In the early days of the Texas Republic, the Santa Fé Trail ran from Santa Fé, in Mexican territory, into Missouri. The busy trade route looked like a ripe opportunity to Texas' president, Mirabeau B. Lamar.
A Road to Riches?
Aiming to alleviate the substantial debts of the young republic, Lamar set upon the idea of redirecting the trail to the Southwest, through what would be Texas' new capital city, Austin. Without legal sanction, Lamar sent a group of commissioners, merchants, and militiamen into Mexican territory on the Santa Fé Expedition. José Antonio Navarro was among them.
Navarro was reluctant to enlist in the scheme. Perhaps hoping Navarro would facilitate communication with the area's native Mexican population, Lamar personally persuaded the senator to join the group. With misgiving, Navarro accepted the appointment. He hoped that he would be able to protect the area's Spanish-speaking residents if they did come under Texas rule.
The group left Texas in mid-June of 1841. Four months later, starved by poor provisions, beset by Indian attacks, and bedeviled with faulty navigation, the expedition met Mexican militia in the outlying settlements of western New Mexico. The Mexicans had heard of their quest, and seized the members of expedition, marching them to Mexico City.
The U.S. government intervened and the American citizens in the group were released. Navarro, however, was at the mercy of the Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna. Calling him the "vilest of traitors," Santa Anna sentenced Navarro to life in prison.
As Navarro suffered in prison, his San Antonio home was invaded twice by Mexican troops. In the years of his absence, relations between Anglos and Tejanos there had deteriorated. Anglo-American volunteers who had come to Texas' aid in securing independence from Mexico made no distinction between Tejanos -- Spanish-speaking Texas citizens -- and the Mexican aggressors. Incited by rumors of Mexican insurrection and treason, Anglos in San Antonio even threatened the life of the Texan revolutionary hero, Juan N. Seguín.
In 1844 Navarro escaped from prison. A British vessel took him to Cuba and New Orleans as he made his way back to Texas. His affiliation with the Santa Fé Expedition and his sojourn in a Mexican prison added to his already lustrous reputation for having signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, and he arrived a hero. The following year, Navarro played a key role in Texas statehood.
Prelude to War
The Santa Fé Expedition may have failed, but it was just a prelude to further American encroachment on Mexican territory. Believing that it was America's manifest destiny to occupy the North American continent all the way west to the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. continued provoking its Southern neighbor right up until 1846, when the two nations would go to war over contested lands.