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

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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

The Year of the Little Doves

Folks in Socorro County called 1862 the “year of the little doves,” but they weren’t talking about birds. They were speaking of locusts. That Spring, an unusually heavy snow pack in the northern mountains that spring caused major floods along the Rio Grande. In Socorro County, the river was more than a mile wide in places. Newly planted corn and wheat fields, peach orchards and vineyards were inundated, and many acequias were destroyed.

Then the “little doves” arrived. By the time the locusts had left, the County was stripped clean and its inhabitants were close to starvation.

Relief was slow in coming, because the Territory was caught up in pushing back the Navajo depredations that had followed hard on the heels of the Confederate invasion. There were also concerns that the Confederates would try again.

May 28 blog illustration
Source: Santa Fe Gazette, May 2, 1863

But help did eventually arrive. In early May, the Santa Fe Gazette printed a plea for help and donations began to pour in. They came from as far north as Arroyo Seco and as far east as Maxwell’s Ranch on the Cimarron. Leading citizens in Taos, Arroyo Seco, Placitas, Cordova, and Espanola contributed $356.  Antonio Baca and Francisco Aragon of Arroyo Seco, Francisco Sanchez of Placitas, Pascuel Martinez of Ranchita, Jose Dolores Tafolla of Cordova, Pedro Antonio Vigil of Cordilleras, and Juan Antonio Espinosa and Juan Suaso of San Francisco del Rancho donated 141 fanegas of wheat between them, and Taos’ Fr. Gabriel Ussel raised $82 from his parishioners.

So, while the locusts had destroyed their crops in 1862, “little doves” of help came to Socorro’s rescue in 1863. It was a long time to wait, but help did eventually arrive.

 

Source: Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers & Militia, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 2015.   Pages 215-221

Fur Catch Causes Nothing But Trouble

Ewing Young had thirteen 90-pound packs of beaver fur in his possession in early May 1827, and he wasn’t interested in having them confiscated. According to the rumors, outgoing Governor Narbona was cracking down on trappers without the proper permissions and incoming Governor Manuel Armijo was likely to be even stricter than Narbona.

So Young did the only sensible thing an American trapper could do. He hid his furs at the Pena Blanca home of his associate Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca.

But he had neglected to realize that some of the men with him might have different ideas about the most sensible approach to government mandates. A member of his trapping party, Ignacio Sandoval, told officials in Santa Fe what Young was up to.

From that point on, things took a turn for the worse. Governor Narbona ordered soldiers to Pena Blanca to confiscate the furs and, in the process, Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca was killed. Then Manuel Armijo became governor on May 20 and signed an order for Young’s arrest for illegal trapping. Young seems to have talked his way out of that predicament and instead got permission to clean the confiscated furs. He and the Santa Fe alcalde were in front of the governor’s long adobe palace, shaking out and inventorying the furs, when another member of Young’s trapping party appeared on the scene. Milton Sublette grabbed a bundle of pelts and made off with them.

When Sublette and the furs disappeared, the governor blamed Ewing Young. He called Young to the palace and threatened him with jail. Young turned on his heel and walked out of Armijo’s office, but he wasn’t free for long. And when the soldiers did catch up with him, he was thrown in the calaboza, where he languished until he became ill and was finally released.

May 15 blog illustration.Armijo, Manuel.illustrated history of nm
Source: Illustrated History of New Mexico,
Reed

But he didn’t get his furs back. Many of them had been badly damaged by rain leaking through the roof of the building where they were stored, so they were sold for about two-thirds what they would have brought in good condition. The total was still a decent amount, about $3500. But it’s not clear who received the resulting funds. After all, the plews were government-confiscated property.

Sources: Carl P. Russell, Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men, Skyhorse Publishing, 2010; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

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

Fur Smuggling in New Mexico, 1827

In April 1827, as Thomas L. Smith returned from a rough, though productive, fur trapping season, he learned that there was a new Mexican Governor in New Mexico and he not as sympathetic as past administrations had been to Americans who trapped without the required permits. In fact, the new Governor was on the hunt for Americans with illegal furs.

Smith decided that the only way to protect his plews was to smuggle them to Taos, where the border was more porous and he was likely find someone willing to take the risk of smuggling them over the Mexican/American border to Missouri. Accordingly, Smith and his trapping partners skirted Santa Fe and headed north.

April 27 illustration.Thomas Smith.Hafen Vol IV
Source: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Southwest, Vol. IV, Leroy R. Hafen

After a close brush with the law at an outlying cabin, they made it to the small settlement of Riitos. Here, they hid the packs of furs among the trees and stopped for breakfast. The people were neighborly and came out to offer the trappers tortillas and eggs. However, the local kids  discovered the packs in the trees. Smith did some quick thinking and explained that the furs were hidden because the sun would damage them. No one objected to this explanation, and the trappers continued on their way.

They hid the furs in a cave near the Rio Grande and rode into Taos the next day, where Smith was able to make the necessary arrangements. Although illegal and somewhat dangerous, Smith’s approach seems to have been the wiser one.

Ewing Young’s party cached their furs a little too close to Santa Fe, in the Pena Blanca home of a gentleman named Cabeza de Baca. De Baca’s help led to distaser for his family: When the soldiers arrived to confiscate the furs, there was an altercation and de Baca was killed.

Young’s furs were lost as well. When Young attempted to retrieve them from the Santa Fe authorities, he was imprisoned and only released when he came down with a debilitating fever. Eventually, the furs were sold at a fraction of their value. It’s unclear who ended up receiving the little money they brought in.

So, while Thomas Smith circumvented the law, he did make a profit. Ewing Young wasn’t so fortunate. It was a lesson that the American trappers would take to heart. The Mexican government would continue to try to keep the trappers under control, and the Americans would do their best to avoid that supervision.

Sources: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. IV, Leroy Hafen, Arthur H. Clarke Company, Spokane, 1966; The Taos Trappers, David J. Weber, U of Oklahoma, Norman, 1971.