Today In Western History: Captain William Becknell Heads For Santa Fe

May 22, 1822

Captain William Becknell (1787-1856) takes a wagon train out of Arrow Rock, Missouri, headed across the plains and desert to Santa Fe, in the New Mexico Territory in 1821.  This is his third trip west, as he has been there twice before, as a trader.   His plan was to take three wagons loaded with merchandise, twenty-four slow-moving oxen, and twenty-one men across the plains. Because crossing the plains on fast horses was dangerous and uncertain enough, when the people learned of his plan, they considered it fairly certain suicide and death and joked he was insane and referred to Becknell’s wagon train as the ‘Caravan of Death’.

The spring of 1822 was exceedingly rainy, and the heavy wagons, weighing more than seven thousand pounds each, sank into the mud almost to the hubs. Along the way, they often had to deal with Osage Indians and Comanches, who were trying to steal their horses or goods.  The Pawnees, Kiowas, Cheyennes and the Sioux, who were later to take such a toll on the immigrants as they traveled along the Trail, were not a problem at this early point in their interaction with the whites traveling through their lands. 

The most treacherous part of journey was when the caravan reached the desert and the home of the Comanche, then things became much more desperate.  The wagon train went into the desert  with only their canteens filled with water and a compass to guide it over the glittering sand. Behind and around them was always the fear of a sudden attack by the Comanches. The men’s nerves were at breaking point, waiting for the dreaded attack to come.

At the end of two days they ran out of water and the water holes disappeared.  As the day wore on, the heat increased and the lack of water affected everyone, men and animals alike began suffer-ing to the point of madness.  They began having hallucinations (seeing mirages), delusions and sev-eral went mad from thirst.  Ultimately, however, it was a possible mirage that saved their lives.  Captain Becknell had been seeing mirages for a long time now and thought he was seeing another one when he looked up and saw a herd of buffalo just twenty yards away from him.  In desperation, he fired his gun at it and killed one with one shot.  Captain Becknell knew buffalo never ventured into the desert without a stomach full of water and after dragging himself over to it, and cutting into it with his knife, he found the stomach, filled with gallons of water.  This told him there was water somewhere nearby, and after sharing the contents of the buffalo’s stomach with the other men, he gathered all the canteens and went looking for the water.  He found it, filled all the canteens and took them back to the men, saving everyone’s life.  Thirty days later, the wagon train reached their goal, Sante Fe.  They had traveled over eight hundred long and dangerous miles, and opened up a new road to the southwest – The famed Sante Fe Trail.

          Becknell made a third trip to New Mexico in the fall of 1824 and received a license to trap in the Green Mountains, a pursuit that occupied him for the next several months. The following summer he participated with a group authorized by Congress to mark the Santa Fe Trail via the Cimarron Cutoff as the central route to the Southwest. Certainly this, in addition to his previous exploits, helped earn Becknell the sobriquet of “Father of the Santa Fe Trail.”

          Becknell subsequently retired from the trade, serving two terms in the Missouri Legislature and several years as a justice of the peace. Then in 1835 he sold his property and relocated with his family and several slaves to Red River County in northeastern Texas, where he became a prominent farmer and stockman. He took an active role in the Texas War for Independence, and served briefly in the first Texas Congress. William Becknell died on April 25, 1856, and was buried west of Clarksville, Texas. The Texas Legislature marked the grave with a large granite stone in 1957.