Mixed Experiences for Wool Ranchers on the Santa Fe Trail

In early May 1868, Hispanic sheep ranchers from across Northeast New Mexico headed east on the Santa Fe Trail from Las Vegas. Five hundred men were taking 200 ox-drawn wagons filled with wool to the Eastern markets. The ranchers had no sacks for theit wool, but that didn’t stop them. They piled their cargo into their wagons, tramped it down, covered it with sheets, and moved out.

The ranchers’ caravan included at least 3200 oxen and over 500 horses and mules. To protect the animals not actually pulling cargo, the wagons traveled in two parallel columns, with the horses and extra oxen between them. About 100 men rode in front to watch for hostile Indians.

May 4 blog illustration
Source: http://www.oregontrailcenter.org/HistoricalTrails/MulesOrOxen.htm


The Arkansas River was in flood when they reached it, and the caravan rested on the south bank for three days and waited for the water to subside. The crossing itself took another six days. The wagons full of wool were so heavy that 14 pairs of oxen were needed to get each one safely to the other shore.

Once everyone was across, relays of escorts from the newly established Santa Fe trail military forts accompanied the train to its destination. All in all, it seems to have been a good experience and the ranchers returned to New Mexico with a satisfactory financial outcome.

Their experience was a good deal more positive than Charles Blanchard’s later that year.  Blanchard, a French-Canadian who’d settled in Las Vegas a few years before, also hauled loose wool east on the Trail that summer. He and 12 other men took their cargo to Ellsworth, Kansas, the then-terminal end of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. They reached Ellsworth in July and Blanchard sold his wool and traded his ox team and $2000 in cash for 66 mules and 10 wagons.

So far so good. But shortly after Blanchard and his friends headed towards home, they were attacked by Indians, who ran off all the caravan’s animals, including Blanchard’s new mules. The 13 men took refuge at Fort Dodge, where they remained until October, when the trail was deemed to be again safe for traffic.

Clearly, the lesson here for men looking for new wool markets in the late 1860’s was to go early in the Summer, and well armed with vecinos.

Source: Howard Bryan, Wildest of the Wild West, 1988, Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe

The Road to Santa Fe–and Taos


In February 1825, the United States Congress appropriated $25,000 to mark and survey a road between Missouri and Santa Fe. The survey was intended to formalize the informal trail that had been in use since at least 1821. In what would eventually become Colfax County, the “mountain branch” of the Trail crossed Raton Pass and moved directly south through what are now Cimarron and Rayado en route to Santa Fe. However, the Congressional Survey party took what was known as the Cimarron Cut Off, which swung south from the Arkansas River in what is now southwest Kansas to angle southwest until it connected with the mountain branch near Rayado.

At this point, travelers to Taos could decide whether to swing down through Santa Fe and then north or to cut west across the mountains. Taos was an important destination for those Trail travelers who were dealing in beaver fur or looking to outfit men engaged in fur trapping. Travelers headed there could take two different routes, depending on their mode of transportation. If their goods could be packed onto mules, they could follow a well-established mule track across the Cimarron range into the southern part of the Moreno Valley and then over Apache Pass to Valle Escondido. Just north of Valle Escondido, they would hit the San Fernando River, which would lead them into the Taos Valley. But if they needed to get wagons across and into Taos, they would have to find another route, such as the one Santa Fe Road Commissioner George C. Sibley followed. This route swung into the mountains south of Rayado and then north to Taos, where he completed the Santa Fe Road survey maps in late 1825.

Sources: Brown, J. C, and George Champlin Sibley. [Santa Fe route]. 1825. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/98687168/&gt;.

Schmidt, Steve. Presentation to Santa Fe Trail Association, Cimarron, NM. June 2015.