This Fall marks the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico. I was going to write a piece about why the Trail was important to the U.S., then I found this. I think it pretty much covers everything I was going to say…..
“I seen him! I seen him!” The boy stopped, breathless, just inside the kitchen door.
“You mean you saw him.” His mother shook her head at him as she lifted the lid from the Dutch oven in the fireplace to check the biscuits. She smiled. “Who did you see?”
“Kit Carson! He was on the other side of the street, going into the Governor’s house.”
She nodded. “I heard this morning that he was back. What is he like?”
His shoulders sagged. “He didn’t look anything like the pictures in the book Grandpa gave me when we left Kansas City.”
“That was just a story,” she pointed out. She turned to stir the great pot of venison stew.
“I know,” he said. “But he wasn’t what I expected at all. He’s just a man.”
Copyright ©2013 Loretta Miles Tollefson
About this time 200 years ago, a man named William Becknell was on his way from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains to trade with the Indians. Or so he said. This is his story, as told by the Kansas Genealogy website. I love the old-fashioned language used in this report. I think it may closely reflect how he would have described what happened. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Captain William Becknell
“The first successful venture to Santa Fe over the Santa Fe Trail was made by Captain William Becknell. With him, according to Gregg, were “four trusty companions.” They left Arrow Rock, on the Missouri, near Franklin, but in Saline County, September 1, 1821. On the 13th of November they met a troop of Mexican soldiers, who prevailed upon them to voluntarily go, in their company, to Santa Fe, whither they were returning. At San Miguel they found a Frenchman who acted as interpreter for them. They were accorded a friendly reception at Santa Fe, and provided the facilities necessary to dispose of their goods. These sold at such rates as astonished the Missourians, calicoes and domestic cotton cloth bringing as much as three dollars a yard. The enterprise proved most remunerative. The party set out on the return journey on the 13th of December and reached home in forty-eight days.
That adventure may be said to have established the Santa Fe trade, and Captain Becknell had justly been called the father of the Santa Fe Trail, for that which he followed was accepted as The Trail from the Missouri River to Santa Fe.
The favorable termination of the trading-journey of Captain Becknell being extensively told on the borders of Missouri, others determined to engage in that commerce. Colonel Benjamin Cooper organized a company which left Franklin for Santa Fe early in May, 1822. His nephews, Braxton, and Stephen Cooper, were members of the party, which numbered some fifteen souls. They carried goods to the value of some five thousand dollars to Taos, using pack-horses. The result of the expedition must have been satisfactory for the Coopers remained in the trade for some years, Braxton Cooper meeting his death at the hands of the Comanches some years after this first trip across the Plains.
Captain Becknell was resolved to continue in the trade which had given him such good returns. Within a month after the departure of Colonel Cooper he again took the trail from Franklin to Santa Fe. The value of his cargo was about five thousand dollars, and there were thirty men in the expedition. On this journey he abandoned the use of packhorses and used for his transportation, wagons drawn by mulesthe first wagon-train over the Santa Fe Trail and the first to cross the Great Plains. It was four years before Ashley took his wheel-mounted cannon into the valley of the Great Salf Lake, eight years before Smith, Jackson & Sublette went into the Wind River country with wagons, and ten years before Captain Bonneville drove wagons into the valley of Green River. This first caravan to depart from the usual means of transportation used three wagons.
This second expedition of Captain Becknell was the pioneer party over the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail. Captain Becknell had, through his travels, conceived the true geography of the Southwest. It was plain to him that the nearest way to Santa Fe from the Arkansas River was to the southwest by the Cimarron. When he had arrived at that point afterwards known as the “Caches” he turned south. He was not familiar with the country which he was entering. It bore a desert aspect and proved entirely destitute of water between the Arkansas and the Cimarron. The supply carried in canteens was exhausted at the end of two days. It seemed that they were destined to die of thirst on those parched and blasted plains. They killed their dogs and out off the ears of their mules to drink the blood, but this desperate expedient served only to aggravate their suffering. The mirage taunted them with the appearance of water rippling against the shores of false lakes. They had, however, come near the Cimarron without knowing it. They resolved to turn about and try to regain the Arkansassomething they never could have done. In the last extremity, when despair was settling upon them, some of the party observed a buffalo coming up from a depression they had not before seen. It seemed to come up as from the depths and stand upon the burning plain with distended sidesas though gorged with water. It was immediately killed and opened. The stomach was filled with water taken but a few minutes before from the Cimarron. This filthy water was drunk as nectar from paradise. Search was at once made for the stream whence had come this lone providential buffalo, and the Cimarron was found. Water was carried back by the refreshed travelers to those perishing on the desert, and the party was saved. The journey was continued over that route, and water was fortunately found in quantities sufficient to enable the party to reach San Miguel.
The misfortunes of the party under Baird, which went out in 1812, the members of which were imprisoned so many years at Chihuahua, did not quench the passion for trade over the Plains in their leader. In 1822 he induced some adventurers at St. Louis to join him in taking a trading expedition over the Santa Fe Trail. He was joined also by Samuel Chambers, who had aided in securing the cargo to be carried, and who had descended the Canadian in 1821. The expedition consisted of some fifty men and an ample supply of horses and mules. It left Franklin late in the season and was overtaken by severe weather on the Upper Arkansas. It took refuge on an island in that river, no doubt for the reason that it was covered with willow and cottonwood timber. So rigorous did the winter prove that these men were compelled to remain there three months, and most of their animals perished from exposure and starvation. This calamity left them without the means to carry their merchandise into New Mexico. They were under the necessity of concealing their goods there while they went to New Mexico for horses and mules to carry in their lading. They left the island and went up the north bank of the river some distance where they dug pits or “caches” in which they placed their goods, covering them in very carefully. They then went to Taos, where they secured the necessary animals, with which they returned and on which they packed their merchandise to that town. The several pits were left unfilled when the goods were removed, and they stood open there on the Trail for many years. In Gregg’s day they were still open and their walls were covered with moss. They came to be a marking point on the Trail, and this point was known as the “Caches.” The “Caches” were about five miles west of the present Dodge City, Kansas.
In the year 1823, there is record of but one expedition from Missouri to Santa Fe. Early in May Colonel Cooper left Franklin with two packhorses laden with goods valued at two hundred dollars. He returned the following October with four hundred “jacks, jinnies, and mules” and some bales of furs.
Gregg erroneously dates the commencement of the Santa Fe trade from the year 1824. And he falls into another error in saying that the first wagons were used in the trade that year. At the Franklin Tavern, about the first of April, 1824, there was a meeting to discuss the trade to Santa Fe. The point of assembly for the expedition that year was fixed at Mount Vernon, Missouri, and the time was set for the 5th of May. Each man was to carry a good rifle, a dependable pistol, four pounds of powder, eight pounds of lead, and rations for twenty days. The expedition was composed of eighty-one men, one hundred and fifty-six horses and mules, and twenty-five wagons. Thirty thousand dollars was the value of the goods carried. The expedition started on the 15th of May, 1824, crossing the Missouri about six miles above Franklin. The organization for the long journey was effected as soon as the caravan was well under way. A. Le Grand was elected Captain. M. M. Marmaduke, later Governor of Missouri, was one of the party. The Arkansas River was reached on the 10th of June, and the expedition arrived at Santa Fe on the 28th day of July. The financial results of the venture were satisfactory.
It is not necessary to the scope of this work to present an account of every expedition over the Santa Fe Trail, and it is not the intention to do so. The design is to give a historical review of the Trail which will furnish the student or casual reader of history such information as will establish in his mind a clear but not a detailed outline of this important highway of the Plains.
By the year 1825 the Santa Fe trade had assumed sufficient proportions to attract the attention of Congress. There was also a growing apprehension of the wild Indians of the Plains. While there had been no trader killed on the Trail and no robberies of enough importance to report, there was a gathering of Indians along the way, and it was feared that outrages would be committed. Congress, in the winter of 1824-25, passed a bill (approved March 3, 1825) authorizing the President to have the Santa Fe Trail marked from Missouri to the frontiers of New Mexico. The Commissioners appointed to carry that act into effect were enjoined to secure the consent of the Indians whose lands were infringed, to the survey and marking of the road. For that purpose a treaty was entered into, at Council Grove, between the Great and Little Osages and the Kansas Indians on the 11th day of August, 1825. The object of the treaty and what resulted from it will be best shown by the instrument itself. There were in fact two treatiesone with the Osages and one with the Kansas. As they are identical in terms, except as to the preliminary paragraphs, only that with the Osages is given.”
Five years after the Great Rebellion had ended, Benjamin still drifted. There was nothing behind him in Georgia and nothing further west than San Francisco. Not that he wanted to go there. The California gold fields were played out.
But he needed to get out of Denver. A man could stand town life only so long, and he’d been here three months. The Colorado gold fields had collapsed, anyway. Played out before he even got here.
“I’ve been too late since the day I was born,” he muttered as he put his whisky glass on the long wooden bar.
“I hear tell there’s gold in Elizabethtown,” the bartender said. He reached for Benjamin’s glass and began wiping it out. He knew Benjamin’s pockets were empty.
“New Mexico Territory. East of Taos somewheres.” Benjamin nodded and pushed himself away from the bar. “Elizabethtown,” he repeated as he hitched up his trousers. “Now there’s an idea.”
from Valley of the Eagles
This particular cooking class includes a lesson in roasting chiles, which seems especially appropriate this time of year…..
“No, don’t go out there now,” María said. “It is late and there is no moon. El es oscuro como boca de lobo.”
“How d’you know how dark it is inside a wolf’s mouth?” Alvin Little grumbled as he put on his boots. “Leave me be.”
He paused again, listening. The sound came again, the rattle of sticks tumbling off the pile of kindling just outside the door. “I spent two hours yesterday cutting that kindling and I’m damned if someone’s gonna go stealing it.”
“El noche es más mala que Judas,” she protested. “It is unsafe.”
He reached for the door latch, then turned to look at her. “More evil than who? Judas, you say? Where d’you get this stuff?”
He stopped on the sill and shook his head as he peered into the darkness. A pale sliver of moon and no starlight. Heavy clouds blanketing the sky. He chuckled. So this was what a wolf’s mouth looked like.
He leaned forward and peered at the wood piled alongside the cabin. He could just see the once neatly stacked kindling. Sticks lay haphazardly at the foot of the pile, as if someone had tried to climb it. Alvin scowled and stepped into the yard to gather them up. A slight scratching sound came from the shake-covered roof, but Alvin didn’t have time to do more than lift his head before the mountain lion was on top of him, or hear more than María’s single scream before the big cat’s teeth found his throat.
from Valley of the Eagles
“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 yearling 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 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 home.”
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 three-quarters of an hour later, they both forgot all about liquid refreshments.
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 he 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 raked 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 they?”
“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
Since I write fiction set prior to New Mexico statehood in 1912, most of the story of Blackdom is outside my time frame. I wish someone would write a novel (or a series of them) based on this town. It would be high on my reading list!
It’s a mere mule track, the man thought as he eyed the rocky ground on the hillside ahead. A fine silt hovered in the air behind him, marking the path he and the packhorse had followed from Rayado and the Santa Fe Trail at the base of the mountains.
They’d been climbing steadily and the vinegar scented blue-green junipers had given way to taller, straighter, deeper green trees: fir and pine. The man looked at them appreciatively, glad it was June and not mid-winter, when the snow that provided these trees with the moisture to live would have made the trail difficult.
He clucked at the packhorse and headed up the rocky slope. At Rayado yesterday, Jesús Abreu had told him there’d be a series of small mountain valleys before he reached the larger one. Then he was to move north, to where the Cimarron River began in a marsh on the east side of the Valley. The Indians met there to trade. The traveler shook his head. It was a long way to go on the chance that they’d be there. And able to pay for the goods he had with him. He hoped this worked.
~ ~ ~ ~
A short, barrel-chested Indian man stood at the edge of the encampment with his arms folded and a frown on his face, watching the man and packhorse moving slowly up the valley toward him. When the trader was close enough to speak, the man moved into the path and raised a hand.
The traveler looked at him quizzically. “You talk English?” he asked.
“You come to trade?”
“I hope to,” the traveler said. “If you all have something to trade with.”
“If your terms are fair.” The other man’s gaze moved to the horse’s laden packsaddle. “You sell whisky?”
The traveler shook his head. “’Fraid not.”
The other man stepped to the side of the path and gestured toward the camp behind him. “Then you are welcome.”
The trader moved forward but the Indian put up a hand to stop him. “If you are found with whisky, it will not go well for you,” he said flatly. “Yes sir,” the trader said, and the glimmer of a smile crossed the two faces simultaneously.
from Valley of the Eagles
“He ain’t got the brains God gave a buzzard,” the old man grumbled. He picked up his mattock and glared at the black-hatted figure retreating down the bottom of Humbug Gulch toward Elizabethtown. Then he looked uphill, toward Baldy Peak. “Idiot can’t even figure out there’s a storm up there and this gully likely t’wash out in another half hour.” He sniffed disdainfully and went back to work, breaking rock on the gully’s southern lip, searching for the gold that was bound to be there if a man worked the stones long enough.
The young man in the black bowler hat chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he trudged down the center of the gulch through the gravel and broken rock. He’d offered every dollar he had for the claim, but the miner clearly wasn’t interested in selling. He shook his head. There must be other options.
Halfway down the gulch, he paused to catch his breath and gaze at the mountain above. That dark cloud spoke rain. Given the southeast position of the cloud and the angle of the gulch, it was unlikely that particular cloudburst would wet this particular gully. However, just to be on the safe side, he moved halfway up the gully’s north slope before he continued his downward trek.
The sun was glaringly bright on the dry rocks. The young man sat down on a large sandstone boulder and took off his hat. He brushed at the dust on the black felt and shook his head. He needed to find something lighter weight and less apt to show dust. He’d keep wearing this in the meantime, though. If nothing else, it protected him from sunstroke. He glanced down at the shadowed side of his rocky seat and grinned. Like this boulder was protecting that bit of grass, growing here among the pitiless rocks where no plant had a right to be.
The young man’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. He shaded the clump of grass with his hat and peered down at it and the rocks around it. Then he straightened abruptly, glanced up the gully where the miner had gone back to work, and slid off the boulder. He crouched beside the big rock and gently pried a piece of broken quartz from the ground. He turned it slowly back and forth, examining every facet and seam.
Five minutes later, the young man sat back on his heels and turned the rock again, just to be certain. Then he picked up a stick and poked around a bit in the ground beside the boulder. He nodded thoughtfully, then stood and looked carefully at the gulch’s rocky slopes for any sign of possession. But this piece of land clearly hadn’t been claimed. Apparently, no one had thought there was gold this far down Humbug Gulch.
The young man chuckled, tucked the piece of quartz into his pocket, clapped his dusty black hat on his head, and headed into Elizabethtown to file the necessary paperwork for his claim.
from Old One Eye Pete