Merchants of Independence: International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1827–1860

William Patrick O'Brien


Winner of the 2014 Louise Barry Writing Award

The Kansas City Star — 100 Best Books of 2014

In the frontier town of Independence, Missouri, a commercial route for goods to and from Europe developed into a sophisticated international network of overland trade with Mexico.

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In the frontier town of Independence, Missouri, a commercial route for goods to and from Europe developed into a sophisticated international network of overland trade with Mexico. To trade goods, western Missouri entrepreneurs relied on the cooperative support and interactions of Anglos, Hispanos, Native Americans, Jews, Irish, free blacks, slaves, and women in order to succeed. Here William Patrick O’Brien examines the complexity of U.S. and Mexican trade alliances from 1827 to 1860 and how traders built consensus among individuals and various governmental and economic systems. The groups used in this study have been selected to underscore the town’s diverse and polyglot nature and to dispel the notion of any homogeneous base. Cultural convergence, cooperation, conflict, and their consequences all played a part to make this strategic locale on the Missouri River a challenging and premier American center for trade on the Santa Fe Trail.

A thoroughly researched book, Merchants of Independence examines the complexities of the international network of trade involving the United States, Mexico, and Europe Hispanos, and French.

—Susan Calafate Boyle, author of
Los Capitalistas: Hispano Merchants and the Santa Fe Trade

Merchants of Independence pulls back the veil of the commercial interworkings of the frontier town of Independence, Missouri, and explains how the community was an active participant in Santa Fe Trail trade from 1827 to 1860. No other study has assessed the role Independence played, and here William O’Brien makes a compelling case that the Santa Fe Trail trade was not just regional in nature, but part of an international trade network. This is significant.

—Jon E. Taylor, author of
A President, a Church, and Trails West



Introduction: Independence and International Trade
1: Western Missouri: The Beginning of a Trade with Mexico
2: The Town of Independence
3: The Trade
4: Contracts and Conflict
5: The Trade and Its People
6: McCoy, Waldo, and Smith: A Case Study in International Trade
Conclusion: Independence’s Place in the World: Community, Society, and International Trade
Appendix 1: Sale of Lots in Independence, July 1827
Appendix 2: Independence businesses in the 1860 Missouri State Gazetteer and Business Directory
Appendix 3: Value of selected shipments entering Missouri from Mexico between 1832 and 1853

Works Cited
About the Author


William P. O’Brien is cultural resource specialist for the National Park Service Intermountain Region’s Desert Southwest CESU. He received his PhD from the University of Colorado at Boulder.


William Patrick O’Brien’s Merchants of Independence is a fine local study of a town and its international economic connections. This smartly written book provides a wealth of detail on how the Santa Fe trade operated and adds to our understanding of this legendary commerce.

Jeff Bremer, Missouri History Review, June 2015

This book contributes to the historiographies of not only the Southwest and of economic history but also the United States at large. O'Brien did a remarkable job with such a small volume.

—Christopher Menking, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, April 2015

The book is a useful addition to the annals of western Americana. It forces readers to rethink their conception of the nature and meaning of the American Frontier.

—Choice, September 2014

This penetrating study of Independence is a major contribution to the history of the Santa Fe trade and essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of that international commerce.

—Dr. Leo Oliva, Wagon Tracks, August 2014

An extraordinary, well-researched glimpse into a key trade hub in the years leading up to the Civil War, Merchants of Independence is a welcome addition to American and Missouri state history collections.

Midwest Book Review, April 2014

Brian Burnes, The Kansas City Star, August 21, 2014: "Making Wagonloads of Money in Pre-Civil War Independence"

Jesus Lopez-Gomez, Independence Examiner, March 2014: "Author Uncovers Independence's Untold Past"

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