Former Taos Trapper Dies in Los Angeles

On Wednesday, October 3, 1866, trapper William Wolfskill died at age 68 in Los Angeles, California, where he’d emigrated from New Mexico.

Born in Kentucky, Wolfskill had arrived in New Mexico as part of William Becknell’s second (1822) Santa Fe Trail expedition and was based in Taos for the next eight years. During that time, Wolfskill trapped on the San Juan, Gila, and Colorado Rivers, and participated in mule and horse trading missions to Missouri.

On one of those missions, in late 1824, Wolfskill joined an expedition to northwest Chihuahua led by a Captain Owens. There, they purchased horses and mules to export to Missouri. Shortly afterward, Owens was killed in an Indian raid. Wolfskill and another man rounded up the mules that had escaped capture, bought more, and took them all to Alabama, where they sold for a nice profit.

Oct 3 illustration.Wolfskill, William, ca.1831_(CHS-1765)
William Wolfskill

But the two men didn’t keep the money for themselves. Instead, Wolfskill took it to Boone’s Lick, Missouri, where he handed over the funds to Captain Owens’ family.

In late September 1830, Wolfskill left New Mexico and never returned. He led a party of about 20 men acrossed the Great Basin into southern California, in the process opening what is today called the “Old Spanish Trail.”

Wolfskill had originally intended to trap beaver in California, but when this turned out to be impractical, he and fellow trapper George Yount turned to hunting sea otter instead. This project seems to have been lucrative, because by 1838, Wolfskill had the funds to join his brother in buying a  4,000-vine Los Angeles vineyard, which would eventually grow to 85,000 vines.

Agriculture must have been more enjoyable than trapping, because three years later, Wolfskill planted the first commercial orange grove in California. These activities formed the basis of a kind of agricultural empire that would introduce the Australian eucalyptus, the soft-shelled almond, the chestnut, and the persimmon to California.

Certainly, by the time he died, Wolfskill had traveled a long way from Kentucky and accomplished a great deal besides trapping furs.

Sources: Leroy R. Hafen, ed., Fur Traders and Trappers of the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State UP, 1997; Daniel J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971.

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Two American Governors for New Mexico

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, 1846, just over a month after Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny seized New Mexico for the United States, he appointed Virginia-born Taos businessman Charles Bent as New Mexico’s first American civil governor. When Kearny and the majority of his 1700-man force headed on to California to participate in acquiring it as well, Colonel Sterling Price, as senior U.S. Army officer in New Mexico, became its military governor.

Sept 22 illustration.Bent

Bent had been in Nuevomexico since 1829, first as a fur trapper, then as a Santa Fe trail trader based in Taos. He occupied his post as Governor less than four months. In mid-January 1847, he died at the hands of a New Mexican mob protesting the American occupation.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, Colonel Price, supported heavily by American businessmen and trappers in New Mexico, crushed that rebellion and assured that New Mexico would remain part of the United States.

Sept 22 illustration.Price

Ironically, Price’s own career would include participation in an even larger rebellion against the nation he had helped to force on New Mexico. Following a term as Governor of Missouri, he joined the Confederate Army, rising to the level of General. He died on September 29, 1867, almost exactly 21 years after he took over as military governor of New Mexico.

Sources: Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest,  Logan: Utah State UP, 1977; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an interpretive history, Albuquerque, UNM Press, 1988

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

A NEW LIFE

She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but it wasn’t this. Her heart sank as she looked down at the low mud-colored town. The clouds were low and threatening.

“Mama?”

She turned, gathering her long calico skirts in one hand and reaching for him with the other.

“Is that it?”

She nodded. They stood together, looking down. The sky grumbled again and she closed her eyes. How was she going to do this, just her and this fragile boy?

“Look!”

She opened her eyes and followed his pointing arm. The clouds had parted above the town and a broad beam of light now danced on the rooftops, turning the walls golden.

She squeezed his hand and they smiled at each other. “Yes, this is it,” she said. “Our new life.”

Copyright © 2013 Loretta Miles Tollefson

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

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.