Mixed Experiences for Wool Ranchers on the Santa Fe Trail

In early May 1868, Hispanic sheep ranchers from across Northeast New Mexico headed east on the Santa Fe Trail from Las Vegas. Five hundred men were taking 200 ox-drawn wagons filled with wool to the Eastern markets. The ranchers had no sacks for theit wool, but that didn’t stop them. They piled their cargo into their wagons, tramped it down, covered it with sheets, and moved out.

The ranchers’ caravan included at least 3200 oxen and over 500 horses and mules. To protect the animals not actually pulling cargo, the wagons traveled in two parallel columns, with the horses and extra oxen between them. About 100 men rode in front to watch for hostile Indians.

May 4 blog illustration
Source: http://www.oregontrailcenter.org/HistoricalTrails/MulesOrOxen.htm

 

The Arkansas River was in flood when they reached it, and the caravan rested on the south bank for three days and waited for the water to subside. The crossing itself took another six days. The wagons full of wool were so heavy that 14 pairs of oxen were needed to get each one safely to the other shore.

Once everyone was across, relays of escorts from the newly established Santa Fe trail military forts accompanied the train to its destination. All in all, it seems to have been a good experience and the ranchers returned to New Mexico with a satisfactory financial outcome.

Their experience was a good deal more positive than Charles Blanchard’s later that year.  Blanchard, a French-Canadian who’d settled in Las Vegas a few years before, also hauled loose wool east on the Trail that summer. He and 12 other men took their cargo to Ellsworth, Kansas, the then-terminal end of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. They reached Ellsworth in July and Blanchard sold his wool and traded his ox team and $2000 in cash for 66 mules and 10 wagons.

So far so good. But shortly after Blanchard and his friends headed towards home, they were attacked by Indians, who ran off all the caravan’s animals, including Blanchard’s new mules. The 13 men took refuge at Fort Dodge, where they remained until October, when the trail was deemed to be again safe for traffic.

Clearly, the lesson here for men looking for new wool markets in the late 1860’s was to go early in the Summer, and well armed with vecinos.

Source: Howard Bryan, Wildest of the Wild West, 1988, Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe

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