When Texas was a Republic––a country all its own––the second president, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar had plans as grand as his name. He had organized the Philosophical Society of Texas before his election and he planned to lay the foundations for Texas to become a great empire. The problem was that the United States was the only country that recognized Texas independence. Mexico loomed as a threat to reconquer its rebellious people, and the new country had no money and no commercial treaties. Lamar instituted Indian wars that ran the Cherokees out of East Texas in 1839, and the following year, his campaign against the Comanches wiped out most of the Indians in West Texas––at a cost of $2.5 million.
With an eye to establish much-needed trade, the Santa Fe market looked like the best opportunity. Lamar imagined establishing a trade route that would allow Texas to gain jurisdiction over Santa Fe. He sent a commission with a letter detailing the benefits to Santa Fe citizens of joining the Republic of Texas. Then he ignored the Congress of the Republic of Texas when it did not approve his plans.
He called for volunteers and merchants to join an expedition to establish trade with the New Mexicans. To protect the expedition and their goods, a military force of five companies of infantry and one artillery accompanied the group of merchants, teamsters, and others. Twenty-one wagons carried supplies and the traders’ merchandise valued about $200,000.
On June 19, 1841, 321 eager “pioneers” set out with visions of establishing a foothold in
New Mexico that would spread Texas influence all the way to Santa Fe. When they reached the Wichita River on August 7, they mistook it for the Red and followed its route for ten days before discovering their error. Over the next six weeks, their Mexican guide abandoned them and they had to fend off Indian attacks. Their provisions ran low and they suffered from lack of water. They failed to find a route for the wagons to climb up the Caprock whose sheer rock face rose in places up to 1,000 feet to one of the largest mesas in the United States. Finally, an advance party moved ahead to seek help. Instead, they brought back a detachment sent by the Governor of New Mexico that forced the expedition to surrender on October 5. After almost four months of struggle in the desert-like country, the exhausted and sick members of the expedition were marched to Mexico City and on to Perote Prison in Veracruz. It was April 1842, well after Mirabeau B. Lamar left office, before the prisoners of the Santa Fe Expedition were finally released.