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Disorganizing Effects of the Mexican War on the Santa Fe Trade

by Lewis E. Atherton

May 1937 (vol. 6, no. 2 1937, pages 115 to 123
Transcribed by lhn; digitized with permission of
the Kansas State Historical Society.

THE Santa Fé trade was among the safer occupations followed by residents of the West. Violence was not unknown, however, and the use of military escorts attests the dangers frequently arising to confront these engaging in the trade. Troubles were intensified for the Santa Fé merchants during the years 1846 to 1848, a period which saw the United States and Mexico engaged in war. Normally such a status ends all trade between the warring countries, but, in spite of the dangers involved, American goods continued to reach Santa Fé markets during the struggle.

The disastrous expedition of Samuel Owens and James Aull to Santa Fé in 1846 illustrates in many ways the obstacles created by the war time conditions. No claim is made that the experiences of these two traders were typical in all respects of the problems encountered by merchants during the war. Some merchants disposed of their goods in less time than did Owen, and Aull, some escaped the necessity of serving in the army, and other merchants were spared their violent deaths. In general, however, the problems of this one firm were the problems of all other merchants involved. When the story of Owens and Aull departs from the usual run of experience it is generally in the direction of greater troubles than those faced by the average trader. Their difficulties, therefore, serve to illustrate how the Mexican War increased the possibilities of trouble for those engaged in the Santa Fé trade.

The troubles encountered by Owens and Aull cannot be charged to personal failings or inexperience. These men had been merchants in western Missouri for a number of years. From 1831 to 1838, James Aull headed the firm of "James and Robert Aull," a company with stores at Lexington, Liberty. Richmond and Independence, Mo. [1] In this capacity he traveled widely, making yearly trips to the Atlantic seaboard to purchase goods and occasional trips to New Orleans for groceries. Trappers, government forts, Indian mission, and Santa Fé traders were among his customers, giving hum a wide acquaintance with frontier life. In the early 1830's he invested in Missouri river steamboats, opened a rope walk at Liberty, Mo., and built his own flour mill. But in 1836 an increasing load of debt caused the dissolution of the firm, and for the next ten years Aull devoted his time to the operation of the store at Lexington.

To a man so recently in the very center of things the new arrangement must have been dull, for Lexington was rapidly losing its favored position in western trade to Independence. The records of Aull's business during this period are fragmentary, and it is impossible to estimate the decline in the volume of his trade. [2] The one ,store, however, could not reach the trade area formerly served by the chain, and this, coupled with the decline of Lexington in the Santa Fé trade, limited his business activities to a relatively small field. Under these circumstances it was only natural fur his interest to turn to the direct trade with Santa Fé an enterprise with which he was well acquainted. In the 1830's, while Lexington still had hopes of competing with Independence, Aull had sold goods to the traders annually. In 1832 he sent his own agent to Santa be with a supply of merchandise. His primary reason for no( personally continuing in the trade after that time came from the difficulty he experienced in disposing of goods in Santa Fé in time to meet his credit obligations in the East. [3] Thus his mercantile experience and his knowledge of the Santa Fé trade, gained over a period of years, were sufficiently great to give him every prospect of success in the venture he was undertaking.

The dissolution of the Aull chain of stores in 1836 resulted in the formation of a partnership between a younger brother, Robert Aull, and Samuel Owens, to continue the business at Independence. Owens was It self-made /non, having started out as .James' "head man" at Independence when the chain was formed. Through the years he had gradually added to his wealth and position as a business man. In 1844 he purchased Robert's interest and became the sole proprietor of the store at that place. By that time he had become known in the Santa Fé trade, having the reputation of being a kind and liberal man who would "furnish wagons, teams, provisions, and general outfit for credit" to those engaging in the trade to the southwest. [4] Thus as to Independence merchant Owens nat-



urally became interested in the Santa Fé trade, and found a ready partner in his former employer who saw in flue Mexican trade an opportunity to enter once more the main current of western commerce. As a result, the two men formed a partnership and set out for Santa Fé in the spring of 1846 with a $70,000 stock of goods.

They could hardly have chosen a less propitious time. Mexican animosity towards the United States had increased as a result of the annexation of Texas; rumors of war had become increasingly current, and this would mean that the entry ports for goods in the Santa Fé trade would in all likelihood be blockaded. IF war developed the merchant would find himself in enemy territory, his goods a free prize to a population willing to pay a high price for American products in more peaceful times. To forestall such a contingency, one group of traders left Independence early in May, 1846, and by rapid travel reached Santa Fé in forty-five days. Trouble developed, however, when they journeyed south to Chihuahua, the trad#t era being held prisoners for a time before being allowed to start the sale of their goods. Men of English, German, and French nationality received preferred treatment, and at least one American trader was reduced to the necessity of traveling as assistant wagonmaster under a Prussian Jew, [5] and with his goods under the man's protection

The group of traders, of which Owens and Aull were members did not leave Independence until the latter part of May. They had traveled only three hundred miles when they were overtaken by a detail from S. W. Kearny's command mad required to wait at the Pawnee Fork until the main body of troops arrived. The remainder of the journey was then made in the rear of the American troops, with progress so slow that Santa Fé was not reached until August. A peaceful commercial undertaking had thus become involved in the Mexican War, valuable time had been lost, and the matter of disposing of the goods had been plunged into the greatest uncertainty. War Department orders to Kearny to detain the traders were based on the belief that the merchandise would be confiscated in Santa Fé if military protection were not provided. Military authorities thought the least the traders could have expected, had they been allowed to proceed without protection, was detention in Santa Fé. In each a contingency the Mexican merchants would have preceded the Americans to the southern markets, and placed


them at a disadvantage in the disposal of their wares. [6] The merchants involved did not concur in these views, but found it impossible to alter the course of events.

Kearney's protection ended in Santa Fé, and the traders then set nut for the markets of Chihuahua. The caravan camped for two weeks near the ruins of Valverde. however, in the hopes of obtaining news of conditions to the south. There they were overtaken by a detachment of Col. A. W. Doniphan's regiment of Missouri volunteers, under the command of Captain Walton, and were required to wait until Colonel Doniphan arrived. [7] The period at Valverde preceding the arrival of the troops teas not a pleasant one, rumors of a Mexican attack keeping the group in at state of alarm. The traders exceeded three hundred in number and lead formed a corral of their wagons for defense. But such measures did not conceal the fact that it would be useless to resist a Mexican army. Furthermore the patriotism of the American made no appeal to the foreign traders when the governor of Chihuahua tossed in an apple of discord by instructing merchants to dismiss American drivers in favor of Mexicans, with the assurance that those who did so could bring in goods free of duty. Most of the Mexican and English traders complied with the order, but the Americans remained adamant. The situation was not helped any by the offer of the British agent in Chihuahua to have the caravan proceed under his protection, a scheme particularly appealing to the traders of that nationality. [8]

The arrival of Doniphan put an end to the arguments, and the traders followed his troops into El Paso del Norte, taking advantage of the occasion to make a few small sales. But military restrictions proved irksome, some attempting to escape Doniphan's control and others getting into difficulties with him over endeavors to communicate with Chihuahua. [9] Doniphan finally decided to push on to that city, but rumors of superior Mexican forces caused him to order the creation of a "Traders battalion" of two companies, to be commanded by "Major" Samuel Owens, one of the two partners. [10] The procedure was very unusual, to say the least. Doniphan was commanding only a volunteer regiment, and without authority from the War Department lead converted a group of



Santa Fé merchants into "soldiers." The Mexicans easily might have seized them and their goods later on the clearly legal grounds that they were a military expedition.

The general story of the battle of Sacramento, fought on February 28, 1847, lies outside our present narrative. It is important here because of the consequences far the firm of Owens and Aull. Few Americans were killed in the battle, but Major Owens was among the casualties. There are innumerable stories of how he met death. Doniphan save that he lost his life by excessive rashness, riding up to a redoubt filled with armed men and continuing to fire his pistols until both he and his horse fell under the return fire. [11] James J. Webb was told by one of Owens' men that the major probably courted death because of family troubles and had shaved and dressed in clean clothes just before the battle. Webb also reports that only the horse was killed in the first firing and that Owens was pinned beneath it. Thus the Mexicans were able to kill Owens and strip him of his valuables. [12] William E. Connelley, cites the story that he was killed by the spears of the Mexicans, and that his seeming rashness is to be explained as the result of the machinations of a cabal which stopped the general charge by the troops in order to give an officer named Reid the honor of winning the battle. Still another account pictures the major as. charging with a about of "Give it to them, boys! They can't withstand us," and falling two minutes later with a grape shot through the forehead, and so close to the gun that the fire burned his clothes. [13] Indeed, Samuel Owens died as many different deaths as there are sources reporting on him. The funeral was in harmony with the importance of the death of the major. Burial took place "with great pomp" in Chihuahua after that city was occupied on March 1, 1847. A "coffin with trimmings" was obtained, costing seventy dollars--only a little more expensive than the bill for wax candles, an item which totaled sixty-five. [14]

The burden of caring for the goods of the firm was now left to James Aull. After Chihuahua was occupied the traders were free to dispose of their goods, their objective when they left Independence ten long months before. Danger had nut disappeared even yet, however, for if Doniphan should depart the merchants would be at the mercy of the Mexicans. Consequently, a petition was presented


to Doniphan asking him to make known his plans, a request he was unable to answer until he received orders from his superior officers. This uncertainty furthered the willingness of the merchants to sell at sacrifice prices on a market which would have been sluggish, even in a normal year, as the result of such heavy importations of goods. [15]

But James Aull was unwilling to be stampeded. For several years in the 1830's he had undergone a yearly battle to get his goods through from Philadelphia in time to serve the spring trade of four stores and in spite of the primitive condition of transportation he had always succeeded. Schooled to expect difficulties, he was unwilling to admit defeat. So he set to work to sell the goods of Owens and Aull as fast as he could, but only at prices that would pay dividends on the venture. Even the slow journey down had been turned to profit, the account book of the firm containing numerous entries of sale, made to the troops under whose protection Aull had traveled. On April 3, 1847, for example, he was able to send pay accounts of officers and drafts for army supplies in excess of $15,000, to Rich and Pomeroy at Santa Fé, to be forwarded to his brother Robert at Lexington. Some of the money came from acting as middleman for the troops, his difficulties not preventing him from buying provisions from the Mexicans and quoting pork and mutton to the army at profitable figures. Nor were the profits to remain idle after they were delivered in Lexington, for James instructed Robert to invest the proceeds in treasury notes at five and six percent interest if they could be obtained at par. [16] Thus dangers from a state of war had not deterred him from embracing the opportunities created by the predicament in which he found himself.

Meanwhile the sale of goods continued. By taking a note he was able to sell a load of goods to Santiago Ulivarri at St. Miguel for $1,260. By the last of May his brother-in-law, E. W. Pomeroy, at Santa Fé, was able to send $16,000 to Lexington, and at about the same time Owens' nephew, Harrison, left for Independence with seventy-five mules, six wagons, and $1,250 in money. [17] Obviously the goods rapidly were being liquidated, but a second major catastrophe was now to descend on the firm.

Doniphan had finally received orders from Gen. Zachary Taylor to join him at Saltillo. What were the traders to do? If they re


mained they would be without protection. If they accompanied the troops there was small prospect of disposing of their goods. Doniphan attempted to help them by the negotiation of a treaty with Governor Trias to provide for the neutrality of Chihuahua, but his effort failed. On the twenty-fifth of April Doniphan ordered the evacuation of the city, and by the twenty-eighth all had obeyed, except a very few traders who were unwilling to sacrifice their goods. Among the latter was James Aull. His friends in Santa Fé realized his precarious position, and Pomeroy, in his letter of May 29, 1847, could give Robert little assurance of his brother's safety. Persons of influence in Chihuahua had promised protection, but were unwilling to answer for the mob. Misgivings must have filled the minds of these merchants as they watched the scene which greeted their eyes on the morning of April 28, 1847--"The army and a part of the traders were moving off in the direction of Saltillo, while a bustling train of merchants were hurrying out at the other end of the city in the direction of Santa Fé; the skulky Mexican soldiers and lawless rabble rejoicing at our departure from the capitol, and Mexican girls dressed as men accompanying their sweethearts on the road to Saltillo," [18]

Shortly after Doniphan left the remaining traders agreed to pay the legal rates of duty on the imported goods, in return for which they were to receive protection. On the evening of June twenty-third, however, while alone in his store, James was attacked by four Mexicans and fatally stabbed in the back, and most of the available money and goods taken. [19] The act was motivated solely by the hope of plunder, and the municipal authorities made what recompense they could by apprehending the culprits and giving James a big funeral. But the second of the two partners had now met his death, and the property of the firm was in danger of being confiscated.

The Mexican authorities appointed a "depositary" for the goods, and from June to August they were stored in two rooms for which the heirs of the estate were charged twenty-five cents a day. The "depository," John Mandri, proved himself to be a good bookkeeper. He collected $4,323.19, from the sale of wagons and harness and from debtors of the estate. His accounts show that he paid out exactly the same amount for translating, customs, fines for illegal inclusion of powder and whiskey in the goods, transportation, and


rent. [20] But this was at least better than the confiscation of all the goods, a rumor which was current for a time.

On August 8, Pomeroy with several others left Santa Fé for Chihuahua to settle the estate. Apache Indians had been terrorizing the Mexicans along the route and Pomeroy's party was attacked but managed to escape with the lass of only three mules and three hundred dollars worth of provisions. Fortune continued with them, and they were able to obtain possession of the goods about the middle of October. These proved to be principally lienzo, a bleached goods for which there was little demand. The partners had originally planned to sell these farther south, but, as there was now no hope of getting permission to make the journey, two retail stores were opened in Chihuahua. [21] By November 15 a third store was in operation and $9,000 worth of goods had been sold.

A Doctor Connelley, who had engaged in ventures with Owens in Chihuahua in 1843, was appointed legal representative for the estate under a bond of over $150,000. Power of attorney had to be obtained if the estate was to be kept out of the courts, and Pomeroy urged that a trip be made to Pittsburg, Pa., from Lexington, Mo., to get the Mexican consul there to certify the papers. The situation at Chihuahua was grave, and the difficulty of communicating with the outside world is shown by the fact that copies of Pomeroy's letter were sent out both by way of Santa Fé and Vera Cruz, in the hope that at least one letter would get through. Pomeroy closed his urgent request with the words, "Remember that we are in H-ll and wish to be transferred to a better place." [22] In spite of the appeal for haste the papers were not ready until March 4, 1848, at which time the required authorization was sent to Chihuahua. [23]

The Mexicans had permitted the sale of the goods to continue, however, and by January, 1848, the estate had been liquidated, with the exception of forty bales of bleached cotton. Pomeroy estimated that there was enough of this article in Chihuahua to supply the demand for two years. Otherwise the goods sold at an excellent price. The cost of the original outfit had been $70,000. Duties and expenses connected with the liquidation brought the total invested to $100,000. Pomeroy had hoped to realize a net profit of $30,000



from the expedition, but when the books were closed it was found that the venture had barely cleared expenses. [24]

Owens and Aull had left Independence in 1846 with reasonable expectations of disposing of their goods in six months at an excellent profit. Conditions created by the war had lengthened the time to two years, taken the lives of the two men and destroyed the prospects of a profit. Prompt action on the part of Santa Fé friends of the men had prevented the last possible disaster, the confiscation of the cargo.


1. "James and Robert Aull -- A Frontier Missouri Mercantile Firm," Lewis E. Atherton, Missouri Historical review, v. XXX (1935), pp. 3-27.
2. Letter books, account books and invoice books for the firm of James and Robert Aull are complete for the years 1831-1837. A gap exists in the record to the letter book of Robert Aull, covering the period from November 20, 1847 to November 15, 1851 -- Aull collection, Lexington, (Mo.) Historical Society hereafter cited as L.B.V.
3. James Aull, "Letter Book," January 3, 1830 to February 14, 1833. Entry dated November 3, 1832.
4. James J. Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade, 1844-1847 (Volume 1, The Southwest Historical Series, ed. by Ralph P. Bieber, Glendale, California, 1931.), pp. 42 and 274. Webb Mentions the fact that Owens occasionally sent goods on his own, but gives no estimate of the extent of this business.
5. This man was James T. Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fé Trade, 844-1847, pp. 180, 262-264.
6. "Report of Committee on Claims," House Reports, 30 Cong., 1 sess., No. 458, pp. 1-2.
7. Ibid., pp. 2-3.
9. Hughes. "Diary." January 2, February 4, 1847.
10. "Report Of Committee On Claims," p. 4. The order was issued, February 9, 1847.
11. Daily Missouri Republican, St Louis June 11, 1847.
12. Webb, pp. 274-275.
15. Doniphan's Expedition, pp. 453-455, 465-466.
16. "D.B.I."
17 . E. W. Pomeroy to Robert Aull, May 29, 1847, Aull MSS.
18. John T. Hughes in the Liberty (Mo.) Weekly Tribune, July 3, 1847.
19. Hughes, Doniphan's Expedition, p. 477.
20. "D.B.I."
21. Joseph P. Hamelin to Robert Aull October 31, 1847, Aull MSS. Hamelin was a clerk for James Aull.
22. E. W. Pomeroy to Robert Aull, November 2, 1847, Aull MSS.
23. Robert Aull to John Potter March 4, 1848, "L.R.V."
24. Robert Aull to Siter, Price & Company July 11, 1848, ibid.