Struggling with scant provisions through the rugged Taos wilderness, a 19-year-old Kentucky fur trapper and his Black servant wondered if they would ever reach American civilization alive after being freed in 1819 from imprisonment in Santa Fe.
Finding themselves over 1,000 miles away from the nearest United States settlement, David Meriwether and his companion, Alfred, had ventured into New Mexico on an exploration that had taken a terrible turn. While fur trapping in the Taos area, the men had been ambushed by Mexican troops and witnessed the violent deaths of their companions in the attack. After a period of grim imprisonment, the pair braved the icy Taos wilderness again in search of refuge.
Little did Meriwether know that in 1853 he would return in triumph as governor of the Territory of New Mexico.
Meriwether and Alfred had formed a trading party of 17 men, mostly Pawnee, sent out on behalf of the American Fur Company based in New York state. The group was interested in trading fur and other items for bullion as well as gaining permission to hunt and trap animals along waterways in colonial New Mexico. The young Kentuckian was a cousin of famed explorer Meriwether Lewis — of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the first American group to cross the western United States.
Already an experienced hunter and trapper, Meriwether had worked for a year helping the American Fur Company achieve dominance of the entire United States fur trade. In the 1820s, the company began to expand its monopoly to the Rocky Mountains from the Midwest and Great Lakes regions.
A glimpse at the workings of this ambitious business is shown in an October 1824 article in Niles’ Weekly Register, a popular Baltimore-based national news magazine. It noted that “the greatest quantity of furs ever before offered for sale at one time in the United States will be put up for auction” in New York City to be sold in lots to buyers. The trove consisted of: 10,000 buffalo robes, 12,500 pounds of beaver, 60,000 hare and nutria skins, 72,000 raccoon skins and 120,000 muskrat skins.
Meriwether’s group ventured deep into New Mexico and explored the northern wilderness, known for its abundance of opportunities for trappers. While fur trapping in the region surrounding Taos, they were attacked by soldiers patrolling the frontier areas. The soldiers, likely from the garrison in Santa Fe, killed most of the Pawnee and captured Meriwether and Alfred. Both prisoners were escorted to Santa Fe where they were brought before Gov. Facundo Melgares, a former military officer. He accused them of being United States spies and placed them under arrest. At that time, tensions were at a height between the Spanish crown and the U.S. government over Florida, which was eventually ceded to America in 1819.
Meriwether was incarcerated inside the Palace of the Governors. Alfred was held in custody at an undisclosed location in Santa Fe. During his imprisonment, the Kentuckian was questioned frequently about his motivation for coming into New Mexico. However, Meriwether was unable to communicate in Spanish. A local French-speaking Catholic priest intervened as an intermediary whom Meriwether, who had learned some French in Louisville, could partially understand. After a month, Meriwether was reunited with Alfred. Both were informed that they were free to return to the United States if they promised never to return to New Mexico.
Banished, they were escorted beyond the city of Taos by three soldiers from Santa Fe. They were ordered to make their way to American civilization — and released into the cold.
Approaching winter nipped at their heels as they traveled with only a mule, a gun and a small amount of ammunition through harsh terrain and lands populated by unknown Natives who had minimal contact with outsiders. Guided by the sun during the day and the stars at night, they traveled under constant fear of attack amid cold and starvation. They killed their mules to eat. A cave along the journey provided refuge from the snow. Eventually they found shelter in a trading post closer to American lands.
After trekking for many months through the wilderness, Meriwether and Alfred reached safety. Grateful for his help and protection during their travels, Meriwether freed Alfred from slavery when they returned to Kentucky.
Fate took Meriwether back to New Mexico under better fortunes. In fact, the former captive returned to the place of his imprisonment — the Palace of the Governors — as its lord. Meriwether became the third territorial governor of New Mexico, after being appointed in 1853 by President Franklin Pierce. The president was related to Meriwether as a cousin by marriage.
It was one of those ironic twists of fortunes that rarely happens in history — some might have thought it destiny. In Santa Fe, thousands of people were on hand to cheer Meriwether, formerly a hounded refugee from New Mexican justice, as he took office. A local newspaper noted that Meriwether was greeted with shouts and huzzas as he drove up to the Palace of the Governors to take up his post. He served until 1857 before returning to Kentucky, where he served in the legislature and later died in 1893.
As strange as this tale may seem, another oddity connected to Meriwether and New Mexico caused many to wonder. On the evening of his triumphal return to the Palace of the Governors where he would make his home, a strange occurrence took place. While imprisoned, Meriwether had once been held captive in a room in the west section. As darkness fell upon the city, the roof of that very room fell in. Was that another stroke of destiny? Some said it was an omen.