develop trade links between Texas and New Mexico, which at the time was still a province of Mexico.  President Lamar had already dispatched commissioners to New Mexico with the hope that these emissaries could demonstrate that New Mexico would fare better under Texas than it could under the flag of Mexico.

The Santa Fe Expedition began on 19 June 1841 from Kenny’s Fort near Austin.  It was a massive train of 21 ox-drawn wagons carrying merchandise worth around a quarter of a million dollars.  Most of the men were merchants, who were promised transportation and protection of their persons and their goods along the expedition’s route of march.  Four Texian emissaries accompanied the train: William G. Cooke, Richard F. Brenham, Jose Antonio Navarro, and George Van Ness.  A military escort of 300 men and a company of artillery served under the command of Hugh Macleod.  The train was poorly prepared and organized from the beginning.  Indian attacks, inadequate supplies, and a dearth of water plagued the expedition from its beginning.  During the journey, their Mexican guide disappeared in the wilderness, which caused the train to lose its way.  Macleod was forced to split his command to create a discovery force to find a proper route to Santa Fe.

The expedition finally arrived in New Mexico in September.  Several scouts were captured by Mexican military units, including Captain William G. Lewis.  Everyone on the expedition was shocked by New Mexico’s hostility; they expected a welcoming committee but were instead met by 1,500 irritated Mexican soldiers.  Apparently, New Mexico’s governor, Manuel Armijo [Note 1] was not happy to receive these Texans and he wanted them to leave.  If the Texians agreed to leave, Governor Armijo would grant them safe passage and an armed escort to the border.  The Texans had little choice in this matter because they were seriously outnumbered by Mexican forces, they were worn out from their journey, their supplies were depleted, and there was no hope for reinforcement from Texas.  These circumstances led the Texians to surrender to Governor Armijo.

By the next morning, however, Governor Armijo had changed his mind.  Armijo’s soldiers arrested the Texians, bound them, abused them, and informed them that their deaths were imminent.  Not everyone in Armijo’s governing council supported execution, however, and the matter was put to a vote.  By a single vote, Armijo’s council decided to spare the Texans from death.  Instead, they were forced to march 2,000 miles from Santa Fe to Mexico City.  Not everyone survived the journey.  Those who did survive were imprisoned at the Perote Prison at Vera Cruz until diplomats from the United States could secure their release —about one year.

By his decision to surrender, the people of Texas reviled Lewis —but his options were nil.  Fighting would have resulted in a second Alamo.  Beyond this, Lewis assumed Governor Armijo was an honorable man and would keep his word.  Taken in context with the dishonor displayed by Mexican officials from 1835-42, this too was a mistake.  Mariano Chaves [Note 2], who had acted as Armijo’s spokesman in brokering the surrender of the Texians, claimed for the balance of his life that he had acted in good faith toward the Texans.  Chaves died in 1845.

Nor were the Texians happy with Mirabeau B. Lamar for authorizing the expedition or for his mishandling the Republic’s economy.  What was proved, however, was that the Republic of Texas lacked the resources needed to control its claimed western territories.  A majority of the people living in Texas were born and raised in the United States, and even though they voluntarily moved to a “new country,” they were idealistically and culturally Americans.  More than anything Sam Houston ever did to persuade Texians to support annexation, Mirabeau Lamar’s arrogant mistake convinced them that it was the sensible thing to do.  Houston was reelected to the office of the Texas presidency in 1841, serving until 1844.  Lamar’s folly brought General Adrian Woll to San Antonio again in 1842 and Houston was forced to deal with yet another Texan-Mexican conflict.  Anson Jones became the fourth and last president of Texas as Texas became the 28th US State, annexed in 1845.

With annexation, the quarrel between Texas and Mexico became a quarrel between Mexico and the United States.  Mexican officials had always believed that the goal of the United States was to steal Texas away from them.  They were probably right about that, but it was Mexico who invited Americans to the Mexican State of Tejas to populate it, settle it, and defend it against the Comanche Indians.  In any case, the treatment of the members of the Santa Fe Expedition while imprisoned added to the animosity between the United States and Mexico over the issue of its territorial border.  What followed in 1846 was the Mexican American War, which lasted until 1848.

The conflict ended in victory for the United States, giving it undisputed control of all lands that up until then had been claimed by Texas.  The issue of adding western territory to the state of Texas was vociferously resisted by the United States Congress and other southern states.  At this time, Sam Houston was serving as a US Senator representing Texas.  As part of the Compromise of 1850, the government of Texas agreed to relinquish its northwestern territorial claims, including Santa Fe.  In exchange, the US government agreed to assume responsibility for the state’s debts; Texas was left in control of its territorial boundaries (which was actually twice the size of the territory it had ever controlled as a republic), and most of the remaining western lands were organized as the Territory of New Mexico.

During the Mexican American War, Governor Armijo surrendered Santa Fe without firing a shot and made a hasty departure for Mexico; Mariano Chaves died in New Mexico in 1845.  After the war, Armijo returned to New Mexico, where he died in 1853.

A final disposition of the lands west of Texas were not settled prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 and because the issues were unsettled, the Confederate States of America attempted to establish control over New Mexico prompted by the arguments previously offered by the Republic of Texas under Mirabeau B. Lamar.  Rebel attempts to seize New Mexico brought that territory back into conflict with Texas.  The issue of Confederate control of New Mexico was resolved at the Battle of Glorieta Pass (26-28 March 1862).

Sources:

  1. Kendall, G. W.  Narrative of the Texas Santa Fe Expedition: Comprising a Description of a Tour Through Texas and Capture of the Texans.  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1844, brokered through Bauman Rare Books, New York, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. [Note 4].
  2. Simmons, M.  The Little Lion of the Southwest: a life of Manuel Antonio Chaves.  Chicago: Swallow Press, 1973.
  3. Connor, S. V.  Perote Prison.  Handbook of Texas Online, 2015.
  4. University of Texas (Austin), Robert D. Phillips (1842-1844), Phillips Family Texan Santa Fe Expedition Letters and Documents.

Endnotes:

  1. This effort to attach conditions to the possibility of Texas annexation, which was always the goal of Texas President Sam Houston, serves as an excellent example of repugnant politics in the United States from the very beginning of the United States of America.  In his reaction to such moves, Lamar similarly demonstrates that Texas politicians were themselves inadequate to the needs of their citizens.
  2. Mariano Chaves is often confused with Manuel Antonio Chaves (1818-1889), who was a soldier in the Mexican Army, a New Mexico rancher, and a man known for his courage and marksmanship.  Manuel Antonio Chaves, having proclaimed his loyalty to the United States, participated in the Battle of Glorieta Pass as a lieutenant colonel of US volunteers and helped the Union regain control over the Territory of New Mexico during the American Civil War.
  3. Manuel Armijo (1793-1853) served three times as New Mexico’s governor.  He was instrumental in putting down the revolt of 1837, commanded the force that captured the Santa Fe Expedition, and surrendered to the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican American War (after which New Mexico became a territory of the United States).
  4. George Wilkins Kendall was born in Mount Vernon, New Hampshire in 1809.  He published the first issue of the Picayune of New Orleans in 1837, which was sold for a Picayune (a Spanish coin worth about 6.25 cents).  In 1841, Kendall joined the Santa Fe Expedition as an observer and reporter.  In this capacity, Kendall is today regarded as America’s first war correspondent owing to the expedition and his coverage of the Mexican American War.  After 1855, Kendall resided with his family in New Braunfels and Boerne.  Source: Daughters of the American Revolution, George W. Kendall Chapter, Boerne, Kendall County, Texas.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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3 Responses to The Santa Fe Expedition

  1. Andy says:

    I was taught that Lamar was a great Texas hero, which I suppose in some instances he may have been. The Santa Fe expedition, however, showed his flaws.

    Great tale. Precise and compact. Another well-written product.

    Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I agree. He was a great leader in some instances, not so great in others. His aspirations for adding New Mexico to Texas was akin to ordering a steak dinner on a Burger King budget. At this time in Texas, the state comptroller was the best possible job, since there wasn’t any money to account for … not to mention that the Texas government was highly disorganized, somewhat on the same level as a Chinese fire drill.

      Hope you are well, Andy … Merry Christmas to you and your family.

      Semper Fi

      Like

  2. Pingback: Mountain Men | Old West Tales

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