A near fatal mistake

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Frontier merchant Thomas James on May 10, 1821, departed St. Louis carrying a large stock of trade goods that he intended to sell in Santa Fe. With him were nine other men, including fellow businessman John McKnight.

At this time, the Santa Fe Trail, as we now know it, was not yet defined.

The Thomas James party, therefore, simply followed a compass west and a bit south that brought them into wild country in the northeast quadrant of today’s New Mexico.

There in the vicinity of the upper Canadian River, they ran into a huge tepee camp of Comanches numbering in the hundreds, or even thousands, as James remembered it.

One of their chiefs, “a vicious old man with one eye,” ordered these white men to unload and open their horse packs.

Then the Indians began plundering the piles.

By the time a high chief, named Big Star, showed up and put a stop to the theft, James estimated he’d lost $2,000 worth of the total merchandise. Even worse, the Comanches refused to release them.

The Americans remained virtual prisoners for three days, while more seizures were made on the trade stock. Big Star continued to be friendly, but he was the only one.

On the third morning, the women and children began pulling down the tepees in preparation for a move. The leading chiefs and warriors climbed a low mound nearby to smoke and hold a council.

“They are deciding whether you live or die,” Big Star informed the group.

When the council ended and the verdict of death was shouted, James and his fellows formed a circle and faced outwards holding their weapons.

“The suspense was awful,” Thomas James recorded long afterward in his memoirs. “We looked defiant and determined, and everyone seemed ready to die in arms, fighting. Not a single one of us was overcome by fear.”

Grimly, they stood like that in deadly silence for half an hour. At last the strain became unbearable.

McKnight spoke up: “There is no hope. Let’s each fire at a chief and bring this to an end.”

“No,” James said. “We should wait as long as possible. When our enemies fire the first shots, we can shoot, then charge with knives and hatchets, selling our lives as dearly as possible.”

As would be learned later, the Comanches had agreed that when the last tepee as brought down by the women, that would be the signal to massacre the white men, then divide up the remainder of their property.

As James and his companions were uttering their final prayers, six horsemen came riding in at full speed shouting in Spanish.

“Save them! Save them!” A Spanish officer called out. “Thank God we are in time. You are all safe and unhurt.”

It seems a troop of soldiers from the Santa Fe presidio had been camped some miles away. New Mexicans were then allies of the Comanches and from several of those Indians who were out searching for stray horses, they learned that Americans were in mortal danger at the central camp —ence, their headlong ride to the rescue and arrival at the very last minute.

The officer asked the chiefs why they were going to kill these travelers who were no threat. They replied that the big governor at Santa Fe had once told them not to let Americans pass and since this trading party had insisted on going ahead, they thought they were compelled to take their lives. The Spaniard then told the Comanches that Spain was no longer in charge. The New Mexicans were now independent and free, and brothers to the Americans.

“That was the first news we had of Mexico’s independence,” Thomas James recalled.

And uplifting news it was, too, foretelling the likelihood that Spain’s old trade barriers across its boundaries would be lifted by the new government.

Not only were James and company in safe hands after their harrowing ordeal, but he managed to recover from the Comanches a portion of his confiscated trade goods and half of his saddle and pack horses.

A week later, they were all basking in the friendly warmth of their welcome to Santa Fe.

In his memoirs published 25 years after these events, Thomas James referred to his rescuers as “all very gentlemanly and liberal-minded men who saved us from extermination.”