An American frontier soldier, trader, and politician, William Becknell (ca. 1797-1865) established the Santa Fe trade, which helped open the Southwest to settlement.
William Becknell was born in Amherst County, Va., but little is known of his family or youth. From the semiliterate letters he wrote as an adult, it is obvious that his education was rudimentary. In 1814 he was appointed ensign in the U.S. Rangers. Some time after his discharge in 1815 he worked as a salt maker in Saline County, Mo.
In June 1821 Becknell opened the Santa Fe trade when he advertised in the Missouri Intelligencer for "a company of men destined to the westward for the purpose of trading horses and mules, and catching wild animals of every description." Intending to trade with the Comanches and to trap for furs in the Rocky Mountains, he and four companions left Franklin, Mo., in September. They moved westward on the Arkansas River and then south through Raton Pass (on the border of present-day Colorado and New Mexico). Just beyond the mountains they met a party of Mexican soldiers. To Becknell's surprise, the soldiers welcomed his party and encouraged them to continue to Santa Fe. There Becknell and his companions found a ready market for their trade goods, and on Jan. 29, 1822, Becknell and one companion returned to Franklin with news that the Mexicans wanted to trade goods.
Becknell hurried to organize a second expedition, this time taking 21 men and three heavily loaded wagons. He wanted to avoid the Raton Mountains, so he led the party across the Cimarron Desert (in present-day Kansas), where they nearly died of thirst. Once across that dusty waste, Becknell hurried to Sante Fe and succeeded in locating a wagon route into the Southwest.
In May 1824 Becknell helped organize the first large train of traders who traveled together for protection from the Native Americans. This party of 81 men and 25 wagons returned to Missouri with $190, 000 in gold and furs. For Becknell, this was the last overland trading venture. He stayed in the mountains to trap that winter, then returned to Missouri.
In 1828 Becknell was elected to the state legislature as a representative from Saline County; in 1830 he was reelected. During the Black Hawk War of 1832 he served as captain of his county's militia company. Three years later, with some of his neighbors, he moved to Clarksville, in Texas. In 1836 he led a company in the Texas Revolution. Becknell died in Clarksville on April 30, 1865.
Described by a contemporary as "a man of good character, great personal bravery, & by nature & habit hardy and enterprising, " William Becknell represents the numerous American frontiersmen who tried many careers, as well as the few who made major contributions.
There is no biography of Becknell, and material on him is scattered. Archer B. Hulbert, ed., Southwest on the Turquoise Trail: The First Diaries on the Road to Santa Fe (1933), includes edited journals of two of Becknell's expeditions. Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies (2 vols., 1844; many later editions), discusses the Santa Fe trade and Becknell's part in it. Hiram M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West (3 vols., 1902; 2d ed., 2 vols., 1935), and Ray A. Billington, The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860 (1956), discuss the fur trade and American penetration of the Southwest.
Beachum, Larry, William Becknell: father of the Santa Fe trade, ElPaso: Texas Western Press, 1982. □