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.

John Fremont Stumbles Into Taos

On this day in 1849, Saturday, January 13, celebrated explorer John C. Fremont stumbled into the Taos plaza so battered by exposure and starvation that no one recognized him.

Fremont had left what is now Pueblo, Colorado, 52 days earlier on a mission to identify a practicable railroad route across the Rockies to California. He had 32 men and 120 supply-laden mules with him.

Even before he’d left Pueblo, there was trouble. He’d already lost a guide. When former mountain man “Uncle Bill” Wootton took a look at the signs and realized just how bad the coming winter was likely to be, he backed out. But former Army Colonel Fremont refused to give up. He’d been forced to resign from the military in a cloud of disgrace two years earlier and was determined to redeem himself. Come hell or high water, he was determined to prove that a year-round transcontinental railroad operation across the mountains was feasible. If men and mules could cross the path he had in mind under winter conditions, then surely trains could, too.

Fremont hired “Old Bill” Williams to take Wootton’s place. While Williams was a brilliant tracker, he  wasn’t exactly known for his tact. Since Fremont was known for his stubbornness, the partnership seemed destined for trouble. And trouble happened pretty quickly. When Williams announced that the expedition should veer from the route Fremont had laid out, trouble ensued. Fremont relieved Williams of his guide duties and gave them to men who Fremont had worked with before but who didn’t know the region.

As Wootton had predicted, the weather turned treacherously nasty and grew increasingly difficult as Fremont’s men tried to force their way through snow-bound canyons and across icy mountainsides. All of the mules either died of starvation or froze to death. Frostbite and snow blindness plagued both the animals and the men. Not only was the expedition’s goal doomed, but the conditions were so bad that the men feared for their lives. In a desperate attempt to make it to safety, Fremont divided his company into small groups and sent them south to try to reach Taos.

John C. Fremont.Simmons 3 wives

Only 21 men of the original 32 would make it out alive and Fremont himself would need weeks of nursing by Josefa Carson before he fully recovered from the ordeal. Even with the survivors in Taos and whole, the loss of life would continue. Williams would die trying to retrieve valuable records and medical equipment  that had been left behind in the rush to escape the winter conditions Uncle Bill Wootton had warned Fremont about.

Although a year-round transcontinental railroad was eventually built across the Rocky Mountains, it was not constructed on the route that Fremont tried to blaze that winter of 1848/49. The glory of that deed would go to other men.  Fremont’s exploring days were over .

Sources:  Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, U of Oklahoma Press,  Norman, 1962; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State U Press, Logan, 1972; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 2003.

 

HARVEST

Alison straightened and put her gloved fists on her hips, pushing her shoulders back. Ten two-hundred foot rows of potato plants stretched before her. She twisted her torso, looking behind her and stretching her muscles at the same time. She had dug up the potatoes from about half a row. Full bushel baskets marked her progress. The yield was good this year, but her back was tired already.

She looked up. There were no clouds at the moment, except for a small gathering over Cimarron Canyon. An east wind was starting up, which meant rain at some point this afternoon or evening. She turned in a slow circle, looking up at the peaks surrounding her high Rocky Mountain valley. Snow dusted the tops of Baldy Mountain to the northeast and Wheeler Peak to the west. She went back to her digging. She didn’t have much time.

from Moreno Valley Sketches II

Apache Canyon

There was a reason it was called Apache Canyon and Old Pete proceeded cautiously, aware that there’d been a recent outbreak of hostilities between the Jicarillas and the locals. Somebody had gotten twitchy-brained and shot off their gun without thinkin’ twice and now the whole Sangre de Cristos was on edge. Didn’t matter that he’d had no part in the original quarrel.

However, Pete hadn’t seen a soul in three days, and he was beginning to think he was gonna get to Taos in one piece after all, if the damn half-grown dog taggin’ him would quit wanderin’ off then comin’ back, widening the scent trail with his idiot nosin’ around. Pete scowled as the puppy reappeared, this time from a thicket of scrub oak, dead leaves rattling on the ground. The dog went into a half-crouch as it came closer. It was holding something in its mouth, its curly black tail drooping anxiously.

“What ya got there?” Pete asked. He squatted and held out his hand and the dog released the item into his palm. “Shit!” Pete said, dropping it. Then he leaned closer and sniffed. It really was shit. Human, too. Fresh enough to still stink. He rose, studying the slopes on either side, turning to examine the pass behind him. So much for bein’ alone.

“Thankee pup,” he muttered. “I think.”

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson