Over The Trail to Mexico: Book Review

 

Over The Santa Fe Trail to Mexico cover
Joy L. Poole, editor
ISBN: 9780806157511
University of Oklahoma press, 2017

Early in the summer 1825, yet another young man joined a wagon train headed over the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico.

This particular traveler’s name was Doctor Rowland Willard. Dr. Willard’s diary during his time on the Trail and afterwards in New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Durango has now been published with detailed notes and provides a fascinating look at life in Mexico in the second half of the 1820s.

As a medical doctor, Doctor Willard’s perspective was slightly different from other Americans on the Trail and in Mexico. However, in some ways it was very much the same — he was there to make money.

He spent less than six months in New Mexico and did not find there the financial success he was looking for. However, he did find it in Chihuahua. He returned to the States in 1828 with $7000 in cash.

Willard’s diary has actually been published before. Excerpts were included in the Western Travel Review in 1829 and two years later the entire diary was added as an appendix to The Personal Narrative of James Ohio Pattie. The physical diary disappeared into Willard family archives and didn’t resurface until  2005, when it began its journey to publication as Over The Santa Fe Trail To Mexico, the travel diaries and autobiography of Doctor Rowland Willard

This edition provides not only the diary but also Joy L. Poole’s extensive notes and Willard’s autobiography, published here for the first time. This book is worth its price for Poole’s notes alone, which provide the context for fully appreciating Willard’s experiences and observations.

If you’re a student of the Santa Fe trail or of New Mexico history in the late 1820s, Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico  will be a valuable addition to your library. If you’re simply looking for a good read about old New Mexico— or old Mexico— I would definitely recommend it.

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Illegal Trappers Leave New Mexico, For Now

In February 1815, a group of St. Louis trappers led by Joseph Philibert left Taos for the Arkansas River and on to St. Louis. After five months under arrest in Taos, they were returning to the U.S. with a healthy load of beaver plews.

The entire group had been arrested by Spanish soldiers the previous September and charged with crossing the international boundary illegally. The furs they had with them were confiscated to cover the costs of their incarceration over the course of the winter. It’s not clear where they collected the furs they took back East the following spring. But they seem to have gathered enough plews to make the whole expedition worthwhile.

And to make them want to try the same stunt again. When Philibert headed to St. Louis, he went with the hope of arranging financial backing for yet another venture into New Mexico.

oct 29 illustration.pixabay

Under Spanish law, what Philibert had done and was proposing to do again was flatly illegal. Foreigners weren’t allowed across the New Spain/U.S. border without explicit permission from Spanish officials. In fact, in the five months the Philibert group was in Taos, at least four other illegal foreigners were arrested and sent to New Spain’s interior. Why Philibert’s group was allowed to remain is as much of a mystery as the source of the furs they took back to St. Louis.

What’s clear is that the border between the two countries was already extremely porous. It was almost inevitable that American trappers would continue to filter into Spanish territory. The furs there, and the money they were worth in the U.S., were just too tempting. New Mexico’s officials may have simply been bowing to the inevitable when they allowed Joseph Philibert and his band of men to remain in Taos the winter of 1814/15.

Sources:  Leroy R. Hafen, editor, 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.

WATER OF LIFE

“Now what’re you gettin’ yourself all fired up for?” the matted-haired trapper demanded. “I’m your pa and I can do I want.” He lifted the pottery jug from the wooden table with both hands. “I been feelin’ a mite poorly since I come in from the mountains and this here’s a right good anti-fogmatic.”

“Aquardiente,” the girl said contemptuously. “Your so-called water of life.” She pushed her long black hair away from her face. “Water of hell!”

“Ah, now girlie.” He grasped the jug’s narrow neck with one hand and reached for her arm with the other.

She slapped at him. “I’m not your girlie any longer. Don’t you touch me!”

His eyes narrowed. “I’m still your pappy,” he said. “Just ’cuz I been gone five months don’t mean you can be disrespectin’ me.”

She sniffed and turned away.

He gulped down a swig of the liquor. “Where’s your ma, anyways?”

“She went to the merchant’s to settle her bill.”

“Don’t want me to know how much she spent while I was gone, huh? What new piece of fooferaw have the two of you took a cotton to now?”

The girl whirled. “You mean the cotton for your shirts? The white wheat flour she saved for your biscuits while we spent the entire winter eating cheap corn tortillas?”

The jug thudded onto the table. “What’s eatin’ you girl, that you think you can chaw on me so right catawamptiously? It ain’t fitten!” He surged from the chair, his hand raised. “I’m thinkin’ you need a rememberance of who’s head o’ this household!”

Her lower lip curled. “That’s right. Beat me. Just give me an excuse to leave. That’s everything I could wish for.”

He dropped his hand. “And why would you leave, girl?” He peered at her. “You find a young man to spark you while I was gone?”

She lifted her chin. “I don’t need a man.”

He threw back his head. “Hah! And what else you gonna go and do?” Then his face changed. “You ain’t gone and done something you’ll regret, have you now?”

Her lips twitched with amusement. “You might regret it,” she said. “I won’t be of much use to you.”

He moved toward her. “What the tarnation have you gone and done?”

“You’ll know when I’m ready to tell you.”

As he grabbed her arm, the door opened.

“Be careful of her, por favor!” the girl’s mother said as she entered. “She has been accepted into the convent in Santa Fe, to serve as a helper! Our child is a matter of grace to us now!”

The mountain man stared at his wife, then his daughter. He turned to the table. “Women!” he muttered as he lifted his jug.

from Old One Eye Pete

 

William Workman Orders Still For Taos Lightning

On Monday, February 13, 1826, William Workman of Taos, New Mexico sent a letter to his brother David in Franklin, Missouri. William asked David to have two 80-gallon stills shipped to him from St. Louis. Copper stills were essential in the production of hard liquor like the wheat-based Taos Lightning that William produced and sold.

Not only did William Workman’s letter ensure that Taos residents would have more liquor available to them, it also may have triggered one of the American West’s most famous runaway stories.

David Workman, a saddle and harness maker, had a teenage apprentice named Christopher “Kit” Carson. The letter from New Mexico may have reminded the young Kit that there were more exciting ways to earn a living. When he took off for New Mexico that August, he may well have traveled in the same wagon train as the stills that William Workman had ordered.

Workman manufactured Taos Lightning until 1841, when he himself had to run away, this time from—rather than to—New Mexico. Workman and his distillery partner John Rowland fled Taos for California that September, after rumors spread that they were collaborating with a Republic of Texas expedition to annex New Mexico.

feb-13-illustration-workman-william-1855-mnm-13492.jpeg
William Workman, 1855. MNM 13492

While Carson stayed in New Mexico and made him name for himself, Workman, in California and still partnering with John Rowland, obtained a Mexican land grant of over 48,000 acres and founded  Rancho de la Puente, now a cultural landmark in Southern California.

In both cases, running away seems to have been the best move either Workman or Carson could have made. They both made a name for themselves as a result.

 

Sources: Samuel P. Arnold, Eating up the Santa Fe Trail, University Press of Colorado, Niwot, 1990; Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Press, Logan, 1997; Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder, Doubleday, New York, 2006; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson, and His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003.

 

Governor Bent Misreads New Mexico

On Thursday, January 14, 1847, Charles Bent, New Mexico’s first American governor, left Santa Fe for his home in Taos. A few weeks earlier, Bent had nipped an uprising against his new administration in the bud. He was confident that the U.S. occupation of New Mexico was now secure enough to allow him a visit with his family in Taos. He took with him Narciso Beaubien, the 14-year-old son of newly-appointed American judge Carlos Beaubien, who had recently returned from school in Missouri.

By Sunday, January 17, Charles Bent, Narciso Beaubien, and at least ten others would be dead as the result of an uprising Bent had failed to foresee. In December, he’d thrown men of wealth and position into prison. He believed this was all he needed to do to stamp out any real opposition to the U.S. takeover of New Mexico.

He would discover how wrong he was as he lay dying at the hands of the unimportant people he had discounted, people who may have been striking out at New Mexico’s class system as much as the American occupiers. Bent and the other men killed that week in January were all linked in some way to the U.S. occupation or were believed to have taken advantage of their status as Americans, even if they were originally from another country. And they were all ricos—men of wealth and connections.

Jan 14 illustration.Charles Bent

While the fourteen-year-old Narciso Beaubien was the son of a rico, as a schoolboy, he hadn’t played a role in the American invasion, or even been in New Mexico when the takeover occurred. Why he was slain in mid-January 1847 remains a mystery. Did he die simply because he was Charles Beaubien’s son?

Sources: Marc Simmons, Kit Carson, And His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971; Lewis H. Garrard, Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1955.

Soldier Arrested for Enlisting

On Saturday, December 21, 1861, a worker from Red River (aka the Rio Colorado) named George Montoya, enlisted in the New Mexico militia to fight the Confederate Texas invaders.

However, Montoya had a problem. He had a financial obligation to a rico in the Rio Colorado area. His master didn’t want Montoya to leave the area, so he persuaded the County judge to arrest him for enlisting. As a result, Montoya traded his military quarters for the county jail, in spite of the fact that Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, commander of New Mexico’s Union troops, had recently issued an order that required the masters of peóns who’d enlisted to file a writ of habeas corpus and petition the Territorial Court to have their workers returned. An order from a local judge wasn’t enough to recover their loss.

It’s not clear what happened in this particular case. However, records for the First New Mexico infantry show that two years later, on November 29, 1863, a twenty-five-year-old man named George Montoya was enrolled at Taos as a private. Montoya served as part of a wagon train escort to Tucson, Arizona in 1864 and 1865 and was still in the military in December 1865. It seems likely that this is the same person who was imprisoned for volunteering in 1861.

One can only hope that if he returned to the Taos area, Montoya’s military service gave him the means to address any outstanding financial obligations and enabled him to get on with his life without the specter of jail hanging over him.

Source: Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia, UNM Press: Albuquerque, 2015.

Now Available: Not Just Any Man

I’m pleased to announce that Not Just Any Man, my mountain man novel set in New Mexico, is now available in paperback and ebook. Here are the details:

Just a man. Known for his character, not the color of his skin. That’s all Gerald, son of a free  black man and and Irish servant girl, wants to be. It’s an impossible goal in slave-holding Missouri, but in the West, mountain men and villagers alike seem to accept him without question.

not-just-any-man-3d-cover2.png

New Mexico is all that Gerald hoped for, but shortly after he arrives in Taos, he realizes he wants more than he’d thought: A girl with her own complex ancestry and a high mountain valley with intriguing potential.

To make either dream possible, Gerald needs to earn something more than a scratch living. The only way to do that is to trap beaver. It’s a tough way to earn cash and the wilderness is an unforgiving place.

Can Gerald survive the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the Mohave Indians, and the arid south rim of the Grand Canyon as well as the fellow trapper who hates him for the color of his skin? Can he prove to himself and the girl he loves that he is, after all, not just any man?

Not Just Any Man is set in the late 1820s in Old New Mexico and is filled with historical characters and events.

You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online outlets, or from your favorite brick-and-mortar bookstore.