By the spring of 1846, travelers to New Mexico were flooding the Santa Fe Trail. One of the first expeditions of the year included George Doan, James J. Web, William S. McKnight, Norris Colburn, Juan Armijo, J.B. Turley, and Francis X. Aubry (on his first trip to Santa Fe). Later that spring, D.G.W. Leavitt and a large company of men from Napoleon, Arkansas arrived in Santa Fe on their way to California. The ill-fated Leavitt and the eleven men who set out with him all mysteriously disappeared on the Old Spanish Trail shortly after their departure from Santa Fe. But elsewhere, significant events were unfolding that would affect the entire Southwest. Indeed, 1846 was to prove a pivotal year in the long history of the New Mexican settlements. On May 13, President James Polk declared war on Mexico and on the same day authorized the formation of an expeditionary force to be commanded by Colonel Stephen W. Kearny. This military force became known as the "Army of the West" and included an illustrious roster of personages, among them: Alexander W. Doniphan, David Waldo, William Gilpin (future governor of Colorado), John Love, Antoine Robidoux (interpreter), John W. Reid, Antoine Clement (famous hunter and mountain man), Phillip St. George Cooke, Edwin V. Sumner (who would earn the nickname "Bullhead" Sumner after a spent bullet ricocheted off his head during the Mexican War), Benjamin D. Moore, Sterling Price (future Confederate commander in Missouri and Arkansas), Richard S. Ewell, James Henry Carleton (future commander of Union forces in New Mexico), William B. Franklin, and John H.K. Burgwin. On August 18, 1846, Stephen W. Kearny and the “Army of the West” marched into Santa Fe without firing a shot. On the wall of the Governor’s Palace, Kearny discovered five pairs of Texan ears.
On September 22, Charles Bent was appointed military governor of New Mexico territory by Stephen W. Kearny. Several friends and business associates of Charles Bent also acquired positions of importance in the administration, among them: Donaciano Vigil (territorial secretary), Charles Beaubien (Supreme Court justice), Eugene Leitensdorfer (auditor of public accounts), Stephen L. Lee (sheriff of Taos County), and Francis Blair (attorney general). Meanwhile, the fall of 1846 was marked by an increase in Pawnee depredations on the Santa Fe Trail (similar to the outbreak of 1828). On October 29, a government supply train under the command of Daniel P. Mann was attacked by a war party of Pawnees. During the engagement, one man was killed (John H. Dougherty) and four were wounded. But the majority of traders managed to avoid the hostile Pawnees - one of them, Norris Colburn, set a record on the Santa Fe Trail by making two trips to New Mexico in one season!
The winter of 1846-1847 was a bad one in more ways than one. Travelers on the Santa Fe Trail were forced to endure some of the worst weather the Great Plains had to offer. Lieutenant James W. Abert (of the Topographical Engineers) was forced to abandon hundreds of mineral specimens from New Mexico after the intense cold killed most of his animals. Later that winter, the Santa Fe trader, Norris Colburn, was murdered by two Sac Indians near "Hickory Point", at the eastern end of the Santa Fe Trail. But these events were shadowed by the "Pueblo Revolt" which began after Kearny's departure to California. During this uprising, Charles Bent, military governor of New Mexico, was brutally killed and scalped by an angry mob of Mexicans and Pueblo Indians in Taos. In the town of Mora, eight Americans were killed (including Lawrence Waldo, younger brother of James Waldo). Several members of the new administration were killed, including Stephen Lee, Narciso Beaubien, and Cornelio Virgil. When the mountain men at Bent's Fort heard of the murder of Charles Bent, they quickly formed a volunteer regiment (under Ceran St. Vrain, partner of the murdered Governor) and rode south. This formidable group of mountain men linked up with the troops of Colonel Sterling Price and marched swiftly to Taos where they besieged the rebellious Indians and Mexicans in the old mission church. The rebels were soon forced to surrender after taking heavy casualties. New Mexico was now firmly in American hands.
During the spring and summer of 1847, travelers on the Santa Fe Trail encountered numerous bands of hostile Comanches and Arapahos. Several caravans were molested on the trail, including Lieutenant William G. Peck’s Topographical Survey party, John McKnight (a trader from Chihuahua), the Kit Carson/Lieutenant Edward F. Beale/Theodore Talbot party, the Bent, St. Vrain, & Company train, the caravan of Lewis H. Garrard (author of "Wah-To-Ya, and the Taos Trail", 1850), and the William H. Russell party from California. Ill-fated William Tharp was killed and mutilated by hostiles on May 28, 1847. Lieutenant John Love's command suffered eleven casualties when attacked by a group of Indians led by a mysterious renegade Negro. On July 21, a Comanche war party ambushed four companies of Missouri volunteers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alton R. Easton, killing eight and wounding four.
In spite of continued Indian hostilities, 1848 proved to be a record year for commerce on the Santa Fe trail. In May of that year, Francis X. Aubry rode from Santa Fe to Independence, Missouri (a distance of 780 miles) in 8 days and 10 hours - quite an achievement in those days. Later that summer, Aubry beat his record, traveling the entire distance in 5 days and 16 hours!! Aubry set another record that year by making three trips to New Mexico in the same season. The summer of 1848 also marked the first Santa Fe trade venture of Alexander Majors (author of "Seventy Years on the Frontier", 1893). Unfortunately, hostile Comanche and Apache Indians were an ever-present hazard on the trail that year. In June, Apache Indians ambushed a party of traders (including Elliott Lee, Charles Towne, and Lucien Maxwell) near the Raton Mountains, killing Charles Towne and two others. During that same month, a band of Comanche and Apache Indians attacked a contingent of Missouri volunteers (commanded by Lieutenant William B. Royall) two days east of Fort Mann on the Santa Fe Trail. After repulsing several mounted assaults, Royall impulsively led a charge against the Indians, but was surrounded and cut off from most of his command. The trapped troopers then displayed great bravery in cutting their way out, losing only four men wounded.
The year 1849 witnessed a new type of traveler on the Santa Fe Trail - the gold-seeking 49'ers. Many of the 49'ers that passed through Santa Fe on their way to California began their journey in the Fort Smith, Arkansas area. In April, a military detachment led by Captain Randolph B. Marcy left Fort Smith to provide escort for the emigrants, arriving in Santa Fe at the end of June. (Randolph B. Marcy discovered the ultimate headwaters of the Red River in 1852, nearly 47 years after Zebulon Pike set out to do the same thing. In 1858, Marcy was camped near Cherry Creek on his way from New Mexico to Fort Bridger, Utah when a member of his party discovered placer gold in the stream bed - this incident was one of many that led to the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. During the Civil War, Marcy served as chief-of-staff for George B. McClellan - he was also McClellan's father-in-law). 1849 also marked the end of an era. After nearly 16 years of existence, "Bent's Fort" on the upper Arkansas River was abandoned by its owner, William Bent. Later that fall, tragedy befell the caravan of James M. White near Point-of-Rocks, New Mexico, as hostile Apaches ambushed the advance party, killing six (including James M. White and William Callaway) and capturing Mrs. Ann (Dunn) White and her small daughter. Both were eventually murdered by their captors. (Kit Carson guided the search party that found the Apache camp, but the Indians killed Ann White and her daughter before the rescue party could reach them.)
During the summer of 1851, Francis X. Aubry accompanied Lieutenant Colonel Dixon S. Miles (future Union commander of Harpers Ferry who would be killed defending it against "Stonewall" Jackson in the Civil War), Third U.S. Infantry, to New Mexico. Later that fall, Aubry organized his third caravan of the year to Santa Fe. The following year, in 1852, Aubry again brought three caravans over the trail. But for Francis X. Aubry, "Skimmer of the Plains", the Santa Fe Trail must have been losing some of its glitter and excitement. The fall of 1852 witnessed the last of Aubry's journeys across the plains. In November of that year, Aubry set out for California on a new venture - driving a herd of sheep. (Aubry’s boundless energy was remarked upon by many of his contemporaries, including Governor William Carr Lane who noted that “Aubry appears to be restless when stationary, and only contented when making these appalling journeys”.) The following year, Kit Carson and Lucien Maxwell did the very same thing!
During the 1850's, settlers began to take up residence on some of the choicest properties along the eastern foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (among them: Lucien Maxwell and Samuel Watrous in the Canadian River Valley and Alexander Hatch and James Giddings in the Pecos Valley). In 1853, a military fort (Fort Union) was built north of the Mora River to protect the newly-settled farmers and ranchers from hostile Indians. The list of military personages who served in New Mexico (either at Santa Fe or at Fort Union) reads like a roll-call from the Civil War. By 1853, Phillip St. George Cooke, Ambrose E. Burnside, Dixon S. Miles, Lafayette McLaws, Randolph B. Marcy, Sterling Price, Edwin V. Sumner, Richard S. Ewell, William B. Franklin, John R. Cooke (son of Phillip St. George Cooke), and James H. Carleton had all performed service in New Mexico territory. Other officers who served on the Santa Fe trail and then as general officers in the Civil War included Henry Heth (said to be the only officer that Robert E. Lee addressed by his first name), Barnard E. Bee (future Confederate general who would give Thomas Jackson his nickname: "Stonewall"), Henry H. Sibley (future Confederate general who would lead the invasion force entering New Mexico in 1861), John Garland, Daniel H. Rucker, Nathan G. Evans, and Alfred S. Pleasonton.