In June 1843 U.S. dragoons escorting a commercial wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail confronted a group of Texian ‘land pirates’ who considered the Mexicans, not the Americans, their enemy.
Texas in 1843, having defeated Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s forces at the Battle of San Jacinto seven years earlier, was an independent nation with border troubles. Mexico still refused to recognize the Republic of Texas, viewing it as merely a breakaway state. In the years that followed the Texas Revolution, both nations sent troops to raid and plunder one another’s lands. The recent murder of 17 Texian prisoners who had participated in an ill-conceived raid on the Mexican town of Mier had prompted the Texas government to call for reprisals, and President Sam Houston authorized cross-border commerce raids. In February 1843, near the town of Georgetown, Texas, nearly 200 ornery Texians assembled to serve under Colonel Jacob Snively. That May a band of 21 men under Colonel Charles Warfield, who would later join up with Snively, killed five Mexican irregulars in a surprise attack on the outpost at Mora, New Mexico.
The next response to the armed Texian force did not come from Mexico but from the United States. On June 30, 1843, four companies of the 1st Regiment of Dragoons splashed across the Arkansas River, unlimbered their artillery and formed a line of battle, with sabers drawn and howitzers prepared to fire on the Texian position. “Gentlemen, you are in the United States— lay down your arms,” demanded the dragoon captain. Texians were used to bucking the odds, but this time they had to stem their natural instincts. For one thing these soldiers in dirty dark blue coats were from a friendly neighboring country, not the old mother country. One of the dragoon junior officers, Lieutenant John Love, had been keeping a journal while heading west on the Santa Fe Trail, but for reasons unknown he had stopped making entries a few days earlier and thus provided no details of the border confrontation. Nevertheless, he and the other dragoons were pleased with their performance that day, and the Texians were not. In fact, the Republic of Texas later lodged a diplomatic protest that its troops were not in a foreign territory. It was a strange situation all around, since before too long Texas would become part of the United States, and dragoons and Texians would be on the same side fighting a war against Mexico.
Two years earlier the Republic of Texas had launched its Santa Fe Expedition, a caravan of merchants escorted by soldiers, in hopes of securing Texas’ claims to sections of the Mexican province of New Mexico and gaining control of the Santa Fe Trail trade. Mexican soldiers captured the Texian force in September 1841 and marched the expedition members turned prisoners from Santa Fe some 2,000 miles south to Mexico City. The Mexicans subjected the Texians to various indignities, and many died along the march or in captivity from wounds, disease and starvation. Others remained until U.S. diplomacy brought about their release in 1844. It was no secret the young republic wanted to retaliate against Mexico for that failed expedition, the brash September 1842 raid by Mexican General Adrián Woll on San Antonio and the failed November 1842 Texian retaliatory Mier Expedition.
On February 16, 1843, Texas President Houston presented a colonel’s commission to Snively and instructed him to lead his “Battalion of Invincibles,” comprising 170 Texian partisans, to raid Mexican commerce on the Santa Fe Trail and to “retaliate and make reclamation for injuries sustained by Texas citizens.” The merchandise seized would be deemed a lawful prize, to be equally divided between the Republic of Texas and the raiders. Snively’s instructions ordered him to “be careful not to infringe upon” the territory of the United States. Snively’s detachment began its march on April 25. The Texas government additionally commissioned Colonel Warfield to lead partisan troops to raid commerce in Mexican territory.
On April 10, 240 miles west of Independence, Mo., 15 Texian partisans under the command of John McDonald (who was associated with Warfield’s band but acted outside the authority of the Texas government) attacked two eastbound wagons owned by Don Antonio José Cháves, a wealthy Mexican merchant. The Texians murdered Cháves and plundered the train. General Juan Almonte, the Mexican minister in Washington, D.C., demanded an escort on behalf of the Santa Fe traders. Secretary of State Daniel Webster then sought permission from Mexico to allow the U.S. Army to escort Santa Fe–bound wagon trains across the international border and into New Mexico. Almonte wrote that he lacked authority to authorize such a plan but agreed that U.S. soldiers could, if invited by Mexican citizens, cross the international border without Mexico considering the armed escort an invasion force.
Adjutant General Roger Jones readily gave his approval for the dragoons to escort future wagon trains leaving Missouri for Santa Fe that spring. He believed this mission would protect not only traders from Texians but also emigrants from Indian raids. Colonel Stephen W. Kearny quickly devised a plan to dispatch columns of dragoons to protect commerce and, if necessary, capture any Texian “land pirates” attempting to prey on commercial traffic.
On May 14, 1843, Captain Nathan Boone, the son of famous frontiersman Daniel Boone, led 60 men of Companies H and E of the 1st Dragoons, followed the next day by Company D, from Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, and went to the scene of the Cháves killing. Their efforts to find the merchant’s remains were fruitless. There was no sign of the Texians responsible. A posse of Missourians eventually captured McDonald and some of his party, tried them and hanged McDonald and an associate.
On May 27, 1843, a second column of dragoons, with 162 men under Captain Philip St. George Cooke, left Fort Leavenworth on a mission to protect commerce on the Santa Fe Trail. Lieutenant John Love, who was making his first trip on the Santa Fe Trail, recorded his impressions in a journal. Born in Culpepper County, Va., and raised in Tennessee, he was the son of Richard H. Love and Eliza Matilda Lee—she the granddaughter of Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and relative of General Robert E. Lee. John’s sister Cecilia Lee Love married Lewis Armistead, later a Confederate general who died during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.
John Love accepted a 2nd lieutenant’s commission in the 1st Dragoons after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the class of 1841. In 1841–42, he was stationed at the cavalry school at Carlisle, Pa. Next he served with Company A, stationed at Fort Gibson, and then to Fort Scott and Fort Leavenworth in what would become Kansas. He excitedly wrote about the 1843 expedition, the first of three such trips he would make out onto the Great Plains prior to the Mexican War:
A great deal of bustle & confusion preparatory to so long a march: here you could see an officer sending after his tobacco & segars, which he had nearly forgotten, & without which, the march from being a pleasure, would have become a bore; another just stuffing his last shirt in his saddle bags; a third packing up needles, buttons, thread &c, but as one may expect without a doubt of veracity, that “all things have an end”, so had the packing, &c about 9 O’clock the bugles call us, not to “war”, but to the parade ground where the companies were drawn up in line in front of their quarters.…In casting the eye down the line of Officers’ Quarters could be seen through the half closed door the distressed wives, no doubt offering up a prayer for the safety & return of their Husbands. What a beautiful sight as the long line of horsemen march down the parade, each one as he passed some friend waiving him an adieu.
It rained hard for the first couple of days. On May 29 Love wrote, “How delightful to feel once more the warmth of the sun & to see countenances beaming with smiles & good nature looking as if with the rain had departed, their only enemy on Earth.” He expressed melancholy over leaving his friends, but that didn’t lessen his excitement:
With me, every thing was new. I had no conception of the country over which we would pass nor of the character of the Indians we would meet nor of what we would have to encounter from sickness &c, but on marching a few miles I soon relieved my usual spirits as I saw the beautiful extent of country before me was with such green grass & myriads of flowers looking for all the world like some neglected garden. I know of no other way of conveying my first impression of the prairie than by a remark one soldier made…“we are getting pretty well out to sea”—in rear & on each side could be seen the dim outline of timber while in front nothing but a vast plain the grass waiving with the wind, scarcely distinguishable from water.”
The column brought with it two small mountain howitzers— lightweight brass cannons, pulled by two mules or horses, capable of rapid movement on the plains. Love wrote:
[One of the teams in] a desire to afford variety &c to their faults towards varying the monotony of the march, by some means got their driver [thrown] from the [limber wagon] box & commenced kicking, running, jumping &c. Here you would see their running straight to the column— every man giving way of course, then running on the road, then turning and coming back to the column, the command scattered about, each one on his own preservation, making in all quite an amusing scene.
On June 3 the troops met the wagons they were to escort at Pleasant Valley Creek, which Love described: “Like all timbered creeks, running through the prairies, looking more beautiful than you could suppose it. Without exception the coldest spring water I ever tasted. Impossible to tell you how much we enjoyed the water after a ride in the hot sun for two or three hours.” From there the column of dragoons rode to Council Grove, a large body of timber on the Neosho River, and had a layover that lasted a few days. “Here the Traders always stop to lay in an extra axle trees & tongues in case they break down on the Prairie,” Love observed. “Found most all the Traders on the west side of the river camped in the usual order the wagons forming a salient angle making a place of safety for their animals in case of attack.”
At Council Grove, Love took the opportunity to rest, hunt and fish. Cooke, meanwhile, drilled his gun crews. Captain Burdette Terrett, leading 25 dragoons from Company A, arrived from Fort Scott, noted Love, “enlivening us all as an arrival is sure to do; our spirits were now very high: we had…questions to ask about all our friends at Fort Scott & he about his at Leavenworth.” While camped, Love got to know old Nick Gentry, a noted mountain man, guide and Santa Fe trader who in 1829 had traveled to Santa Fe with trader Charles Bent and a load of contraband tobacco. “He amused us very much by his manner of expressing himself, if he wishes to describe any thing, he will do so, by drawing a comparison between it, & something else,” Love wrote. “To see him riding over the prairie on all alone, without any protection for his face than his long bushy hair, which looks as if he had seldom been acquainted with scissors.”
The wagons and their escort resumed their trek west on June 6. The weather again turned cold and rainy. Despite his discomfort, Love continued to appreciate the wondrous sights of the West:
When about five miles from Little Arkansas saw to the left the Sand Hills of Great Arkansas, looking so much like a City as to consider it almost impossible to imagine yourself 200 miles from any house unlike sand hills generally, these just mentioned have groves of stunted timber amongst them which obscures a greater part of the hill exposing to view in one place a single spot the of a house which you could imagine a neat dwelling in the suburbs of the city then another long ridge like the front of a square of brick buildings, taken all together a very handsome sight. Still another day, but none killed yet. Soon after securing camp the axes began to sound & then blazing fires were made in front of the tents, each one forgotten the discomforts of the day, as he sat dozing & warming himself by a cheerful fire.
At a ford of the Arkansas, the dragoons found fastened to a tree a note from Captain Boone informing them that his two troops had crossed the river the day before. Cooke detailed a delighted Love to lead an eight-man party to hunt buffalo.
Now I thought of my cherished dreams of hunting were about to be realized & as I charged my cartridges & put my pistols in my holsters & mounted my trim built little horse felt as if not one of a herd could escape certain death…but was disappointed for they only saw an antelope. I was compensated in a measure for my disappointment by getting a good view of the antelope the first one I been near enough to form an idea of their appearance & as it ran off I thought I had never seen a more beautiful or exotic animal in my life. They are the size of deer of a light color & have a white stripe on each side adding very much to their beauty.…When near the road some one pointed to the right & there sure enough I saw about 2 miles off a small hill covered with objects running to & fro. Now thinks I we will surely get some fresh meat & have some sport. We quicken our gait to get the wind of them & when a great many formed a line & rushed straight for us. Now I had made many inquiries about the ways of Buffalo & had it in my head the regular rule for approaching & running them but when I saw them approaching & running them but when I saw them approaching me instead of my approaching it nullified all the rules & completely staggered me. I thought it very strange my informers had not told me what to do under these circumstances. So not thinking of any system of tactics by which to turn the [unintelligible word] in my favor I adopted the better plan that is did nothing but halt & see what were their intentions. I did not wait long, for presently a yell was heard as if a thousand devils were let loose. I then saw that these were Indians.
Miles from camp and never having seen a hunting party, Love and his men were alarmed over what fate awaited them.
On they came whipping, spurring & galloping, numbering I thought 150, the whole Prairie seemed alive with them; they were naked from the waist up; had neither bridle nor saddle; but a piece of Buffalo hide in their horses mouths. (A more alarming sight I never saw, to one unaccustomed to Indians as I.) The change from Buffalos to a Band of Indians was so sudden & unexpected as to throw me completely in confusion; after nearing a little I ordered my men to face them, see to their arms & a white handkerchief to be raised to indicate how much we were in favor of peace. I drew my pistols put one my belt & held the other cocked in my hand determined to sell out all my interest in the world as dearly as possible. How much relieved I was when they came to hailing distance to hear them all saying how! how! (or how do you do) & then shaking hands all around. I hear them say were our neighbors the Kansa Indians. I ordered the men to be on the look out being distrustful that they were Comanches. They invited me to go to their Camp but I declined the honor but invited them to come to our Camp in the evening, after exchanging a few more civilities, we separated. I took the back track to meet the command which I did just as they were coming to the creek on which we camped.
At the time Love encountered the “Kansa” (Kaw) Indians, their nation totaled less than 1,500 people, most of whom were living in unorganized territory in present-day northeast Kansas. A contemporary dragoon trooper described an 1850 encounter with the Kaws: “A half civilized tribe of strong, athletic men, but their heads are all shaven close, with the exception of a ridge or tuft 2 inches in breadth, extending from forehead to neck and sticking up like the comb of a cock. They were painted red but seemed friendly to us, begging us for whatever we could spare. When they had gone, our laughter turned to rage, for it was found they had stolen anything they could take.”
Twenty of the tribesmen Love had encountered followed his hunting party to the dragoon camp and brought with them dried buffalo meat. Cooke gave them pork in exchange. Love estimated there to be between 150 to 200 men in the main Kaw body. Overconfident, as were most officers of the era, Love wrote: “With 6 men could have kept off 500 Indians as they never approach within gun shot. By their notions deeming it a greater victory to kill one man & loose none in return that to kill fifty & lose one of their men which system would of course prevent their coming to close quarters.” There was a measure of truth to this belief. The dragoons patrolled the Great Plains for 13 years without having to battle any of the tribes living there. That record changed with the occupation of New Mexico in 1846, when elements of the regiment engaged in battle with the Navajos, Jicarillas, Utes and Comanches. Love was to fall victim to his own arrogance, but live to tell the tale, when on June 26, 1847, at the Battle of Coon Creeks, he foolishly ordered a charge against Comanche raiders (see “Love’s Defeat,” by Will Gorenfeld and George Stammerjohan, in the June 2004 Wild West).
Soldiers of all armies have long appreciated a few drops of spirits while on the march. On the evening of June 11 a minor disaster befell Love and Captain Benjamin Moore when they settled down around the inviting campfire and decided to take a few drops of peach brandy. “We found the cork out of the jug & the liquor gone save 2 drinks,” Love wrote. “Our feelings were too deep for immediate utterance, we gazed at each for some seconds in silent agony when the Capt. after relieving himself by a deep drawn sigh said who was the last one at the jug oh: if I could find him out, I would trash him so he would be ever after this afraid even to look at a peach to say nothing of the brandy.” At this point Love’s handwritten journal ends abruptly at mid-page. Did he lose his pen or ink or paper? Did he run out of peach brandy? Most probable, it was the result of Cooke’s calling upon Love’s company to get back on the trail, posthaste, and escort the lumbering wagon train. And with the impending confrontation with the Texians mere days away, Love no doubt was preoccupied with other duties besides putting pen to paper.
On June 14, 1843, the dragoons learned that the Texas Invincibles had routed a force of Mexican irregulars near Taos. New Mexico Governor Manuel Armijo, who was waiting with 600 men to escort the westbound wagon train from the border, also heard the alarming news, and he and his men raced back to Santa Fe. Four days later, on the 18th, Boone’s men spotted suspected scouts from Colonel Snively’s Texian band and passed this intelligence across the river to Cooke. Boone’s force was, however, unable to cross the swollen river to assist Cooke. On June 22 Ceran St. Vrain, a New Mexico–based merchant and fur trader, informed Cooke that Snively’s force, reinforced by Warfield’s roaming band, was encamped at the crossing of the Arkansas River, waiting to ambush the next passing Mexican caravan.
With a potentially hostile force close at hand, Cooke had his marching troops practice swiftly changing their formation from “column of route” into “order of battle.” On the 28th Cooke had his artillerists fire explosive shells at a grazing buffalo herd to give the men, as he explained, “more experience of the range and effects of the howitzer.” The shelling wounded one bull, who wildly charged the soldiers, knocking one from his horse, and did not stop until struck by dozens of carbine and pistol shots.
On June 30, near the present-day city of Larned in central Kansas, the dragoons spotted what they believed to be Snively’s armed band across the Arkansas River in a dense copse of trees known as Jackson Grove. Cooke formed his troops into a column of platoons and advanced at a trot to detain the force. At the dragoons’ approach the Texians raised a white flag, at which point Cooke halted his men on the north bank. He then dispatched Love, a bugler and a guidon across the river to determine whether these men were indeed under Snively’s command, how strong they were and their intent, as well as to scope out the ground and potential crossing points.
Love soon returned with Snively himself and an aide. Snively insisted he held a lawful commission issued by the president of the Republic of Texas and had not entered the United States. Cooke countered that Snively’s armed force had violated international law by their operations north of the Arkansas River, in territory of the United States, and demanded their immediate surrender. The captain warned that were Snively to refuse his demand, Cooke would shell the Texians and strike with the dragoons. To emphasize his point, Cooke’s force dashed across the shallow Arkansas and, opposite the Texian encampment, unlimbered the artillery and formed a line of battle, with slow matches lit and the howitzers ready to fire on the Texian position. At that point Snively’s band of ruffians surrendered most of their arms. With sabers drawn, Love’s squadron took possession of the weapons, discharged them and placed them in a wagon. Cooke then allowed 10 Texians to retrieve their guns for hunting and directed Snively’s men to return home. One group of 50 Texians accepted Cooke’s offer of a dragoon escort back to the safer climes of Missouri.
The threat of violence passed, the caravan safely recrossed the Arkansas just below the Caches on July 4, 1843, and entered into New Mexico on its way to Santa Fe. The next day Cooke began his return trip to Fort Leavenworth. He arrived there on July 21 with his three companies, as he put it, “well and improved in discipline.”
Although bloodless, the incident resulted in a minor international affair when, on November 10, 1843, Texian Charge d’Affaires Isaac Van Zandt filed a protest with U.S. Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, claiming Cooke’s actions had interfered with Snively’s lawfully sanctioned mission. Even the St. Louis Republican newspaper chimed in on Texas’ side, excoriating both Cooke and Western Division commander General Zachary Taylor. The State Department found the assertions tendered by Texas to be wholly without merit. And not surprising, on April 8, 1844, an Army court of inquiry, Dragoon Colonel Stephen Kearny presiding, cleared Cooke of all charges of improper conduct during the incident on the Arkansas River. Months later Texas was admitted to the Union, and then the United States went to war with Mexico.
The Snively confrontation became a celebrated event among the dragoons, and on July 19, 1846, Lieutenant Love, then a member of General Kearny’s invading Army of the West, was once again camped near the Caches crossing of the Arkansas. His fellow officers pressed him for the location of the Jackson Grove encampment, where Cooke had demanded the Texians surrender. Love proudly showed them. Many Texians, on the other hand, remained bitter about what had transpired on June 30, 1843. A decade later, while stationed at Fort Mason, Texas, Major (Brevet Lt. Col.) Cooke considered his life in imminent danger because of the “Snively affair” and requested a transfer. The adjutant general appreciated Cooke’s predicament and had him transferred to the 2nd Dragoons in New Mexico Territory.
California authors Will Gorenfeld and son John Gorenfeld are frequent contributors to Wild West and have done exhaustive research on the U.S. dragoons. Lieutenant John Love’s 1843 journal, which has never been published, is in the John Love Collection of letters and documents at the Indiana Historical Society [www.indianahistory.org] in Indianapolis.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.