Book Review: Youth on the Santa Fe Trail

 

Kattell.Youth On The Santa Fe Trail cover
Youth on the Santa Fe Trail
by Camilla Kattell
Light Horse Publishing, November 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0996675406

We tend to forget just how young many of the travelers on the Santa Fe Trail were. I suppose this is because we associate the Trail with merchant caravans more than we do with family settler groups.

In Youth On The Santa Fe Trail, Camilla Kattell reminds us that some of the most famous voices from that famous road were not yet twenty when they travelled it. In addition to Christopher “Kit” Carson, these young people included the soon-to-be mountain man Richens Lacey Wootton, future authors Francis Parkman, Jr. and Hector Lewis Garrard, diarist Susan Shelby Magoffin, and—youngest of them all at age seven—Marian Sloan Russell.

One of the things I especially appreciate about this book is that Kattell includes information about travelers I was unfamiliar with, including James Ross Larkin, an early health seeker on the Trail, sportsman William B. Napton, and New Mexico native José Librado Gurulé.

But Youth on the Santa Fe Trail does more than provide a concise biography of these travelers. It also provides context for their particular story and, in doing so, helps us to understand their world. For example, Kattell’s portrayal of Susan Shelby Magoffin helped me to see this young woman in a way I hadn’t before.

When I read the Magoffin diary a number of years ago, I was frustrated by what I saw as her very narrow view of the world. Youth on the Santa Fe Trail reminded me that Magoffin’s strict, rather puritanical, upbringing would naturally make her look askance at women smoking cigarettes and church hymns set to apparent dance tunes. What I saw as a narrow mindedness can also be viewed as a difference in cultures which Magoffin was doing her best to assimilate. Kattell expanded my view of this young woman’s perspective.

While Youth On The Santa Fe Trail is about the youth who traversed the Santa Fe Trail, it is certainly not only for young readers. It will give you a new appreciation for the Trail’s travelers, the impact they had on both their destination, and the way their experiences on the trail shaped that impact. I recommend it for anyone interested in the history of the Trail and of New Mexico.

 

THE TIRED DOG

The red-bearded man in the tattered coat and a dirty blue bandana for a hat squatted in the middle of the adobe casita’s single room and scooped the thick stew into his mouth with his fingers, grunting with pleasure. The woman placed a small wooden plate piled high with tortillas beside him. The man sucked his fingers clean, then grabbed a tortilla and used it to shovel more food into his mouth.

The two children perched on the adobe banco in the corner stared silently at the strange americano until their mother motioned at them to go outside. She replenished the man’s stew, then followed them.

“Come como perro amarrado. He eats like a tired dog,” the girl said. She wrinkled her nose. “So rapidly and with no manners.”

Her mother turned from the wood pile, her arms full. “He is our guest,” she said reprovingly. “Come, bring more wood for the fire.”

When they reentered the house, the man had finished his meal.

“More?” the woman asked.

He shook his head. “No, but I thankee. That’s the first meal I’ve et in three days.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “I’m lookin’ for the wife of Juan Leyba, the one that went to Elizabethtown two years ago t’ find work.”

The woman went still, her lips stiff with fear. She licked them nervously. “I am the wife of Juan Leyba, the one who went to that Elizabethtown to labor in the mines there.” She swallowed hard. “He is well?”

“Oh yes, ma’am!” the americano said. “I’m sorry to frighten you ma’am.” He pulled a small leather bag from a pocket and held it out. “This here’s from him. There’s about two ounces o’ gold in it. He says t’ use it t’ buy that land you wanted, or come to him, whichever seems best t’ you.” As she reached for the bag, he looked at the children and grinned. He shoved his hand into another pocket. “An’ he sent these fer the young uns. Gotta little linty in my pocket, but I think they’re all right.” His fingers opened, revealing a collection of hard candies, enough to keep a careful man going for at least a day and a half.

from Valley of the Eagles

Mail Escort Survives October Snow

Captain Louis Felsenthal and the men of New Mexico’s Fort Union’s Company C were out in the field in September and October 1864, escorting mail-and-passenger stagecoaches between Fort Lyon and Fort Union. This should have been pleasant enough duty on the Plains in the fall of the year—the heat reduced, plenty of grass for the mules pulling the supply wagons, golden trees lining the rivers that crossed the open prairie.

But the duty wasn’t pleasant. The weather that fall was unusually cold. By October 20, Felsenthal and his men were experiencing snowstorms every few days. They hadn’t expected these kinds of conditions and didn’t have winter clothing with them. They must have been glad when their two-month rotation ended and they could head back to Fort Union.

They were en route to the Fort, on the north side of Raton Pass, when they were caught in the worst snowstorm they’d seen to date. The company and its animals struggled up and over the Pass, then down to Red River Station, where they sheltered as snow continued to fall all that night and through the next morning.

At that point, the snow on level ground was over a foot and a half deep. And still coming down. It fell steadily snow for two more days until Felsenthal, worried about the lack of forage for the mules, decided to break for Fort Union.

Oct 29 post illustration.Felsenthal

Four days later, after marching through snow that reached to their waists, men, wagons, and mules arrived at Lucien B. Maxwell’s ranch in what is today’s Cimarron). By the time they got there, many of the men had frostbitten feet and most of them were snow blind from the glare of the sun on the snow. But they’d all made it.

One reason Felsenthal and his men survived their trek is that a herd of cattle destined for Fort Union was also marooned by the storm at Red River Station. As a result, the Captain was able to buy 378 pounds of beef to feed his men, giving them the fuel they needed for their coming journey.

They were also fortunate to reach Red River Station when they did. The storm that closed in after Company C arrived there extended north and east across the Colorado plains, creating deep drifts on the stage route between Bent’s Old Fort and Denver and making the divide between the Arkansas and the Platte Rivers particularly treacherous.

You can just never tell what the weather’s going to do on the Western Plains.

Sources: Jacqueline Dorgan McKenna, Louis Felsenthal, Citizen Soldier of Territorial New Mexico, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West, stagecoach lines on the santa fe trail, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.

THIS HORRID WIND

The boy woke in the night to wind howling through the rafters and down the rock-and-mortar chimney. The chimney stack passed through the cabin loft and the boy’s sleeping pallet lay next to one end of the stack. He reached to touch the chimney. The stones were icy cold. The boy grimaced. The morning fire would take an extra-long time to light. The kindling itself would be cold. He scrunched farther into the blankets, seeking his own warmth.

At the other end of the chimney, his sister stirred. “Is that wind?” she asked sleepily.

“Banshees,” he said.

She made a chuckling sound and he grinned, more awake now, and suddenly cheerful. “Elk on the roof, bugling,” he said.

“Wolves at the door,” she suggested.

“Wolves in the fireplace.”

“Werewolves howling.”

“La llorona weeping for her children.”

The wind gusted sharply. The cabin shuddered, then a sustained high-pitched howl set up under the roof overhang outside.

“La llorona screeching for her children!” the girl giggled, trying to stifle her voice, and then the boy was laughing too, not so quietly.

The wind dropped abruptly and there was a rustle of movement at the base of the ladder. “What in tarnation are you two doing up there?” their father called softly from below. “Your mother is trying to sleep.”

“But not succeeding,” their mother’s voice said. Lamplight flared from the dark space at the edge of the loft. “You two might as well come on down,” she said. “This horrid wind is keeping us all awake.”

Loretta Miles Tollefson © 2017

Book Review—New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage

Dunmire.New Mexicos Livestock Heritage.cover
by William W. Dunmire
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2013
ISBN: 9780826331656

Have you ever been browsing in a bookstore and come across a book that you didn’t know you needed until you saw the title? That was how I discovered William W. Dunmire’s New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage. I suspected it could provide me with information that would add new dimension to my fiction. I have not been disappointed.

The subtitle of this book is “four centuries of animals, land, and people,” but the land and people are seen through the lens of the animals, not the other way around. The animals covered include the ganado mayor — the horses, donkeys, mules, cattle, and oxen — and also the minor livestock such as pigs, chickens, and sheep.

Dunmire discusses the types of animals that came in with the Spanish and also their impact on the cultures already in what the Spanish named nuevo mexico. Although the indigenous peoples were not necessarily interested in getting along with the Spanish, they seem to have immediately seen the value in acquiring the animals, especially their sheep and horses.

Dunmire does a great job of describing the impact of the imported livestock on the region from the 1500s into the 20th century, including their affect on the landscape. New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage is a well-written book that will be of interest to historians as well as the more casual reader who wants to know more about the mingling of cultures in New Mexico.

DANGER SIGNS

“I sure could do with some raised biscuits,” Peter Kinsinger said over his shoulder as he and his brother Joseph trudged east through the snow toward the top of Palo Flechado Pass. He hitched the aspen pole that supported the elk carcass between them into a more comfortable spot on his shoulder. “I hear tell Kennedy’s wife knows how to make ’em real good. His place is only a few miles now and his prices are reasonable.”

“You could wait for Elmira’s biscuits,” Joseph said. “She’ll be waitin’ on us.” He hadn’t liked the looks of the isolated and ramshackle Kennedy cabin when they’d passed it on their way into the Pass and Taos Canyon beyond. They now had the meat they’d been hunting and he was tired of November snow and cold.

Peter turned his head and grinned. “I’m a mite chilly, ain’t you? And thirsty. A fire and a little liquid refreshment would be a right comfort just about now.”

Joseph chuckled. Peter’s Elmira was a stickler about alcohol. Peter found it easier to stay away from the Elizabethtown saloons than to experience her tongue when he stumbled home from them. But a man deserved a nip now and then. And with the weather so inclement, it was unlikely there’d be anyone else drinking the liquor or eating the meals that Kennedy sold to passersby. “It is mighty cold out here,” he acknowledged. “And we’re still a good ways from Etown.”

The road leveled out at the top of the Pass, then the brothers began to descend, careful of the icy patches in the shady spots. They were about a quarter of the way down the mountain when they heard the echo of first one rifle shot, then another.

“Sounds like Kennedy’s huntin’ too,” Peter said.

“You may not get that drink after all,” Joseph said. “I hear tell his woman don’t open that cabin door if he ain’t there.”

“Too bad,” Peter said. “I truly am thirsty.”

Joseph chuckled. “It’s still a ways. Maybe he’ll be back before we get there.”

But when they came within sight of the Kennedy place, they both forgot all about liquid refreshment.

A man lay face down in the middle of the frozen dirt track that skirted the Kennedy hollow. The snow and dirt were splashed red with blood. Charles Kennedy’s bear-like form crouched beside the sprawled body.

The Kinsinger brothers eased their elk to the side of the road and hurried forward.

Kennedy looked up, his black beard bristling around a perpetually angry mouth, his eyes watchful. “Injuns,” he said.

Peter and Joseph looked at each other, then Kennedy.

“Is he dead?” Peter asked.

Kennedy nodded. “I fought the Injuns off.” He stood and gestured toward the cabin. “Bullet holes in th’ door.” He nudged the dead man’s torso with the side of his boot. “Greenhorn ran.”

Joseph leaned down, reached for the man’s shoulder, and rolled him over. “I don’t recognize him.”

“Came from Taos,” Kennedy said. “Merchant there. So he said.”

Joseph straightened and looked away, down the road to Elizabethtown.

“When’d it happen?” Peter asked.

“Couple hours ago,” Kennedy said.

The Kinsingers nodded, eyes raking the hollow and bloody snow, careful not to look at each other or Charles Kennedy.

“Well, we have meat to get home,” Joseph said. “We’ll tell the Sheriff’s deputy in Etown, and he can come fetch the body.” He looked down. “Whoever this is, I expect his Taos friends’ll be wantin’ to give him a proper burial.”

Kennedy nodded. He stood next to the dead man and ran his fingers through his beard as the Kinsingers returned to their elk, hoisted its carrying pole onto their shoulders, and trudged past him.

The brothers were out of sight over the rise to the northeast before either of them spoke.

“Injuns my hat,” Peter said over his shoulder.

Joseph spat into the snow at the side of the road. “Sure a convenient excuse though, ain’t it?”

“We didn’t see anything different,” Peter pointed out.

“Wouldn’t want to get crosswise of that one,” Joseph agreed.

They trudged morosely on up the valley toward Elizabethtown.

from Old One Eye Pete

 

Mormon Battalion Reaches Las Vegas

In early October 1846, the 500-member Mormon Battalion of Volunteers of the U.S. Army of the West marched through Las Vegas, New Mexico. They were on their way to California from Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they’d volunteered to fight in the Mexican-American conflict.

Their service had two conditions. First, each man would receive his $42 uniform allowance in advance but would wear his civilian clothing on the march. This enabled the men to donate most of their clothing money to the Church to buy wagons, animals, and other necessities for the coming move to what is now Utah. Second, the Battalion members would serve twelve months and no longer.

These men hadn’t volunteered because they supported the war against Mexico. Their leaders had asked them to join up. The Latter Day Saints needed Federal government agreement to cross what was rapidly becoming U.S. Territory and settle around the Great Salt Lake.

The LDS leadership also hoped that the Volunteers, the only single-religion battalion in U.S. military history, would help change public perception of the Church and its members by demonstrating their loyalty to the United States.

The Mormon Battalion was divided into two groups which traveled several days apart, but they were all in Santa Fe by mid-October 1846, where they met their new Captain, Philip St. George Cooke.

Oct 3 post illustration.Cooke

They were now about 45 percent through their 2,000 mile trek. Mountain man Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the child born to Sacagawea during the 1805 Lewis and Clark Expedition, would guide them the rest of the way. Charbonneau, Cooke, and the men of the Mormon Battalion would create Cooke’s Wagon Road, a route used after American annexation to transport goods and people to California.

They arrived in California in January 1847, shortly after Mexican capitulation to John Fremont, and therefore didn’t see battle. But they completed other useful tasks and fulfilled their full twelve month contract. After their service expired, some of the Battalion members stayed in California. A few of them were working at Sutter’s Mill when gold was discovered there on January 24, 1848.

As a result, not only did the Church receive much of the $30,000 the volunteers had earned during their military service, it also received $17,000 in contributions from the first fruits of what would become the 1849 California Gold Rush. Those funds were instrumental in getting the LDS congregation through the winter, providing the means for their epic journey to the Great Salt Lake area, and helping to establish them there.

Sources: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_Battalion Accessed 9/4/19; Paul J. Horgan, Great River, the Rio Grande in North American History, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1984;  John W. Kirshon, Ed., Chronicle of America, Mt. Kisko: Chronicle Press, circa 1989; Benjamin M. Read, Illustrated History Of New Mexico, Santa Fe, 1912;  Ralph E. Twitchell The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol. 2, Cedar Rapids: Torch Press;  www.mormonbattalion.com Accessed 9/4/19.