BECKNELL, WILLIAM (1787-1856)
Trader and trapper William Becknell was born in the Rockfish Creek region of Amherst (later Nelson) County, Virginia, in 1787 or 1788 to Micajah and Pheby Landrum Becknell. Little is known about his early years, but following his marriage to Jane Trusler in 1807, he moved to the Missouri country, arriving there by 1810 and settling west of St. Charles. Following service as a ranger on the Missouri frontier during the War of 1812, Becknell settled near Boone's Lick in central Missouri, where he engaged in the salt trade. His first wife having died, Becknell married Mary Cribbs during this time, and they had four children.
Becknell contracted heavy debts from his various business ventures and, apparently in the hope of finding relief, organized in the late summer of 1821 an expedition "for the purpose of trading for Horses and Mules and catching Wild Animals of every description" in the southern Rockies. Becknell's biographer believes, in reality, that he also hoped to find a way to Santa Fe, anticipating that it might be open to trade because of the war for independence then engulfing Mexico.
After a difficult journey along the Arkansas River into southeastern Colorado, Becknell and his party turned south through Raton Pass. They soon encountered a troop of Mexican soldiers who informed them of the overthrow of Spanish rule and that Santa Fe, which had been kept isolated, would now welcome their trade. Hurrying on, the Becknell group arrived there in mid-November, two weeks ahead of the McKnight-James party, which had traveled to Santa Fe from Arkansas across present Oklahoma. Becknell thus gained the distinction of having opened the Santa Fe trade.
Quickly disposing of his goods at a profit, Becknell hastened back to Missouri, leaving most of his companions to trap and trade. On this return trip he experimented with a different route, to avoid the difficult Raton pass in anticipation of returning with wagons. Although it is not certain, this may have brought Becknell through the present Oklahoma Panhandle, thereby paving the way for his later use of the so-called "Cimarron Cutoff" when he journeyed back to Santa Fe a second time.
Becknell's return to Missouri in January 1822 created considerable excitement when he paid off his accumulated debts with the profits he had made. By late May he again took to the trail with three wagons, a pack train, and sixteen companions, ready to resume trade. Leaving the Arkansas River about five miles west of present Dodge City, Kansas, he made a hazardous trek down to the Cimarron River some fifty miles south. That region was devoid of water, and at one point the party apparently cut off the ears of their mules to obtain warm blood to relieve their thirst. Following the Cimarron west, Becknell cut through present Cimarron County in the Oklahoma Panhandle to the North Canadian River and on into New Mexico. This became the favored route for most traders thereafter.
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.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Larry M. Beachum, William Becknell: Father of the Santa Fe Trade (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1982). Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, ed. Milo Milton Quaife (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967). Francis A. Sampson, ed., "The Journals of Capt. Thomas [i.e. William] Becknell from Boone's Lick to Santa Fe, and From Santa Cruz to Green River," Missouri Historical Review 4 (January 1910).
William E. Parrish
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