On December 28, 1809, an article appeared in the Louisiana Gazette, published in St. Louis, Missouri, informing readers that “about the 20th ult. Capt. R. Smith, Mr. M’Lanehan and a Mr. Patterson set out from the district of St. Genevieve upon a journey to St. a Fee [Santa Fe]… We presume their objects are mercantile; the enterprise must be toilsome and perilous…altogether through a wilderness heretofore unexplored.”
It was an innocuous beginning to what would become a harrowing, but eye-opening adventure. Reuben Smith, Joseph McLanahan, and James Patterson would, three years later, draw on that experience to become important players in the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition. Under Spain’s prevailing mercantilist system, trade between Spanish colonies and foreign countries was illegal. Traveling at all in Spanish territory was a punishable offense – wary Spanish authorities had imprisoned Zebulon Pike two years before, and killed Philip Nolan before that. But America, with its policy of free trade, was already in an undeclared war on mercantilism as a result of the embargos arising from the ongoing Napoleonic Wars. For the three Missourians, the lucrative trade opportunities were worth the risk, and breaking the barrier, patriotic. While historians have focused on the trade with England and France that became a spark for war, potential for trade with New Spain was not inconsiderable for American merchants, who began to visit South America with increasing frequency in the 1790s. Trade with the interior provinces of Spain to this point was insignificant, but Americans were well aware of Mexico’s fabulous mineral wealth. What they were now learning, however, was that the trade could be very lucrative in both directions. For Smith, McLanahan, and Patterson, the eureka moment on the frontier was the return of Pike in 1807. His experiences were already well known on the frontier before they were published to great acclaim in 1810. New Mexico was locked into a one-way trading relationship with Chihuahua, where monopolies of powerful merchants controlled the prices their neighbors to the north paid for most goods. Consequently, the cost of export products made locally was arbitrarily low: a hundred pounds of flour sold for only two dollars, a load of salt for five. On the other hand, New Mexicans paid exorbitant prices for imported goods: $4 for a yard of linen, $20 for fine cloth. No doubt the Missouri traders, contemplating this business, hoped to replay the dramatic opening of Louisiana trade by Gen. James Wilkinson in 1787, which had earned him wealth and great prestige throughout the Mississippi Valley. McLanahan explained the motivations for the first-ever expedition from St. Louis to New Mexico in a letter to Missouri Governor Benjamin Howard: “Indulging in common with our fellow citizens of the United States a portion of that spirit of enterprize [sic] which has with unparalleled rapidity advanced our country in the scale of prosperity and happiness the undersigned commenced in the autumn of 1809 a journey into the interior provinces of Spain.” In the letter, written on the expedition’s return, McLanahan admitted to the governor that he was well aware of Spain’s mercantilist history, but “it is well known to your excellency that a new era has taken place.” The Spanish monarchy in Europe had been “shaken to its centre” and a spirit of “consequent amelioration had pervaded many of the glooms on the continent of America.” He then concluded, “In the spirit of these considerations, and under the genius of our liberal institutions our tour was commenced.”
Unfortunately for the three eager traders, no such amelioration had taken place in New Mexico. They were arrested and sent to Chihuahua, where they were clasped in irons. Those awaiting word in St. Louis soon got it via a Spanish report of the capture of “spies or emissaries of Bonaparte.” The notice, printed in a Philadelphia newspaper, promised “justice should not be delayed in order to purge the Spanish soil of such vermin.” An outraged editorialist in the Louisiana Gazette, passing along these incendiary remarks, reminded readers of its earlier announcement of the allegedly peaceful mission: “Messrs. Smith, M'Clanahan and Patterson strangers to the policy of Mexico and the monkish barbarism of the natives, they conceived they would visit white men clothed with the christian name; unhappy credulity! They would have found more generosity in the breast of an Arab, more hospitality in the den of a Hiena. [sic] — The assassins of Mexico have ere this butchered three respectable inhabitants of Louisiana!!”
They had not in fact been butchered. After two years, they were paroled, but required to remain within the city of Chihuahua. With no funds to sustain themselves and separated from their Spanish interpreter, they were reduced to begging on the streets. News of their treatment caused outrage across the borderlands; there was talk of an armed expedition to liberate them. Before that could happen, they were released after the U.S. government complained of their treatment. After long suffering, and having learned a great deal about the revolutionary conditions in Mexico (James Patterson may have personally witnessed the execution of Father Hidalgo), the men returned to Missouri as heroes in June 1812. McLanahan penned the above-mentioned letter shortly thereafter. In it, he told the governor that the people of New Spain “ardently desired” free and reciprocal trade with America and “that our return under more auspicious circumstances and with whatever views would be hailed by them with joy and exultation.” It was a perfect confluence of events: When they arrived with their harrowing tale, Spain never seemed weaker and Gutiérrez was already recruiting filibusters throughout the West. The three traders joined up, becoming leaders of one of the expedition’s companies gathering in the Neutral Ground. If stories of a planned relief mission for the three men are true, the volunteers who embraced their cause likely became a ready source of men for the new company. Although the new expedition was supposedly secret, McLanahan referred to it obliquely in his letter to the governor:
The reasons Sir, which suggested to us the laudable nature of our first enterprise operate now upon us with double force. Although blindfolded as it were by tyranny we have yet seen enough to awaken enquiry and stimulate exertion…We think we can calculate the amount of opposition, we feel that we can justly appreciate the glowing reception we shall meet from the unfortunate, the imbruted American Spaniards…The enterprize, [sic] Sir, which we contemplate undertaking may as you will readily perceive be attended with difficulty and danger. [emphasis added]
McLanahan cited the annual message of President James Madison seven months before as “the admonition of our patriotick [sic] President.” He concluded to a possibly wary governor that “we cannot permit ourselves to apprehend that the countenance and approbation of our venerated government will be withheld from an expedition.” The traders’ ambition was scarcely a secret on the frontier. When William Shaler met the three men in Natchitoches, he wrote to Secretary of State James Monroe, “From the information I have of the character of those gentlemen, and from what I hear of their conversations here, I should not be surprised to hear of their again entering that country, and in arms.”
Were McLanahan, Patterson, and Smith legitimate traders only? They were more likely agents of Gen. Wilkinson, who had expressed to Aaron Burr in 1804 a preference to attack Mexico via Santa Fe. Reuben Smith’s mother was Lucy Wilkinson, born in Essex County, Virginia, a short distance from Wilkinson’s home county in Maryland. At least one recent work has seen this as proof of a familial connection. Regardless of Wilkinson’s involvement or not, Spain’s treatment of the men, as well as its hostility to direct foreign trade with its colonies, was an incitement to many on the frontier. In the America of the first decades of the nineteenth century, the lines between trade and liberty were already thin in the American mind. With the contest in Europe continuing, the line between trade and filibusterism was blurring as well.
 Louisiana Gazette, December 28, 1809, In Thomas James, Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans (Saint Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 1916), 286.
 Brown, 29.
 Max L. Moorhead, New Mexico’s Royal Road: Trade and Travel on the Chihuahua Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954), 58.
 Joseph McLanahan to Governor Benjamin Howard, June 12, 1812, In James, 289.
 Louisiana Gazette, March 14, 1811, In James, 287-88.
 John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513-1821. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1970), 218.
 Patterson and Smith are well-documented in the records of the expedition; McLanahan is identified as John, rather than Joseph.
 Joseph McLanahan to Governor Benjamin Howard, June 12, 1812, In James, 291-292.
 Shaler to Monroe, Natchitoches, May 2, 1812, Shaler papers. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
 Andro Linklater An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson (New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2009), 218.
 Descendants of Capt. Nicholas Smith http://mendheim-usa.com/Exhibits/Descendants%20of%20Capt%20Nicholas%20Smith%20-%20Nine%20Generations.pdf (accessed Sep. 27, 2016) and James E. Starrs and Kira Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation. (Omaha: River Junction Press, 2009), 319.