General Thomas James

Expeditions of Fowler and James to Santa Fe, 1821

When Pike returned from his western expedition and related his experiences in Santa Fe and other places among the Spaniards, his accounts excited great interest in the east, which resulted in further exploits. In 1812, an expedition was undertaken 1 by Robert McKnight, James Baird, Samuel Chambers, Peter Baum, Benjamin Shrive, Alfred Allen, Michael McDonald, William Mines, and Thomas Cook, all citizens of Missouri Territory; they were arrested by the Spaniards, charged with being in Spanish territory without a passport, and thrown into the calabazos of Chihuahua, where they were kept for nine years. In 1821, two of them escaped, and coming down Canadian and Arkansas rivers met Hugh Glenn, owner of a trading house at the mouth of the Verdigris, and told him of the wonders of Santa Fe. Inspired by the accounts of these travelers, Glenn engaged in an enterprise with Major Jacob Fowler and Captain Pryor for an expedition from the Verdigris to Santa Fe. 2

The members of the McKnight party who had escaped from the Spaniards, continued their journey to Saint Louis, where they repeated their romantic tale to John McKnight, a brother of Robert McKnight who was still a prisoner with the Spaniards, and to others. As a result of their account, McKnight and General Thomas James organized an expedition to go from Saint Louis to Santa Fe. James’s purpose was to trade with the Indians, and John McKnight went to see his brother and procure his release, if possible. The two expeditions got under way the same summer, and both went by way of the Arkansas as high as the Verdigris, which at that time was recognized as the Santa Fe route.

General Thomas James Expedition to Santa Fe

General Thomas James
General Thomas James

While James’s party left Saint Louis on May 10, 1821, Fowler, leaving Fort Smith September 6 of that year, seems to have been in advance. From Fort Smith, Fowler traversed the rich Arkansas bottom covered with timber and cane, until he came to a creek which he calls the Tallecaw, 3 and locates ten miles below Illinois River. At the latter stream he stopped at Bean’s salt works, which Captain Bell visited and described the year before. 4 Fowler said the works consisted of one small well with a few kettles. About fifty-five gallons of water made a bushel of salt, and the spring furnished sufficient water to keep the works going three days a week. Bean and Sanders had a license from the Governor of Arkansas to operate the works, and sold the salt for one dollar a bushel.

After passing over the mountain and subsequent prairie land, they traversed eight miles of bottom land covered with cane and timber, and came to Grand River or Six Bulls; this they forded and continued to the Verdigris, where they stopped at the trading house of Colonel Hugh Glenn, about a mile above the mouth of the river. They remained there, engaged in out-fitting their expedition, until September 25. Five of their hunters deserted them there, but while that event dispirited some of the men, they departed under the command of Colonel Glenn, with twenty men whom Fowler names as follows: 5 Colonel Hugh Glenn in command; Major Jacob Fowler, Robert Fowler, his brother, Nathaniel Pryor, Baptiste Roy, interpreter, Baptiste Peno, George Douglas, Bone, Barbo, Louis Dawson, Taylor, Richard Walters, Eli Ward, Jesse Van Bibber, Slover, Simpson, Dudley Maxwell, Findley, Baptiste Moran, and Paul, Fowler’s negro slave. They went north through the heavily timbered bottom land, between the Grand and the Verdigris, and out on to the prairie. Colonel Glenn left them and went by way of the Union Mission, established the year before on Grand River. On the twenty-ninth, they were overtaken by Glenn and soon reached Clermont’s Town. Here they met James and some of his party, who came overland from Arkansas River to the Osage village to exchange some of their goods for horses.

Fowler and his party ascended the Arkansas to the Rocky Mountains. While camped at the mouth of Purgatory River, in what is now eastern Colorado, Lewis Dawson, one of the party, was killed in camp by a grizzly bear. In the latter part of November they were encamped in what is now Otero County, Colorado, for a month, surrounded by the lodges of thousands of Arapaho, Kiowa, and other Indians, where they were engaged in trapping and trading with the Indians for horses much needed by the party. On Christmas day, 1821, they removed their camp to a point higher up, where they were accompanied by the Arapaho in such numbers that Fowler notes they consumed one hundred buffaloes daily. They camped on the site of what is now Pueblo, Colorado. This was on what was known as the war trail of the Indian tribes, and was so much frequented by large numbers of roving Indians that for protection Fowler’s party were obliged to build a log house, first on the south side of the river and then across the river on the American side. 6 They built also a log corral for their horses, and the time of the men was about equally divided between trapping for beaver, hunting for deer and buffalo meat for food, and guarding their horses and personal effects against predatory Indians. On January 2, Glenn and a few of his companions left the party with a number of Spaniards for Taos. On the thirtieth of that month, Fowler and the remainder of the party left the Arkansas and joined Glenn at Taos on the eighth of February. From then until near the time they joined James on the return east, Fowler and several of his party were engaged in trapping beaver in what is now southern Colorado.

James secured a passport signed March 6, by John Q. Adams, Secretary of State, vised by the Spanish minister Don Francisco Dionisso Vives, and his party left Saint Louis May 10, 1821, 7 in a keel boat, with James in command; with him were John McKnight, John G. James, David Kirker, William Shearer, Alexander Howard, Benjamin Potter, John Ivey, and Francois Malsaw, a Spaniard. Two others joined after starting, Frederick Hector at the mouth of the Ohio and James Wilson in the Cherokee country. They made their journey down the Mississippi and up the Arkansas River in their boat, with ten thousand dollars worth of biscuits, whiskey, flour, lead, powder, and other merchandise. At Little Rock, James procured from Robert Crittenden8 acting governor, a license to trade with the Indians on Arkansas River, and the party proceeded on its way to Fort Smith. There they stopped for a few days and visited with Major Bradford, 9 who examined their license before they crossed the line into the Indian country. James took occasion in his journal to express their appreciation of the kindness and hospitality of Major Bradford, or Old Billy Bradford, as he calls him. They passed the Grand and the Verdigris and proceeded up the river as far as the depth of the water would permit, and succeeded in reaching a point about thirty miles above Salt Fork or as it was since known, the Red Fork or the unable to ascend higher, and as the season was then late and rains unlikely to increase the depth of the water, they dropped down the river a few miles to an Osage trail; and from here James sent three men to Clermont’s Town, where the Fowler expedition had preceded him. James’s purpose was to trade some of his goods to the Osage for horses before striking across the country for Santa Fe. In five or six days his men, in company with Captain Pryor and forty Osage, returned from Clermont’s Town to the Arkansas, where James had remained with his boat. He described Pryor 10 as a sergeant in Lewis and Clark’s Expedition, and a captain at the Battle of New Orleans.

“On the reduction of the army after the war, he was discharged to make way for some parlor soldier and sunshine patriot, and turned out in his old age upon the ‘world’s wide common.’ I found him here among the Osages, with whom he had taken refuge from his country’s ingratitude, and was living as one of their tribe, where he may yet be, unless death has discharged the debt his country owed him.”

James took some goods from the cargo, and with McKnight, his brother, Captain Pryor and the Osage, returned to their village which they reached in two days. Here they found Major Bradford whom they left at Fort Smith, and Colonel Hugh Glenn and his party of twenty men on their way to Santa Fe. They found also Captain Barbour, an Indian trader formerly of Pittsburg, who had come up from New Orleans, and in partnership with George Brand, had set up a trading establishment at the mouth of the Verdigris. There were also present several Pawnee Indians from the Platte who had come to discuss with the Osage a treaty of peace.

James proposed to Glenn that the two parties travel together, but Glenn opposed the suggestion. James bought twenty-three horses from the Osage, and agreed with Barbour to cache his heaviest and least portable goods which Barbour was to take the following spring down to his store at the mouth of the Verdigris, sell and account for the proceeds to James when he returned from Santa Fe. Returning to his boat, James cached or buried all his flour, whiskey, lead, hardware, and other heavy goods on an island in the river. He showed the place to Captain Pryor when he came up the next day with a party of Osage going out on their fall hunt. These arrangements made, James loaded the horses that he had bought, and struck off across the country in a southwest direction toward Santa Fe. For the first two days of the journey, Pryor and the Indians accompanied James’s party.

James ascended the Cimarron for some time, and then, crossing over to the Canadian, ascended that stream; after being captured and robbed by the Comanche and miraculously escaping with his life, he reached Santa Fe the first day of December, 1821, and rented a house where he opened up a trading store, while his companions engaged in trapping for beaver on the surrounding mountain streams. Of the first proceeds of his trading venture, he advanced two hundred dollars to John McKnight for the expense of his journey to Durango, sixteen hundred miles to the south, to see his brother Robert. They both returned in April. After spending six months in Santa Fe, James with his party started on their return to the United States by way of Taos, where, on June first, they were joined by the party under Glenn and Fowler, numbering about sixty men. On the way east they met two Santa Fe trading parties 11 from Boone’s Lick neighborhood, Missouri; one under Colonel Benjamin Cooper with fifteen persons, and the other with Captain William Becknell with twenty-one men. James, Fowler, and Glenn proceeded by way of Arkansas River and Fort Clark on the Missouri, and after many hardships and adventures reached Saint Louis in July; Fowler proceeded to his home in Covington, Kentucky, and James to his in Monroe County, Illinois. Two of the men of Glenn’s party reached Union Mission July 6 almost starved, having been without food for four days.

Trading with the Comanche Indians

A Comanche Village
A Comanche Village by George Catlin

In the succeeding fall, James and the two McKnights organized another trading venture among the Comanche Indians. 12 John and Robert McKnight left Saint Louis with fifty-five hundred dollars worth of goods in a keel boat by way of the Mississippi and Arkansas for the mouth of the Canadian; there they awaited the arrival of James, who went overland with a party of twelve men and five loaded packhorses. James’s party walked all the way from Saint Louis, and in the latter part of February, 1823, arrived at the mouth of Illinois River on the north side of the Arkansas, five miles above the Canadian. McKnight’s party had been camped there six weeks, their boat being securely tied up by the ice.

James then went to the mouth of the Verdigris to see Barbour about the goods he had left with the latter to sell for him. Barbour told him that the flour was found to be damaged when removed from the cache, but he was just starting for New Orleans in James’s keel boat with furs and peltry he expected to sell in that market, and with the proceeds he promised to pay James for his goods on his return. James then returned to the mouth of the Illinois, and the ice having broken up and released their boat, they began the ascent of the Canadian; five days were consumed in reaching the mouth of the North Fork; and soon after, near the site of the present town of Eufaula, further passage of their boat was arrested by rapids and shallow water. They then made their boat fast to trees with strong ropes, put their bear and deer skins in it, and buried their heaviest hardware in the ground, where it may yet be, as James never returned to the place of concealment. They then made three pirogues into which they placed their remaining goods, except such as could be packed on their horses.

With pirogues and horses they ascended the Canadian to a point above the Cross Timbers, and as they saw evidence of Indians about them, they commenced the building of a fort, as well for defense as for a trading post. Before the fort was completed, four of the men, including John McKnight, left in a southerly direction to invite the Comanche Indians to come and trade with them. A sudden rise in the river induced James to abandon their half-finished fort and ascend the river a hundred miles higher, where another trading post was built. John McKnight never returned however, as he was killed by the Comanche Indians. After many interesting experiences with the Indians, and hair-breadth escapes well told in James’s book, the party descended the Canadian. Passing through the Cross Timbers, James left the party with the boats and went overland to the mouth of the Verdigris to see Barbour who, he learned, had died on the trip to New Orleans in James’s keel boat, and James was unable to secure pay for his goods or his boat. James obtained a canoe at the trading post, and with his companions descended the Arkansas to the mouth of the Canadian to meet the remainder of his party who had descended with the boats, and who were waiting at the salt works on the Illinois. This was the summer of 1824; though James does not give the month, the season may be assumed from the fact that many of his horses were dying daily from the hordes of flies that infested the country. 13 To avoid them, they had been forced to travel only by night and sleep by day. When he took an account of his property at the mouth of the Illinois, he found that out of three hundred twenty-three horses and mules he had purchased of the Indians and started home with, he had lost by flies and stampedes two hundred fifty-three, leaving only seventy in his possession. But in the two or three days before they were ready to take their departure from the Illinois, many more of them became sick and died, so that he left them all there together with his pirogue loaded with skins and robes, in charge of Adams and Denison. The expedition was a most unfortunate one for James, who lost all the money he had invested in it, and returned home on foot, poorer than when he left.Citations:

  1. American State Papers, “Foreign Relations” vol. iv, 208.[]
  2. For Fowler’s picturesque account of their experiences see Coues, Elliott, The Journal of Jacob Foivler.[]
  3. Probably intended for Tahlequah, but called by Long [Thwaites, op. cit., vol. xvi, 287] Bayou Viande, meaning Meat Bayou, and since corrupted into Vian, and by some map makers, Vine Creek.[]
  4. During the Civil War these works, known as Mackey’s Salt Works furnished salt for the contending armies until they were destroyed by one side to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy. In the lean days of reconstruction the huge broken kettles each weighing over half a ton were patched up and salt was again made there.[]
  5. Coues, Elliott, op. cit., 4.[]
  6. Probably the first house inhabited by white men on the site of the city of Pueblo.[]
  7. Douglas, Walter B., editor. Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, by General Thomas James, 98.[]
  8. Robert Crittenden of Frankfort, Kentucky, entered the Army in the war against England at the age of sixteen and on May 30, 18 14, was made an ensign; honorably discharged June 15, 1815. Studied law with his brother John J. Crittenden of Frankfort, and on March 3, 1819, at the age of twenty-two was appointed secretary of the newly created territory of Arkansas. Acted as governor of the territory for the most of his term.[]
  9. William Bradford, born in Virginia, was appointed (March 12, 1812) from Kentucky as captain in the Seventeenth Infantry in the war against England and became major in the Twenty-first Infantry. Appointed captain of the Seventh Infantry June 1, 1821, major October 6, 1822, and resigned May 1, 1824. Upon the establishment of Cantonment Smith at Belle Point in 1817, Major Bradford was placed in charge and continued at this post until superseded by Colonel Arbuckle in 1822. Then transferred to Natchitoches. After his resignation from the Army he became sutler to the post at Fort Towson where he died on October 20, 1826, at the age of fifty-five. At the time of his death he was Brigadier-general of militia of the territory of Arkansas. In the War of 1812 and in the war with the Indians, where he served under General Jackson, he had seen much service and carried with him to his death a severe and painful wound received in battle, that caused him great inconvenience. Cimarron, a short distance above where Tulsa now is.[]
  10. Douglas, Walter B., op. cit., 108.[]
  11. “During the same year, Captain Becknell, of Missouri, with four trusty companions, went out to Santa Fe by the far western prairie route. This intrepid little band started from the vicinity of Franklin… The favorable reports brought by the enterprising Captain, stimulated others to embark in the trade; and early in the following May, Colonel Cooper and sons, from the same neighborhood, accompanied by several others (their whole number about fifteen), set out with four or five thousand dollars worth of goods, which they transported upon pack horses.” Thwaites, op. cit., vol. xix, 177. This was said to be the commencement of the Sante Fe trade.[]
  12. Douglas, Walter B., op. cit., 190, ff.[]
  13. Early travelers in the southwest often told of the myriads of flies that killed horses and cattle and frequently made travel in the day time impossible.[]

Foreman, Grant. Pioneer Days in the Early Southwest. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co. 1926.

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1 thought on “Expeditions of Fowler and James to Santa Fe, 1821”

  1. My 5x great grandfather was married to Thomas James’ sister, and his other sister was his godmother. The man the picture is not James. That is Union Civil War General George Henry Thomas. There’s a portrait of Thomas James on his Wikipedia page, if you want to see the real man.

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