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.” His 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.
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.
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, TheTaos Trappers, University of Oklahoma press, Norman. 1971.
It’s a mere mule track, the man thought, eying 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.
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.
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
“It’s June now,” Suzanna said. “These are the Sangre de Christo mountains. It’ll be cold up here, come winter.”
“Come January,” Gerald conceded. “Though snow will make for green summer cattle pastures.”
“Grass will bring game and cougars. Cougars prefer cattle to game.”
“No more than anywhere else.”
“And the Utes will want to know why we’re in their hunting grounds.”
“There’s enough for everyone.” He gestured. “And plenty of trees. You won’t have to live in adobe anymore. Besides, Taos is only a day or so away.”
“Taos is two days through a Pass that’s impassable in winter.”
Gerald studied the valley at their feet. “At the foot of this hill and a little north,” he decided. “A cabin between those two outcroppings would be well sheltered. And your garden won’t get too windblown.”
Clearly, there was no use arguing. Suzanna’s mouth tightened. “I want glass windows,” she said.
They climbed a small hill near the headwaters of the Cimarron River to get a better view. The long narrow valley spread out below them. It was a couple miles wide and probably twelve long. The land slanting toward them was mostly grass. Small creeks meandered across it, creating dark indentations. Pine and fir hugged the banks, spreading out occasionally to absorb moisture from a sloughy spot. The streams met in a marshy area just below where Gerald and Suzanna stood, then drained into the small river that flowed eastward through the rocky canyon.
Suzanna studied the valley warily as Gerald plucked a piece of grass from the hillside. He examined it, then bit into the fleshy end and chewed carefully.
He spit it out. “Sweet,” he said approvingly. He gestured at the view below. “It has everything we could want,” he told his wife. “Water, feed, game, timber.”
Suzanna scowled sleepily at the lopped-off branches that formed the wall of the hillside lean-to and burrowed deeper into the bedding. At least there’s a bear skin to add some warmth, she thought irritably. It was too cold to get up, and if Gerald thought she was going to actually live in this God-forsaken place, he wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Wife?” he asked from the open side of the shelter.
Suzanna burrowed deeper, covering her head.
Gerald chuckled and came to kneel beside her. “I have a fire going,” he said. “I’ve toasted some bread and am heating water for tea.”
Suzanna sighed and reluctantly uncovered her head. “All right,” she said.
“There’s a herd of elk on the other side of the valley,” he said. “I thought I’d try for one after breakfast. We could use the meat. Do you want to come with me?”
“I’m not staying here by myself.” She sat up. “Not until you’ve built me a cabin.”
He leaned in to kiss her forehead. “I love you,” he said.
“And I you.” She shook her head. “Though I still think you’re soft in the head. This valley is so isolated and cold. How does anything grow up here?”
He grinned, stood, and went out. “The water’s hot!” he called from the fireside.