“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.
At first, the girl thought it was snowing, the tiny flakes glinting in the early morning sun. Then she saw they were miniscule ice crystals, floating from the cabin’s cedar-shake roof and the long green needles of the ponderosas looming above it: sparkling flecks of ice drifting through the air like frozen sunlight. She held her breath for a long moment, taking it in.
Then her mother opened the heavy wood-plank cabin door behind her. “It’s freezing out there!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing? You’ll catch your death!” And the girl turned reluctantly toward the house.
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.
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.