The Workman Brothers in Missouri, Part Two

by John Sharpe

We pick up the thread of John’s fascinatig tale of the remarkable Workman brothers, David and William, in central Missouri on the western edge of the United States during the first half of the 1820s. In this second part of the post, William, after just two years with his brother in Franklin, struck out for his newest adventure, joining a trading caravan on the Santa Fe Trail for that capital of the northern Mexican department and then settling in Taos, where he remained for over fifteen years. David remained in Franklin, but within just less than two years of his brother’s departure, he experienced a personal tragedy and an incident with an apprentice that made David something an object of historical curiosity in subsequent decades. Enjoy this installment and then return in a week for the third and final part.

That restless Workman character these two ambitious brothers had inherited would not let them share the same four walls for long.    David had been as alert as anyone to the opportunities of the Santa Fe trade and was already reaping its rewards from his base at Franklin.  Now ready for the road again, twenty-five-year-old William could afford to be a bit more footloose than his brother, and in the spring of 1825 he left the saddlery to join the party of traders heading out for distant New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail.  Whether or not William saw his move west to foreign parts as permanent from the outset, he was destined to stay on there, although he would make at least one return visit to Missouri, probably in 1835.

In his two years at Franklin, William would have heard a lot of talk about the Santa Fe Trail: tall stories like the William Becknell party getting back from their trip over the Great Plains in 1821 with Mexican silver dollars spilling out of their bags onto the sidewalk [editor’s note: this was the opening of the trail to newly independent Mexico, whereas under Spain it was forbidden to travel to the northern reaches of what had been called “New Spain], and local man Augustus Storrs’s heady prediction of 1824 that the year’s profits from the Trail would amount to $180,000.    Then there was the scare story about the thirst-crazed Cooper-Walker party of 1823 who had been driven to kill their dogs and mules for their blood and were only saved in the end by the “filthy beverage” of a slain buffalo’s stomach juices.    The trail that promised so much was also an unrelenting mix of Indian threat and natural disasters that ranged from drowning torrents to fatal thirst, from icy blizzards to prairie fires.  There were buffalo stampedes, mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, deadly dysentery and cholera.

The first section of a lengthy account of the Santa Fe Trail by William Becknell, the leader of the expedition that opened the route, [Franklin] Missouri Intelligencer, 22 April 1823.

While New Mexicans welcomed their newfound freedom from Spanish restrictions and the trade it brought them over the plains from Missouri, those wide-open spaces were home to people with a different point of view, although efforts were being made to reconcile the natives to the sight of American wagons passing through their ancestral homelands.  As William was heading west in 1825, the United States Santa Fe Road Commission was on its way from Fort Osage, on the Missouri river a hundred miles west of Franklin, to survey the new Trail and negotiate with the Indians.  For $800 worth of trade goods, the Osage Indians agreed to let the Santa Fe wagons pass and even to lend them aid.    The commissioners expressed their satisfaction with the treaty thrashed out in the shade of the hardwoods by the Neosho River and named the place Council Grove.   The Osage, though, were settled farming people, quite different from the warlike Plains Indians to the west – the Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, Sioux, Apache and Cheyenne.

Still, troubles on the Trail were relatively minor at first.  Although wagon trains were harassed almost from the beginning, fatalities were rare until about 1830, and it would be the 1840s before vastly increased traffic would lead to serious clashes with Native Americans, who by then were seeing their entire way of life threatened by the intruders.

Reference to the bill passed by Congress creating a commission for a road to Santa Fe, Intelligencer, 15 February 1825.

Young William was not deterred.    There was work to be done to ready the wagon train that would be his rickety home for the next ten weeks and get it rolling.  The wagons creaked with the weight of manufactured goods from across the United States and even from Europe, including clothing, ironware, cutlery, crockery and ornaments.   The crews had to eat, so wagons packed around fifty pounds of flour per man plus beans, bacon, coffee and sugar, a sustaining but scurvy-prone diet that whetted the appetite for buffalo steaks and perhaps wild greens procured en route.

The fractious mules had to be caught and driven in from pasture, to be introduced to the harness for their long haul, ten or twelve of them to each wagon.    Amid mounting excitement, final preparations would take up half a day, and only then would the growing number of spectators see the expedition start moving at last and wind slowly out of town to the west.

A map of the Santa Fe Trail prepared for John Sharpe by Mike Kirchoff, Cartographer, Loudon, Tennessee.

After a hundred and fifty miles the wagon train left Missouri and the “states”, as American pioneers called their native land, and entered Indian country.  Crossing the line into what would eventually become the state of Kansas was like entering a foreign land.  There was no law out here, just the survival of the fittest.

Until Council Grove, about three hundred miles out, the wagon train was in little danger from the natives.  This, though, was the last place on the Trail where hard timber could be procured, so the more cautious crews would cut themselves a length of hickory or oak to sling under their wagons as a rough-hewn spare axle.

The dangers of traveling the Santa Fe Trail were illustrated in this report from the [Lexington] Kentucky Reporter, 16 May 1825.

A far more important business was to organize the wagons into a compact unit before entering the territory of the Plains Indians.  Four columns abreast was the rule beyond Council Grove to facilitate a defensive manoeuvre against sudden attack on the prairie.  The idea was to be able to get the wagons as quickly as possible into a tight square or circle that could be defended from within.  With their fortunes and possibly their lives at stake, the usually competitive wagon merchants elected a captain and lieutenants to run a paramilitary operation whose top priority was to make certain that the firearms were serviceable.

The seemingly limitless grasslands of the Great Plains were home to millions of bison.  The first sighting of the huge animals would set wagon trains into a frenzy that, as one astonished traveller wrote, “beggars all description.  Every horseman was off in a scamper; and some of the wagoners leaving their teams to take care of themselves, seized their guns and joined the race afoot.”  The growing slaughter of the Plains Indians’ primary source not only of food but of clothing and shelter was the burning issue that would eventually lead to a showdown with the Army.

A report from the trade caravan with which William Workman traveled to Santa Fe in the Sparta [Tennessee] Review, 27 July 1825.

The flat country flattened even more as the Trail in its middle section followed the winding Arkansas upstream past Great Bend, named after the river’s northernmost loop in Kansas.    Then a critical choice of routes faced travellers around the halfway point, in the area where the legendary Dodge City of future cattle-drive days would flourish.  They could either continue up the Arkansas for some two hundred miles into Colorado territory and then turn southwest into New Mexico on the Mountain Branch, or they could save ten days’ travel by turning left just west of Dodge and taking the straighter Cimarron Cutoff along the river of that name, but there were snags with the shorter route.  Indian troubles could be worse that way, and water was harder to come by, as the ill-starred Cooper-Walker party of 1823 had found to their cost.  As the enterprising founders of Bent’s Fort would recognize when they built their massive trading post on the upper Arkansas in 1833, the Mountain Branch was usually the best bet, even though it did involve an axle-breaking trek over the tortuous 8,000-foot Raton Pass into New Mexico, with 150 miles still to go along the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the Glorieta Pass and journey’s end at Santa Fe [editor’s note: the Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Botanical Gardens has the original customs house book from Taos containing the record of William’s registration in June 1825].

Back at Franklin, David had his business to run after he saw his brother off to New Mexico that spring of 1825, and personal matters to attend to: in October he married Mary Hook, who had come to Missouri with her family from Virginia.  David’s world must have come near to collapse when poor Mary died in childbirth less than a year later.  

Reference to the 30 September 1826 death to David’s first wife, Mary Hook, Intelligencer, 12 October 1826.

A few weeks before, David had encountered another problem. Having plied his awl for two years on harness destined for the Santa Fe Trail, spirited apprentice Kit Carson deserted the shop in August 1826 and, like William the year before, joined a trading party bound for New Mexico.  Kit had no grievance against his employer.  Indeed, thirty years later, as a national hero reflecting on an action-packed life on the American frontier, he would open his autobiography with a respectful reference to the young Englishman who had given him his first job:

 For fifteen years I lived in Missouri, and during that time I dwelt in Howard County.    I was apprenticed to David Workman to learn the saddler’s trade, and remained with him two years.   The business did not suit me and, having heard so many tales of life in the mountains of the West, I concluded to leave him.   He was a good man, and I often recall the kind treatment I received at his hands.

David likewise had no hard feelings toward young Kit.   A master was expected to publicize the flight of an apprentice, so he did put a notice in the Missouri Intelligencer, although the terms he set for the lad’s capture showed that he had no wish to stand in his way:

Notice is hereby given to all persons

That Christopher Carson, a boy about 16 years old, small of his age but thick-set, light hair, ran away from the subscriber, living in Franklin, Howard County, Missouri, to whom he had been bound to learn the saddler’s trade, on or about the first of September last.   He is supposed to have made his way to the upper part of the state.   All persons are notified not to harbor, support, or assist the said boy under the penalty of the law.   One cent reward will be given to any person who will bring back the said boy.

Franklin, Oct. 6, 1826.                    David Workman

Kit Carson valued at one cent [editor’s note: David was legally required to advertise for his wayward apprentice’s return and the penny reward seemed purposeful in that Workman likely was fine with the young man running away]!  What a start to a legendary career.  Still, deserting his Franklin workbench for the excitement of the Santa Fe Trail set young Kit on his way to being the West’s most far-ranging guide and scout.  Incidentally, Kit always remembered his first trek over the Trail because of the nasty accident with a rifle that happened when a wagon man called Andrew Broadus put a bullet through his own right arm instead of the prowling wolf he was scrambling to aim at.  The gangrenous limb was amputated by a steely-eyed individual wielding a razor and an old wood saw, and the wound was cauterized with a heated axle bolt, leaving the hapless Broadus to endure the rest of the way to New Mexico with the stump encased in a plaster of tar.

The oft-reproduced and (in)famous advertisement, legally required, by David for the return of apprentice Christopher (Kit) Carson for one cent weeks after Carson went southwest not north and indicating that David was fine with his charge’s disappearance, Intelligencer, 19 October 1826.

Meanwhile, a Workman business in American Missouri with an outpost in Mexico was sure to entail problems for the brothers.    A $200 draft on leading St Louis trader Bernard Pratte was taken in exchange for goods supplied to Pratte’s son Sylvestre, a fur trapper in New Mexico, but had not been honoured by the St Louis company after he was killed by Indians.  David was still fighting a legal battle for the cash when Franklin was flooded out in 1828. 

Reference to David Workman’s participation as a “Commander of Guards” in a caravan on the Santa Fe Trail in 1827, during which he likely reunited with his brother for the first time since William’s move to New Mexico two years prior, Intelligencer, 24 May 1827.

Bloodied but unbowed, David, now a widower, married his late wife’s sister, Nancy, and helped to found New Franklin. While William was in the limelight in faraway places, like the errant apprentice Kit, David kept his Missouri base and raised three sons, although he left New Franklin for fresh premises across the river in Boonville soon after the birth of the third, William Henry, in 1839, as reported in the Western Emigrant of March 21st 1840.

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