Santa Fe Trail Survey Reaches Point of Rocks

On  Wednesday, October 19, 1825, George Champlin Sibley’s Santa Fe Trail Survey expedition arrived at Point of Rocks, New Mexico. But they didn’t head to Santa Fe.

Sibley was one of three Commissioners named to head up the United State’s survey of the road between Missouri and Santa Fe that had been inaugurated by William Becknell four years earlier. The survey had two purposes: 1. to facilitate trade with Mexico and 2. to negotiate with the Native American tribes along the Trail for safe passage for future travelers.

George Sibley was the only Commissioner to cross the international boundary into New Mexico. However, when he arrived at Point of Rocks, he didn’t continue south along the Trail to Santa Fe. Instead, arguing that it was too late in the year to travel safely to the capitol, Sibley headed west across the Sangre de Cristos to Taos, where his business associate Paul Baillio was located.

Oct 19 illustration.Sibley photo.Source Noble.272.cropped

Sibley spent the winter of 1825/26 in Taos, where he completed the map of the American portion of the Trail and waited for permission to complete the Mexican portion. Although there’s no evidence he ever travelled the portion between Point of Rocks and Santa Fe, he felt confident enough of that section to note that there was no need to make physical alterations it, since “the open nature of the country” enabled wagon to pass “without the least difficulty … with no other labor than removing a few logs, poles, etc.” (Gregg, 201).

In any event, in 1827, Sibley completed his work and returned to Missouri in 1827, where he and his wife established the Linden Wood School for Girls, which would later become the Linden Wood College, and is today Lindenwood University. In Missouri, he is probably best known for this school. In New Mexico, his name is still more closely associated with the survey of the Santa Fe Trail and the mystery of why he didn’t actually travel the full length of the Trail.

Sources: Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road to Santa Fe, the journal and diaries of George Champlin Sibley, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1995; 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

More Victims of Fremont Expedition Die

By the middle of February, 1849, mountain man Bill Williams and the two men who’d survived the failure of the Fremont expedition in the Sangre de Cristos with him, were in Taos recovering. Before the end of the month was out, the 62-year old Williams and the Fremont expedition medical doctor Benjamin Kern headed back out into the snow-covered wilderness. Their mission was to retrieve Dr. Kern’s medical equipment and supplies and his two brothers’ art materials and papers. The goods were in a cache on the Continental Divide near the Rio Grande headwaters, where they’d been placed after the expedition’s pack mules succumbed to starvation and cold. Williams and Kerns were accompanied by a handful of Mexican assistants, who managed the pack outfit.

It was a fateful trip for the two Americans.  While they made it back to the cache, they did not make it out alive.

The Utes in the region had been in war mode since the previous summer. Since then, they’d been raiding the settlements up and down the Southern Rockies and the plains to the east. When they combined with the Apaches to clash with U.S. troops in the Raton mountains, the U.S. military leaders started getting concerned. Lt. Joseph H. Whittlesey was ordered out to bring the tribe into line.

Whittlesey started north from Taos on March 11 with 37 men and four scouts, one of them Lucien B. Maxwell. The next day, about fifteen miles north of Red River, his forces attacked a Ute village and forced those they hadn’t killed into the cold and snow.  About a dozen Utes fled toward the Rio Grande. When they happened on the Williams/Kerns encampment on the Continental Divide, they saw an opportunity to revenge what Whittlesey had done.

The Utes shot Old Bill Williams and Dr. Kern, ordered the men with them to stay put, and carried off the supplies and pack mules as partial payment for the destruction of their winter camp. It is said that when the Utes realized they’d killed Williams, they gave him a chief’s burial. If this is true, it’s more respect than he received from Fremont, whose family later blamed Williams for the failure of Fremont’s expedition and the subsequent death of so many of his men, an accusation that seems to have no basis in fact.

 

SOURCES: Robert G. Cleland, This Reckless Breed of Man, UNM Press, 1976; Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, mountain man, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1962; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders in the Far Southwest, Utah State UP, Logan, 1997.

Taos’ Lake Influences National Legislation

On Tuesday, December 15, 1970, United States President Richard Nixon signed the bill that effectively returned Taos Pueblo’s sacred Blue Lake and the surrounding 48,000 acres of National Forest to the people of Taos Pueblo.

The pristine lake, which lies at the bottom of a glacier-carved depression in the Sangre de Cristo mountains east of Taos pueblo, is the Pueblo’s most sacred shrine and the site of some of its most important yearly rituals. Blue Lake and its watershed had been confiscated by President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration in June 1906 as part of the U.S. Forest Service process of creating Carson National Park.

Pueblo leaders took action almost immediately following Roosevelt’s actions, but met with resistance from Washington. Various attempts were made to accommodate the multiple potential uses for the lake and its watershed, but, because the area was national forest, it was subject to non-recreational uses like logging. In the early 1960’s, increased interest in logging the area created a renewed sense of urgency. The resulting pressure on Washington culminated in the legislation Nixon signed in late 1970, sixty-four years after Roosevelt’s signature.

While the return of Blue Lake was of major significance to the Taos Pueblo people, it also had a wider value, because the legislation set a legal precedent for the idea of Native American land ownership based on religious significance. The law also inspired the Indian Religious Freedoms Act of 1978. This act required the U.S. government to preserve and protect  American Indians’ inherent right to believe, express, and exercise their traditional religions. It also enabled access to religious sites and the use and possession of sacred objects. So, while the loss of Blue Lake for so many years was tragic, its return was a blessing that extended far beyond Taos Pueblo itself and is an event worth celebrating.
Sources:  William deBuys, Enchantment and Exploitation, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1985; Rubén Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico: a brief multi-history, Cosmic House, Albuquerque, 1999; Corina A. Santisteven and Julia Moore, eds., Taos, a topical history, Museum of NM Press, Santa Fe, 2013; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1993.