When Texas Invaded New Mexico

In 1841, Republic of Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar had a vision to expand the borders of the young republic further west, perhaps as far as California.  Lamar had won the 1838 presidential election, following Sam Houston, the previous elected president.  Lamar was in various ways the ideological opposite of Houston.  He became the second of four elected presidents in the short life of the Republic and served from 12/10/1838 to 12/3/1841.  At the time, the Texas economy was suffering and Lamar acted on the supposition that he had authority to pursue trade that was currently operating along the Santa Fe Trail.

Lamar was encouraged in his belief by a Santa Fe resident, William Dryden, who agreed to assist Lamar in persuading the people of New Mexico to accept Texas rule.  In that capacity, Dryden brought a letter of April, 1841 from Lamar to Santa Fe residents setting out the benefits of such and arrangement and stated that he would be sending commissioners to answer any further questions.  Lamar did in fact dispatch three commissioners to Santa Fe: Col. William Cooke, Don Jose Antonio Navarro and Dr. Richard F. Brenham who brought leaflets in English and Spanish setting out the advantages of adopting Texas rule.  The Texas Congress did not sanction or otherwise ratify Lamar’s proposal of an expedition, so Lamar and supporters independently organized the venture.  Lamar’s stated aim was to encourage peaceful trade with New Mexico, still a province of Mexico at the time, and there was no public mention of any deeper motivation.

There were logical justifications in favor of the Texas trade expansion.  Midwestern merchants utilizing the Santa Fe Trail might be enticed to ship directly to the Gulf rather than continue the more lengthy overland route.  In addition, Texas could benefit from the increased commerce along the route.  There was a belief by some that the western border of the Republic of Texas extended to the Rio Grande River under the treaty made with Guadalupe Hidalgo, but as far as we have found, this latter argument was not one of the declarations made by Lamar.

Accordingly, a group was organized consisting of merchants and traders, 21 ox-drawn wagons carrying merchandise and supplies, a military force whose public purpose was protection of the troupe, and other invited guests.  The assembly set out on June 10, 1841 from Austin with a goal of reaching Santa Fe, New Mexico.  An artillery private, Joseph T. Hatch, in the force numbered the initial military contingent at 320 men under Brevet Brig. General Hugh McLeod (a West Point graduate) and Col. William Cook.  It included 5 companies of soldiers and one artillery company, its armament consisting of one gun, a six pounder called the “Lone Star.”  The private’s personal account was related a number of years later in various newspaper articles.  The unofficial goal of the military force was essentially to capture Santa Fe.  They reached Parker County, Texas by July 21, intending to continue on to the Red River.  However, they apparently mistook the Wichita River for the Red River and followed it west from August 5 to August 17.  Within a few days, the group began to falter due to lack of water and provisions.  They sent out a party to head north to locate the Red River, but eventually the main body continued on in a northwesterly direction until they reached the Llano Estacado.  Along the way, they were subject to Indian attacks which further delayed them.  However, once they arrived at this point, they were unable to find a pass where the wagons could ascend the caprock.

The group finally met a group of Mexican traders who led them further until they halted again near Palo Duro, thinking that they were only 90 miles from Santa Fe when they were in fact some 300 miles away.  Running out of provisions and there being no game to shoot, they decided to send a small group of volunteers to Santa Fe to assess the political situation and try and obtain provisions.  The leadership of the small group included Col. William Cook, Maj. Tom Howard, George Kendall, Franklin Coombs and a Capt. Lewis.

The bulk of the force waited three weeks at Palo Duro being harrassed by Indians, until under Gen. McLeod before they decided to head towards Santa Fe on their own, proceeding on a slightly more southerly route than the earlier group, arriving near the lake Laguna Colorada.   Their provisions ran out  about a third of the way to Santa Fe.  They first survived by eating the horses that had failed along the way, then berries, snakes and whatever else they could find.  One night they heard the “Sentinalla Alertis” from a  Mexican Army bugle.  The following morning they were met by the opposing force and told that Col. Cook had surrendered further north at Antone Chicot.  So, rather than being welcomed (and also being vastly outnumbered) the Texans agreed to surrender and were taken prisoner with neither side firing a shot.  They believed that they might very well might be executed until another contingent of the Mexican Army arrived, led by Governor Manuel Armijo.  The prisoners came under the impression that they had been betrayed by their Capt. Lewis in exchange for Lewis receiving a bounty of $40,000.  Other accounts portray Lewis more favorable light, characterizing his motives as being concerned with preventing further loss of life.

Though some attempted escape and were executed, the remainder of the captive Texans were initially treated with leniency for a brief time, and some have said that Gov. Armijo had promised leniency.  Fairly soon thereafter, the Texans were placed under the charge of a Col. Dalmasia Salazar whom they nicknamed “Hell Smasher” because of his harsh treatment, and they were marched all the way to Mexico City by way of Chihuahua and Zacatecas.  This march is sometimes confused with the march following the so-called “black bean” episode, but that event did not occur until after the later Mier Expedition, and to the captives from that event.  The Santa Fe Expedition captives were held as prisoners of war in Mexico until diplomatic negotiations between Mexico and the United States secured their release in April, 1842.  Private Hatch related that Texas had granted each surviving member of the expedition a bond in the amount of $970 bearing 10% interest and payable over 20 years, but he never received any payments, despite his attempts to verify his service.

Governor Armijo is portrayed in some accounts rather harshly for having approved the ill treatment that the defeated expeditionary force received during their march to Mexico and their later confinement.  However, in Mexican history, he is portrayed as a hero, for defending New Mexico against the Texas invaders.  Armijo received a medal from the Mexican government for his efforts, and until the end of his life he considered that to be one of his most prized possessions.

Armijo would have the satisfaction of defeating the Anglos on this occasion, but this would only last until the Mexican-American War that commenced just a few years later during which conflict Santa Fe fell to the United States Army.

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