Mirabeau B. Lamar to James Webb, February 23, 1842
The Santa Fe Expedition remains the most well-known episode of President Lamar's administration. Lamar believed that the Santa Fe territory -- present-day northern New Mexico -- had every reason to leave Mexico and join with the Republic of Texas. Texas had laid claim to the territory ever since the revolution in 1836. In 1838, the people of Santa Fe had themselves rebelled and renounced their ties with the central government of Mexico. In fact, central authority in Mexico was in a general state of collapse, with both Laredo and the Yucatan declaring their independence. Moreover, Santa Fe was the central hub of trade between the United States and Mexico, with millions of dollars worth of goods exchanged each year. Joining Santa Fe to Texas would bring trade to Texas and goods to the frontier. Galveston could be developed as a major seaport, giving the Santa Fe traders a new outlet for their goods and bringing prosperity to Texas.
Lamar proposed to send a large trading expedition to Santa Fe to open trade with the territory and urge the people of Santa Fe to become part of Texas. The idea was widely favored by the public and in the Texas Congress. However, Congress never passed a bill authorizing the expedition. Lamar did not let this technicality stand in his way. In June 1841, over 300 "Santa Fe Pioneers" -- merchants, teamsters, and army troops -- left Austin for New Mexico with over $200,000 of merchandise. Lamar accompanied the travelers on horseback on the first day of the journey to demonstrate his enthusiasm for the venture.
The success of the expedition was doomed from the start by lack of knowledge about the terrain of West Texas and by the mistaken belief that Santa Fe lay only 500 miles distant. The land was rugged and often impassable by the wagons. The expedition was forced to detour again and again, and to hack trails by hand through thick undergrowth. At other points, the travelers entered the desert, with no vegetation and no water for man or animals. Indians harrassed the wagon train, killing seven and stampeding many of the cattle. The expedition even became lost for a time, following the Wichita River instead of the Red River. After a journey of 1300 miles, the starving pioneers limped into New Mexico in October, expecting to be welcomed with open arms. Instead they found themselves immediately taken as prisoners of war by a newly-resurgent Mexican military. On October 16, the Santa Fe expedition began a forced march to Mexico City. Several men died along the way. Others died while in prison.
Back in Austin, the months passed with with no word from the expedition. Rumors of disaster began to filter back to Texas, and there was talk of impeaching Lamar. Lamar's presidential term drew to a close on December 13, 1841, with the fate of the expedition still unknown. By the following month, the rumors had jelled into reality -- the expedition had been an unmitigated disaster, with the entire entourage taken prisoner.
Rage swept through Texas, and Lamar was the chief target. On January 26, 1842, the newspaper The Weekly Texian published an anonymous letter suggesting that Lamar be exchanged for the hostages. Such anonymous letters were a commonplace means in that era for gentlemen to exchange hostilities. Lamar suspected that secretary of state Anson Jones was the author, as shown in this letter to James Webb. Apparently Lamar at least considered challenging Jones to a duel over the matter, but eventually took the advice of Webb and other friends and dropped the challenge. At the same, Lamar did accept a dueling challenge from Memucan Hunt over the same incident, a challenge which was eventually settled by arbitration.
Most of the surviving Santa Fe prisoners were released and allowed to return home in April 1842. But the heartbreaking failure of the expedition forever tarnished Lamar's reputation as one of the founding fathers of Texas.
Mirabeau B. Lamar to James Webb, February 23, 1842. Mirabeau B. Lamar Papers #2126 . Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
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