User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active
 

Article Index

 

EARLY TRADERS.
 
 
 
 In 1812 a Captain Becknell, who had been on a trading expedition
 to the country of the Comanches in the summer of 1811, and had done
 remarkably well, determined the next season to change his objective
 point to Santa Fe, and instead of the tedious process of bartering
 with the Indians, to sell out his stock to the New Mexicans.
 Successful in this, his first venture, he returned to the Missouri
 River with a well-filled purse, and intensely enthusiastic over the
 result of his excursion to the newly found market.
 
 Excited listeners to his tales of enormous profits were not lacking,
 who, inspired by the inducement he held out to them, cheerfully
 invested five thousand dollars in merchandise suited to the demands
 of the trade, and were eager to attempt with him the passage of
 the great plains.  In this expedition there were thirty men, and
 the amount of money in the undertaking was the largest that had yet
 been ventured.  The progress of the little caravan was without
 extraordinary incident, until it arrived at "The Caches" on the
 Upper Arkansas.  There Becknell, who was in reality a man of the
 then "Frontier," bold, plucky, and endowed with excellent sense,
 conceived the ridiculous idea of striking directly across the country
 for Santa Fe through a region absolutely unexplored; his excuse
 for this rash movement being that he desired to avoid the rough and
 circuitous mountain route he had travelled on his first trip to Taos.
 
 His temerity in abandoning the known for the unknown was severely
 punished, and his brave men suffered untold misery, barely escaping
 with their lives from the terrible straits to which they were reduced.
 Not having the remotest conception of the region through which their
 new trail was to lead them, and naturally supposing that water would
 be found in streams or springs, when they left the Arkansas they
 neglected to supply themselves with more than enough of the precious
 fluid to last a couple of days.  At the end of that time they learned,
 too late, that they were in the midst of a desert, with all the
 tortures of thirst threatening them.
 
 Without a tree or a path to guide them, they took an irregular course
 by observations of the North Star, and the unreliable needle of an
 azimuth pocket-compass.  There was a total absence of water, and when
 what they had brought with them in their canteens from the river was
 exhausted, thirst began its horrible office.  In a short time both men
 and animals were in a mental condition bordering on distraction.
 To alleviate their acute torment, the dogs of the train were killed,
 and their blood, hot and sickening, eagerly swallowed; then the ears
 of the mules were cut off for the same purpose, but such a substitute
 for water only added to their sufferings.  They would have perished
 had not a superannuated buffalo bull that had just come from the
 Cimarron River, where he had gone to quench his thirst, suddenly
 appeared, to be immediately killed and the contents of his stomach
 swallowed with avidity.  It is recorded that one of those who partook
 of the nauseous liquid said afterward, "nothing had ever passed
 his lips which gave him such exquisite delight as his first draught
 of that filthy beverage."
 
 Although they were near the Cimarron, where there was plenty of water,
 which but for the affair of the buffalo they never would have suspected,
 they decided to retrace their steps to the Arkansas.
 
 Before they started on their retreat, however, some of the strongest
 of the party followed the trail of the animal that had saved their
 lives to the river, where, filling all the canteens with pure water,
 they returned to their comrades, who were, after drinking, able to
 march slowly toward the Arkansas.
 
 Following that stream, they at last arrived at Taos, having experienced
 no further trouble, but missed the trail to Santa Fe, and had their
 journey greatly prolonged by the foolish endeavour of the leader
 to make a short cut thither.
 
 As early as 1815, Auguste P. Chouteau and his partner, with a large
 number of trappers and hunters, went out to the valley of the
 Upper Arkansas for the purpose of trading with Indians, and trapping
 on the numerous streams of the contiguous region.
 
 The island on which Chouteau established his trading-post, and which
 bears his name even to this day, is in the Arkansas River on the
 boundary line of the United States and Mexico.  It was a beautiful
 spot, with a rich carpet of grass and delightful groves, and on
 the American side was a heavily timbered bottom.
 
 While occupying the island, Chouteau and his old hunters and trappers
 were attacked by about three hundred Pawnees, whom they repulsed
 with the loss of thirty killed and wounded.  These Indians afterward
 declared that it was the most fatal affair in which they were ever
 engaged.  It was their first acquaintance with American guns.
 
 The general character of the early trade with New Mexico was founded
 on the system of the caravan.  She depended upon the remote ports
 of old Mexico, whence was transported, on the backs of the patient
 burro and mule, all that was required by the primitive tastes of the
 primitive people; a very tedious and slow process, as may be inferred,
 and the limited traffic westwardly across the great plains was
 confined to this fashion.  At the date of the legitimate and
 substantial commerce with New Mexico, in 1824, wheeled vehicles were
 introduced, and traffic assumed an importance it could never have
 otherwise attained, and which now, under the vast system of railroads,
 has increased to dimensions little dreamed of by its originators
 nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
 
 It was eight years after Pursley's pilgrimage before the trade with
 New Mexico attracted the attention of speculators and adventurers.
 Messrs. McKnight,[13] Beard, and Chambers, with about a dozen comrades,
 started with a supply of goods across the unknown plains, and by
 good luck arrived safely at Santa Fe.  Once under the jurisdiction
 of the Mexicans, however, their trouble began.  All the party were
 arrested as spies, their wares confiscated, and themselves
 incarcerated at Chihuahua, where the majority of them were kept for
 almost a decade.  Beard and Chambers, having by some means escaped,
 returned to St. Louis in 1822, and, notwithstanding their dreadful
 experience, told of the prospects of the trade with the Mexicans
 in such glowing colours that they induced some individuals of small
 capital to fit out another expedition, with which they again set out
 for Santa Fe.
 
 It was really too late in the season; they succeeded, however,
 in reaching the crossing of the Arkansas without any difficulty,
 but there a violent snowstorm overtook them and they were compelled
 to halt, as it was impossible to proceed in the face of the blinding
 blizzard.  On an island[14] not far from where the town of Cimarron,
 on the Santa Fe Railroad, is now situated, they were obliged to
 remain for more than three months, during which time most of their
 animals died for want of food and from the severe cold.  When the
 weather had moderated sufficiently to allow them to proceed on
 their journey, they had no transportation for their goods and were
 compelled to hide them in pits dug in the earth, after the manner
 of the old French voyageurs in the early settlement of the continent.
 This method of secreting furs and valuables of every character
 is called caching, from the French word "to hide."  Gregg thus
 describes it:
 
           The cache is made by digging a hole in the ground, somewhat
           in the shape of a jug, which is lined with dry sticks,
           grass, or anything else that will protect its contents
           from the dampness of the earth.  In this place the goods
           to be concealed are carefully stowed away; and the aperture
           is then so effectually closed as to protect them from
           the rains.  In caching, a great deal of skill is often
           required to leave no sign whereby the cunning savage may
           discover the place of deposit.  To this end, the excavated
           earth is carried some distance and carefully concealed,
           or thrown into a stream, if one be at hand.  The place
           selected for a cache is usually some rolling point,
           sufficiently elevated to be secure from inundations.
           If it be well set with grass, a solid piece of turf is
           cut out large enough for the entrance.  The turf is
           afterward laid back, and, taking root, in a short time
           no signs remain of its ever having been molested.
           However, as every locality does not afford a turfy site,
           the camp-fire is sometimes built upon the place, or the
           animals are penned over it, which effectually destroys
           all traces.
 
 Father Hennepin[15] thus describes, in his quaint style, how he built
 a cache on the bank of the Mississippi, in 1680:
 
           We took up the green sodd, and laid it by, and digg'd a hole
           in the Earth where we put our Goods, and cover'd them with
           pieces of Timber and Earth, and then put in again the green
           Turf; so that 'twas impossible to suspect that any Hole had
           been digg'd under it, for we flung the Earth into the River.
 
 After caching their goods, Beard and the party went on to Taos,
 where they bought mules, and returning to their caches transported
 their contents to their market.
 
 The word "cache" still lingers among the "old-timers" of the mountains
 and plains, and has become a provincialism with their descendants;
 one of these will tell you that he cached his vegetables in the side
 of the hill; or if he is out hunting and desires to secrete himself
 from approaching game, he will say, "I am going to cache behind
 that rock," etc.
 
 The place where Beard's little expedition wintered was called
 "The Caches" for years, and the name has only fallen into disuse
 within the last two decades.  I remember the great holes in the
 ground when I first crossed the plains, a third of a century ago.
 
 The immense profit upon merchandise transported across the dangerous
 Trail of the mid-continent to the capital of New Mexico soon excited
 the cupidity of other merchants east of the Missouri.  When the
 commonest domestic cloth, manufactured wholly from cotton, brought
 from two to three dollars a yard at Santa Fe, and other articles at
 the same ratio to cost, no wonder the commerce with the far-off market
 appeared to those who desired to send goods there a veritable Golconda.
 
 The importance of internal trade with New Mexico, and the possibilities
 of its growth, were first recognized by the United States in 1824,
 the originator of the movement being Mr. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri,
 who frequently, from his place in the Senate, prophesied the coming
 greatness of the West.  He introduced a bill which authorized the
 President to appoint a commission to survey a road from the Missouri
 River to the boundary line of New Mexico, and from thence on Mexican
 territory with the consent of the Mexican government.  The signing of
 this bill was one of the last acts of Mr. Monroe's official life,
 and it was carried into effect by his successor, Mr. John Quincy Adams,
 but unfortunately a mistake was made in supposing that the Osage
 Indians alone controlled the course of the proposed route.  It was
 partially marked out as far as the Arkansas, by raised mounds;
 but travellers continued to use the old wagon trail, and as no
 negotiations had been entered into with the Comanches, Cheyennes,
 Pawnees, or Kiowas, these warlike tribes continued to harass the
 caravans when these arrived in the broad valley of the Arkansas.
 
 The American fur trade was at its height at the time when the Santa Fe
 trade was just beginning to assume proportions worthy of notice;
 the difference between the two enterprises being very marked.  The fur
 trade was in the hands of immensely wealthy companies, while that to
 Santa Fe was carried on by individuals with limited capital, who,
 purchasing goods in the Eastern markets, had them transported to
 the Missouri River, where, until the trade to New Mexico became a
 fixed business, everything was packed on mules.  As soon, however,
 as leading merchants invested their capital, about 1824, the trade
 grew into vast proportions, and wagons took the place of the patient
 mule.  Later, oxen were substituted for mules, it having been
 discovered that they possessed many advantages over the former,
 particularly in being able to draw heavier loads than an equal number
 of mules, especially through sandy or muddy places.
 
 For a long time, the traders were in the habit of purchasing their
 mules in Santa Fe and driving them to the Missouri; but as soon as
 that useful animal was raised in sufficient numbers in the Southern
 States to supply the demand, the importation from New Mexico ceased,
 for the reason that the American mule was in all respects an immensely
 superior animal.
 
 Once mules were an important object of the trade, and those who dealt
 in them and drove them across to the river on the Trail met with
 many mishaps; frequently whole droves, containing from three to
 five hundred, were stolen by the savages en route.  The latter soon
 learned that it was a very easy thing to stampede a caravan of mules,
 for, once panic-stricken, it is impossible to restrain them, and
 the Indians having started them kept them in a state of rampant
 excitement by their blood-curdling yells, until they had driven them
 miles beyond the Trail.
 
 A story is told of a small band of twelve men, who, while encamped
 on the Cimarron River, in 1826, with but four serviceable guns among
 them, were visited by a party of Indians, believed to be Arapahoes,
 who made at first strong demonstrations of friendship and good-will.
 Observing the defenceless condition of the traders, they went away,
 but soon returned about thirty strong, each provided with a lasso,
 and all on foot.  The chief then began by informing the Americans
 that his men were tired of walking, and must have horses.  Thinking
 it folly to offer any resistance, the terrified traders told them
 if one animal apiece would satisfy them, to go and catch them.
 This they soon did; but finding their request so easily complied with,
 the Indians held a little parley together, which resulted in a new
 demand for more--they must have two apiece!  "Well, catch them!"
 was the acquiescent reply of the unfortunate band; upon which the
 savages mounted those they had already secured, and, swinging their
 lassos over their heads, plunged among the stock with a furious yell,
 and drove off the entire caballada of nearly five hundred head of
 horses, mules, and asses.
 
 In 1829 the Indians of the plains became such a terror to the caravans
 crossing to Santa Fe, that the United States government, upon petition
 of the traders, ordered three companies of infantry and one of riflemen,
 under command of Major Bennet Riley, to escort the annual caravan,
 which that year started from the town of Franklin, Missouri, then the
 eastern terminus of the Santa Fe trade, as far as Chouteau's Island,
 on the Arkansas, which marked the boundary between the United States
 and Mexico.[16]  The caravan started from the island across the dreary
 route unaccompanied by any troops, but had progressed only a few miles
 when it was attacked by a band of Kiowas, then one of the most cruel
 and bloodthirsty tribes on the plains.[17]
 
 This escort, commanded by Major Riley, and another under Captain
 Wharton, composed of only sixty dragoons, five years later, were the
 sole protection ever given by the government until 1843, when Captain
 Philip St. George Cooke again accompanied two large caravans to the
 same point on the Arkansas as did Major Riley fourteen years before.
 
 As the trade increased, the Comanches, Pawnees, and Arapahoes
 continued to commit their depredations, and it was firmly believed
 by many of the freighters that these Indians were incited to their
 devilish acts by the Mexicans, who were always jealous of
 "Los Americanos."
 
 It was very rarely that a caravan, great or small, or even a detachment
 of troops, no matter how large, escaped the raids of these bandits of
 the Trail.  If the list of those who were killed outright and scalped,
 and those more unfortunate who were taken captive only to be tortured
 and their bodies horribly mutilated, could be collected from the
 opening of the traffic with New Mexico until the years 1868-69, when
 General Sheridan inaugurated his memorable "winter campaign" against
 the allied plains tribes, and completely demoralized, cowed, and
 forced them on their reservations, about the time of the advent of the
 railroad, it would present an appalling picture; and the number of
 horses, mules, and oxen stampeded and stolen during the same period
 would amount to thousands.
 
 As the excellent narrative of Captain Pike is not read as it should be
 by the average American, a brief reference to it may not be considered
 supererogatory.  The celebrated officer, who was afterward promoted
 to the rank of major-general, and died in the achievement of the
 victory of York, Upper Canada, in 1813, was sent in 1806 on an
 exploring expedition up the Arkansas River, with instructions to pass
 the sources of Red River, for which those of the Canadian were then
 mistaken; he, however, even went around the head of the latter,
 and crossing the mountains with an almost incredible degree of peril
 and suffering, descended upon the Rio del Norte with his little party,
 then but fifteen in number.
 
 Believing himself now on Red River, within the then assumed limits
 of the United States, he built a small fortification for his company,
 until the opening of the spring of 1807 should enable him to continue
 his descent to Natchitoches.  As he was really within Mexican
 territory, and only about eighty miles from the northern settlements,
 his position was soon discovered, and a force sent to take him to
 Santa Fe, which by treachery was effected without opposition.
 The Spanish officer assured him that the governor, learning that
 he had mistaken his way, had sent animals and an escort to convey
 his men and baggage to a navigable point on Red River (Rio Colorado),
 and that His Excellency desired very much to see him at Santa Fe,
 which might be taken on their way.
 
 As soon, however, as the governor had the too confiding captain
 in his power, he sent him with his men to the commandant general
 at Chihuahua, where most of his papers were seized, and he and
 his party were sent under an escort, via San Antonio de Bexar,
 to the United States.
 
 Many citizens of the remote Eastern States, who were contemporary
 with Pike, declared that his expedition was in some way connected
 with the treasonable attempt of Aaron Burr.  The idea is simply
 preposterous; Pike's whole line of conduct shows him to have been
 of the most patriotic character; never would he for a moment have
 countenanced a proposition from Aaron Burr!
 
 After Captain Pike's report had been published to the world,
 the adventurers who were inspired by its glowing description of
 the country he had been so far to explore were destined to experience
 trials and disappointments of which they had formed no conception.
 
 Among them was a certain Captain Sublette, a famous old trapper
 in the era of the great fur companies, and with him a Captain Smith,
 who, although veteran pioneers of the Rocky Mountains, were mere
 novices in the many complications of the Trail; but having been in
 the fastnesses of the great divide of the continent, they thought
 that when they got down on the plains they could go anywhere.
 They started with twenty wagons, and left the Missouri without
 a single one of the party being competent to guide the little caravan
 on the dangerous route.
 
 From the Missouri the Trail was broad and plain enough for a child
 to follow, but when they arrived at the Cimarron crossing of
 the Arkansas, not a trace of former caravans was visible; nothing but
 the innumerable buffalo-trails leading from everywhere to the river.
 
 When the party entered the desert, or Dry Route, as it was years
 afterward always, and very properly, called in certain seasons
 of drought, the brave but too confident men discovered that the
 whole region was burnt up.  They wandered on for several days,
 the horrors of death by thirst constantly confronting them.
 Water must be had or they would all perish!  At last Smith, in his
 desperation, determined to follow one of the numerous buffalo-trails,
 believing that it would conduct him to water of some character--
 a lake or pool or even wallow.  He left the train alone; asked for
 no one to accompany him; for he was the very impersonation of courage,
 one of the most fearless men that ever trapped in the mountains.
 
 He walked on and on for miles, when, on ascending a little divide,
 he saw a stream in the valley beneath him.  It was the Cimarron,
 and he hurried toward it to quench his intolerable thirst.  When he
 arrived at its bank, to his disappointment it was nothing but a bed
 of sand; the sometime clear running river was perfectly dry.
 
 Only for a moment was he staggered; he knew the character of many
 streams in the West; that often their waters run under the ground
 at a short distance from the surface, and in a moment he was on
 his knees digging vigorously in the soft sand.  Soon the coveted
 fluid began to filter upwards into the little excavation he had made.
 He stooped to drink, and in the next second a dozen arrows from an
 ambushed band of Comanches entered his body.  He did not die at once,
 however; it is related by the Indians themselves that he killed two
 of their number before death laid him low.
 
 Captain Sublette and Smith's other comrades did not know what had
 become of him until some Mexican traders told them, having got the
 report from the very savages who committed the cold-blooded murder.
 
 Gregg, in his report of this little expedition, says:
           Every kind of fatality seems to have attended this small
           caravan.  Among other casualties, a clerk in their company,
           named Minter, was killed by a band of Pawnees, before they
           crossed the Arkansas.  This, I believe, is the only instance
           of loss of life among the traders while engaged in hunting,
           although the scarcity of accidents can hardly be said to be
           the result of prudence.  There is not a day that hunters
           do not commit some indescretion; such as straying at
           a distance of five and even ten miles from the caravan,
           frequently alone, and seldom in bands of more than two or
           three together.  In this state, they must frequently be
           spied by prowling savages; so that frequency of escape,
           under such circumstances, must be partly attributed to
           the cowardice of the Indians; indeed, generally speaking,
           the latter are very loth to charge upon even a single
           armed man, unless they can take him at a decided advantage.
 
           Not long after, this band of Captain Sublette's very
           narrowly escaped total destruction.  They had fallen in
           with an immense horde of Blackfeet and Gros Ventres, and,
           as the traders were literally but a handful among thousands
           of savages, they fancied themselves for a while in imminent
           peril of being virtually "eated up."  But as Captain
           Sublette possessed considerable experience, he was at
           no loss how to deal with these treacherous savages; so that
           although the latter assumed a threatening attitude,
           he passed them without any serious molestation, and finally
           arrived at Santa Fe in safety.
 
 The virtual commencement of the Santa Fe trade dates from 1822,
 and one of the most remarkable events in its history was the first
 attempt to introduce wagons in the expeditions.  This was made in 1824
 by a company of traders, about eighty in number, among whom were
 several gentlemen of intelligence from Missouri, who contributed
 by their superior skill and undaunted energy to render the enterprise
 completely successful.  A portion of this company employed pack-mules;
 among the rest were owned twenty-five wheeled vehicles, of which
 one or two were stout road-wagons, two were carts, and the rest
 Dearborn carriages, the whole conveying some twenty-five or thirty
 thousand dollars' worth of merchandise.  Colonel Marmaduke,
 of Missouri, was one of the party.  This caravan arrived at Santa Fe
 safely, experiencing much less difficulty than they anticipated
 from a first attempt with wheeled vehicles.
 
 Gregg continues:
           The early voyageurs, having but seldom experienced any
           molestation from the Indians, generally crossed the plains
           in detached bands, each individual rarely carrying more than
           two or three hundred dollars' worth of stock.  This peaceful
           season, however, did not last very long; and it is greatly
           to be feared that the traders were not always innocent of
           having instigated the savage hostilities that ensued in
           after years.  Many seemed to forget the wholesome precept,
           that they should not be savages themselves because they
           dealt with savages.  Instead of cultivating friendly
           feelings with those few who remained peaceful and honest,
           there was an occasional one always disposed to kill,
           even in cold blood, every Indian that fell into their power,
           merely because some of the tribe had committed an outrage
           either against themselves or friends.
 
 As an instance of this, he relates the following:
           In 1826 two young men named McNess and Monroe, having
           carelessly lain down to sleep on the bank of a certain
           stream, since known as McNess Creek,[18] were barbarously
           shot, with their own guns, as it was supposed, in the very
           sight of the caravan.  When their comrades came up,
           they found McNess lifeless, and the other almost expiring.
           In this state the latter was carried nearly forty miles to
           the Cimarron River, where he died, and was buried according
           to the custom of the prairies, a very summary proceeding,
           necessarily.  The corpse, wrapped in a blanket, its shroud
           the clothes it wore, is interred in a hole varying in depth
           according to the nature of the soil, and upon the grave is
           piled stones, if any are convenient, to prevent the wolves
           from digging it up.  Just as McNess's funeral ceremonies
           were about to be concluded, six or seven Indians appeared
           on the opposite side of the Cimarron.  Some of the party
           proposed inviting them to a parley, while the rest, burning
           for revenge, evinced a desire to fire upon them at once.
           It is more than probable, however, that the Indians were not
           only innocent but ignorant of the outrage that had been
           committed, or they would hardly have ventured to approach
           the caravan.  Being quick of perception, they very soon saw
           the belligerent attitude assumed by the company, and
           therefore wheeled round and attempted to escape.  One shot
           was fired, which brought an Indian to the ground, when he
           was instantly riddled with balls.  Almost simultaneously
           another discharge of several guns followed, by which all
           the rest were either killed or mortally wounded, except one,
           who escaped to bear the news to his tribe.
 
           These wanton cruelties had a most disastrous effect upon the
           prospects of the trade; for the exasperated children of
           the desert became more and more hostile to the "pale-faces,"
           against whom they continued to wage a cruel war for many
           successive years.  In fact this party suffered very severely
           a few days afterward.  They were pursued by the enraged
           comrades of the slain savages to the Arkansas River, where
           they were robbed of nearly a thousand horses and mules.
 
 The author of this book, although having but little compassion for
 the Indians, must admit that, during more than a third of a century
 passed on the plains and in the mountains, he has never known of
 a war with the hostile tribes that was not caused by broken faith
 on the part of the United States or its agents.  I will refer to
 two prominent instances: that of the outbreak of the Nez Perces, and
 that of the allied plains tribes.  With the former a solemn treaty
 was made in 1856, guaranteeing to them occupancy of the Wallola valley
 forever.  I. I. Stevens, who was governor of Washington Territory
 at the time, and ex-officio superintendent of Indian affairs in
 the region, met the Nez Perces, whose chief, "Wish-la-no-she,"
 an octogenarian, when grasping the hand of the governor at the council
 said: "I put out my hand to the white man when Lewis and Clark
 crossed the continent, in 1805, and have never taken it back since."
 The tribe kept its word until the white men took forcible possession
 of the valley promised to the Indians, when the latter broke out,
 and a prolonged war was the consequence.  In 1867 Congress appointed
 a commission to treat with the Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Arapahoes,
 appropriating four hundred thousand dollars for the expenses of
 the commission.  It met at Medicine Lodge in August of the year
 mentioned, and made a solemn treaty, which the members of the
 commission, on the part of the United States, and the principal
 chiefs of the three tribes signed.  Congress failed to make any
 appropriation to carry out the provisions of the treaty, and the
 Indians, after waiting a reasonable time, broke out, devastated
 the settlements from the Platte to the Rio Grande, destroying
 millions of dollars' worth of property, and sacrificing hundreds
 of men, women, and children.  Another war was the result, which
 cost more millions, and under General Sheridan the hostile savages
 were whipped into a peace, which they have been compelled to keep.