Mountain Man Gets A New Name

By early March 1828, mountain man Thomas L. Smith was walking again. And he had a new nickname. He was now Peg-Leg Smith, the trapper who’d amputated  his own foot.

He’d been trapping with a large party of other men in what is now the Colorado Rockies when it happened.

During an attack by Crow warriors, Smith caught a bullet in his left leg just above the ankle. As the battle raged on, Smith grabbed a buckskin thong, used it as a tourniquet, and hoped for the best.

The bleeding was still heavy when the battle was over. Both bones were completely shattered. The damage was too severe to even hope that Smith’s foot could be saved. But none of his fellow trappers felt they had the skills to do what needed to be done.

So Smith did it himself. He called for the cook’s biggest knife, gritted his teeth, and slashed through the shattered bones and torn muscles, cutting his foot free. He couldn’t quite reach the Achilles tendon in the back. He had to talk Milton Sublette into doing that for him.

He and Sublette used an old shirt to bind up the still-bleeding wound. Then the whole camp waited for the inevitable. They all expected Smith to bleed to death, but they wouldn’t break camp until he’d said his last goodbyes.

But twenty-four hours later, the bleeding had stopped. A day after that, Smith was strong enough to travel, by litter, at least. But not back to Taos and medical help. They went on into the Rockies, trapping as they went.

By the time the mountain men reached a Ute camp a month later, Smith was on horseback again, although his wound was far from healed. The trappers decided to camp nearby and the Utes took Smith under their medicinal wing, applying their skills to his wound.

By the beginning of March 1828, the leg had healed enough that he could put pressure on the stump. In the meantime, his fellow trappers had carved him a wooden leg and he spent the next week or so hobbling around camp getting used to it. And to his new name. He’d be Peg Leg Smith the rest of his life.

The story of Smith’s self-amputation is often used as an example of just how tough the mountain men could be. But it’s useful to remember that Smith would probably not have survived the aftermath of his impromptu surgery without the help of his friends.

Source: Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Pess, Logan, 1997.

John Tunstall Dies, Lincoln County War Begins!!!

On the morning of Monday, February 18, 1878, on an otherwise-deserted road in Southeast New Mexico, a young Englishman was shot and killed, and event which initiated the Lincoln County War.

The young man was John Henry Tunstall. He and Alexander McSween had been in the process of organizing a business  partnership when McSween was accused of absconding with some life insurance money. Although Tunstall wasn’t legally responsible, he was wealthy and he was friends with McSween, who had already ruffled feathers in the County. The court decided that Tunstall should participate in repaying the $8,000 involved.

Feb 18 post illustration

That Monday morning, Tunstall was on his way to the town of Lincoln to try to negotiate a settlement in the case. Instead, he and the four gunfighters he’d recently hired encountered a posse which had been sent out to collect Tunstall’s cattle as partial payment of McSween’s debt. In the ensuing battle, Tunstall was killed.

Born in Middlesex, England, Tunstall emigrated to British Columbia when he was 19, then headed for the American West in February 1876, looking for investment possibilities. After six months looking into sheep ranching in California, he went to New Mexico, where he met Alexander McSween.

McSween persuaded Tunstall to move to Lincoln County. Land was cheap there and the profit potential was high. Eighteen months later, Tunstall was dead. McSween would follow him shortly thereafter.

Tunstall’s death not only started the Lincoln County War, it brought the British government into the conflict. The embassy wanted to know how and why their countryman had been killed and his body left where it fell.

As a result of the British inquiries, Frank Warner Angel was sent West to investigate Tunstall’s murder and other New Mexico violence. Angel’s report would put an end to the current Governor’s term and bring Lew Wallace to New Mexico in his stead.

However, it wouldn’t end the Lincoln County conflict. More people would die, including William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, who’d fought beside Tunstall that February morning, and Juan Patron, leader of the County’s Mexican-American faction and staunch opponent of Tunstall’s killers.

But eventually, the conflict fizzled out. Like so many wars, it started with a bang but ended with a whimper, with no clear winners and a lot of damage that would never be fully repaired.

Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press: Albuquerque, 2014; Howard R. Lamar, ed., The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, Harper & Row: New York, 1977; tomrizzo.com/killing-john-tunstall/accessed 1/10/19; Marc Simmons in Marta Weigle, ed., Telling New Mexico, A New History, Museum of NM Press: Santa Fe, 2009; Stephen Zimmer ed., For Good or Bad, People of the Cimarron Country, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1999

 

HEALING

“Lincoln is dead.” The old black man’s face was drained and tired. He sat down heavily in the chair beside the cabin fire. “Our President is dead.”

“Your president is dead,” Antonio corrected him, lifting a pot lid. “He was not my presidente.

“It has been almost twenty years since Nuevo Mexico became part of America,” Henry  said. “How long will it take you people to adjust?”

“I will never adjust.” Antonio straightened and looked at his friend. “How long will it take before the marks of slavery are truly lifted from the backs of your people?”

The old man grunted in acknowledgement and gazed into the fire.

“Suffering is a difficult thing to forget,” Antonio said, more gently now. “The bruises on the mind are still there long after the skin marks have healed.”

“Yes,” Henry said. “Still, the bruises can heal.”

“With time,” Antonio acknowledged. “With much time.”

from Valley of the Eagles

ATTITUDES

“Rues? Your last name is Roo-ess?” The young white man sitting at the Elizabethtown restaurant table looked at the old black man quizzically. “You mean Ruiz? Roo-eez? You got some Spanish in you?”

The cook shook his head. “All I know’s what my mama tol’ me,” he said. “My daddy was a Frenchman visiting ’round in Alabama. He stayed at the Big House for three weeks and took a shine to my mama while he was there. When I was born, she give me his last name.”

“Your master let her do that?”

The black man studied the plate of food in his hands for a long minute. “After the war, we could choose what last name we wanted,” he said quietly. “I chose my daddy’s name.”

“That food sure looks good,” the white man said. He moved his knife and fork farther apart on the bare wooden table.

Louis Rues put the plate down and turned away. He shook his head. People are people, no matter where you go, he thought ruefully as he went back to his stove.

from Valley of the Eagles

 

Book Review: But Time And Chance

Chavez.But Time and Chance.cover
by Fray Angelico Chavez
Sunstone Press, 1981
ISBN: 978-0913270950

Padre Antonio Jose Martinez is perhaps  New Mexico’s most famous home-grown priest, and his chroniclers seem to either heartily disapprove of him or love him unconditionally. Fray Angelico Chavez’s But Time And Chance appears to try to fall somewhere between the two, striving for neutrality. I’m not sure he succeeds, but I believe this is still a valuable book for students of New Mexico history.

But Time And Chance provides a good overview of Martinez’s life and his conflict with Bishop Lamy and also describes Martinez’s background, and his relationship with his constituents and the Americanos who were so prevalent in Taos during his lifetime. Certainly, this book helped me to get a better feel for Martinez’s role in the politics of the day.

However, I do feel that Chavez spends more time than necessary in this book sifting through the Taos baptismal records to attempt to identify possible children Martinez may have fathered. Some of the evidence Chavez presents in this endeavor seems a little thin. I also question the idea that a mental health issue lay at the heart of the Padre’s actions in his later years, after he was excommunicated by Bishop Lamy.

However, despite my disagreements with Fray Chavez, I still found this book helpful in providing insight into Padre Martinez’s character and the times in which he lived. At the very least, it’s certainly a more well-rounded depiction of him than is Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop.

I believe But Time and Chance is a book that anyone interested in Padre Martinez’s life and works should definitely include in their list of items to read.

 

WINTER STOP, MORENO VALLEY

There was no grass visible, covered as it was by three feet of snow. Clouds obscured Aqua Fria Peak, meaning there’d be more snow in the night. The lower branches of the aspens had clearly felt the teeth of hungry deer and elk. There’d no doubt be wolves shadowing their flanks.

Old Pete cut branches for the two pack mules and created a feeding pile. They came eagerly to investigate.

What they left would clearly indicate the passing of a stranger, but he didn’t expect anyone was watching for him, anyhow. And by midday tomorrow the pile would be just another white-mounded windfall.

He added wood to the fire and pulled the buffalo robe tighter around his shoulders. He wished he had some coffee or Taos lightning. The snow-melt water was hot enough to warm him, but something with a kick in it would feel mighty handy right about now.

 

THIS HORRID WIND

The boy woke in the night to wind howling through the rafters and down the rock-and-mortar chimney. The chimney stack passed through the cabin loft and the boy’s sleeping pallet lay next to one end of the stack. He reached to touch the chimney. The stones were icy cold. The boy grimaced. The morning fire would take an extra-long time to light. The kindling itself would be cold. He scrunched farther into the blankets, seeking his own warmth.

At the other end of the chimney, his sister stirred. “Is that wind?” she asked sleepily.

“Banshees,” he said.

She made a chuckling sound and he grinned, more awake now, and suddenly cheerful. “Elk on the roof, bugling,” he said.

“Wolves at the door,” she suggested.

“Wolves in the fireplace.”

“Werewolves howling.”

“La llorona weeping for her children.”

The wind gusted sharply. The cabin shuddered, then a sustained high-pitched howl set up under the roof overhang outside.

“La llorona screeching for her children!” the girl giggled, trying to stifle her voice, and then the boy was laughing too, not so quietly.

The wind dropped abruptly and there was a rustle of movement at the base of the ladder. “What in tarnation are you two doing up there?” their father called softly from below. “Your mother is trying to sleep.”

“But not succeeding,” their mother’s voice said. Lamplight flared from the dark space at the edge of the loft. “You two might as well come on down,” she said. “This horrid wind is keeping us all awake.”

Loretta Miles Tollefson © 2017