The Indians called Charles Alexander Warfield "Wa-pes-ta", because of the white plume he wore in his hat. In many other ways as well, Charles did not fit the common description of the typical rough-hewn, taciturn Mountain Man. However, from New Orleans to the Northwest, from St. Louis to Santa Fe and San Francisco, he ranged the wild trans-Mississippi region for many years, trapping, fighting the Blackfeet and the Comanches, soldiering for the young Texas Republic, taking time out for a trip to Europe, learning the ways of many Indians, and mastering the language of several tribes. Charles was talkative, witty, well-mannered and of "good appearance". He greeted the traveler with anecdotes of his experiences and with "freely-proffered" advice.
By 1832 the youthful Warfield was well known in the Rocky Mountains. He was reported to have traveled considerably in California, lived for a time in New Mexico, and visited Texas. In 1836 the Texas Republic hoisted its Lone Star flag and struggled to hold, and perhaps extend, its borders against the Comanches in the northwest and Mexico to the southwest. The battles on both fronts, including the Alamo, Goliad, San Jacinto, the San Antonio Massacre, the Sack of Linville and Plum Creek, have seldom been surpassed in savagery.
In 1842 Sam Houston hastily authorized three expeditionary forces which were commissioned to expand the Republic of Texas into Mexico and New Mexico. Charles Warfield led the second force and was a prominent participant in the third. Warfield's lengthy experiences in the West and Southwest, possibly abetted by his legendary persuasiveness, convinced the government of Texas that he could provide the leadership in a "punitive expedition" against the hated Mexican General, Manuel Armijo, in Santa Fe.
On August 16, 1842, the Secretary of War and Marine issued to Warfield a Colonel's rank and authorized him to recruit a force, commission in the field such officers as he deemed expedient, and move west, with Santa Fe and other New Mexico towns as acquisition targets. Mexican land and property, including trade caravans, were to be seized in the name of Texas. Half the spoils would be delivered to the Republic and half would be the property of the Colonel and his men, who, in addition, were to be rewarded with land grants.
Capable of persuading men either in civilization or in the big-shouldered wilds of the great West, Warfield headed for the Rockies to recruit men for his expedition. He was accompanied by Rufus Sage, a New Englander, who wrote a volume on his exploits in the West and thus provided one of the best sources of information on the Warfield expedition. However, Sage was dismayed to find, instead of the expected fighting force of four hundred, a band of only twenty four bearded and poorly clothed Mountain Men. Still, they setout for a scouting mission toward Taos. At "Point of Rocks" they were to meet up with Jacob Snively, who had orders to bring a larger force of men from Missouri and Texas. This force came to be called the "Texas Invincibles".
Although Snively's arrival was delayed, Warfield took his band of 21 Mountain Men on a raid into New Mexico in May 1843. In an early morning surprise attack against the Mexican military outpost of Mora, five were killed, four were wounded and eighteen were taken prisoner.
Soon thereafter, word was received that General Armijo was approaching with a large force of men, apparently to take over the escort duty from the Mexican border westward to the New Mexico trade centers. Snively finally appeared with about 185 men recruited from Texas and plans were made for Warfield to attack General Armijo's advance Guard. Warfield performed his job well, moving down the Cimarron Trail toward Taos until he confronted the 100-man vanguard on June 19, 1843. Twenty three of the vanguard were killed and all but two of the remainder were captured without a loss of any of Warfield's men. The battle was apparently finished within a few minutes.
During the next several weeks Snively's fortunes were reversed when a Comanche war party stampeded many of the soldier's mounts, which Warfield "failed to recapture despite a hot chase." Many of the soldiers began to doubt the promises of fortune. Furthermore, the impending annexation of Texas into the United States, changed the political landscape, and Captain Cooke, who represented the US government, with 200 dragoons, concentrated his efforts on intercepting the Texas Raiders. Thus, two large military bodies were closing in on the raiders from opposite points.
Word was soon received that a Mexican trading caravan had crossed the Arkansas River and proceeded without military escort toward Santa Fe. On July 9, Warfield took command, and leaving Snively and about forty men, who feared Armijo, pursued the wagon train. However, as they gained on the caravan, they encountered a fresh and profuse clutter of tracks on July 13, 1843, which suggested that the caravan was, in fact, guarded by a large Mexican cavalry force. Greatly outnumbered, Warfield chose to turn back. Soon thereafter, Warfield turned the leadership of the dejected fighters back to Snively and returned to the Rockies.
In 1843 Warfield met Sir William Drummond Stewart, a wealthy Scottish merchant on one of his many hunting trips in the Rockies. In 1844 he accompanied the sportsman to Europe. In April of the following year, Alfred S. Waugh and John B. Tisdale, artists who hoped to join the Fremont expedition of 1845, met and talked at length with Warfield in New Orleans. The Colonel gave the two artists letters of recommendation to Fremont, whom Warfield had apparently met during some of his western wanderings.
The West was changing and Alex Warfield, as he came to be known at the time, saw new opportunities. Trade became more diversified with the rise of the buffalo-robe and deerskin traffic. Oklahoma and southern Kansas had become an Indian haven. Colonel Warfield moved to the eastern fringe of this area and extended a series of trading operations westward. He lived in Benton County, northwestern Arkansas, in the early 1850s. In 1853, he moved to Short Creek in Jasper County, Missouri. He and his wife may have resided in Short Creek until the outbreak of the Civil War. During this period of time Warfield formed a partnership with Albert Gallatin Boone, a Westport, Missouri merchant and a grandson of Daniel Boone.
Warfield and Boone established numerous trading posts, perhaps fifteen or eighteen, in a flourishing trade with seven Indian tribes: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Quapaw, Seneca, Osage and Kickapoo. The principle commodities of trade to the Indians were clothing and textile products, hardware, flour, sugar and coffee. On their return trips the teamsters brought such items as furs, buffalo robes, deer hides, corn and pecans. This trade apparently prospered until the coming of the Civil War, which turned the Indian territories into a veritable no-man's land.
Warfield then moved west and, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he entered into a contract with the United States Army Quartermaster, Major J. L. Donaldson, agreeing to deliver 600 head of horses and mares to Fort Union for $90-$150 per head.
In 1862 and 63 Warfield was back in California. His letters from San Francisco and the trans-Sierra region reveal that he had invested in horses, cattle and gold and silver mining. Here the tracks of this illustrious, impetuous, swashbuckling man become lost in the mists of time.
Yet the footprints of Colonel Warfield loom large as a prime mover and shaper of western expansion through Texas and New Mexico. Almost single-handedly he caused three nations, Texas, Mexico and the United States, to dispatch sizeable armed forces along the Santa Fe Trail. Serving as both a quiet influential trader and a notorious raider, he was an enigma, one who could move back and forth between civilization and savagery; who loved the company of his fellow men as he swapped stories with them around the campfire; and who knew the ways of many Indian tribes. Given his critical role in westward expansion, his talents and his bravery, a place has been reserved in the history and lore of the Mountain Men for "Warfield of the white plume".
Adaptation provided by
Dr. George A. Scheele
La Jolla, CA