James Wiley Magoffin, pioneering El Paso settler and merchant, was born in 1799 in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, the son of Beriah and Jane (McAfee) Magoffin, Sr., and the brother of Beriah Magoffin, Jr., who later became governor of Kentucky. In 1824 or 1825 he sailed from New Orleans on a ship bound for Tampico, Tamaulipas, but a storm wrecked the vessel in Matagorda Bay. He and the other passengers were eventually rescued by a coasting schooner and taken to Matamoros. Magoffin was the American consul in Saltillo, Coahuila, from 1825 to 1831. He married the widow María Gertrudis Valdez de Veramendi, a San Antonio native, in Saltillo in 1834. With headquarters in Matamoros he established important commercial relations between Texas and New Orleans, trading Texas products, particularly cotton, for finished goods such as machinery, hardware, furniture, and clothing. By 1836 he had moved to Chihuahua, where he became a prominent Santa Fe trader and became involved in copper mining. "Don Santiago," as he was called, developed a reputation as a shrewd businessman and a genial host given to entertaining lavishly. In late 1841 he led a caravan to St. Louis and returned by way of Santa Fe with forty wagons of merchandise. South of Santa Fe he encountered the bedraggled prisoners of the fruitless Texan Santa Fe expedition. He provided them with coffee and tobacco, and gave them food and champagne in Chihuahua.
Mexican officials suspected him of giving guns to the Comanches to keep them from attacking his wagontrains. In 1844, because of such suspicions or because of the Mexican government's increasing restrictions on international trade, the Magoffins moved to Independence, Missouri. There, Magoffin maintained two wagontrains on the Santa Fe Trail and established a mule-breeding farm. After María died in January 1845, Magoffin sent his two sons to Lexington, Kentucky, where they were educated by a private tutor (the elder of the two, Joseph Magoffin, later became mayor of El Paso), and placed two of his daughters in a convent in St. Louis. In June 1846 he went to Washington, where his friend Senator Thomas Hart Benton introduced him to President James K. Polk. Seeking to take advantage of Magoffin's experiences in the Santa Fe trade, Polk instructed him to join Gen. Stephen W. Kearny's expedition to conquer New Mexico. Magoffin caught up with Kearny at Bent's Fort in late July and helped negotiate the peaceful surrender of Santa Fe. He was sent on to Chihuahua to prepare the way for the advance of Col. Alexander W. Doniphan, but on September 27, 1846, he and four others were arrested as spies by the Mexican justice of the peace in Doña Ana, New Mexico, and sent to El Paso del Norte (present Juárez, Chihuahua). To add to his misfortunes, the Mexican authorities reported that all of Magoffin's wagons, equipment, and papers had been stolen by Apaches at Brazito, although they were later recovered. Magoffin spent several months imprisoned in Chihuahua and then Durango; he was apparently treated well by his captors, thanks in part to his insistence on entertaining them lavishly.
After his release in late June 1847, he returned to Washington and asked the federal government for $37,780.96 in compensation for his services and losses during the war, but Secretary of War George W. Crawford awarded him only $30,000. With this money Magoffin returned to Independence and organized another wagontrain, but on his arrival at El Paso del Norte he found that the high customs duties imposed by the Mexican government destroyed any hope of his turning a profit. At this time he apparently decided simply to stay where he was, and by June 1849 he had settled on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande, just across from El Paso del Norte. There he quickly became the leading Anglo-American in the area. He built a large hacienda that became known as Magoffinsville; sold mules and operated wagontrains, just as he had in Independence; raised what may have been the first alfalfa crop in the El Paso area; cultivated the first acreage in the vicinity of present-day Anthony, on the Texas-New Mexico border; and, especially after his marriage on August 17, 1850, to Dolores Valdez, the sister of his first wife, reestablished his reputation as a gracious and generous host. John Russell Bartlett was among his guests at Magoffinsville. In 1852 Magoffin lent money and supplies to William H. Emory, with whom he had served in the Mexican War, while Emory organized the United States-Mexico Boundary Survey.
In 1849 Magoffin led the local merchants in protesting Maj. Jefferson Van Horne's decision to locate a permanent military post at the old San Elizario Presidio. At least partially as a result of this petition, the troops remained at Coon's Rancho until they were removed to Fort Fillmore, New Mexico, in September 1851. In January 1854, Fort Bliss was established at Magoffinsville in buildings leased from Magoffin, who was also the post sutler.
In August 1852 Magoffin acquired an interest in the salt deposits on the eastern slope of the San Andreas Mountains in New Mexico. In January 1854, having heard that citizens of Mesilla, New Mexico, planned to take salt without paying him for it, he convinced the El Paso sheriff to organize a posse and set out after the salineros. The twenty-eight-man posse, which included William A. (Bigfoot) Wallace, encountered the 125 or so New Mexicans near the Chinos Road, and a battle ensued. The Texans triumphed, thanks largely to a small howitzer that had perhaps been lent by the commander of Fort Bliss, and returned with the New Mexicans' captured oxen. Magoffin and his allies were indicted at Mesilla for assault, but they were beyond the jurisdiction of the New Mexico territorial court and never came to trial. Eventually, however, Magoffin did agree to pay for the oxen, and two years later the charges against him were formally dropped.
He was a staunch and vocal supporter of the Confederacy. In March 1861 he and Simeon Hart were appointed commissioners to receive the surrender of federal properties at Fort Bliss. Magoffin also supplied John W. Baylor and Henry H. Sibley on their marches to New Mexico, and in 1862 went with the Confederate forces to San Antonio. His properties in the El Paso area were seized by the occupying Union forces. In the fall of 1865 Magoffin went to Washington to seek amnesty from President Andrew Johnson for his activities on behalf of the Confederacy. He was unsuccessful, but on November 13, 1865, Governor Andrew J. Hamilton commissioned him to go to El Paso and organize a militia company and a county government. Magoffin arrived at Fort Bliss on May 6, 1866, but Capt. David H. Brotherton refused to allow him to proceed. He returned to Washington, and this time, with the intercession of army paymaster Benjamin W. Brice, he was granted amnesty and restored to citizenship. Magoffin returned to San Antonio, where he died on September 27, 1868, following a long siege of dropsy.