Abstract: 'The Commercial Intercourse of Nations': The Contest for the New Mexico Overland Trade, 1821-1846

Matthew Saionz


The arrival of a small Missouri trading party in Santa Fe, New Mexico in late 1821 inaugurated an overland commercial relationship between northern Mexico and the western United States that amounted to much more than romantic tales and idyllic wagon trains. The Santa Fe trade prompted an otherwise unlikely gathering of Anglo-Americans, Franco-Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and Europeans. Generally involving the exchange of American manufactured goods for Mexican silver, the lucrative business caught the gaze of wealthy entrepreneurs and prominent statesmen alike. Fur trappers, merchants, and freighters quickly made appeals to officials for better protection and more accommodating policies. This paper explores how government officials in the United and Mexico attempted to promote, regulate, and manipulate the commerce to the benefit of their respective nations from the opening of the trade in 1821 to the U.S. occupation of New Mexico in 1846. I argue that what began in the 1820s as an effort by both governments to actively promote commercial growth had, by the 1830s, been derailed by political turmoil in Mexico and the international crisis surrounding Texas. Much to the chagrin of (American) merchants, Mexican officials levied a series of taxes on incoming and outgoing goods in New Mexico with the hopes of retaining some of the silver, giving a considerable advantage to Mexican freighters and merchants. Despite mounting tensions between the two nations, both U.S. and Mexican troops acted to ensure commerce was not interrupted when forces from the new Republic of Texas tried to stake their claim to the profitable trade in the early 1840s. Profits began to dip after 1840, and the U.S. Congress passed a “drawback” bill in 1845 that offered a sizeable rebate on import duties, temporarily revitalizing the trade until war ceased all activities. The case of the New Mexico trade illustrates the commercial foundations of early nineteenth-century U.S. expansionism that entailed international cooperation as often as, if not more than, violence. This paper thus suggests a more amicable counter-narrative of U.S.-Mexico relations before the war than what unfolded in Texas.