James Wiley Magoffin and four traveling companions were arrested as spies in New Mexico on Sep. 27, 1846 and detained for the duration of the Mexican War.
Why the oldest of ten children left Kentucky in the early 1820’s is unclear. The most logical explanation is that he wanted to make his own way in the world without having to answer to a rich and overbearing father.
Instead of heading west into the American wilderness, Magoffin chose a different land of opportunity – Mexico, which was celebrating its recent independence from Spain. In 1824 or 1825, he boarded a ship for Tampico that was blown ashore by a Gulf storm. He might not have lived through the Texas layover had not a schooner captain spotted him and his fellow survivors and provided them with a ride to Matamoros.
Exhibiting an impressive ability to turn misfortune into good fortune, Magoffin spent the next few years learning the language and local customs. Then, according to the Handbook of Texas, he set to work: “With headquarters in Matamoros, he established important commercial relations between Texas and New Orleans, trading Texas products, particularly cotton, for finished goods such as machinery, hardware, furniture and clothing.”
Although “Don Santiago,” as Magoffin was known to Mexicans, had business dealings with the Anglo-American colonists, he kept his distance from the political unrest north of the Rio Grande. By the time Texans had begun to fight for their independence in 1835, the Kentuckian had relocated to Chihuahua in northern Mexico and become a major player in the Santa Fe trade.
While still in his thirties, Magoffin was widely respected and admired as a shrewd businessman who knew how to throw a heck of party. His reputation as a generous host that entertained on a lavish scale ensured his popularity while smoothing the feathers ruffled by his often ruthless business tactics.
Magoffin decided in 1841 to work both ends of the Santa Fe Trail. He took a caravan to St. Louis and returned with 40 wagons full of merchandise. More wagon trains followed as he established himself as the undisputed “king” of the Santa Fe route.
The fact that Magoffin’s trains seemed immune to attack from the Comanches and other hostile tribes aroused the suspicions of Mexican authorities. Despite a lack of hard evidence, they accused the trader of giving the Indians guns in exchange for safe passage.
Tired of the hard time the government was giving him, Magoffin moved his family and business to Independence, Missouri in 1844. Even though he cut back to two wagon trains, a mule-breeding farm kept him in the black.
The sudden death of his wife in 1845 sent Magoffin into an emotional tailspin. He coped with the loss by sending his two sons to Kentucky for their schooling, putting two daughters in a St. Louis convent and burying his grief in work.
Magoffin happened to be in Washington, D.C. when war broke out with Mexico in the spring of 1846. Hoping to capitalize on the visitor’s understanding of the enemy and his many contacts in Santa Fe, President Polk asked him to arrange the bloodless surrender of the trading hub.
Magoffin accepted the historic assignment and made it possible for Gen. Stephen W. Kearny and his troops to take the strategic town without firing a shot. But on his way to El Paso del Norte, the successful negotiator was arrested as a spy and held by the Mexicans until the end of the war.
With high customs duties imposed by the defeated Mexicans sucking most of the profit out of the Santa Fe trade, Magoffin elected to stay put. He built a huge hacienda on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande across from El Paso del Norte and made money on everything from mules to alfalfa to leasing the land to U.S. Army for Fort Bliss.
As an ardent advocate of southern secession and the Confederacy that followed, Magoffin equipped the Arizona and New Mexico expeditions of Col. John W. Baylor and Col. Henry H. Sibley out of his own deep pocket. But he lost everything he owned to the “California Column,” the federal force that occupied El Paso in 1862.
Back home in Kentucky, Magoffin’s younger brother Beriah attempted to steer a neutral course as governor of the beleaguered border state. In his reply to President Lincoln’s call for troops in the early days of the Civil War, he defiantly declared by telegram, “I will not send a man nor a dollar for the wicked purpose of subduing my sister Southern states.”
Overlooking brother James’ failure to obtain a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson, Texas Gov. Andrew J. Hamilton, a Radical Republican, sent him back to El Paso to create a militia company and county government. Magoffin subsequently returned to the nation’s capital and the second time around was granted amnesty with full citizenship.
James Wiley Magoffin died of natural causes soon after his long journey at the age of 69. But the family name lived on in El Paso, where his son Joseph was elected mayor four times between 1881 and 1899.
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