The Story of James Wiley Magoffin

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The story of Beriah Magoffin has been told many times. This man for which Magoffin County, Kentucky was named, served as Kentucky's 21st Governor. His term in office occurred during the most turbulent times in our state and nation's history, The American Civil War. He dedicated his life to public service, and was considered among one of the wealthiest men in Kentucky. Anything this writer might contribute on his life would serve no other purpose than to validate the volumes already written about this man. What most Kentuckians fail to realize however, is that Governor Magoffin had an older brother. A brother that perhaps contributed as much or maybe more to our nation's posterity than his more famous sibling, but whose story as a trail blazer, a war hero, and the founder of a great city has largely been forgotten to time.

James Wiley Magoffin, was the oldest child of Beriah sr. and his wife Jane McAfee Magoffin. He was born in Harrodsburg, Mercer County, KY. in the year 1799. The children of a successful Harrodsburg merchant, the Magoffin clan enjoyed a life of privilege, and unlimited opportunity. James attended the finest primary schools available and later attended Centre College in Danville. Upon his graduation from Centre, he set into the world to find his own fortunes.

His aspirations for success took him far away from Mercer County, and the year 1824 found him in the city of New Orleans. In that year, for reasons unknown, perhaps a business venture of some kind, he boarded a ship bound for Tampico, Mexico, but while in route across the Gulf of Mexico, a horrible storm set upon them and caused a shipwreck. James and the other survivors were plucked from the sea and taken to the port city of Matamores. He soon recovered from his ordeal, and found unlimited prospects for a young ambitious American in Matamores. He quickly won the admiration of some influential officials, and from 1825-1831 he served as the American Consul for the province of Coahuila. All the while establishing connections that would prove beneficial in later enterprises. In 1834 he married into a well connected family, and had became the head of a successful trade company. He made a sizable fortune in the cotton trade, and other commodities, and by 1836 he had expanded his ente rprises to include copper mining. He later moved to the Chihuahua Province of Northern Mexico, and soon became a prominent businessman there.

In 1841 he set upon an adventurous enterprise. Leaving his home near Santa Fe, he traveled across the great southwest desert leading a caravan to St Louis, Missouri. He returned later that year with forty wagons loaded with trade goods and supplies. The „Santa Fe Trail‰ as his route would become known, became a vital overland trade route between Northern Mexico and the productive factories and mills of the Eastern United States. Over the next few years, the Santa Fe Trail made some very rich men, including James Wiley Magoffin.

The great wealth that the Santa Fe Trail provided was not without risk. The cost of organizing a wagon train was high as were the dangers in crossing the desert. Not only was the desert itself a danger, but Indians often attacked these caravans, killing many men and destroying goods and stealing horses. It is doubtful that Magoffin was immune to these perils, but his wagon trains seemed to suffer far less than any of the other merchants, and Mexican officials accused him of trading guns and other supplies to the Indians in exchange for safe passage. Most likely his larger caravans, with more well armed men made such an attack impractical, the Indians simply waited for easier prey. Nonetheless these suspicions along with increased trade restrictions due to high tensions between the United States and Mexico, encouraged James to move his family away from Santa Fe and back to the United States, settling in Independence, Missouri. From here he continued to organize trains over the tr ail, but concentrated more on raising livestock to sell to other merchants.

In 1845, not long after moving to Missouri, Mrs. Magoffin passed away. He sent his sons to Lexington, Kentucky for continued education, and enrolled his daughters in school at a St Louis convent. He continued his business activities which required extensive travel, and June of 1846 found him in Washington D.C. where his good friend Missouri Senator, Thomas Hart Benton, introduced him President James K. Polk. President Polk was intrigued by MagoffinŒs life in Mexico, and summoned him for extended conversations. A lingering border dispute between the United States and Mexico had developed into an all out war. These meetings between Magoffin and Polk resulted in a Presidential Commission. He was asked to leave at once for Bent's Fort on the frontier to join General Kearney's expedition into the Chihuahua Province of Northern Mexico. Despite the past suspicions of trading with the Indians, James Magoffin was still held in high regards among the residents of Santa Fe. With a handful of men, he moved in advance of the American army into that city, and made contact with local government officials with whom he proceeded to negotiate the peaceful surrender of that place without one shot being fired.

With Santa Fe now in American hands, Magoffin and four men moved on towards the town of Chihuahua to prepare the way for Col. Doniphan's advance, but news of his approach had reached Mexican officials who moved to intercept him. On the 27th day of Sept. James Wiley Magoffin and his men were taken into custody, and he was charged as a spy. He spent the remainder of the war in a Mexican prison, but the loss of his freedom was not his only misfortune, the Mexican Government quickly seized all of his property and business assets within itŒs reach.

Following his release from Prison in June 1847. James returned to Washington and filed a petition for compensation for his services and loss of private property. The Federal Government awarded him only $30,000, a substantial amount for the day, but well below his total losses. Nonetheless he accepted the offer, and returned to Missouri. He invested everything to organize another trade expedition in hopes of recovering his lost fortunes by trading with post war Mexico. However, upon arrival at the border, he discovered high customs duties imposed by the Mexican Government would make any hopes of realizing a profit impossible.

With his every penny invested and no hope of a good return, he calculated his options. To go back to Missouri would be disastrous, and he knew his goods would be in high demand south of the border. He decided his only option was to remain exactly where he was on the American side of the Rio Grande River. Once again fate smiled on James Wiley Magoffin. The Mexicans flocked to his new depot as did American settlers who moved rapidly into the southwest territory. Capitalizing on his good fortune, he laid claim to a vast amount of land surrounding his outpost. He established a large hacienda nearby, and soon a town grew up around it, which later became known as Magoffinsville. He continued his trade business, but also expanded his operations to mining and farming, he raised livestock, and is credited with cultivating the first crop of Alfalfa in the area.

After gold was discovered in California in 1849, The Old Santa Fe Trail became a travel route to the west coast and as a result , by the mid 1850's increased Indian activity in the southwest required an expanded military presence. Once again the American Government called on him for help. In January 1854 he leased a huge portion of his land holdings to the U.S. Army for a base of operations. Fort Bliss was established near Magoffinsville, and naturally he was awarded supply contracts to the army. This relationship however would be short lived as Magoffin was a staunch supporter of the Confederate cause.

Although never an actual soldier, he was one of the commissioners that in March of 1861, requested and received the surrender of Fort Bliss, and all of the Federal property inside for the Confederacy. He supplied Cols. Baylor and Sibley on their 1861expeditions into New Mexico, but when the Union forces returned to the area in 1862, he was inclined to accompany the confederates on their retreat to San Antonio, and once again his personal property was seized.

He remained in San Antonio until the war's end, and in 1865 he traveled to Washington seeking amnesty for his actions while an agent of the Confederacy. His appeal fell on deaf ears, and he was turned away, but upon his return to Texas in November 1865 he was commissioned by Governor Hamilton to return to Magoffinsville, and use his influence to help establish a county government there. He arrived at Fort Bliss in May 1866 to begin this task, but the Federal commander refused to recognize his authority and sent him away.

Dejected, he made another trip to Washington, and at length, after intercession by high ranking friends, James Magoffin was granted a pardon for his actions and restored to citizenship. He returned to San Antonio, but with failing health, and after a long bout with illness he passed away at the home of his daughter on 27th Sept. 1868. He never returned to his home at Magoffinsville, and never realized that the little trading post he established there would in 1873 become incorporated as the city of El Paso, Texas.

The Magoffin Family home in El Paso is now the site of Magoffin State Park.