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Books by
Jeffery Robenalt

"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

"Wild Goose Campaign
to Santa Fe"

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt
The first president of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston, spent much of his term of office promoting the annexation of Texas by the United States and striving to maintain peaceful relations with Mexico. The Republic’s second President, Mirabeau Lamar, had a much bolder vision for the Republic; one that was in direct conflict with the views of Sam Houston.
Mirabeau Lamar
Mirabeau Lamar
President Lamar sought freedom from United States influence and, more importantly, eventual expansion of the Republic of Texas all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Lamar also refused to shy away from conflict with Mexico in order to achieve his goals. In his 1838 inaugural address the second president of the Republic made it clear where he stood as far as relations with Mexico were concerned when he warned, “If peace can be obtained only by the sword, let the sword do its work.”

The Treaties of Velasco, one open to public scrutiny and the other kept secret, were signed by Santa Anna after the Battle of San Jacinto. In the public treaty the Mexican dictator recognized Texas independence, but in the secret treaty, which he later denied, Santa Anna agreed to accept the Rio Grande River as the boundary between Texas and Mexico; not the Nueces River as Mexico had long claimed. Lamar interpreted this controversial treaty provision to include the entire length of the Rio Grande; from the Gulf of Mexico to the river’s headwaters in the far northern foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Suspension Bridge Over The Rio Grande, El Paso, Texas
Foot Bridge on Rio Grande River, El Paso, Texas, Postmarked 1911
Courtesy The Will Beauchamp Collection
Under this view, the long established town of Santa Fe and half the province of New Mexico would fall within the boundary of Texas. Establishing sovereignty over New Mexico would promote Lamar’s goal of westward expansion, but even more important, it would give the Republic of Texas a new source of revenue. A thriving system of trade had developed between the United States and Mexico ever since the Santa Fe Trail opened in 1821, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain. President Lamar, desperate for a new source of income for the nearly destitute Republic, wanted Texas to take control of this profitable enterprise.

In 1841, President Lamar sought Congressional approval to send an expedition to New Mexico. However, when the Texas Congress wisely refused his request, Lamar proposed to send the expedition on his own initiative; ostensibly to establish a trade route across northern Texas to Santa Fe, and to offer the citizens of New Mexico an opportunity to voluntarily join the Republic. Of course it was rumored that should the Mexicans refuse such a generous offer, force could always be applied if and when the opportunity presented itself.

A call for volunteers was issued, and men gathered from all parts of the Republic, eager to harvest the gold and silver that was said to be lying in the streets of Santa Fe for the taking. In addition, any merchant who was willing to ship his goods to Santa Fe was promised both transportation and protection for his merchandise.

The 270 volunteers designated to protect the trade caravan, and perhaps act as an invasion force if the situation called for it, were commanded by General Hugh McCleod and organized into five infantry companies and an artillery company. The captain of one of the companies was well-known Indian fighter Matthew “Old Paint” Caldwell. Supplies for the expedition and the merchants’ trade goods were carried in twenty-one ox-drawn wagons.

The expedition, or what Andrew Jackson referred to as "the wild goose campaign to Santa Fe," set out on June 19, 1841, from a site on Brushy Creek fifteen miles north of Austin. Slowly rolling north, the Texans took nearly a month to ford the Brazos River and enter the Cross Timbers in the area of present-day Parker County, and that was only the beginning of the agony. Cutting their way through the thickets and underbrush of the Cross Timbers and hauling the wagons across numerous gullies and dry washes was backbreaking labor, and the men constantly suffered from the intense heat and lack of water.

The wagons headed northwest when they finally cleared the timber and soon reached the present day site of Wichita Falls. Receiving little help from their Mexican guides, the Texans mistakenly believed they had reached the Red River and followed the course of the Wichita for nearly two weeks before finally taking note of their error. By then the practically useless Mexican guides had deserted the expedition, and McCleod was forced to send a company of men north to search for the Red River. They returned to lead the wagons there on August 20.
The falls in Wichita Falls, Texas
The falls in Wichita Falls
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, April 2009
Constantly harassed by the hit and run raids of small parties of Comanche and Kiowa warriors and suffering from a lack of adequate provisions and a scarcity of water, the expedition plodded slowly to the northwest until finally reaching the Cap Rock, a tall abrupt escarpment rising nearly two hundred feet from the rolling plains of north central Texas. Above the escarpment stretched the dreaded Llano Estacado, the infamous “Staked Plains”, so named nearly three hundred years before during Francisco Coronado’s search for the fabled “Seven Cities of Gold.”

Unable to locate a route by which the wagons could ascend the Cap Rock, McCleod sent a mounted party out to seek the settlements of New Mexico while he and the remainder of the expedition waited below the escarpment. After suffering numerous hardships, the advance party finally met up with some Mexican traders on September 12, and sent a guide back to lead the wagons to the top of the Cap Rock and across the desolate high plains. The brutal journey, however, was far from over.
Llano Estacado Caprock At Sunrise
Llano Estacado Caprock at Sunrise
Wikimedia Commons
Cut by hundreds of deep arroyos and bone dry washes, the rugged terrain of the Staked Plains slowed the movement of the expedition’s wagons to a crawl. Water was so scarce along the route that the Texans were constantly thirsty, and the expedition repeatedly wandered off course because not one man in the entire outfit was familiar enough with the vast treeless plains to realize when the Mexican guide was making a mistake.

Finally after suffering for nearly thirteen hundred miles since their departure from Austin, the Texans staggered into New Mexico; their spirits broken, their bodies lean from hunger, and practically dying of thirst. The volunteers had naively expected to be welcomed with open arms by the citizens of New Mexico, but instead the ill-fated expedition was met at the border by a force of 1500 Mexican dragoons under the command of the governor of New Mexico, Manuel Armijo, a Santa Anna appointee.
Governor Manuel Armijo By Alfred S. Waugh ca 1840
Governor Manuel Armijo, portrait by Alfred S. Waugh ca 1840

The Governor offered the Texans fair treatment and clemency if they would agree to surrender their weapons. After the arduous journey from Austin, the volunteers were in no condition to fight a force that outnumbered them so heavily, so with little choice, they surrendered. Of course, once he had possession of the Texans’ weapons, Armijo promptly reneged on his promise, and the Texans were immediately bound hand and foot.

That evening Governor Armijo called for a conference of the Mexican officers to determine whether the prisoners would be executed immediately or sent to Mexico City. After a long discussion with much heated debate on both sides of the issue, a vote was taken. The volunteers' lives were spared by a scant majority of one vote. The expedition’s wagons and trade goods were confiscated, and the Governor ordered the Texans marched in chains the entire 2000 miles to Mexico City.

During the brutal and tortuous journey, many of the men, already weakened from their terrible ordeal, died of thirst, hunger, and exhaustion, or the occasional musket or pistol ball to the back of the head. Those who were fortunate enough to survive the death march arrived in Mexico City on December 26, and were immediately put to work repairing roads. Like most Texans taken prisoner by the Mexicans, the unlucky members of Lamar's "Wild Goose Campaign" eventually found their way into the dank dungeons of Perote Prison in Vera Cruz.

When word of the debacle reached Texas, people were furious, and most of them rightfully put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Lamar. A letter in an Austin newspaper in January 1842, most likely written by Anson Jones, an enemy of Lamar and a future President of the Republic, proposed that President Lamar be exchanged for the prisoners. Of course, Lamar avoided this fate, and the prisoners continued to languish in Perote prison until diplomatic efforts of the United States secured their release in April 1842.

The Santa Fe debacle was the political Waterloo for President Lamar. Hope for continued peace with Mexico had practically vanished, the currency had fallen to three cents on the dollar, and public debt had risen to more than six million dollars. Sam Houston soon returned to the Presidency of the Republic with a plethora of problems to solve, not the least of which was a series of incursions across the Rio Grande by Mexican soldiers in retaliation for Lamar’s ill-fated Santa Fe expedition.

©Jeffery Robenalt
"'A Glimpse of Texas Past"' February 9, 2011 Column

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