From the early 1820s until the Civil War, Lexington, located in western Missouri, was involved in almost every aspect of the Santa Fe trade. While written references, early roads, and memorials exist in some abundance, documented sites and artifacts are rare and scattered. Fortunately, history can bring understanding to this segment of the Trail as long as the reader or visitor is willing to contribute some general knowledge and a good dash of imagination.
Lexington's first settler was probably Gillad Rupe who came to the area around 1815 from Boonville where he had operated a ferry. He may have started a ferry at the mouth of "Rupe's branch" on the Missouri, but by 1819 Captain William Jack was known to be operating the ferry. "Jack's Ferry Road" was the connection between the river and the early settlement centered about two miles to the east.
In September 1821 William Becknell of Franklin probably followed the Osage Trace west from Arrow Rock through Grand Pass to Mount Vernon on Tabo Creek. Mount Vernon, which no longer exists, was the county seat of Lillard (later Lafayette) County, which included all of western Missouri at that time. In April 1821 the county court licensed Adam Lightner to operate a ferry across Tabo and appointed overseers to maintain the Trace from the eastern boundary of the county to Fort Osage. Becknell probably used the ferry at Tabo and then took the Trace to Fort Osage, skirting Lexington by a few miles to the south, before heading for Santa Fe.
The Lexington settlers had successfully petitioned the county court to open a road from Jack's Ferry to Mount Vernon by July 1821. Referred to later as the "old Santa Fe Trail" or the "old Dover Road" (after an early settlement east of Mt. Vernon), this route was settled as early as 1818 by Christopher Catron, who is said to have broken the first prairie sod in the county.
A road south from Lexington to the Trace was declared by the court to be the "nearest and best" route to Fort Osage in October 1821. That route was often referred to as the "old Independence Road." Although many early traders from central Missouri may have by-passed Lexington, the route through the town became the preferred road.
Lexington was platted in 1822 in the area later known as "Old Town" and became the county seat in 1823 with a log courthouse in a public square between Lewis and Clark (now 23rd and 24th) Streets. Although most businesses were around the courthouse, the river front also grew as more boats came up the Missouri.
Direct expeditions from the Lexington area started as early as 1822 when Strother Renick, whose family had settled seven miles west at Wellington, was hired by a Gen. McRea to "take a small stock of goods on pack mules over the trackless prairie to Mexico." Renick was only 19 and afterward made several similar trips by himself. He is said to have specialized in trading for mules.
For Trail historians, the first really significant business in Lexington was the store and warehouse built by John Aull who came from Delaware in 1822. He was followed by his brothers Robert and James in 1825. According to W. J. Ghent in The Early Far West, James (age 22) wrote, before setting out with the 1829 caravan: "Should the savages attack us, we must defend ourselves the best way we can, as Gen. Jackson or secretary Eaton appear disposed to let us shift for ourselves."
By 1830 the Aull brothers' stores were selling a wide variety of merchandise in Liberty, Independence, and Richmond, as well as Lexington, much of it to Santa Fe traders. In 1830 they sold between $8,000 and $10,000 worth of goods to the caravans at 25 percent over Philadelphia prices with no interest for six months and then 10 percent interest until paid.
This indicates one of the main problems with the trade and western commerce in general. Credit was crucial but very risky. Some goods such as whiskey, salt, tobacco, and beeswax could be bought or traded for locally. However, James had to travel to the East each winter to buy most of the goods for the next season, getting lighter things such as cotton cloth and luxuries in Philadelphia and other citles. These were taken overland by wagon to Pittsburg and by steamboat to St. Louis where they and heavier items much as stoves and plows, which he might have had shipped from the east via New Orleans, were shifted to smaller boats or wagons bound for Lexington.
These goods had to be bought on credit, while they paid for the previous year's goods with payments made by the latest train from Santa Fe. Often the traders had to make two trips before they could completely settle their first bill, so the brothers depended on sales to local residents, fur traders such as Jedediah Smith or Ceran St. Vain, and the army to stay ahead.
In 1832 James Aull tried to avoid the credit problem by sending $3,000 worth of goods to Santa Fe with Gresham Compton of Liberty. Apparently little profit resulted, since the Aulls did not send any more goods direct to Santa Fe until James went himself in 1846. A telling note is that one of Compton's duties in Santa Fe was to try to collect $98.18 from a wagon maker who had supposedly gone to that area.
Military contracts were also risky. in 1838 the partners bid $7,000 to supply Fort Leavenworth, about 100 miles upriver. They counted on using flour from a mill Robert was constructing on the Little Blue River near Independence, but the equipment for the mill did not arrive on time and they had to buy the flour in Boonville, 70 miles down river. To add insult to injury, they were docked $35.00 because the flour was not as fine as the contract required.
In 1832 James decided to cut back on stock and get the firm out of debt. This was extremely difficult. The West had a deficit in trade with the East, where most Mexican silver was quickly sent; the Aulls often shipped silver in secretly marked barrels along with other goods, since bank transfers were difficult. About the only source of "hard money" was the Santa Fe trade.
In the winter of 1835 James appealed to the circuit court in Independence and only collected $500 out of $25,000 owed his firm by residents of Jackson County. In reality, probably many of them had "gone west." Robert Aull had formed the first "bank" in Lexington in 1829 to support these credit operations, but in 1835 James warned that banks "will hold up for a few years longer" and that speculators would be wise to be "preparing for any storm that may come some two or three years hence." Taking his own advice, the Aull partnership was dissolved on January 1, 1836. James concentrated on the Lexington store and successfully weathered the depression of 1837.
The difficulties of the Aull brothers should not give the mistaken impression that things were not prosperous a it in Lexington for the Aulls and many others. True, as Josiah Gregg noted in 1844, after 1831 Independence "soon began to take the lead" but, as he also noted, "even subsequently to 1831 many wagons have been fitted out and started from (the) interior section."
In 1880 an early settler known as "Uncle George" Houx was quoted in the Lexington Intelligencer as saying that "money was sewed up in leather bags . . . like meal sacks from Santa Fe, and when they arrived in Lexington, at the tavern in Old Town, were thrown down like common baggage." Alphonso Wetmore's Gazetteer of Missouri (1837) proclaimed "Lexington is one of the towns from which outfits are made in merchandise, mules, oxen, and wagons for Santa Fe or New Mexico trade. The fur traders who pass to the mountain by land make this town a place of rendezvous, and frequently going out and coming in with their wagons and packed mules at the same period of going and coming that is chosen by the Mexican traders. "Even allowing for some early American hyperbole, things were going quite well.
This prosperity led to many changes in Lexington. Although in 1835 a new three-story brick courthouse was completed in Old Town, increased river activity led to the platting of the area between the old square and the river. The riverfront now had several stores, warehouses, a mill, and a ropewalk for processing part of the large local hemp crop.
As for the Trail at that time, The Santa Fe Trail Revisited by Gregory Franzwa is a reliable guide. The main route from the east followed the Old Dover Road to Old Town and then turned south around what is now 20th street to join the old Osage Trace to Independence. When the river was low and wagons were loaded near it, they could follow an alternate "river route" from Jack's Ferry Road near the river west past Simpsons's Spring to Wellington, where they could join the Independence Road south of town, saving a few miles and avoiding a few hills.
By the 1840's "New Town" near the river was the center of commerce, with the first newspaper, a branch of the Missouri State Bank, a Masonic College, and a stately Greek revival courthouse (1847). In 1844 The Lexington Express noted that "during the past 2 weeks some 30 wagons have passed our door freighted with bacon, dry hides, flax seed, beeswax, etc."
Despite all the activity, James Aull must have missed the excitement, and maybe the profits, of the Santa Fe trade. In 1846 he formed a partnership with Samuel Owens of Independence. Owens had managed the Aull brothers' store in Independence, later becoming Robert Aull's partner in the store, before purchasing Robert's half in 1844. The new partners loaded up $70,000 in goods and joined one of the most famous and well documented of all Santa Fe caravans.
Leaving Independence in June 1846, the train of 45 wagons included Josiah Gregg (who soon turned back due to scarlet fever in his sister's family), the artist John Mix Stanley (whose drawings of the trek have been lost), and Samuel Magofftn, a veteran Santa Fe trader whose new bride Susan wrote one of the most complete and unique diaries of the Trail. According to her account, Owens and Aull had five ox teams and "some eighteen or twenty" mule teams on that trip.
Unfortunately, what could have been a stimulating and profitable venture turned into a tragedy of classic proportions. War was about to break out with Mexico over the American claim to a Texas border extending to the Rio Grande. One group of traders rushed ahead to Santa Fe, but were held prisoner when they went 500 miles south to Chihuahua, another Mexican trade center. The main group was overtaken by General Stephen Watts Kearny who ordered them to follow his troops as they advanced on Santa Fe. The fact that these traders resisted his protection, despite the outbreak of the war with Mexico, was an interesting commentary on the confidence, determination, and insight of the Santa Fe traders.
Kearny easily captured Santa Fe in August, but the local economy was disrupted, so Owens and Aull, plus 300 other traders and teamsters' headed for Chihuahua, only to be overtaken by Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan's Missouri Volunteers. Doniphan, who had practiced law in Lexington, exceeded his authority and created a "Traders Battalion" under the command of "Major" Owens. Owens was killed in the Battle of Sacramento in February 1847.
James Auli sold some goods to the troops as they marched toward Chihuahua and, after it was occupied by Doniphan, he set up a store to sell the stock that remained. On April 3 he sent pay accounts and drafts for over $15,000 to E. W. Pomeroy, a Lexington trader and brother-in-law of the Aulls, who was in Santa Fe, to be forwarded to Robert Aull. James was even buying Mexican pork and mutton and reselling them to the army. At the end of April Doniphan was ordered to leave but Aull, having received promises of protection from the Mexican authorities, decided to stay. Every few days he was able to send several thousand dollars to Pomeroy, but on June 23 James Aull was stabbed to death by four Mexican robbers. Both Aull and Samuel Owens were buried in Chihuahua.
When E. W. Pomeroy came to arrange burial, he discovered that a Mexican receiver had sold part of the goods for $4,323.19, which just happencd exactly to equal expenses for legal documents, duties, and so forth. Pomeroy set up three stores in Chihuahua and by November had sold $9,000 worth of goods. However, in fear of losing the estate, he urged Robert Aull to send someone to the Mexican consul in Pittsburg, saying: "Remember we are in H-11 and wish to be transferred to a better place." The Mexican government was remarkably agreeable under the circumstances and the last of the stock was sold by January 1848. Pomeroy estimated that the Owens and Aull enterprise had barely broken even in the terms of dollars and cents.
John Aull had died in 1842 and, following the death of James, Robert Aull continued in banking and trade for some time with the help of several relatives. In 1859 he helped found the Elizabeth Aull Seminary in Lexington. This Presbyterian finishing school for young ladies overlooked the river and was established in memory of his unmarried sister, whose will provided part of the funds.
Meanwhile a new generation of Lexington traders was getting off to a fast start. William H. Russell, lately of Vermont, started working for the Aull brothers in Lexington in 1830. He quickly exhibited a talent for accounting and self-promotion. He left the Aulls in 1838 and with two partners opened a retail store in Lexington. In 1840 he succeeded James Aull as treasurer of Lafayette County and was appointed postmaster of Lexington in 1841.
In 1845 a new partnership failed, but in 1847 Russell joined E. C. McCarty of Westport in sending the first civilian wagon train to Santa Fe from that city. Russell was too much of an aristocrat to make the journey, but he helped organize the successful caravan and repeated the effort in 1848. The next year, with the help of conservative Lexington wholesaler and retailer William Bradford Waddell, he joined with James Brown of Independence and silent partner Robert Aull to ship 600,000 pounds of emergency supplies from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe for the army. Their four trains of 30 wagons each and one of 15 divided into two groups. The one under Brown was snowbound in a sudden blizzard 50 miles from Santa Fe. Brown died of typhoid fever after riding into Santa Fe to explain the situation.
Waddell asked Congress for $39,800 in compensation and in 1851 the firm, now called Russell and Waddell, delivered goods to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and various other posts. In 1853 they got the contracts for Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Union, New Mexico, but competition was stiff, especially from Alexander Majors of Kansas City who had taken his first train to Santa Fe in 1848.
Majors was a very religious man whose wagons rested on Sunday and whose men agreed not to "use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly." Majors earned respect from his men by fair treatment and superb organization. These policies and talents were joined to the financial conservatism and promotional abilities of Waddell and Russell when the three men joined in 1854 to win the unified contract to supply all military posts in the West. As might be expected, Majors supervised all of the wagon trains, Russell raised credit to finance the operation, and Waddell managed the offices in Lexington and Leavenworth, Kansas.
Russell, Majors & Waddell hired 1,700 men, including young William. F. Cody who served as a messenger and, later, as a Pony Express rider. At its peak, the company owned 7,500 oxen for pulling 500 wagons in 20 trains out of their base in Leavenworth.
The firm had earned $300,000 profit in the first two-year contract and prospects looked good indeed. In 1857 they signed a one-year contract but, soon after dispatching their wagons, the army demanded that they transport an additional three million pounds of supplies to support the government's attempt to conquer the Mormons in Utah. Based on oral promises by the Fort Leavenworth quartermaster and the quartermaster general. the company sent 41 trains carrying 4,525,913 pounds of goods. Due to three trains being burned by the Mormons and other transportation costs, they first asked for $493,553.01 in additional compensation. In 1861 even that one cent was denied the company because they had no written contract to do the extra hauling.
In 1858 the group took on another two-year contract, even though the army did not have sufficient funds to finish paying off the last contract, falling short by over $300,000. Russell suggested to Secretary of War Floyd that he write letters helping Russell raise credit on the promise of future contracted payments. Floyd agreed and a deficiency bill was introduced in Congress to cover the contracts. However, Russell started a separate freighting partnership with some of the credit, losing $200,000, while Majors was struggling to set up new bases in Nebraska City and Westport, as required by the new contract. In Congrcss the firm was pictured as unethicaL but the contract money was approved.
As the partners continued to fulfill somewhat profitable government contracts, at the urging of Russell, they branched into a risky stage line to California and the legendary Pony Express. They were hoping to get a very profitable mail contract to California, but that hope was dashed as their credit and reputation collapsed. That was partly due to the fact that payments on their 1860-1861 military contract did not come through on time.
The company faced bankruptcy since credit had dried up and Secretary Floyd's letters of credit probably would not be honored as the loans based on them came due. In a convoluted sequence of events, Russell got $870,000 worth of state bonds held in trust for the Indians from a clerk in the Interior Department, whose wife was a daughter of a cousin of Secretary Floyd. The clerk soon confessed, but Russell swore he did not know they were in government trust and he was not convicted of wrongdoing. As the scandal shook the Buchanan administration, Russell, Majors and Waddell scrambled to parcel out what assets remained to relatives and favored creditors. Majors and Russell died in poverty, while Waddell had a comfortable retirement in his Lexington mansion which he had sold to his son for one dollar.
Not surprisingly, many of the men who worked for Russell, Majors & Waddell came from Lexington. The 1860 census lists dozens of men with occupations such as trader, wagonmaster, teamster, freighter, bullwacker, expressman, and wagoner. However, with the coming of the Civil War, those freighting skills were needed by the armies of the North and South, if not at home trying to keep food on the table in trying times.
After the war Lexington had little role In freighting and the demand for hemp rope to tie cotton bales had vanished, but numerous coal mines revived prosperity until the Great Depression. Fortunately for lovers of history, the town did not change very much after that time, leaving hundreds of antebellum and later Victorian homes to be restored and admired. Several of those homes are open for tours or bed and breakfast. In addition, visitors can tour an 1830's log house that overlooked Jack's Ferry, walk the trenches of a Civil War battlefield. or visit the Historical Museum which features an exhibit on the Santa Fe Trail.
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