William Workman Orders Still For Taos Lightning

On Monday, February 13, 1826, William Workman of Taos, New Mexico sent a letter to his brother David in Franklin, Missouri. William asked David to have two 80-gallon stills shipped to him from St. Louis. Copper stills were essential in the production of hard liquor like the wheat-based Taos Lightning that William produced and sold.

Not only did William Workman’s letter ensure that Taos residents would have more liquor available to them, it also may have triggered one of the American West’s most famous runaway stories.

David Workman, a saddle and harness maker, had a teenage apprentice named Christopher “Kit” Carson. The letter from New Mexico may have reminded the young Kit that there were more exciting ways to earn a living. When he took off for New Mexico that August, he may well have traveled in the same wagon train as the stills that William Workman had ordered.

Workman manufactured Taos Lightning until 1841, when he himself had to run away, this time from—rather than to—New Mexico. Workman and his distillery partner John Rowland fled Taos for California that September, after rumors spread that they were collaborating with a Republic of Texas expedition to annex New Mexico.

feb-13-illustration-workman-william-1855-mnm-13492.jpeg
William Workman, 1855. MNM 13492

While Carson stayed in New Mexico and made him name for himself, Workman, in California and still partnering with John Rowland, obtained a Mexican land grant of over 48,000 acres and founded  Rancho de la Puente, now a cultural landmark in Southern California.

In both cases, running away seems to have been the best move either Workman or Carson could have made. They both made a name for themselves as a result.

 

Sources: Samuel P. Arnold, Eating up the Santa Fe Trail, University Press of Colorado, Niwot, 1990; Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Press, Logan, 1997; Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder, Doubleday, New York, 2006; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson, and His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003.

 

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BENT’S FORT

“After what you been through these last couple weeks, I’d of thought you’d be right tickled to get inside four solid walls,” the old man said. He pulled off his boots and lay back on the thin pallet with its mangy once-green wool blanket. His socks were black with grime. The stench of them in the windowless room turned Timothy’s stomach.

“I’ll sleep out,” Timothy repeated. “I suppose I’ve become used to having stars over my head at night.”

The teamster shrugged and stretched his arms luxuriously. “Me, I seen too many downpours,” he said. “Give me a dry bed under a solid roof and I’m in heaven, for sure. All I want to finish it off is a woman.” He propped himself up on one elbow, eyes bright. “You think you could do somethin’ about that third item while you’re out there?”

Timothy laughed. “I don’t speak Indian.”

“Ah, all you need is whiskey and a kiss. And you’re a good lookin’ cub. You probably wouldn’t even need whiskey.” The old man grinned toothlessly. “But you wouldn’t likely bring me that kind of gift, would you now? I know I sure wouldn’t if I was you. Guess I’ll just hafta see what I can rustle up for myself.” He sat up and reached for his boots.

Timothy chuckled and moved to the door. “Good luck with getting all three of your heavenly requirements,” he said.

“Huh?” The teamster was spitting on his hands, then using the moisture to slick back his grimy hair. He stopped his grooming process and frowned. “What requirements?”

“Bed, roof, and woman,” Timothy explained. “Me, I think I’ll just settle for a nice quiet bed.”

“Good luck.” The old man chuckled. “What with those two mule trains that followed us in here this afternoon, I doubt you’re gonna find a quiet spot anywhere near this old fort.”

from Valley of the Eagles

 

U.S. Agency Triggers Colfax County War

On Wednesday, January 28, 1874, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued the order that began New Mexico’s Colfax County War.

The Department had decided to designate the approximately 2 million acres claimed by the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company as public land, not private. This meant that the former Beaubien/Miranda land grant was now open to settlement under federal homestead laws.

The Interior Department’s decision was part of an ongoing dispute over the size of the Land Grrant. According to the Department, until that matter was settled in Federal Court, the land was public and therefore available to qualified homesteaders.

But the Land Grant Company wasn’t about to let anyone settle without payment on acreage they claimed as their own. And that payment certainly wasn’t going to go to the U.S. government.

In fact, the Company was already fighting settlers on the vast acreage they claimed. Their attorney, Frank Springer, was hard at work in New Mexico’s Territorial Courts, evicting anyone the Board believed shouldn’t be there. With evictions already occurring, opening the Grant lands to federal homestead claims was simply asking for more trouble.

Jan 28 illustration.Springer, Frank

And it came. If the Company couldn’t get rid of “squatters” through the courts, they’d try other strategies. This all cost money, of course, something that the Board was often short of. But even as the Company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, its board members continued the fight. If this required extra-legal methods, then so be it.

Right about the time the Department of the Interior announced its decision, another factor arrived in Colfax County. His name was Reverend Franklin J. Tolby. Tolby believed that the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company was taking more than its share of local resources. In fact, he advocated that some of the acreage in dispute be handed over to the Native Americans who’d hunted and lived there long before anyone even thought that American capitalists would have a use for it.

Tolby was articulate and people listened to him. This put him solidly in the sights of the Company’s board members. A lot had happened on the Grant up to this point: legal and extra-legal evictions, miners’ protests in Elizabethtown, meetings of concerned citizens in Cimarron, heated newspaper articles for and against the Grant Company. But none of that compared to what occurred after January 28, 1874. The Colfax County War was about to begin.

By the time it was over, Reverend Tolby and others would be dead, homesteaders would be burned or run out, and the Land Grant Company would be on the verge of yet another reorganization. The grant never did return the profit its investors had hoped for.

As with most wars, everyone got hurt in the end.

Source: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2014; Moreno Valley Writers Guild, Lower, Lower, and Legends, a history of northern New Mexico’s Moreno Valley, Columbine Books, 1997; Victor Westphal, Thomas Benton Catron and His Era, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1973; Stephen Zimmer, editor, For Good Or Bad, People Of The Cimarron Country, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1999.

SNOW, 3 of 3 — Homecoming

After an icy night huddled against his mule in the lee of a sandstone boulder, it took Peter another two days of slogging up Cimarron Canyon before he reached the valley above.

He had to lead the mule through the most treacherous part of the half-frozen marsh where the river formed up at the valley’s edge. “Come’n now,” he coaxed. “Can’t you smell the cabin smoke?” But she just rolled her eyes at him.

Finally they were through, his water-soaked boots heavy on his feet, the ten inches of snow on the ground making them colder. He turned left, toward home, and the mule’s pace quickened. “Smellin’ home?” Peter asked sardonically. They were close enough now to make out the cabin at the base of the rise. Smoke steamed from the chimney and the figure of a woman showed at the door, one hand to her forehead, gazing in his direction. Peter’s own pace quickened, in spite of the heavy boots.

from Valley of the Eagles

Governor Bent Misreads New Mexico

On Thursday, January 14, 1847, Charles Bent, New Mexico’s first American governor, left Santa Fe for his home in Taos. A few weeks earlier, Bent had nipped an uprising against his new administration in the bud. He was confident that the U.S. occupation of New Mexico was now secure enough to allow him a visit with his family in Taos. He took with him Narciso Beaubien, the 14-year-old son of newly-appointed American judge Carlos Beaubien, who had recently returned from school in Missouri.

By Sunday, January 17, Charles Bent, Narciso Beaubien, and at least ten others would be dead as the result of an uprising Bent had failed to foresee. In December, he’d thrown men of wealth and position into prison. He believed this was all he needed to do to stamp out any real opposition to the U.S. takeover of New Mexico.

He would discover how wrong he was as he lay dying at the hands of the unimportant people he had discounted, people who may have been striking out at New Mexico’s class system as much as the American occupiers. Bent and the other men killed that week in January were all linked in some way to the U.S. occupation or were believed to have taken advantage of their status as Americans, even if they were originally from another country. And they were all ricos—men of wealth and connections.

Jan 14 illustration.Charles Bent

While the fourteen-year-old Narciso Beaubien was the son of a rico, as a schoolboy, he hadn’t played a role in the American invasion, or even been in New Mexico when the takeover occurred. Why he was slain in mid-January 1847 remains a mystery. Did he die simply because he was Charles Beaubien’s son?

Sources: Marc Simmons, Kit Carson, And His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971; Lewis H. Garrard, Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1955.

SNOW, 2 of 3 — Caught

Peter studied the icy river beyond his mule’s twitching ears. “I should’ve started back yesterday,” he muttered. The mule stirred restlessly and he reached to soothe her. The Cimarron was almost frozen over; the canyon sides above it were white with snow. Man and mule turned to look west, where the canyon climbed up into the Moreno Valley, toward home. The wind gusted straight toward them, carrying snowflakes heavy with moisture out of a lead-gray sky.

The snow was more wet than cold, which would make it heavy. And it was coming down fast. They’d have a rough time getting through to the valley. The marsh where the river formed up would be half frozen and nasty. The mule snorted irritably and Peter nodded. “Yeah, I guess we’re gonna wait this one out,” he said.

He dismounted and led the animal out of the wind, into the shelter of an upthrust sandstone boulder. “Hope Patricia’s all settled in,” he muttered.  He looked upward and shook his head. “Shoulda started back yesterday.”

from Valley of the Eagles

Ewing Young, On The Move Again

On Sunday, January 1, 1832, Tennessee-born Ewing Young was once again on the move. Young had arrived in New Mexico in 1822. In the following ten years, he’d trapped the San Juan, Gila, and Salt Rivers, as well as the Colorado as far as the Grand Canyon. That was during the trapping season. The rest of the year, he kept busy hauling goods from Missouri over the Santa Fe Trail and selling them in Taos and Santa Fe.

Apparently all this activity wasn’t enough for Young. In 1831, he was looking for further adventure and profit. He recruited thirty-six other trappers** and headed farther afield. Young had a Mexican passport that allowed his party to travel to Chihuahua. But he and his men made no attempt to even look like they were headed south from Taos. Instead, they moved almost straight west to the Zuni villages.

There they traded for supplies, then moved across country to the headwaters of the Black River, in what is now eastern Arizona, and down it to the Salt. From the upper Salt, they crossed to the Gila River, then trapped the Gila to its junction with the Colorado. This is where they landed on the first day of 1832.

Jan 1 illustration.Young, Ewing.young man
Ewing Young as a young man

The group’s beaver catch hadn’t been very good. They were apparently all using the same traps, ones with a defect that allowed the beaver to escape from the sprung device. Young must have thought he’d solved the problem with the traps, because he made one last effort to gather plews by trapping down the Colorado to tidewater. When that didn’t work either, the larger group split up and Young and twelve men headed to California.

California had been Young’s destination all along. His business partner David Jackson was already there, trying to gather enough horses and mules to make it worthwhile to drive them east to the New Orleans markets. But by the time Young arrived in California, Jackson had only been able to collect about a quarter of the animals they needed.

The men with Young scattered at this point, some of them remaining in California and others returning to New Mexico and points East. Young himself stayed to hunt sea otter, and eventually settled on the West Coast. He’d wandered over a decade before he landed there.

Sometimes it takes a while for a man to settle down.

 

**Young’s band of trappers included Job F. Dye, Sidney Cooper, Moses Carson, Benjamin Day, Isaac Sparks, Joseph Gale, Joseph Dofit, John Higans, Isaac Williams, James Green, Cambridge Green, James Anderson, Thomas Low, Julian Bargas, Jose Teforia, John Price, J.J. Warner, and William Day.

Sources: Robert Glass Cleland This Reckless Breed of Men, Knopf, 1950; Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Press, 1997;  Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. I, Arthur  H. Clark, Spokane, 2000.