Fateful Trapping Party Is Last Of Its Kind

In August 1827, trapper Sylvester S. Pratte led 36 men north from Abiquiu on the last large-scale trapping expedition out of New Mexico. It would also be Pratte’s last expedition: he would die on it.

Pratte’s death at 28 from an infected dog bite was not the only disaster that befell the group of trappers. A week and a half later, Indians attacked. During the fight, Thomas L. Smith was hit by an arrow which shattered the bones a few inches above his ankle. Smith dealt with the issue immediately, slicing through the mangled tendons with his own hands. Fellow trapper Milton Sublette helped him finish the job by applying a tourniquet of buckskin thongs and covering the wound with an old dirty shirt. Amazingly, although the wound was never cauterized, it did eventually heal.

Aug 8 illustration.Pixabay
The sure sign of beaver in the vicinity. Source: Pixabay

Pratte had asked his boyhood friend Ceran St. Vrain to act as the expedition’s clerk. After Pratte’s death, the men requested St. Vrain to take his place as its leader. However, this also turned out to be problematic, not on the hunt itself, but when they returned. The venture ended up losing money. Even after Pratte’s personal belongings were sold off to cover expenses, there was still a deficit of over $500.

All in all, this final large-scale trapping expedition out of New Mexico was a disaster on a good many levels, and the negative aspects may have been why the experiment was never repeated.

 

 

Sources: Leroy R. Hafen, ed. Fur Trappers And Traders Of The Far Southwest, Utah State University press, Logan. 1997; David J Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma press, Norman. 1971.

 

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No Rain In Taos

On Sunday, July 31, 1825, Taos-based physician Rowland Willard had been in Taos since July 2 and the village had received no rain in the past month. The doctor was disappointed.

The New York born Willard had apparently expected to find not only rain but a prosperous community that could afford American fees and make him rich. He was destined to be disappointed on both counts.

July 31 illustration
Source: Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico, Julie L. Poole, ed.

Although Doctor Willard had a number of clients in Taos and as far south as Santa Cruz de la Canada, payment for services in the 1820s tended to be in goods rather than in cash. By September, it was clear that Taos was not the land of opportunity he had sought. On September 15, he headed south, to try his luck in Chihuahua.

The move paid off. Willard developed a successful practice in Chihuahua and remained there for the next two years, where he invested in the Santa Rita copper mines as well as his medical practice.

In 1828 Willard decided to return to the United States. To be eligible to leave the country, Mexican law required a 2% duty payment. The good Doctor paid $80 on the $4000 he declared, but actually left Mexico with $7000 in cash and his “outfit.”

Clearly, trappers were not the only Americans who believed they didn’t need to comply with Mexico’s duty laws.

Source: Julie L. Poole ed., Over The Santa Fe Trail To Mexico, The Travel Diaries And Autobiography Of Dr. Rowland Willard, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 2015

New Mexico’s First Seminary Opens

New Mexico’s First Seminary Opens

On Tuesday, July 15, 1833 Padre Antonio José Martinez began offering seminary preparation as part of the educational services he had been providing to students in Taos since 1826. He began with four students and because he had no seminary-level texts other than his own, each man used Martinez’s books to copy out his own. Three more seminarians were added in November.

They learned quickly. By August of the following year, Juan Jesus Trujillo, Eulogio Valdez, and Mariano de Jesus Lucero were on their way to Durango to complete their education. Trujillo and Valdez were ordained early in 1836 and returned to become pastor at Santa Cruz and Abiquiu, respectively. After Lucero’s October 1836 ordination, he also returned to New Mexico, in his case to assist Martinez in Taos. Between 1833 and 1845, Martinez prepared as many as 18 men for the priesthood.

While this appears to be the first seminary in New Mexico, Martinez’s educational establishment was not the first school in Taos. Although there was apparently no formal schooling offered they are when Martinez’s family arrived in 1804, by 1819 — 15 years later — Fray Sebastian Alvarez had organized a school taught by a hired schoolmaster.

Martinez’s efforts carried on this work, which enabled young men without the resources he possessed to obtain an education. In his own case, Martinez’s education had commenced at age 5 under the tutelage of Don Geronimo Becerra, while his family still lived in Abiquiu, and where he is said to have begun his study of English.

Teaching the seminarians may have also been helpful to Martinez, who during this period is reported to have been reviewing his theological coursework in preparation for the Durango Sinnott of 1840, where he hoped to be appointed permanent pastor, or curio propia, at Taos. To be appointed to this post, a priest was required to pass a competitive series of exams.

Source: Fray Angelico Chavez, But Time And Chance, The Story Of Padre Martinez Of Taos, 1793 To 1867. Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1981

Occupied New Mexico Requests Statehood

On Monday, July 1, 1850, the populace of occupied nuevomexico voted overwhelmingly to enter the United States as a state rather than a territory. The Mexican departamento of New Mexico had been seized by the U.S. in 1846 during the Mexican/American war. In the July 1850 referendum, the New Mexico also reaffirmed it’s 1848 decision to not allow slavery in New Mexico, and identified state officers and national representatives to Congress.

However, New Mexico’s decision to request U.S. statehood was nullified before it reached Washington DC. While the new congressional delegation was in route to the capital, news of the compromise of 1850 arrived in New Mexico.

More focused on settling the national slavery question than fulfilling New Mexico’s request, the Compromise admitted California as a free slave state and ignored the results of the July election. Instead, Congress made Utah and New Mexico territories where slavery was allowed. This decision was influenced by Texans who wanted to incorporate New Mexico into Texas, which was a slave state.

The boundary between Texas and Mexico was still amorphous, with Texas claiming land to the east bank of the Rio Grande River. In exchange for relinquishing its claim to eastern New Mexico, Congress gave Texas $10 million. To further keep Texas happy, New Mexico would be neither slave nor free. It and Utah territory would have to vote for or against slavery when they applied for statehood.

July 1 illustration.Webster notes against 1850 Comp.Lib of Congress
Daniel Webster’s notes for his speech against the Compromise of 1850. Source: U.S. Library of Congress

If New Mexico had entered the union as a state in 1850, it’s almost certain that it was entered as a non-slave state, dramatically altering the balance between slave and free and potentially catapulting the country into the war that would come just over a decade later.

However, by the time New Mexico did become a state, the slavery issue became a moot point, since New Mexico . It would not do so until 1912. Instead, the Congressionally-established New Mexico Territory government took over in Spring 1851. 20 years would pass before another constitutional convention was called and 66 years would go by before New Mexico would shake off its territorial status and officially become one of the United States.

Sources: Thomas C. Donnelly, The Government Of New Mexico, U of NM Press, Albuquerque, 1953; Bruce Glassrud, African-American History In New Mexico, U of NM Press, Albuquerque, 2013; Calvin A and Susan A Roberts, New Mexico, U of NM Press, Albuquerque, 1988; Hal Stratton and Paul Farley, History, Powers, Responsibility, Office Of The Attorney General, State Of New Mexico, State of New Mexico, 1990

Navajo Exile Finally Ends

In late June 1868, after five years of exile, the Navajo people began their return to their homeland.

Five years earlier, also in June, U.S. Army General James Henry Carleton had ordered Colonel  Christopher “Kit” Carson to march west to starve out the Navajos and move them 450 miles east to Bosque Redondo. Although Carson argued that his health was poor and that he’d joined the Army to fight Confederate Texans, not Indians, Carleton ordered him to go him anyway.

Carson did as he was told. The majority of the Navajos residing in the Southwest were gathered up and marched east to Bosque Redondo, and old meeting ground for Indians of the southern Plains along the Pecos River.

The experience was a disaster.

The Navajos were incarcerated alongside their long-time enemies, the Mescalero Apache, so that was difficult enough.

Then the crops failed, not only at Bosque Redondo, but also in the Taos and Mora Valleys, which reduced the food supplies that could be purchased to feed the captives. In fact, there were so few supplies that General Carleton suspended operations against the Navajos still at large. He didn’t have enough to feed those he had, much less more.

June 23 illustration.Carleton.nuevomexicano homeland

And Kit Carson, who went with the Navajo to Bosque Redondo, proved an inadequate administrator. Not only was he hampered by his illiteracy, but he found that he had no real power or control. Between Carleton’s micromanagement and Army bureaucracy and corruption, he was as overwhelmed with his Bosque Redondo tasks as the captive Navajos were with the miserable conditions there. Carson left in mid September 1864. The Navajo would remain until June 1868.

Finally, two years after Carleton had been relieved of his military command, General Tecumseh Sherman arrived. He agreed with the Navajo leaders’ rejection of the idea of moving to a new reservation in Oklahoma and negotiated a peace with them that would send them home. Three weeks after the treaty was signed on June 1, the People began the 450 miles or more journey home.

You can find more information about the Navajo Long Walk at http://newmexicohistory.org/people/navajo-long-walk-to-bosque-redondo-1864

Sources: Hampton Sides, Blood And Thunder, an epic the American West, Doubleday, New York, 2006; Jerry D Thompson, A Civil War History Of The New Mexico Volunteers And Militia, U of New Mexico P, Albuquerque, 2015

Jim Bridger Keeps His Job

On June 15, 1866 Colonel Henry B. Carrington defied orders from the U.S. War Department to fire mountain man Jim Bridger from his position as Carrington’s  expedition guide. Instead, he gave Bridger a raise, to $10 a day.

Carrington’s expedition was tasked with opening a wagon road around the Big Horn mountains to Montana, across Sioux and Cheyenne treaty lands. The road was needed to enable miners to get to the gold fields in the West. The gold from the mines was needed to pay Civil War debts.

It isn’t clear why the War Department wanted to fire Bridger, but Carrington’s response to the order is clearing up. He reported that it was “impossible of execution.” Then he doubled Bridger’s pay from $5 a day to $10 a day. Bridger stayed on, and assisted Carrington not only with opening the road but also “subduing” the Sioux and Cheyenne and building Fort Phil Kearney.

June 15 illustration.Jim Bridger.vestal
Source: Jim Bridger, Stanley Vestal

 

This was the last of Jim Bridger’s big adventures. He would return to Missouri, where by 1875 he was completely blind. He died in mid 1881.

Bridger had been active in the West since the early 1820s. He is said to be the first American to discover the Great Salt Lake and crossed South Pass, an important link in the United States’ westward expansion, in 1827. After he founded Fort Bridger in 1843, it became an important stopping place along the Oregon Trail.

Although Bridger spent little if any time in New Mexico, he and trappers and guides like him were instrumental in breaking down the barriers, for good or ill, between New Mexico and the United States. If the story of the War Department’s decision and Carrington’s response has anything to tell us, it’s that even in their own time, the activities of these men met with a mixed reception, even in the United States.

Source: Stanley Vestal, Jim Bridger, mountain man, U of Nebraska P, Lincoln, 1946.

Old Bill Williams Begins His Adventurous Life

On this day June 3, 1787, one of the West’s most memorable mountain men, William Sherley Williams, was born in North Carolina. The fourth of nine children, he was called “Will” by family members, although before he was 40, his fellow mountain men were calling him “Old Bill.”

The Williams family moved to Missouri when Bill was 9 years old. Seven years later, at 16, Bill left home to live among the Osage Indians. Twenty-one years later, after the death of his ostrich wife and the dissolution of the reservation, Bill headed west. He would become a legendary mountain man, known as much for his eccentricities as his prowess in the wilderness.

The lean, 6’1”, red-headed Williams was based in Taos and had a propensity for hunting beaver on his own, or with only a camp-follower as a companion. Where he went was anyone’s guess–he also had a propensity for keeping his hunting grounds secret.

Before he left home, Williams had received an education that included training in Greek and Latin. This, along with excellent hunting and tracking skills and a gift for languages, gave him a self-confidence that didn’t suffer fools gladly. Especially people who doubted his geographic knowledge of the West.

This strong personality was bound to get Williams in trouble when he encountered someone with a similar character. In Williams’ case, this was former Army Colonel John C. Fremont.

June 3 illustration.Bill Williams signature.favour
Bill Williams signature. Source: Old Bill Williams, A. H. Favour

In late 1848, Fremont hired Williams as guide for an expedition into the Rocky Mountains to identify an all-season railroad route to California. When Williams insisted that the expedition should veer from the route Fremont had already identified, Fremont relieved Williams of his guide duties and gave them to others.

Unfortunately, Williams was right. Fremont’s route was a mistake. Winter set in with a vengeance and Fremont’s men were trapped in the Rockies. Only 21 men of Fremont’s original 32 made it out alive. Although this would include Williams, he would die a couple months later, trying to retrieve valuable records and medical equipment that had been left behind.

So, while Williams’ vivid personality and self-confidence made him a legend in his own time, it also cut his time short. But the stories of his exploits would live on, and some of us still wonder just where those secret beaver hunting grounds actually were.

Sources: Robert Glass Cleland, This Reckless Breed of Men, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1976; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State UP, Logan, 1997; Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, U of Oklahoma P, Norman, 1962