THE OLD SANTA FE TRAIL
COLONEL HENRY INMAN
Part 7 out of 8
At the zenith of his influence and wealth, during the War of the
Rebellion, when New Mexico was isolated and almost independent of
care or thought by the government at Washington, he lived in a
sort of barbaric splendour, akin to that of the nobles of England
at the time of the Norman conquest.
The thousands of arable acres comprised in the many fertile valleys
of his immense estate were farmed in a primitive, feudal sort of way,
by native Mexicans principally, under the system of peonage then
existing in the Territory. He employed about five hundred men, and
they were as much his thralls as were Gurth and Wamba of Cedric of
Rotherwood, only they wore no engraved collars around their necks
bearing their names and that of their master. Maxwell was not a
hard governor, and his people really loved him, as he was ever their
friend and adviser.
His house was a palace when compared with the prevailing style of
architecture in that country, and cost an immense sum of money.
It was large and roomy, purely American in its construction, but the
manner of conducting it was strictly Mexican, varying between the
customs of the higher and lower classes of that curious people.
Some of its apartments were elaborately furnished, others devoid of
everything except a table for card-playing and a game's complement
of chairs. The principal room, an extended rectangular affair,
which might properly have been termed the Baronial Hall, was almost
bare except for a few chairs, a couple of tables, and an antiquated
bureau. There Maxwell received his friends, transacted business
with his vassals, and held high carnival at times.
I have slept on its hardwood floor, rolled up in my blanket, with
the mighty men of the Ute nation lying heads and points all around me,
as close as they could possibly crowd, after a day's fatiguing hunt
in the mountains. I have sat there in the long winter evenings,
when the great room was lighted only by the cheerful blaze of the
crackling logs roaring up the huge throats of its two fireplaces
built diagonally across opposite corners, watching Maxwell, Kit Carson,
and half a dozen chiefs silently interchange ideas in the wonderful
sign language, until the glimmer of Aurora announced the advent of
another day. But not a sound had been uttered during the protracted
hours, save an occasional grunt of satisfaction on the part of the
Indians, or when we white men exchanged a sentence.
Frequently Maxwell and Carson would play the game of seven-up for
hours at a time, seated at one of the tables. Kit was usually the
victor, for he was the greatest expert in that old and popular
pastime I have ever met. Maxwell was an inveterate gambler, but
not by any means in a professional sense; he indulged in the hazard
of the cards simply for the amusement it afforded him in his rough
life of ease, and he could very well afford the losses which the
pleasure sometimes entailed. His special penchant, however, was
betting on a horse race, and his own stud comprised some of the
fleetest animals in the Territory. Had he lived in England he might
have ruled the turf, but many jobs were put up on him by unscrupulous
jockeys, by which he was outrageously defrauded of immense sums.
He was fond of cards, as I have said, both of the purely American
game of poker, and also of old sledge, but rarely played except with
personal friends, and never without stakes. He always exacted the
last cent he had won, though the next morning, perhaps, he would
present or loan his unsuccessful opponent of the night before five
hundred or a thousand dollars, if he needed it; an immensely greater
sum, in all probability, than had been gained in the game.
The kitchen and dining-rooms of his princely establishment were
detached from the main residence. There was one of the latter for
the male portion of his retinue and guests of that sex, and another
for the female, as, in accordance with the severe, and to us strange,
Mexican etiquette, men rarely saw a woman about the premises, though
there were many. Only the quick rustle of a skirt, or a hurried view
of a reboso, as its wearer flashed for an instant before some window
or half-open door, told of their presence.
The greater portion of his table-service was solid silver, and at
his hospitable board there were rarely any vacant chairs. Covers
were laid daily for about thirty persons; for he had always many
guests, invited or forced upon him in consequence of his proverbial
munificence, or by the peculiar location of his manor-house which
stood upon a magnificently shaded plateau at the foot of mighty
mountains, a short distance from a ford on the Old Trail. As there
were no bridges over the uncertain streams of the great overland
route in those days, the ponderous Concord coaches, with their
ever-full burden of passengers, were frequently water-bound, and
Maxwell's the only asylum from the storm and flood; consequently
he entertained many.
At all times, and in all seasons, the group of buildings, houses,
stables, mill, store, and their surrounding grounds, were a constant
resort and loafing-place of Indians. From the superannuated chiefs,
who revelled lazily during the sunny hours in the shady peacefulness
of the broad porches; the young men of the tribe, who gazed with
covetous eyes upon the sleek-skinned, blooded colts sporting in the
spacious corrals; the squaws, fascinated by the gaudy calicoes,
bright ribbons, and glittering strings of beads on the counters
or shelves of the large store, to the half-naked, chubby little
pappooses around the kitchen doors, waiting with expectant mouths
for some delicious morsel of refuse to be thrown to them--all assumed,
in bearing and manner, a vested right of proprietorship in their
To this motley group, always under his feet, as it were, Maxwell was
ever passively gracious, although they were battening in idleness
on his prodigal bounty from year to year.
His retinue of servants, necessarily large, was made up of a
heterogeneous mixture of Indians, Mexicans, and half-breeds.
The kitchens were presided over by dusky maidens under the tutelage
of experienced old crones, and its precincts were sacred to them;
but the dining-rooms were forbidden to women during the hours of
meals, which were served by boys.
Maxwell was rarely, as far as my observation extended, without a
large amount of money in his possession. He had no safe, however,
his only place of temporary deposit for the accumulated cash being
the bottom drawer of the old bureau in the large room to which I
have referred, which was the most antiquated concern of common pine
imaginable. There were only two other drawers in this old-fashioned
piece of furniture, and neither of them possessed a lock. The third,
or lower, the one that contained the money, did, but it was absolutely
worthless, being one of the cheapest pattern and affording not the
slightest security; besides, the drawers above it could be pulled out,
exposing the treasure immediately beneath to the cupidity of any one.
I have frequently seen as much as thirty thousand dollars--gold,
silver, greenbacks, and government checks--at one time in that novel
depository. Occasionally these large sums remained there for several
days, yet there was never any extra precaution taken to prevent its
abstraction; doors were always open and the room free of access to
every one, as usual.
I once suggested to Maxwell the propriety of purchasing a safe for
the better security of his money, but he only smiled, while a strange,
resolute look flashed from his dark eyes, as he said: "God help the
man who attempted to rob me and I knew him!"
The sources of his wealth were his cattle, sheep, and the products
of his area of cultivated acres--barley, oats, and corn principally--
which he disposed of to the quartermaster and commissary departments
of the army, in the large military district of New Mexico.
His wool-clip must have been enormous, too; but I doubt whether he
could have told the number of animals that furnished it or the
aggregate of his vast herds. He had a thousand horses, ten thousand
cattle, and forty thousand sheep at the time I knew him well,
according to the best estimates of his Mexican relatives.
He also possessed a large and perfectly appointed gristmill, which
was a great source of revenue, for wheat was one of the staple crops
of his many farms.
Maxwell was fond of travelling all over the Territory, his equipages
comprising everything in the shape of a vehicle, through all their
varieties, from the most plainly constructed buckboard to the
lumbering, but comfortable and expensive, Concord coach, mounted on
thorough braces instead of springs, and drawn by four or six horses.
He was perfectly reckless in his driving, dashing through streams,
over irrigating ditches, stones, and stumps like a veritable Jehu,
regardless of consequences, but, as is usually the fortune of such
precipitate horsemen, rarely coming to grief.
The headquarters of the Ute agency were established at Maxwell's Ranch
in early days, and the government detailed a company of cavalry to
camp there, more, however, to impress the plains tribes who roamed
along the Old Trail east of the Raton Range, than for any effect on
the Utes, whom Maxwell could always control, and who regarded him
as a father.
On the 4th of July, 1867, Maxwell, who owned an antiquated and rusty
six-pound field howitzer, suggested to the captain of the troop
stationed there the propriety of celebrating the day. So the old
piece was dragged from its place under a clump of elms, where it had
been hidden in the grass and weeds ever since the Mexican War probably,
and brought near the house. The captain and Maxwell acted the role
of gunners, the former at the muzzle, the latter at the breech;
the discharge was premature, blowing out the captain's eye and taking
off his arm, while Maxwell escaped with a shattered thumb. As soon
as the accident occurred, a sergeant was despatched to Fort Union on
one of the fastest horses on the ranch, the faithful animal falling
dead the moment he stopped in front of the surgeon's quarters, having
made the journey of fifty-five miles in little more than four hours.
The surgeon left the post immediately, arriving at Maxwell's late that
night, but in time to save the officer's life, after which he dressed
Maxwell's apparently inconsiderable wound. In a few days, however,
the thumb grew angry-looking; it would not yield to the doctor's
careful treatment, so he reluctantly decided that amputation was
necessary. After an operation was determined upon, I prevailed upon
Maxwell to come to the fort and remain with me, inviting Kit Carson
at the same time, that he might assist in catering to the amusement
of my suffering guest. Maxwell and Carson arrived at my quarters
late in the day, after a tedious ride in the big coach, and the
surgeon, in order to allow a prolonged rest on account of Maxwell's
feverish condition, postponed the operation until the following evening.
The next night, as soon as it grew dark--we waited for coolness,
as the days were excessively hot--the necessary preliminaries were
arranged, and when everything was ready the surgeon commenced.
Maxwell declined the anaesthetic prepared for him, and sitting in a
common office chair put out his hand, while Carson and myself stood
on opposite sides, each holding an ordinary kerosene lamp. In a few
seconds the operation was concluded, and after the silver-wire
ligatures were twisted in their places, I offered Maxwell, who had
not as yet permitted a single sigh to escape his lips, half a
tumblerful of whiskey; but before I had fairly put it to his mouth,
he fell over, having fainted dead away, while great beads of
perspiration stood on his forehead, indicative of the pain he had
suffered, as the amputation of the thumb, the surgeon told us then,
was as bad as that of a leg.
He returned to his ranch as soon as the surgeon pronounced him well,
and Carson to his home in Taos. I saw the latter but once more at
Maxwell's; but he was en route to visit me at Fort Harker, in Kansas,
when he was taken ill at Fort Lyon, where he died.
A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.
How true it now seems to me, as the recollections of my boyish days,
when I read of the exploits of Kit Carson, crowd upon my memory!
I firmly believed him to be at least ten feet tall, carrying a rifle
so heavy that, like Bruce's sword, it required two men to lift it.
I imagined he drank out of nothing smaller than a river, and picked
the carcass of a whole buffalo as easily as a lady does the wing of
a quail. Ten years later I made the acquaintance of the foremost
frontiersman, and found him a delicate, reticent, under-sized,
wiry man, as perfectly the opposite of the type my childish brain
had created as it is possible to conceive.
At Fort Union our mail arrived every morning by coach over the Trail,
generally pulling up at the sutler's store, whose proprietor was
postmaster, about daylight. While Maxwell and Kit were my guests,
I sauntered down after breakfast one morning to get my mail, and
while waiting for the letters to be distributed, happened to glance
at some papers lying on the counter, among which I saw a new periodical
--the _Day's Doings_, I think it was--that had a full-page illustration
of a scene in a forest. In the foreground stood a gigantic figure
dressed in the traditional buckskin; on one arm rested an immense
rifle; his other arm was around the waist of the conventional female
of such sensational journals, while in front, lying prone upon the
ground, were half a dozen Indians, evidently slain by the singular
hero in defending the impossibly attired female. The legend related
how all this had been effected by the famous Kit Carson. I purchased
the paper, returned with it to my room, and after showing it to
several officers who had called upon Maxwell, I handed it to Kit.
He wiped his spectacles, studied the picture intently for a few
seconds, turned round, and said: "Gentlemen, that thar may be true,
but I hain't got no recollection of it."
I passed a delightful two weeks with Maxwell, late in the summer of
1867, at the time that the excitement over the discovery of gold on
his ranch had just commenced, and adventurers were beginning to
congregate in the hills and gulches from everywhere. The discovery
of the precious metal on his estate was the first cause of his
financial embarrassment. It was the ruin also of many other prominent
men in New Mexico, who expended their entire fortune in the construction
of an immense ditch, forty miles in length--from the Little Canadian
or Red River--to supply the placer diggings in the Moreno valley with
water, when the melted snow of Old Baldy range had exhausted itself
in the late summer. The scheme was a stupendous failure; its ruins
may be seen to-day in the deserted valleys, a monument to man's
engineering skill, but the wreck of his hopes.
For some years previous to the discovery of gold in the mountains and
gulches of Maxwell's Ranch, it was known that copper existed in the
region; several shafts had been sunk and tunnels driven in various
places, and gold had been found from time to time, but was kept a
secret for many months. Its presence was at last revealed to Maxwell
by a party of his own miners, who were boring into the heart of
Old Baldy for a copper lead that had cropped out and was then lost.
Of course, to keep the knowledge of the discovery of gold from the
world is an impossibility; such was the case in this instance, and
soon commenced that squatter immigration out of which, after the
ranch was sold and Maxwell died, grew that litigation which has
resulted in favour of the company who purchased from or through the
first owners after Maxwell's death.
He was a representative man of the border of the same class as his
compeers--"wild-civilized men," to borrow an expressive term from
John Burroughs--of strong local attachments, and overflowing with the
milk of human kindness. To such as he there was an unconquerable
infatuation in life on the remote plains and in the solitude of the
mountains. There was never anything of the desperado in their
character, while the adventurers who at times have made the far West
infamous, since the advent of the railroad, were bad men originally.
Occasionally such men turn up everywhere, and become a terror to
the community, but they are always wound up sooner or later; they
die with their boots on; Western graveyards are full of them.
Maxwell, under contract with the Interior Department, furnished
live beeves to the Ute nation, the issue of which was made weekly
from his own vast herds. The cattle, as wild as those from the
Texas prairies, were driven by his herders into an immense enclosed
field, and there turned loose to be slaughtered by the savages.
Once when at the ranch I told Maxwell I should like to have a horse
to witness the novel sight. He immediately ordered a Mexican groom
to procure one; but I did not see the peculiar smile that lighted up
his face, as he whispered something to the man which I did not catch.
Presently the groom returned leading a magnificent gray, which I
mounted, Maxwell suggesting that I should ride down to the large
field and wait there until the herd arrived. I entered the great
corral, patting my horse on the neck now and then, to make him
familiar with my touch, and attempted to converse with some of the
chiefs, who were dressed in their best, painted as if for the
war-path, gaily bedecked with feathers and armed with rifles and
gaudily appointed bows and arrows; but I did not succeed very well
in drawing them from their normal reticence. The squaws, a hundred
of them, were sitting on the ground, their knives in hand ready for
the labour which is the fate of their sex in all savage tribes,
while their lords' portion of the impending business was to end with
the more manly efforts of the chase.
Suddenly a great cloud of dust rose on the trail from the mountains,
and on came the maddened animals, fairly shaking the earth with
their mighty tread. As soon as the gate was closed behind them,
and uttering a characteristic yell that was blood-curdling in its
ferocity, the Indians charged upon the now doubly frightened herd,
and commenced to discharge their rifles, regardless of the presence
of any one but themselves. My horse became paralyzed for an instant
and stood poised on his hind legs, like the steed represented in
that old lithographic print of Napoleon crossing the Alps; then taking
the bit in his teeth, he rushed aimlessly into the midst of the
flying herd, while the bullets from the guns of the excited savages
rained around my head. I had always boasted of my equestrian
accomplishments--I was never thrown but once in my life, and that was
years afterward--but in this instance it taxed all my powers to keep
my seat. In less than twenty minutes the last beef had fallen; and
the warriors, inflated with the pride of their achievement, rode
silently out of the field, leaving the squaws to cut up and carry
away the meat to their lodges, more than three miles distant, which
they soon accomplished, to the last quivering morsel.
As I rode leisurely back to the house, I saw Maxwell and Kit standing
on the broad porch, their sides actually shaking with laughter at
my discomfiture, they having been watching me from the very moment
the herd entered the corral. It appeared that the horse Maxwell
ordered the groom to bring me was a recent importation from St. Louis,
had never before seen an Indian, and was as unused to the prairies
and mountains as a street-car mule. Kit said that my mount reminded
him of one that his antagonist in a duel rode a great many years ago
when he was young. If the animal had not been such "a fourth-of-July"
brute, his opponent would in all probability have finished him, as he
was a splendid shot; but Kit fortunately escaped, the bullet merely
grazing him under the ear, leaving a scar which he then showed me.
One night Kit Carson, Maxwell, and I were up in the Raton Mountains
above the Old Trail, and having lingered too long, were caught above
the clouds against our will, darkness having overtaken us before we
were ready to descend into the valley. It was dangerous to undertake
the trip over such a precipitous and rocky trail, so we were compelled
to make the best of our situation. It was awfully cold, and as we
had brought no blankets, we dared not go to sleep for fear our fire
might go out, and we should freeze. We therefore determined to make
a night of it by telling yarns, smoking our pipes, and walking around
at times. After sitting awhile, Maxwell pointed toward the Spanish
Peaks, whose snow-white tops cast a diffused light in the heavens
above them, and remarked that in the deep canyon which separates them,
he had had one of the "closest calls" of his life, willingly complying
when I asked him to tell us the story.
"It was in 1847. I came down from Taos with a party to go to the
Cimarron crossing of the Santa Fe Trail to pick up a large herd of
horses for the United States Quartermaster's Department. We succeeded
in gathering about a hundred and started back with them, letting
them graze slowly along, as we were in no hurry. When we arrived
at the foot-hills north of Bent's Fort, we came suddenly upon the
trail of a large war-band of Utes, none of whom we saw, but from
subsequent developments the savages must have discovered us days
before we reached the mountains. I knew we were not strong enough
to cope with the whole Ute nation, and concluded the best thing for
us to do under the ticklish circumstances was to make a detour,
and put them off our trail. So we turned abruptly down the Arkansas,
intending to try and get to Taos in that direction, more than one
hundred and fifty miles around. It appeared afterward that the
Indians had been following us all the way. When we found this out,
some of the men believed they were another party, and not the same
whose trail we came upon when we turned down the river, but I always
insisted they were. When we arrived within a few days' drive of Taos,
we were ambushed in one of the narrow passes of the range, and had
the bloodiest fight with the Utes on record. There were thirteen
of us, all told, and two little children whom we were escorting to
their friends at Taos, having received them at the Cimarron crossing.
"While we were quietly taking our breakfast one morning, and getting
ready to pull out for the day's march, perfectly unsuspicious of the
proximity of any Indians, they dashed in upon us, and in less than
a minute stampeded all our stock--loose animals as well as those we
were riding. While part of the savages were employed in running off
the animals, fifty of their most noted warriors, splendidly mounted
and horribly painted, rushed into the camp, around the fire of which
the men and the little children were peacefully sitting, and,
discharging their guns as they rode up, killed one man and wounded
"Terribly surprised as we were, it did not turn the heads of the old
mountaineers, and I immediately told them to make a break for a clump
of timber near by, and that we would fight them as long as one of us
could stand up. There we fought and fought against fearful odds,
until all were wounded except two. The little children were captured
at the beginning of the trouble and carried off at once. After a
while the savages got tired of the hard work, and, as is frequently
the case, went away of their own free will; but they left us in a
terrible plight. All were sore, stiff, and weak from their many wounds;
on foot, and without any food or ammunition to procure game with,
having exhausted our supply in the awfully unequal battle; besides,
we were miles from home, with every prospect of starving to death.
"We could not remain where we were, so as soon as darkness came on,
we started out to walk to some settlement. We dared not show
ourselves by daylight, and all through the long hours when the sun
was up, we were obliged to hide in the brush and ravines until night
overtook us again, and we could start on our painful march.
"We had absolutely nothing to eat, and our wounds began to fester,
so that we could hardly move at all. We should undoubtedly have
perished, if, on the third day, a band of friendly Indians of another
tribe had not gone to Taos and reported the fight to the commanding
officer of the troops there. These Indians had heard of our trouble
with the Utes, and knowing how strong they were, and our weakness,
surmised our condition, and so hastened to convey the bad news.
"A company of dragoons was immediately sent to our rescue, under the
guidance of Dick Wooton, who was and has ever been a warm personal
friend of mine. They came upon us about forty miles from Taos, and
never were we more surprised; we had become so starved and emaciated
that we had abandoned all hope of escaping what seemed to be our
"When the troops found us, we had only a few rags, our clothes having
been completely stripped from our bodies while struggling through
the heavy underbrush on our trail, and we were so far exhausted that
we could not stand on our feet. One more day, and we would have been
"The little children were, fortunately, saved from the horror of
that terrible march after the fight, as the Indians carried them to
their winter camp, where, if not absolutely happy, they were under
shelter and fed; escaping the starvation which would certainly have
been their fate if they had remained with us. They were eventually
ransomed for a cash payment by the government, and altogether had not
been very harshly treated."
The famous Bent brothers, William, George, Robert, and Charles, were
French-Canadian hunters and trappers, and had been employed almost
from boyhood, in the early days of the border, by the American Fur
Company in the mountains of the Northwest.
In 1826, almost immediately after the transference of the fur trade
to the valley of the Arkansas, when the commerce of the prairies
was fairly initiated, the three Bents and Ceran St. Vrain, also a
French-Canadian and trapper, settled on the Upper Arkansas, where
they erected a stockade. It was, of course, a rude affair, formed of
long stakes or pickets driven into the ground, after the Mexican
style known as jacal. The sides were then ceiled and roofed, and
it served its purpose of a trading-post. This primitive fort was
situated on the left or north bank of the river, about halfway between
Pueblo and Canyon City, those beautiful mountain towns of to-day.
Two years afterward, in 1828, the proprietors of the primitive
stockade in the remote wilderness found it necessary to move closer
to the great hunting-grounds lower down the valley. There, about
twelve miles northeast of the now thriving town of Las Animas,
the Bents commenced the construction of a relatively large and more
imposing-looking structure than the first. The principal material
used in the new building, or rather in its walls, was adobe, or
sun-dried brick, so common even to-day in New Mexican architecture.
Four years elapsed before the new fort was completed, during which
period its owners, like other trappers, lived in tents or teepees
fashioned of buffalo-skins, after the manner of the Indians.
When at last the new station was completed, it was named Fort William,
in honour of Colonel William Bent, who was the leader of the family
and the most active trader among the four partners in the concern.
The colonel frequently made long trips to the remote villages of the
Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Comanches, which were situated far
to the south and east, on the Canadian River and its large tributaries.
His miscellaneous assortment of merchandise he transported upon
pack-mules to the Indian rendezvous, bringing back to the fort the
valuable furs he had exchanged for the goods so eagerly coveted by
the savages. It was while on one of his trading expeditions to the
Cheyenne nation that the colonel married a young squaw of that tribe,
the daughter of the principal chief.
William Bent for his day and time was an exceptionally good man.
His integrity, his truthfulness on all occasions, and his remarkable
courage endeared him to the red and white man alike, and Fort William
prospered wonderfully under his careful and just management. Both
his brothers and St. Vrain had taken up their residence in Taos, and
upon the colonel devolved the entire charge of the busy establishment.
It soon became the most popular rendezvous of the mountaineers and
trappers, and in its immediate vicinity several tribes of Indians
took up their temporary encampment.
In 1852 Fort William was destroyed under the following strange
circumstances: It appears that the United States desired to purchase
it. Colonel Bent had decided upon a price--sixteen thousand dollars--
but the representatives of the War Department offered only twelve
thousand, which, of course, Bent refused. Negotiations were still
pending, when the colonel, growing tired of the red-tape and
circumlocution of the authorities, and while in a mad mood, removed
all his valuables from the structure, excepting some barrels of
gunpowder, and then deliberately set fire to the old landmark.
When the flames reached the powder, there was an explosion which
threw down portions of the walls, but did not wholly destroy them.
The remains of the once noted buildings stand to-day, melancholy
relics of a past epoch.
In the same year the indefatigable and indomitable colonel determined
upon erecting a much more important structure. He selected a site
on the same side of the Arkansas, in the locality known as Big Timbers.
Regarding this new venture, Colonel or Judge Moore of Las Animas,
a son-in-law of William Bent, tells in a letter to the author of
the history of Colorado the following facts:--
Leaving ten men in camp to get out stone for the new post,
Colonel Bent took a part of his outfit and went to a Kiowa
village, about two hundred miles southwest, and remained
there all winter, trading with the Kiowas and Comanches.
In the spring of 1853 he returned to Big Timbers, when
the construction of the new post was begun, and the work
continued until completed in the summer of 1854; and it
was used as a trading-post until the owner leased it to
the government in the autumn of 1859. Colonel Sedgwick had
been sent out to fight the Kiowas that year, and in the fall
a large quantity of commissary stores had been sent him.
Colonel Bent then moved up the river to a point just above
the mouth of the Purgatoire, and built several rooms of
cottonwood pickets, and there spent the winter. In the
spring of 1860, Colonel Sedgwick began the construction of
officers' buildings, company quarters, corrals, and stables,
all of stone, and named the place Fort Wise, in honour of
Governor Wise of Virginia. In 1861 the name was changed to
Fort Lyon, in honour of General Lyon, who was killed at the
battle of Wilson Creek, Missouri. In the spring of 1866,
the Arkansas River overflowed its banks, swept up into the
fort, and, undermining the walls, rendered it untenable for
military purposes. The camp was moved to a point twenty
miles below, and the new Fort Lyon established. The old
post was repaired, and used as a stage station by Barlow,
Sanderson, and Company, who ran a mail, express, and
passenger line between Kansas City and Santa Fe.
The contiguous region to Fort William was in the early days a famous
hunting-ground. It abounded in nearly every variety of animal
indigenous to the mountains and plains, among which were the panther
--the so-called California lion of to-day--the lynx, erroneously termed
wild cat, white wolf, prairie wolf, silver-gray fox, prairie fox,
antelope, buffalo, gray, grizzly and cinnamon bears, together with
the common brown and black species, the red deer and the black-tail,
the latter the finest venison in the world. Of birds there were
wild turkeys, quail, and grouse, besides an endless variety of the
smaller-sized families, not regarded as belonging to the domain of
game in a hunter's sense. It was a veritable paradise, too, for the
trappers. Its numerous streams and creeks were famous for beaver,
otter, and mink.
Scarcely an acre of the surrounding area within the radius of
hundreds of miles but has been the scene of many deadly encounters
with the wily red man, stories of which are still current among the
few old mountaineers yet living.
The fort was six hundred and fifty miles west of Fort Leavenworth,
in latitude thirty-eight degrees and two minutes north, and longitude
one hundred and three degrees and three minutes west, from Greenwich.
The exterior walls of the fort, whose figure was that of a parallelogram,
were fifteen feet high and four feet thick. It was a hundred and
thirty-five feet wide and divided into various compartments. On the
northwest and southeast corners were hexagonal bastions, in which
were mounted a number of cannon. The walls of the building served
as the walls of the rooms, all of which faced inwards on a plaza,
after the general style of Mexican architecture. The roofs of the
rooms were made of poles, on which was a heavy layer of dirt, as in
the houses of native Mexicans to-day. The fort possessed a billiard
table, that visitors might amuse themselves, and in the office was
a small telescope with a fair range of seven miles.
The occupants of the far-away establishment, in its palmy days
(for years it was the only building between Council Grove and the
mountains), were traders, Indians, hunters, and French trappers,
who were the employees of the great fur companies. Many of the latter
had Indian wives. Later, after a stage line had been put in operation
across the plains to Santa Fe, the fort was relegated to a mere
station for the overland route, and with the march of civilization
in its course westward, the trappers, hunters, and traders vanished
from the once famous rendezvous.
The walls were loopholed for musketry, and the entrance to the plaza,
or corral, was guarded by large wooden gates. During the war with
Mexico, the fort was headquarters for the commissary department,
and many supplies were stored there, though the troops camped below
on the beautiful river-bottom. In the centre of the corral, in the
early days when the place was a rendezvous of the trappers, a large
buffalo-robe press was erected. When the writer first saw the famous
fort, now over a third of a century ago, one of the cannon, that
burst in firing a salute to General Kearney, could be seen half
buried in the dirt of the plaza.
By barometrical measurements taken by the engineer officers of the
army at different times, the height of Bent's Fort above the ocean
level is approximately eight thousand nine hundred and fifty-eight
feet, and the fall of the Arkansas River from the fort to the great
bend of that stream, about three hundred and eleven miles east,
is seven feet and four-tenths per mile.
It was in a relatively fair state of preservation thirty-three years
ago, but now not a vestige of it remains, excepting perhaps a mound
of dirt, the disintegration of the mud bricks of which the historical
structure was built.
The Indians whose villages were located a few miles below the fort,
or at least the chief men of the various tribes, passed much of their
time within the shelter of the famous structure. They were bountifully
fed, and everything they needed furnished them. This was purely from
policy, however; for if their wishes were not gratified, their
hunters would not bring in their furs to trade. The principal chiefs
never failed to be present when a meal was announced as ready, and
however scarce provisions might be, the Indians must be fed.
The first farm in the fertile and now valuable lands of the valley of
the Rio de las Animas was opened by the Bents. The area selected
for cultivation was in the beautiful bottom between the fort and the
ford, a strip about a mile in length, and from one hundred and fifty
to six hundred feet in width. Nothing could be grown without irrigation,
and to that end an acequia, as the Mexicans call the ditch through
which the water flows, was constructed, and a crop put in. Before
the enterprising projectors of the scheme could reap a harvest,
the hostile savages dashed in and destroyed everything.
Uncle John Smith was one of the principal traders back in the '30's,
and he was very successful, perhaps because he was undoubtedly the
most perfect master of the Cheyenne language at that time in the
whole mountain region.
Among those who frequently came to the fort were Kit Carson,
L. B. Maxwell, Uncle Dick Wooton, Baptiste Brown, Jim Bridger,
Old Bill Williams, James Beckwourth, Shawnee Spiebuck, Shawnee Jake
--the latter two, noted Indian trappers--besides a host of others.
The majority of the old trappers, to a stranger, until he knew their
peculiar characteristics, were seemingly of an unsociable disposition.
It was an erroneous idea, however; for they were the most genial
companions imaginable, generous to a fault, and to fall into one of
their camps was indeed a lucky thing for the lost traveller.
Everything the host had was at his guest's disposal, and though
coffee and sugar were the dearest of his luxuries, often purchased
with a whole season's trapping, the black fluid was offered with
genuine free-heartedness, and the last plug of tobacco placed at the
disposition of his chance visitor, as though it could be picked up
on the ground anywhere.
Goods brought by the traders to the rendezvous for sale to the
trappers and hunters, although of the most inferior quality, were
sold at enormously high prices.
Coffee, by the pint-cup, which was the usual measure for everything,
cost from a dollar and twenty cents to three dollars; tobacco a dollar
and a half a plug; alcohol from two dollars to five dollars a pint;
gunpowder one dollar and sixty cents a pint-cup, and all other
articles at proportionably exorbitant rates.
The annual gatherings of the trappers at the rendezvous were often
the scene of bloody duels; for over their cups and cards no men were
more quarrelsome than the old-time mountaineers. Rifles at twenty
paces settled all difficulties, and, as may be imagined, the fall
of one or the other of the combatants was certain, or, as sometimes
happened, both fell at the word "Fire!"
The trapper's visits to the Mexican settlements, or to the lodges
of a tribe of Indians, for the purpose of trading, often resulted
in his returning to his quiet camp with a woman to grace his solitary
home, the loving and lonely couple as devoted to each other in the
midst of blood-thirsty enemies, howling wolves, and panthers, as if
they were in some quiet country village.
The easy manners of the harum-scarum, reckless trappers at the
rendezvous, and the simple, unsuspecting hearts of those nymphs of
the mountains, the squaws, caused their husbands to be very jealous
of the attentions bestowed upon them by strangers. Often serious
difficulties arose, in the course of which the poor wife received
a severe whipping with the knot of a lariat, or no very light
lodge-poling at the hands of her imperious sovereign. Sometimes
the affair ended in a more tragical way than a mere beating, not
infrequently the gallant paying the penalty of his interference with
Garrard, a traveller on the great plains and in the Rocky Mountains
half a century ago, from whose excellent diary I have frequently
quoted, passed many days and nights at Bent's Fort fifty years ago,
and his quaint description of life there in that remote period of
the extreme frontier is very amusing. Its truth has often been
confirmed by Uncle John Smith, who was my guide and interpreter in
the Indian expedition of 1868-69, only two decades after Garrard's
Rosalie, a half-breed French and Indian squaw, wife of the carpenter,
and Charlotte, the culinary divinity, were, as a Missouri teamster
remarked, "the only female women here." They were nightly led to
the floor to trip the light fantastic toe, and swung rudely or gently
in the mazes of the contra-dance, but such a medley of steps is
seldom seen out of the mountains--the halting, irregular march of the
war-dance, the slipping gallopade, the boisterous pitching of the
Missouri backwoodsman, and the more nice gyrations of the Frenchman;
for all, irrespective of rank, age, or colour, went pell-mell into
the excitement, in a manner that would have rendered a leveller of
aristocracies and select companies frantic with delight. And the
airs assumed by the fair ones, more particularly Charlotte, who took
pattern from life in the States, were amusing. She acted her part
to perfection; she was the centre of attraction, the belle of the
evening. She treated the suitors for the pleasure of the next set
with becoming ease and suavity of manner; she knew her worth, and
managed accordingly. When the favoured gallant stood by her side
waiting for the rudely scraped tune from a screeching fiddle,
satisfaction, joy, and triumph over his rivals were pictured on his
James Hobbs, of whom I have already spoken, once gave me a graphic
description of the annual feast of the Comanches, Cheyennes, and
Arapahoes, which always took place at Big Timbers, near Fort William.
Hobbs was married to the daughter of Old Wolf, the chief of the
Comanches, a really beautiful Indian girl, with whom he lived
faithfully many years. In the early summer of 1835, he went with his
father-in-law and the rest of the tribe to the great feast of that
season. He stated that on that occasion there were forty thousand
Indians assembled, and consequently large hunting parties were sent
out daily to procure food for such a vast host. The entertainment
was kept up for fifteen days, enlivened by horse races, foot races,
and playing ball. In these races the tribes would bet their horses
on the result, the Comanches generally winning, for they are the best
riders in the world. By the time the feast was ended, the Arapahoes
and Cheyennes usually found themselves afoot, but Old Wolf, who was a
generous fellow, always gave them back enough animals to get home with.
The game of ball was played with crooked sticks, and is very much
like the American boys' "shinny." The participants are dressed in
a simple breech-cloth and moccasins. It is played with great
enthusiasm and affords much amusement.
At these annual feasts a council of the great chiefs of the three
tribes is always held, and at the one during the season referred to,
Hobbs said the Cheyenne chiefs wanted Old Wolf to visit Bent's Fort,
where he had never been. Upon the arrival of the delegation there,
it was heartily welcomed by all the famous men who happened to be at
the place, among whom were Kit Carson, Old John Smith, and several
noted trappers. Whiskey occupied a prominent place in the rejoicing,
and "I found it hard work," said Hobbs, "to stand the many toasts
drank to my good health." The whole party, including Old Wolf and
his companion the Cheyenne chief, got very much elated, and every
person in the fort smelt whiskey, if they did not get their feet
tangled with it.
About midnight a messenger came inside, reporting that a thousand
Comanche warriors were gathering around the fort. They demanded
their leaders, fearing treachery, and desired to know why their chief
had not returned. Hobbs went out and explained that he was safe;
but they insisted on seeing him, so he and Hobbs showed themselves
to the assembled Indians, and Old Wolf made a speech, telling them
that he and the Cheyenne chief were among good friends to the Indians,
and presents would be given to them the next morning. The warriors
were pacified with these assurances, though they did not leave the
vicinity of the fort.
It was at this time that Hobbs was ransomed by Colonel Bent, who gave
Old Wolf, for him, six yards of red flannel, a pound of tobacco, and
an ounce of beads.
The chief was taken in charge by a lieutenant, who showed him all
over the fort, letting him see the rifle port-holes, and explaining
how the place could stand a siege against a thousand Indians. Finally,
he was taken out on the parapet, where there was a six-pounder at
each angle. The old savage inquired how they could shoot such a thing,
and at Hobbs' request, a blank cartridge was put in the piece and
fired. Old Wolf sprang back in amazement, and the Indians on the
outside, under the walls, knowing nothing of what was going on,
ran away as fast as their legs could carry them, convinced that
their chief must be dead now and their own safety dependent upon
flight. Old Wolf and Hobbs sprang upon the wall and signalled and
shouted to them, and they returned, asking in great astonishment
what kind of a monstrous gun it was.
About noon trading commenced. The Indians wished to come into the
fort, but Bent would not let any enter but the chiefs. At the back
door the colonel displayed his goods, and the Indians brought forward
their ponies, buffalo-robes, deer and other skins, which they traded
for tobacco, beads, calico, flannel, knives, spoons, whistles,
Whiskey was sold to them the first day, but as it caused several
fights among them before night, Bent stopped its sale, at Hobbs'
suggestion and with Old Wolf's consent. Indians, when they get drunk,
do not waste time by fighting with fists, like white men, but use
knives and tomahawks; so that a general scrimmage is a serious affair.
Two or three deaths resulted the first day, and there would have been
many more if the sale of whiskey had not been stopped.
The trading continued for eight days, and Colonel Bent reaped a rich
harvest of what he could turn into gold at St. Louis. Old Wolf slept
in the fort each night except one during that time, and every time
his warriors aroused him about twelve o'clock and compelled him to
show himself on the walls to satisfy them of his safety.
About a hundred trappers were in the employ of Bent and his partners.
Sometimes one-half of the company were off on a hunt, leaving but
a small force at the fort for its protection, but with the small
battery there its defence was considered sufficient.
One day a trapping party, consisting of Kit Carson, "Peg-leg" Smith,
and James Hobbs, together with some Shawnee Indians, all under the
lead of Carson, started out from Bent's Fort for the Picketwire to
Grizzlies were very abundant in that region then, and one of the
party, named McIntire, having killed an elk the evening before, said
to Hobbs that they might stand a good chance to find a grizzly by
the elk he had shot but had not brought in. Hobbs said that he was
willing to go with him, but as McIntire was a very green man in the
mountains, Hobbs had some doubts of depending on him in case of an
attack by a grizzly bear.
The two men left for the ravine in which McIntire had killed the elk
very early in the morning, taking with them tomahawks, hunting-knives,
rifles, and a good dog. On arriving at the ravine, Hobbs told
McIntire to cross over to the other side and climb the hill, but on
no account to go down into the ravine, as a grizzly is more dangerous
when he has a man on the downhill side. Hobbs then went to where he
thought the elk might be if he had died by the bank of the stream;
but as soon as he came near the water, he saw that a large grizzly
had got there before him, having scented the animal, and was already
making his breakfast.
The bear was in thick, scrubby oak brush, and Hobbs, making his dog
lie down, crawled behind a rock to get a favourable shot at the beast.
He drew a bead on him and fired, but the bear only snarled at the
wound made by the ball and started tearing through the brush, biting
furiously at it as he went. Hobbs reloaded his rifle carefully,
and as quickly as he could, in order to get a second shot; but,
to his amazement, he saw the bear rushing down the ravine chasing
McIntire, who was only about ten feet in advance of the enraged beast,
running for his life, and making as much noise as a mad bull. He was
terribly scared, and Hobbs hastened to his rescue, first sending his
Just as the dog reached the bear, McIntire darted behind a tree and
flung his hat in the bear's face, at the same time sticking his
rifle toward him. The old grizzly seized the muzzle of the gun in
his teeth, and, as it was loaded and cocked, it either went off
accidentally or otherwise and blew the bear's head open, just as the
dog had fastened on his hindquarters. Hobbs ran to the assistance
of his comrade with all haste, but he was out of danger and had sat
down a few rods away, with his face as white as a sheet, a badly
After that fearful scare, McIntire would cook or do anything, but
said he never intended to make a business of bear-hunting; he had
only wished for one adventure, and this one had satisfied him.
That portion of the great central plains which radiates from
Pawnee Rock, including the Big Bend of the Arkansas, thirteen miles
distant, where that river makes a sudden sweep to the southeast,
and the beautiful valley of the Walnut, in all its vast area of
more than a million square acres, was from time immemorial a sort of
debatable land, occupied by none of the Indian tribes, but claimed
by all to hunt in; for it was a famous pasturage of the buffalo.
None of the various bands had the temerity to attempt its permanent
occupancy; for whenever hostile tribes met there, which was of
frequent occurrence, in their annual hunt for their winter's supply
of meat, a bloody battle was certain to ensue. The region referred
to has been the scene of more sanguinary conflicts between the
different Indians of the plains, perhaps, than any other portion
of the continent. Particularly was it the arena of war to the death,
when the Pawnees met their hereditary enemies, the Cheyennes.
Pawnee Rock was a spot well calculated by nature to form, as it
has done, an important rendezvous and ambuscade for the prowling
savages of the prairies, and often afforded them, especially the
once powerful and murderous Pawnees whose name it perpetuates,
a pleasant little retreat or eyrie from which to watch the passing
Santa Fe traders, and dash down upon them like hawks, to carry off
their plunder and their scalps.
Through this once dangerous region, close to the silent Arkansas,
and running under the very shadow of the rock, the Old Trail wound
its course. Now, at this point, it is the actual road-bed of the
Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, so strangely are the past
and present transcontinental highways connected here.
Who, among bearded and grizzled old fellows like myself, has forgotten
that most sensational of all the miserably executed illustrations
in the geographies of fifty years ago, "The Santa Fe Traders attacked
by Indians"? The picture located the scene of the fight at Pawnee
Rock, which formed a sort of nondescript shadow in the background
of a crudely drawn representation of the dangers of the Trail.
If this once giant sentinel of the plains might speak, what a
story it could tell of the events that have happened on the beautiful
prairie stretching out for miles at its feet!
In the early fall, when the rock was wrapped in the soft amber haze
which is a distinguishing characteristic of the incomparable Indian
summer on the plains; or in the spring, when the mirage weaves its
mysterious shapes, it loomed up in the landscape as if it were a huge
mountain, and to the inexperienced eye appeared as if it were the
abrupt ending of a well-defined range. But when the frost came,
and the mists were dispelled; when the thin fringe of timber on the
Walnut, a few miles distant, had doffed its emerald mantle, and
the grass had grown yellow and rusty, then in the golden sunlight
of winter, the rock sank down to its normal proportions, and cut
the clear blue of the sky with sharply marked lines.
In the days when the Santa Fe trade was at its height, the Pawnees
were the most formidable tribe on the eastern central plains, and
the freighters and trappers rarely escaped a skirmish with them
either at the crossing of the Walnut, Pawnee Rock, the Fork of the
Pawnee, or at Little and Big Coon creeks. To-day what is left of
the historic hill looks down only upon peaceful homes and fruitful
fields, whereas for hundreds of years it witnessed nothing but battle
and death, and almost every yard of brown sod at its base covered
a skeleton. In place of the horrid yell of the infuriated savage,
as he wrenched off the reeking scalp of his victim, the whistle of
the locomotive and the pleasant whirr of the reaping-machine is heard;
where the death-cry of the painted warrior rang mournfully over
the silent prairie, the waving grain is singing in beautiful rhythm
as it bows to the summer breeze.
Pawnee Rock received its name in a baptism of blood, but there are
many versions as to the time and sponsors. It was there that Kit
Carson killed his first Indian, and from that fight, as he told me
himself, the broken mass of red sandstone was given its distinctive
It was late in the spring of 1826; Kit was then a mere boy, only
seventeen years old, and as green as any boy of his age who had never
been forty miles from the place where he was born. Colonel Ceran
St. Vrain, then a prominent agent of one of the great fur companies,
was fitting out an expedition destined for the far-off Rocky Mountains,
the members of which, all trappers, were to obtain the skins of the
buffalo, beaver, otter, mink, and other valuable fur-bearing animals
that then roamed in immense numbers on the vast plains or in the
hills, and were also to trade with the various tribes of Indians on
the borders of Mexico.
Carson joined this expedition, which was composed of twenty-six
mule wagons, some loose stock, and forty-two men. The boy was hired
to help drive the extra animals, hunt game, stand guard, and to make
himself generally useful, which, of course, included fighting Indians
if any were met with on the long route.
The expedition left Fort Osage one bright morning in May in excellent
spirits, and in a few hours turned abruptly to the west on the broad
Trail to the mountains. The great plains in those early days were
solitary and desolate beyond the power of description; the Arkansas
River sluggishly followed the tortuous windings of its treeless banks
with a placidness that was awful in its very silence; and whoso
traced the wanderings of that stream with no companion but his own
thoughts, realized in all its intensity the depth of solitude from
which Robinson Crusoe suffered on his lonely island. Illimitable as
the ocean, the weary waste stretched away until lost in the purple of
the horizon, and the mirage created weird pictures in the landscape,
distorted distances and objects which continually annoyed and deceived.
Despite its loneliness, however, there was then, and ever has been
for many men, an infatuation for those majestic prairies that once
experienced is never lost, and it came to the boyish heart of Kit,
who left them but with life, and full of years.
There was not much variation in the eternal sameness of things during
the first two weeks, as the little train moved day after day through
the wilderness of grass, its ever-rattling wheels only intensifying
the surrounding monotony. Occasionally, however, a herd of buffalo
was discovered in the distance, their brown, shaggy sides contrasting
with the never-ending sea of verdure around them. Then young Kit,
and two or three others of the party who were detailed to supply
the teamsters and trappers with meat, would ride out after them on
the best of the extra horses which were always kept saddled and tied
together behind the last wagon for services of this kind. Kit, who
was already an excellent horseman and a splendid shot with the rifle,
would soon overtake them, and topple one after another of their huge
fat carcasses over on the prairie until half a dozen or more were
lying dead. The tender humps, tongues, and other choice portions
were then cut out and put in a wagon which had by that time reached
them from the train, and the expedition rolled on.
So they marched for about three weeks, when they arrived at the
crossing of the Walnut, where they saw the first signs of Indians.
They had halted for that day; the mules were unharnessed, the
camp-fires lighted, and the men just about to indulge in their
refreshing coffee, when suddenly half a dozen Pawnees, mounted on
their ponies, hideously painted and uttering the most demoniacal
yells, rushed out of the tall grass on the river-bottom, where they
had been ambushed, and swinging their buffalo-robes, attempted to
stampede the herd picketed near the camp. The whole party were on
their feet in an instant with rifles in hand, and all the savages
got for their trouble were a few well-deserved shots as they hurriedly
scampered back to the river and over into the sand hills on the other
side, soon to be out of sight.
The expedition travelled sixteen miles next day, and camped at
Pawnee Rock, where, after the experience of the evening before,
every precaution was taken to prevent a surprise by the savages.
The wagons were formed into a corral, so that the animals could be
secured in the event of a prolonged fight; the guards were drilled
by the colonel, and every man slept with his rifle for a bed-fellow,
for the old trappers knew that the Indians would never remain
satisfied with their defeat on the Walnut, but would seize the first
favourable opportunity to renew their attack.
At dark the sentinels were placed in position, and to young Kit fell
the important post immediately in front of the south face of the
Rock, nearly two hundred yards from the corral; the others being at
prominent points on top, and on the open prairie on either side.
All who were not on duty had long since been snoring heavily,
rolled up in their blankets and buffalo-robes, when at about half-past
eleven, one of the guard gave the alarm, "Indians!" and ran the mules
that were nearest him into the corral. In a moment the whole company
turned out at the report of a rifle ringing on the clear night air,
coming from the direction of the rock. The men had gathered at
the opening to the corral, waiting for developments, when Kit came
running in, and as soon as he was near enough, the colonel asked him
whether he had seen any Indians. "Yes," Kit replied, "I killed one
of the red devils; I saw him fall!"
The alarm proved to be false; there was no further disturbance that
night, so the party returned to their beds, and the sentinels to
their several posts, Kit of course to his place in front of the Rock.
Early the next morning, before breakfast even, all were so anxious
to see Kit's dead Indian, that they went out en masse to where he was
still stationed, and instead of finding a painted Pawnee, as was
expected, they found the boy's riding mule dead, shot right through
Kit felt terribly mortified over his ridiculous blunder, and it was
a long time before he heard the last of his midnight adventure and
his raid on his own mule. But he always liked to tell the "balance
of the story," as he termed it, and this is his version: "I had not
slept any the night before, for I stayed awake watching to get a
shot at the Pawnees that tried to stampede our animals, expecting
they would return; and I hadn't caught a wink all day, as I was out
buffalo hunting, so I was awfully tired and sleepy when we arrived
at Pawnee Rock that evening, and when I was posted at my place at
night, I must have gone to sleep leaning against the rocks; at any
rate, I was wide enough awake when the cry of Indians was given by
one of the guard. I had picketed my mule about twenty steps from
where I stood, and I presume he had been lying down; all I remember
is that the first thing I saw after the alarm was something rising up
out of the grass, which I thought was an Indian. I pulled the trigger;
it was a centre shot, and I don't believe the mule ever kicked after
he was hit!"
The next morning about daylight, a band of Pawnees attacked the train
in earnest, and kept the little command busy all that day, the next
night, and until the following midnight, nearly three whole days,
the mules all the time being shut in the corral without food or water.
At midnight of the second day the colonel ordered the men to hitch up
and attempt to drive on to the crossing of Pawnee Fork, thirteen miles
distant. They succeeded in getting there, fighting their way
without the loss of any of their men or animals. The Trail crossed
the creek in the shape of a horseshoe, or rather, in consequence of
the double bend of the stream as it empties into the Arkansas, the
road crossed it twice. In making this passage, dangerous on account
of its crookedness, Kit said many of the wagons were badly mashed up;
for the mules were so thirsty that their drivers could not control
them. The train was hardly strung out on the opposite bank when
the Indians poured in a volley of bullets and a shower of arrows
from both sides of the Trail; but before they could load and fire
again, a terrific charge was on them, led by Colonel St. Vrain and
Carson. It required only a few moments more to clean out the
persistent savages, and the train went on. During the whole fight
the little party lost four men killed and seven wounded, and eleven
mules killed (not counting Kit's), and twenty badly wounded.
A great many years ago, very early in the days of the trade with
New Mexico, seven Americans were surprised by a large band of Pawnees
in the vicinity of the Rock and were compelled to retreat to it for
safety. There, without water, and with but a small quantity of
provisions, they were besieged by their blood-thirsty foes for two
days, when a party of traders coming on the Trail relieved them from
their perilous situation and the presence of their enemy. There were
several graves on its summit when I first saw Pawnee Rock; but
whether they contained the bones of savages or those of white men,
I do not know.
Carson related to me another terrible fight that took place at the
rock, when he first became a trapper. He was not a participant,
but knew the parties well. About twenty-nine years ago, Kit, Jack
Henderson, who was agent for the Ute Indians, Lucien B. Maxwell,
General Carleton and myself were camped halfway up the rugged sides
of Old Baldy, in the Raton Range. The night was intensely cold,
although in midsummer, and we were huddled around a little fire of
pine knots, more than seven thousand feet above the level of the sea,
close to the snow limit.
Kit, or "the General," as every one called him, was in a good humour
for talking, and we naturally took advantage of this to draw him out;
for usually he was the most reticent of men in relating his own
exploits. A casual remark made by Maxwell opened Carson's mouth,
and he said he remembered one of the "worst difficults" a man ever
got into. So he made a fresh corn-shuck cigarette, and related
the following; but the names of the old trappers who were the
principals in the fight I have unfortunately forgotten.
Two men had been trapping in the Powder River country during one
winter with unusually good luck, and they got an early start with
their furs, which they were going to take to Weston, on the Missouri,
one of the principal trading points in those days. They walked the
whole distance, driving their pack-mules before them, and experienced
no trouble until they struck the Arkansas valley at Pawnee Rock.
There they were intercepted by a war-party of about sixty Pawnees.
Both of the trappers were notoriously brave and both dead shots.
Before they arrived at the rock, to which they were finally driven,
they killed two of the Indians, and had not themselves received a
scratch. They had plenty of powder, a pouch full of balls each,
and two good rifles. They also had a couple of jack-rabbits for
food in case of a siege, and the perpendicular walls of the front
of the rock made them a natural fortification, an almost impregnable
one against Indians.
They succeeded in securely picketing their animals at the side of
the rock, where they could protect them by their unerring rifles
from being stampeded. After the Pawnees had "treed" the two trappers
on the rock, they picked up their dead, and packed them off to their
camp at the mouth of a little ravine a short distance away. In a few
moments back they all came, mounted on fast ponies, with their
war-paint and other fixings on, ready to renew the fight. They
commenced to circle around the place, coming closer, Indian fashion,
every time, until they got within easy rifle-range, when they slung
themselves on the opposite sides of their horses, and in that position
opened fire. Their arrows fell like a hailstorm, but as good luck
would have it, none of them struck, and the balls from their rifles
were wild, as the Indians in those days were not very good shots;
the rifle was a new weapon to them. The trappers at first were
afraid the savages would surely try to kill the mules, but soon
reflected that the Indians believed they had the "dead-wood" on them,
and the mules would come handy after they had been scalped; so they
felt satisfied their animals were safe for a while anyhow. The men
were taking in all the chances, however; both kept their eyes skinned,
and whenever one of them saw a stray leg or head, he drew a bead
on it and when he pulled the trigger, its owner tumbled over with
a yell of rage from his companions.
Whenever the savages attempted to carry off their dead, the two
trappers took advantage of the opportunity, and poured in their
shots every time with telling effect.
By this time night had fallen, and the Indians did not seem anxious
to renew the fight after dark; but they kept their mounted patrols
on every side of the rock, at a respectable distance from such dead
shots, watching to prevent the escape of the besieged. As they were
hungry, one of the men went down under cover of the darkness to get
a few buffalo-chips with which to cook their rabbit, and to change
the animals to where they could get fresh grass. He returned safely
to the summit of the rock, where a little fire was made and their
supper prepared. They had to go without water all the time, and so
did the mules; the men did not mind the want of it themselves, but
they could not help pitying their poor animals that had had none
since they left camp early that morning. It was no use to worry,
though; the nearest water was at the river, and it would have been
certain death to have attempted to go there unless the savages
cleared out, and from all appearances they had no idea of doing that.
What gave the trappers more cause for alarm than anything else,
was the fear that the Indians would fire the prairie in the morning,
and endeavour to smoke them out or burn them up. The grass was in
just the condition to make a lively blaze, and they might escape
the flames, and then they might not. It can well be imagined how
eagerly they watched for the dawn of another day, perhaps the last
The first gray streaks of light had hardly peeped above the horizon,
when, with an infernal yell, the Indians broke for the rock, and
the trappers were certain that some new project had entered their
heads. The wind was springing up pretty freshly, and nature seemed
to conspire with the red devils, if they really meant to burn the
trappers out; and from the movements of the savages, that was what
they expected. The Indians kept at a respectful distance from the
range of the trappers' rifles, who chafed because they could not
stop some of the infernal yelling with a few well-directed bullets,
but they had to choke their rage, and watch events closely. During
a temporary lull in hostilities, one of the trappers took occasion
to crawl down to where the mules were, and shift them to the west
side of the rock, where the wall was the highest; so that the flame
and smoke might possibly pass by them without so much danger as where
they were picketed before. He had just succeeded in doing this,
and, tearing up the long grass for several yards around the animals,
was in the act of going back, when his partner yelled out to him:
"Look out! D---n 'em, they've fired the prairie!" He was back on
the top of the rock in another moment, and took in at a glance what
The spectacle for a short interval was indescribably grand; the sun
was shining with all the power of its rays on the huge clouds of smoke
as they rolled down from the north, tinting them a glorious crimson.
The two trappers had barely time to get under the shelter of a large
projecting point of the rocky wall, when the wind and smoke swept
down to the ground, and instantly they were enveloped in the darkness
of midnight. They could not discern a single object; neither Indians,
horses, the prairie, nor the sun; and what a terrible wind!
The trappers stood breathless, clinging to the projections of rock,
and did not realize the fire was so near them until they were struck
in the face by pieces of burning buffalo-chips that were carried
toward them with the rapidity of the awful wind. They were now badly
scared, for it seemed as if they were to be suffocated. They were
saved, however, almost miraculously; the sheet of flame passed them
twenty yards away, as the wind fortunately shifted at the moment
the fire reached the foot of the rock. The darkness was so intense
that they did not discover the flame; they only knew that they were
saved as the clear sky greeted them from behind the dense smoke-cloud.
Two of the Indians and their horses were caught in their own trap,
and perished miserably. They had attempted to reach the east side
of the rock, so as to steal around to the other side where the mules
were, and either cut them loose or crawl up on the trappers while
bewildered in the smoke and kill them, if they were not already dead.
But they had proceeded only a few rods on their little expedition,
when the terrible darkness of the smoke-cloud overtook them and soon
the flames, from which there was no possible escape.
All the game on the prairie which the fire swept over was killed too.
Only a few buffalo were visible in that region before the fire, but
even they were killed. The path of the flames, as was discovered by
the caravans that passed over the Trail a few days afterward, was
marked with the crisp and blackened carcasses of wolves, coyotes,
turkeys, grouse, and every variety of small birds indigenous to the
region. Indeed, it seemed as if no living thing it had met escaped
its fury. The fire assumed such gigantic proportions, and moved
with such rapidity before the wind, that even the Arkansas River
did not check its path for a moment; it was carried as readily across
as if the stream had not been in its way.
The first thought of the trappers on the rock was for their poor
mules. One crawled to where they were, and found them badly singed,
but not seriously injured. The men began to brighten up again when
they knew that their means of transportation were relatively all
right, and themselves also, and they took fresh courage, beginning
to believe they should get out of their bad scrape after all.
In the meantime the Indians, with the exception of three or four
left to guard the rock, so as to prevent the trappers from getting
away, had gone back to their camp in the ravine, and were evidently
concocting some new scheme for the discomfort of the besieged
trappers. The latter waited patiently two or three hours for the
development of events, snatching a little sleep by turns, which they
needed much; for both were worn out by their constant watching.
At last when the sun was about three hours high, the Indians commenced
their infernal howling again, and then the trappers knew they had
decided upon something; so they were on the alert in a moment to
discover what it was, and euchre them if possible.
The devils this time had tied all their ponies together, covered
them with branches of trees that they had gone up on the Walnut for,
packed some lodge-skins on these, and then, driving the living
breastworks before them, moved toward the rock. They proceeded
cautiously but surely, and matters began to look very serious for
the trappers. As the strange cavalcade approached, a trapper raised
his rifle, and a masked pony tumbled over on the scorched sod dead.
As one of the Indians ran to cut him loose, the other trapper took
him off his feet by a well-directed shot; he never uttered a groan.
The besieged now saw their only salvation was to kill the ponies
and so demoralize the Indians that they would have to abandon such
tactics, and quicker than I can tell it, they had stretched four
more out on the prairie, and made it so hot for the savages that
they ran out of range and began to hold a council of war.
Finding that their plan would not work--for as the last pony was shot,
the rest stampeded and were running wild over the prairie--the Indians
soon went back to their camp again, and the trappers now had a few
spare moments in which to take an account of stock. They discovered,
much to their chagrin, that they had used up all their ammunition
except three or four loads, and despair hovered over them once more.
The Indians did not reappear that evening, and the cause was apparent;
for in the distance could be seen a long line of wagons, one of the
large American caravans en route to Santa Fe. The savages had seen
it before the trappers, and had cleared out. When the train arrived
opposite the rock, the relieved men came down from their little
fortress, joined the caravan, and camped with the Americans that
night on the Walnut. While they were resting around their camp-fire,
smoking and telling of their terrible experience on the top of the
rock, the Indians could be heard chanting the death-song while they
were burying their warriors under the blackened sod of the prairie.
I witnessed a spirited encounter between a small band of Cheyennes
and Pawnees in the fall of 1867. It occurred on the open prairie
north of the mouth of the Walnut, and not a great distance from
Pawnee Rock. Both tribes were hunting buffalo, and when they,
by accident, discovered the presence of each other, with a yell
that fairly shook the sand dunes on the Arkansas, they rushed at once
into the shock of battle.
That night, in a timbered bend of the Walnut, the victors had a grand
dance, in which scalps, ears, and fingers of their enemies, suspended
by strings to long poles, were important accessories to their weird
orgies around their huge camp-fires.
One of the most horrible massacres in the history of the Trail
occurred at Little Cow Creek in the summer of 1864. In July of that
year a government caravan, loaded with military stores for Fort Union
in New Mexico, left Fort Leavenworth for the long and dangerous
journey of more than seven hundred miles over the great plains,
which that season were infested by Indians to a degree almost without
precedent in the annals of freight traffic.
The train was owned by a Mr. H. C. Barret, a contractor with the
quartermaster's department; but he declined to take the chances of
the trip unless the government would lease the outfit in its entirety,
or give him an indemnifying bond as assurance against any loss.
The chief quartermaster executed the bond as demanded, and Barret
hired his teamsters for the hazardous journey; but he found it a
difficult matter to induce men to go out that season.
Among those whom he persuaded to enter his employ was a mere boy,
named McGee, who came wandering into Leavenworth a few weeks before
the train was ready to leave, seeking work of any description.
His parents had died on their way to Kansas, and on his arrival at
Westport Landing, the emigrant outfit that had extended to him
shelter and protection in his utter loneliness was disbanded; so the
youthful orphan was thrown on his own resources. At that time the
Indians of the great plains, especially along the line of the Santa Fe
Trail, were very hostile, and continually harassing the freight
caravans and stage-coaches of the overland route. Companies of men
were enlisting and being mustered into the United States service to
go out after the savages, and young Robert McGee volunteered with
hundreds of others for the dangerous duty. The government needed
men badly, but McGee's youth militated against him, and he was below
the required stature; so he was rejected by the mustering officer.
Mr. Barret, in hunting for teamsters to drive his caravan, came
across McGee, who, supposing that he was hiring as a government
employee, accepted Mr. Barret's offer.
By the last day of June the caravan was all ready, and on the morning
of the next day, July 1, the wagons rolled out of the fort, escorted
by a company of United States troops, from the volunteers referred to.
The caravan wound its weary way over the lonesome Trail with nothing
to relieve the monotony save a few skirmishes with the Indians; but
no casualties occurred in these insignificant battles, the savages
being afraid to venture too near on account of the presence of the
On the 18th of July, the caravan arrived in the vicinity of Fort
Larned. There it was supposed that the proximity of that military
post would be a sufficient guarantee from any attack of the savages;
so the men of the train became careless, and as the day was excessively
hot, they went into camp early in the afternoon, the escort remaining
in bivouac about a mile in the rear of the train.
About five o'clock, a hundred and fifty painted savages, under the
command of Little Turtle of the Brule Sioux, swooped down on the
unsuspecting caravan while the men were enjoying their evening meal.
Not a moment was given them to rally to the defence of their lives,
and of all belonging to the outfit, with the exception of one boy,
not a soul came out alive.
The teamsters were every one of them shot dead and their bodies
horribly mutilated. After their successful raid, the savages
destroyed everything they found in the wagons, tearing the covers
into shreds, throwing the flour on the trail, and winding up by
burning everything that was combustible.
On the same day the commanding officer of Fort Larned had learned
from some of his scouts that the Brule Sioux were on the war-path,
and the chief of the scouts with a handful of soldiers was sent out
to reconnoitre. They soon struck the trail of Little Turtle and
followed it to the scene of the massacre on Cow Creek, arriving
there only two hours after the savages had finished their devilish
work. Dead men were lying about in the short buffalo-grass which
had been stained and matted by their flowing blood, and the agonized
posture of their bodies told far more forcibly than any language
the tortures which had come before a welcome death. All had been
scalped; all had been mutilated in that nameless manner which seems
to delight the brutal instincts of the North American savage.
Moving slowly from one to the other of the lifeless forms which
still showed the agony of their death-throes, the chief of the scouts
came across the bodies of two boys, both of whom had been scalped
and shockingly wounded, besides being mutilated, yet, strange to say,
both of them were alive. As tenderly as the men could lift them,
they were conveyed at once back to Fort Larned and given in charge
of the post surgeon. One of the boys died in a few hours after his
arrival in the hospital, but the other, Robert McGee, slowly regained
his strength, and came out of the ordeal in fairly good health.
The story of the massacre was related by young McGee, after he was
able to talk, while in the hospital at the fort; for he had not
lost consciousness during the suffering to which he was subjected
by the savages.
He was compelled to witness the tortures inflicted on his wounded and
captive companions, after which he was dragged into the presence of
the chief, Little Turtle, who determined that he would kill the boy
with his own hands. He shot him in the back with his own revolver,
having first knocked him down with a lance handle. He then drove
two arrows through the unfortunate boy's body, fastening him to the
ground, and stooping over his prostrate form ran his knife around
his head, lifting sixty-four square inches of his scalp, trimming
it off just behind his ears.
Believing him dead by that time, Little Turtle abandoned his victim;
but the other savages, as they went by his supposed corpse, could not
resist their infernal delight in blood, so they thrust their knives
into him, and bored great holes in his body with their lances.
After the savages had done all that their devilish ingenuity could
contrive, they exultingly rode away, yelling as they bore off the
reeking scalps of their victims, and drove away the hundreds of mules
they had captured.
When the tragedy was ended, the soldiers, who had from their
vantage-ground witnessed the whole diabolical transaction, came up
to the bloody camp by order of their commander, to learn whether
the teamsters had driven away their assailants, and saw too late
what their cowardice had allowed to take place. The officer in
command of the escort was dismissed the service, as he could not
give any satisfactory reason for not going to the rescue of the
caravan he had been ordered to guard.
FOOLING STAGE ROBBERS.
The Wagon Mound, so called from its resemblance to a covered army-wagon,
is a rocky mesa forty miles from Point of Rocks, westwardly.
The stretch of the Trail from the latter to the mound has been
the scene of some desperate encounters, only exceeded in number
and sanguinary results by those which have occurred in the region of
Pawnee Rock, the crossing of the Walnut, Pawnee Fork, and Cow Creek.
One of the most remarkable stories of this Wagon Mound country dealt
with the nerve and bravery exhibited by John L. Hatcher in defence
of his life, and those of the men in his caravan, about 1858.
Hatcher was a noted trader and merchant of New Mexico. He was also
celebrated as an Indian fighter, and his name was a terror to the
savages who infested the settlements of New Mexico and raided the Trail.
He left Taos, where he then resided, in the summer, with his caravan
loaded with furs and pelts destined for Westport Landing; to be
forwarded from there to St. Louis, the only market for furs in the
far West. His train was a small one, comprising about fifteen wagons
and handled by about as many men, including himself. At the date
of his adventure the Indians were believed to be at peace with
everybody; a false idea, as Hatcher well knew, for there never was
such a condition of affairs as absolute immunity from their attacks.
While it might be true that the old men refrained for a time from
starting out on the war-path, there were ever the vastly greater
number of restless young warriors who had not yet earned their eagle
feathers, who could not be controlled by their chiefs, and who were
always engaged in marauding, either among the border settlements
or along the line of the Trail.
When Hatcher was approaching the immediate vicinity of Wagon Mound,
with his train strung out in single column, to his great astonishment
there suddenly charged on him from over the hill about three hundred
savages, all feather-bedecked and painted in the highest style of
Indian art. As they rode toward the caravan, they gave the sign
of peace, which Hatcher accepted for the time as true, although he
knew them well. However, he invited the head men to some refreshment,
as was usual on such occasions in those days, throwing a blanket
on the ground, on which sugar in abundance was served out.
The sweet-toothed warriors helped themselves liberally, and affected
much delight at the way they were being treated; but Hatcher, with
his knowledge of the savage character, was firm in the belief that
they came for no other purpose than to rob the caravan and kill him
and his men.
They were Comanches, and one of the most noted chiefs of the tribe
was in command of the band, with some inferior chiefs under him.
I think it was Old Wolf, a very old man then, whose raids into Texas
had made his name a terror to the Mexicans living on the border.
While the chiefs were eating their saccharine lunch, Hatcher was
losing no time in forming his wagons into a corral, but he told his
friends afterward that he had no idea that either he or any of his
men would escape; only fifteen or sixteen men against over three
hundred merciless savages, and those the worst on the continent,
and a small corral--the chances were totally hopeless! Nothing but
a desperate action could avail, and maybe not even that. Hatcher,
after the other head men had finished eating, asked the old chief
to send his young warriors away over the hill. They were all sitting
close to one of the wagons, Old Wolf, in fact, leaning against the
wheel resting on his blanket, with Hatcher next him on his right.
Hatcher was so earnest in his appeal to have the young men sent away,
that both the venerable villain and his other chiefs rose and were
standing. Without a moment's notice or the slightest warning,
Hatcher reached with his left hand and grabbed Old Wolf by his
scalp-lock, and with his right drew his butcher-knife from its
scabbard and thrust it at the throat of the chief. All this was
done in an instant, as quick as lightning; no one had time to move.
The situation was remarkable. The little, wiry man, surrounded by
eight or nine of the most renowned warriors of the dreaded Comanches,
stood firm; everybody was breathless; not a word did the savages say.
Hatcher then said again to Old Wolf, in the most determined manner:
"Send your young men over the hill at once, or I'll kill you right
where you are!" holding on to the hair of the savage with his left
hand and keeping the knife at his throat.
The other Indians did not dare to make a move; they knew what kind of
a man Hatcher was; they knew he would do as he had said, and that if
they attempted a rescue he would kill their favourite chief in a second.
Old Wolf shook his head defiantly in the negative. Hatcher repeated
his order, getting madder all the time: "Send your young men over
the hill; I tell you!" Old Wolf was still stubborn; he shook his
head again. Hatcher gave him another chance: "Send your young men
over the hill, I tell you, or I'll scalp you alive as you are!"
Again the chief shook his head. Then Hatcher, still holding on the
hair of his stubborn victim, commenced to make an incision in the
head of Old Wolf, for the determined man was bound to carry out his
threat; but he began very slowly.
As the chief felt the blood trickle down his forehead, he weakened.
He ordered his next in command to send the young men over the hill
and out of sight. The order was repeated immediately to the warriors,
who were astonished spectators of the strange scene, and they quickly
mounted their horses and rode away over the hill as fast as they
could thump their animals' sides with their legs, leaving only five
or six chiefs with Old Wolf and Hatcher.
Hatcher held on like grim death to the old chief's head, and immediately
ordered his men to throw the robes out of the wagons as quickly as
they could, and get inside themselves. This was promptly obeyed,
and when they were all under the cover of the wagon sheets, Hatcher
let go of his victim's hair, and, with a last kick, told him and his
friends that they could leave. They went off, and did not return.
Some laughable incidents have enlivened the generally sanguinary
history of the Old Santa Fe Trail, but they were very serious at
the time to those who were the actors, and their ludicrousness came
after all was over.
In the late summer of 1866, a thieving band of Apaches came into the
vicinity of Fort Union, New Mexico, and after carefully reconnoitring
the whole region and getting at the manner in which the stock
belonging to the fort was herded, they secreted themselves in the
Turkey Mountains overlooking the entire reservation, and lay in wait
for several days, watching for a favourable moment to make a raid
into the valley and drive off the herd.
Selecting an occasion when the guard was weak and not very alert,
they in broad daylight crawled under the cover of a hill, and,
mounting their horses, dashed out with the most unearthly yells and
down among the animals that were quietly grazing close to the fort,
which terrified these so greatly that they broke away from the herders,
and started at their best gait toward the mountains, closely followed
by the savages.
The astonished soldiers used every effort to avert the evident loss
of their charge, and many shots were exchanged in the running fight
that ensued; but the Indians were too strong for them, and they were
forced to abandon the chase.
Among the herders was a bugler boy, who was remarkable for his bravery
in the skirmish and for his untiring endeavours to turn the animals
back toward the fort, but all without avail; on they went, with the
savages, close to their heels, giving vent to the most vociferous
shouts of exultation, and directing the most obscene and insulting
gesticulations to the soldiers that were after them.
While this exciting contest for the mastery was going on, an old
Apache chief dashed in the rear of the bold bugler boy, and could,
without doubt, easily have killed the little fellow; but instead of
doing this, from some idea of a good joke, or for some other
incomprehensible reason, his natural blood-thirsty instinct was
changed, and he merely knocked the bugler's hat from his head with
the flat of his hand, and at the same time encouragingly stroked his
hair, as much as to say: "You are a brave boy," and then rode off
without doing him any harm.
Thirty years ago last August, I was riding from Fort Larned to Fort
Union, New Mexico, in the overland coach. I had one of my clerks
with me; we were the only passengers, and arrived at Fort Dodge,
which was the commencement of the "long route," at midnight.
There we changed drivers, and at the break of day were some
twenty-four miles on our lonely journey. The coach was rattling
along at a breakneck gait, and I saw that something was evidently
wrong. Looking out of one of the doors, I noticed that our Jehu was
in a beastly state of intoxication. It was a most dangerous portion
of the Trail; the Indians were not in the best of humours, and an
attack was not at all improbable before we arrived at the next
station, Fort Lyon.
I said to my clerk that something must be done; so I ordered the
driver to halt, which he did willingly, got out, and found that,
notwithstanding his drunken mood, he was very affable and disposed
to be full of fun. I suggested that he get inside the coach and
lie down to sleep off his potations, to which he readily assented,
while I and my clerk, after snugly fixing him on the cushions,
got on the boot, I taking the lines, he seizing an old trace-chain,
with which he pounded the mules along; for we felt ourselves in a
ticklish predicament should we come across any of the brigands of
the plains, on that lonely route, with the animals to look out for,
and only two of us to do the fighting.
Suddenly we saw sitting on the bank of the Arkansas River, about
a dozen rods from the Trail, an antiquated-looking savage with his
war-bonnet on, and armed with a long lance and his bow and arrows.
We did not care a cent for him, but I thought he might be one of
the tribe's runners, lying in wait to discover the condition of the
coach--whether it had an escort, and how many were riding in it, and
that then he would go and tell how ridiculously small the outfit was,
and swoop down on us with a band of his colleagues, that were hidden
somewhere in the sand hills south of the river. He rose as we came
near, and made the sign, after he had given vent to a series of
"How's!" that he wanted to talk; but we were not anxious for any
general conversation with his savage majesty just then, so my clerk
applied the trace-chain more vigorously to the tired mules, in order
to get as many miles between him and the coach as we could before
he could get over into the sand hills and back.
It was, fortunately, a false alarm; the old warrior perhaps had no
intentions of disturbing us. We arrived at Fort Lyon in good season,
with our valorous driver absolutely sobered, requesting me to say
nothing about his accident, which, of course, I did not.
As has been stated, the caravans bound for Santa Fe and the various
forts along the line of the Old Trail did not leave the eastern end
of the route until the grass on the plains, on which the animals
depended solely for subsistence the whole way, grew sufficiently to
sustain them, which was usually about the middle of May. But a great
many years ago, one of the high officials of the quartermaster's
department at Washington, who had never been for a moment on duty
on the frontier in his life, found a good deal of fault with what he
thought the dilatoriness of the officer in charge at Fort Leavenworth,
who controlled the question of transportation for the several forts
scattered all over the West, for not getting the freight caravans
started earlier, which the functionary at the capital said must and
should be done. He insisted that they must leave the Missouri River
by the middle of April, a month earlier than usual, and came out
himself to superintend the matter. He made the contracts accordingly,
easily finding contractors that suited him. He then wrote to
headquarters in a triumphant manner that he had revolutionized the
whole system of army transportation of supplies to the military posts.
Delighted with his success, he rode out about the second week of May
to Salt Creek, only three miles from the fort, and, very much to his
astonishment, found his teams, which he had believed to be on the
way to Santa Fe a month ago, snugly encamped. They had "started,"
just as was agreed.
There are, or rather were, hundreds of stories current thirty-five
years ago of stage-coach adventures on the Trail; a volume could be
filled with them, but I must confine myself to a few.
John Chisholm was a famous ranchman a long while ago, who had so many
cattle that it was said he did not know their number himself. At one
time he had a large contract to furnish beef to an Indian agency
in Arizona; he had just delivered an immense herd there, and very
wisely, after receiving his cash for them, sent most of it on to
Santa Fe in advance of his own journey. When he arrived there,
he started for the Missouri River with a thousand dollars and
sufficient small change to meet his current expenses on the road.
The very first night out from Santa Fe, the coach was halted by a
band of men who had been watching Chisholm's movements from the time
he left the agency in Arizona. The instant the stage came to a
standstill, Chisholm divined what it meant, and had time to thrust
a roll of money down one of the legs of his trousers before the door
was thrown back and he was ordered to fork over what he had.
He invited the robbers to search him, and to take what they might
find, but said he was not in a financial condition at that juncture
to turn over much. The thieves found his watch, took that, and then
began to search him. As luck would have it, they entirely missed
the roll that was down his leg, and discovered but a two-dollar bill
in his vest. When he told them it was all he had to buy grub on
the road, one of the robbers handed him a silver dollar, remarking
as he did so: "That a man who was mean enough to travel with only
two dollars ought to starve, but he would give him the dollar just
to let him know that he was dealing with gentlemen!"
One of the essentials to the comfort of the average soldier is
tobacco. He must have it; he would sooner forego any component part
of his ration than give it up.
In November, 1865, a detachment of Company L, of the Eleventh Kansas
Volunteers, and of the Second Colorado were ordered from Fort Larned
to Fort Lyon on a scouting expedition along the line of the Trail,
the savages having been very active in their raids on the freight caravans.
In a short time their tobacco began to run low, and as there was no
settlement of any kind between the two military posts, there was no
chance to replenish their stock. One night, while encamped on the
Arkansas, the only piece that was left in the whole command, about
half a plug, was unfortunately lost, and there was dismay in the
camp when the fact was announced. Hours were spent in searching for
the missing treasure. The next morning the march was delayed for
some time, while further diligent search was instituted by all hands,
but without result, and the command set out on its weary tramp,
as disconsolate as may well be imagined by those who are victims to
the habit of chewing the weed.
Arriving at Fort Lyon, to their greater discomfort it was learned
that the sutler at that post was entirely out of the coveted article,
and the troops began their return journey more disconsolate than ever.
Dry leaves, grass, and even small bits of twigs, were chewed as a
substitute, until, reaching the spot where they had lost the part of
a plug, they determined to remain there that night and begin a more
vigorous hunt for the missing piece. Just before dark their efforts
were rewarded; one of the men found it, and such a scramble occurred
for even the smallest nibble at it! Enormous prices were given for
a single chew. It opened at one dollar for a mere sliver, rose to
five, and closed at ten dollars when the last morsel was left.
A DESPERATE RIDE.
In the Rocky Mountains and on the great plains along the line of the
Old Trail are many rude and widely separated graves. The sequestered
little valleys, the lonely gulches, and the broad prairies through
which the highway to New Mexico wound its course, hide the bones of
hundreds of whom the world will never have any more knowledge.
The number of these solitary, and almost obliterated mounds is small
when compared with the vast multitude in the cemeteries of our towns,
though if the host of those whose bones are mouldering under the
short buffalo-grass and tall blue-stem of the prairies between the
Missouri and the mountains were tabulated, the list would be appalling.
Their aggregate will never be known; for the once remote region of
the mid-continent, like the ocean, rarely gave up its victims.
Lives went out there as goes an expiring candle, suddenly, swiftly,
and silently; no record was kept of time or place. All those who
thus died are graveless and monumentless, the great circle of the
heavens is the dome of their sepulchre, and the recurring blossoms
of springtime their only epitaph.
Sometimes the traveller over the Old Trail will suddenly, in the most
unexpected places, come across a little mound, perhaps covered with
stones, under which lie the mouldering bones of some unfortunate
adventurer. Above, now on a rude board, then on a detached rock, or
maybe on the wall of a beetling canyon, he may frequently read, in crude
pencilling or rougher carving, the legend of the dead man's ending.
The line of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, which
practically runs over the Old Trail for nearly its whole length to
the mountains, is a fertile field of isolated graves. The savage
and soldier, the teamster and scout, the solitary trapper or hunter,
and many others who have gone down to their death fighting with the
relentless nomad of the plains, or have been otherwise ruthlessly
cut off, mark with their last resting-places that well-worn pathway
across the continent.
The tourist, looking from his car-window as he is whirled with the
speed of a tornado toward the snow-capped peaks of the "Great Divide,"
may see as he approaches Walnut Creek, three miles east of the town
of Great Bend in Kansas, on the beautiful ranch of Hon. D. Heizer,
not far from the stream, and close to the house, a series of graves,
numbering, perhaps, a score. These have been most religiously
cared for by the patriotic proprietor of the place during all the
long years since 1864, as he believes them to be the last resting-place
of soldiers who were once a portion of the garrison of Fort Zarah,
the ruins of which (now a mere hole in the earth) are but a few
hundred yards away, on the opposite side of the railroad track,
plainly visible from the train.
The Walnut debouches into the Arkansas a short distance from where
the railroad crosses the creek, and at this point, too, the trail
from Fort Leavenworth merges into the Old Santa Fe. The broad pathway
is very easily recognized here; for it runs over a hard, flinty,
low divide, that has never been disturbed by the plough, and the
traveller has only to cast his eyes in a northeasterly direction
in order to see it plainly.
The creek is fairly well timbered to-day, as it has been ever since
the first caravan crossed the clear water of the little stream.
It was always a favourite place of ambush by the Indians, and many
a conflict has occurred in the beautiful bottom bounded by a margin
of trees on two sides, between the traders, trappers, troops, and
the Indians, and also between the several tribes that were hereditary
enemies, particularly the Pawnees and the Cheyennes. It is only
about sixteen miles east of Pawnee Rock, and included in that region
of debatable ground where no band of Indians dared establish a
permanent village; for it was claimed by all the tribes, but really
owned by none.
In 1864 the commerce of the great plains had reached enormous
proportions, and immense caravans rolled day after day toward the
blue hills which guard the portals of New Mexico, and the precious
freight constantly tempted the wily savages to plunder.
To protect the caravans on their monotonous route through the "Desert,"
as this portion of the plains was then termed, troops were stationed,
a mere handful relatively, at intervals on the Trail, to escort the
freighters and mail coaches over the most exposed and dangerous
portions of the way.
On the bank of the Walnut, at this time, were stationed three hundred
unassigned recruits of the Third Wisconsin Cavalry, under the command
of Captain Conkey. This point was rightly regarded as one of the
most important on the whole overland route; for near it passed the
favourite highway of the Indians on their yearly migrations north
and south, in the wake of the strange elliptical march of the buffalo
far beyond the Platte, and back to the sunny knolls of the Canadian.
This primitive cantonment which grew rapidly in strategical importance,
was two years later made quite formidable defensively, and named
Fort Zarah, in memory of the youngest son of Major General Curtis,
who was killed by guerillas somewhere south of Fort Scott, Kansas,
while escorting General James G. Blunt, of frontier fame during
the Civil War.
Captain Henry Booth, during the year above mentioned, was chief of
cavalry and inspecting officer of the military district of the Upper
Arkansas, the western geographical limits of which extended to the
foot-hills of the mountains.
One day he received an order from the head-quarters of the department
to make a special inspection of all the outposts on the Santa Fe Trail.
He was stationed at Fort Riley at the time, and the evening the order
arrived, active preparations were immediately commenced for his
extended and hazardous trip across the plains. Lieutenant Hallowell,
of the Ninth Wisconsin Battery, was to accompany him, and both
officers went at once to their quarters, took down from the walls,
where they had been hanging idly for weeks, their rifles and pistols,
and carefully examined and brushed them up for possible service in
the dreary Arkansas bottom. Camp-kettles, until late in the night,
sizzled and sputtered over crackling log-fires; for their proposed
ride beyond the settlements demanded cooked rations for many a
weary day. All the preliminaries arranged, the question of the means
of transportation was determined, and, curiously enough, it saved
the lives of the two officers in the terrible gauntlet they were
destined to run.
Hallowell was a famous whip, and prided himself upon the exceptionally
fine turnout which he daily drove among the picturesque hills around
"Booth," said he in the evening, "let's not take a great lumbering
ambulance on this trip; if you will get a good way-up team of mules
from the quartermaster, we'll use my light rig, and we'll do our
To this proposition Booth readily assented, procured the mules, and,
as it turned out, they were a "good way-up team."
Hallowell had a set of bows fitted to his light wagon, over which
was thrown an army-wagon-sheet, drawn up behind with a cord, similar
to those of the ordinary emigrant outfit to be seen daily on the
roads of the Western prairies. A round hole was necessarily left
in the rear end, serving the purpose of a lookout.
Two grip-sacks, containing their dress uniforms, a box of crackers
and cheese, meat and sardines, together with a bottle of anti-snake
bite, made up the principal freight for the long journey, and in the
clear cold of the early morning they rolled out of the gates of the
fort, escorted by Company L, of the Eleventh Kansas, commanded by
Lieutenant Van Antwerp.
The company of one hundred mounted men acting as escort was too
formidable a number for the Indians, and not a sign of one was seen
as the dangerous flats of Plum Creek and the rolling country beyond
were successively passed, and early in the afternoon the cantonment
on Walnut Creek was reached. At this important outpost Captain
Conkey's command was living in a rude but comfortable sort of a way,
in the simplest of dugouts, constructed along the right bank of the
stream; the officers, a little more in accordance with military
dignity, in tents a few rods in rear of the line of huts.
A stockade stable had been built, with a capacity for two hundred
and fifty horses, and sufficient hay had been put up by the men in
the fall to carry the animals through the winter.
Captain Conkey was a brusque but kind-hearted man, and with him were
stationed other officers, one of whom was a son of Admiral Goldsborough.
The morning after the arrival of the inspecting officers a rigid
examination of all the appointments and belongings of the place was
made, and, as an immense amount of property had accumulated for
condemnation, when evening came the books and papers were still
untouched; so that branch of the inspection had to be postponed
until the next morning.
After dark, while sitting around the camp-fire, discussing the war,
telling stories, etc., Captain Conkey said to Booth: "Captain,
it won't require more than half an hour in the morning to inspect
the papers and finish up what you have to do; why don't you start
your escort out very early, so it won't be obliged to trot after
the ambulance, or you to poke along with it? You can then move out
briskly and make time."
Booth, acting upon what he thought at the time an excellent suggestion,
in a few moments went over the creek to Lieutenant Van Antwerp's camp,
to tell him that he need not wait for the wagon in the morning, but
to start out early, at half-past six, in advance.
According to instructions, the escort marched out of camp at daylight
next morning, while Booth and Hallowell remained to finish their
inspection. It was soon discovered, however, that either Captain
Conkey had underrated the amount of work to be done, or misjudged
the inspecting officers' ability to complete it in a certain time;
so almost three hours elapsed after the cavalry had departed before
the task ended.
At last everything was closed up, much to Hallowell's satisfaction,
who had been chafing under the vexatious delay ever since the escort
left. When all was in readiness, the little wagon drawn up in front
of the commanding officer's quarters, and farewells said, Hallowell
suggested to Booth the propriety of taking a few of the troops
stationed there to go with them until they overtook their own escort,
which must now be several miles on the Trail to Fort Larned.
Booth asked Captain Conkey what he thought of Hallowell's suggestion.
Captain Conkey replied: "Oh! there's not the slightest danger;
there hasn't been an Indian seen around here for over ten days."
If either Booth or Hallowell had been as well acquainted with the
methods and character of the plains Indians then as they afterward
became, they would have insisted upon an escort; but both were
satisfied that Captain Conkey knew what he was talking about,
so they concluded to push on.
Jumping into their wagon, Lieutenant Hallowell took the reins and
away they went rattling over the old log bridge that used to span
the Walnut at the crossing of the Old Santa Fe Trail, as light of
heart as if riding to a dance.
The morning was bright and clear with a stiff breeze blowing from
the northwest, and the Trail was frozen hard in places, which made
it very rough, as it had been cut up by the travel of the heavily
laden caravans when it was wet. Booth sat on the left side of
Hallowell with the whip in his hand, now and then striking the mules,
to keep up their speed. Hallowell started up a tune--he was a good
singer--and Booth joined in as they rolled along, as oblivious of any
danger as though they were in their quarters at Fort Riley.
After they had proceeded some distance, Hallowell remarked to Booth:
"The buffalo are grazing a long way from the road to-day; a circumstance
that I think bodes no good." He had been on the plains the summer
before, and was better acquainted with the Indians and their
peculiarities than Captain Booth; but the latter replied that he
thought it was because their escort had gone on ahead, and had
probably frightened them off.
The next mile or two was passed, and still they saw no buffalo between
the Trail and the Arkansas, though nothing more was said by either
regarding the suspicious circumstance, and they rode rapidly on.
When they had gone about five or six miles from the Walnut, Booth,
happening to glance toward the river, saw something that looked
strangely like a flock of turkeys. He watched them intently for a
moment, when the objects rose up and he discovered they were horsemen.
He grasped Hallowell by the arm, directing his attention to them, and
said, "What are they?" Hallowell gave a hasty look toward the point
indicated, and replied, "Indians! by George!" and immediately turning
the mules around on the Trail, started them back toward the cantonment
on the Walnut at a full gallop.
"Hold on!" said Booth to Hallowell when he understood the latter's
movement; "maybe it's part of our escort."
"No! no!" replied Hallowell. "I know they are Indians; I've seen
too many of them to be mistaken."
"Well," rejoined Booth, "I'm going to know for certain"; so, stepping
out on the foot-board, and with one hand holding on to the front bow,
he looked back over the top of the wagon-sheet. They were Indians,
sure enough; they had fully emerged from the ravine in which they had
hidden, and while he was looking at them they were slipping off their
buffalo robes from their shoulders, taking arrows out of their quivers,
drawing up their spears, and making ready generally for a red-hot time.
While Booth was intently regarding the movements of the savages,
Hallowell inquired of him: "They're Indians, aren't they, Booth?"
"Yes," was Booth's answer, "and they're coming down on us like a
"Then I shall never see poor Lizzie again!" said Hallowell. He had
been married only a few weeks before starting out on this trip, and
his young wife's name came to his lips.
"Never mind Lizzie," responded Booth; "let's get out of here!" He was
as badly frightened as Hallowell, but had no bride at Riley, and,
as he tells it, "was selfishly thinking of himself only, and escape."
In answer to Booth's remark, Hallowell, in a firm, clear voice, said:
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