Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

The Commerce of the Prairies—I

At the end of the sixteenth and during the seventeenth century a line of Spanish settlements ran from Mexico northward along the Rocky Mountains, terminating in the important town of Taos. To the north, northeast, and northwest of this town were other settlements, occupied by the Spaniards and their descendants, and the streams and geographical features of the country bore Spanish names—almost up to the headwaters of the Rio Grande del Norte. North of the Arkansas there was a change of tongue, and the names were English, or French, given much later by American trappers who had pushed westward, or by French Canadians and Creoles, who were early voyageurs over the plains.

Though Taos was an important place, it did not equal, either in size or wealth, the town of Santa Fe.

The first settlements of what is now New Mexico were made about the end of the sixteenth century, and a colony was established on the Rio del Norte, in New Mexico. Agriculture was practised, and mines were discovered and worked. The Spaniards, in their greed for precious metals, made slaves of the docile Indians, and forced them to labor in the mines, under circumstances of the greatest severity and hardship. Almost a hundred years later, in August, 1680, this ill treatment caused the insurrection of the Pueblos, which put an end to many a flourishing Spanish settlement, and, temporarily, to the country's development. For a time the Spaniards were driven out, but it was for a time only; a little later they returned, resubdued the country, and by the close of the century were stronger than ever. Nevertheless, the Pueblo revolt was not without its good effect, and during the eighteenth century the Indians were far better treated than they had been before.

In the year 1806, Captain Zebulon M. Pike crossed the plains and reached the city of Santa Fe. His return told the inhabitants of the farther west of a country beyond the plains where there were towns and people who would purchase goods brought to them. Previous to this, a merchant of Kaskaskia, named Morrison, had sent a French Creole named La Lande up the Platte River, directing him to go to Santa Fe to trade; but La Lande, though he reached that city, never returned, nor accounted to his employer for the goods that were intrusted to him. James Pursley, an American, was perhaps the second man to cross these plains, and reach the Spanish settlements. When Captain Pike returned, the news of these settlements, hitherto unknown, created a great interest throughout the slowly advancing frontier.

Expeditions went out to Santa Fe in 1812, but the traders were suspected by the New Mexicans of being spies, their goods were confiscated, and they themselves imprisoned and detained for years, some of them returning to the United States in 1821. After this, other parties went out, and the trading which they did with the Spaniards was successful and profitable. More and more expeditions set forth, often manned by people who were entirely ignorant of the country through which they were to pass, and of the hardships which they were to face. Some of these died from starvation or thirst, or, at the very least, suffered terribly, and often were unsuccessful, but about 1822 the trade with Santa Fe became established. The distance from the American settlements across the plains to Santa Fe was hardly half that from Vera Cruz to Santa Fe, and there was great profit in the trade; but it was not without its dangers. Indians were constantly met with, and many of the traders did not understand how to treat them. Some traders were robbed; others, resisting harshly and sometimes killing a savage, were attacked, robbed of their animals, and occasionally lost a man.

Among the interesting records of the plains of these early times is Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies, or the journal of a Santa Fe Trader, During Eight Expeditions Across the (,meat Western Prairies.

Gregg, an invalid, made his first trip across the plains on the advice of his physician. The effect of his journey was to re-establish his health and to beget in him a passion for prairie life. He soon became interested, as a proprietor, in the Santa Fe trade, and for eight successive years continued to follow this business. The period covered by his volumes is from 1831 to 1840, during which time the trade was at its height.

The caravan with which Gregg started, set out with near a hundred wagons, of which one-half were hauled by oxen and the remainder by mules. The very night that they left Council Grove their cattle stampeded, but being corralled within the circle of wagons, did not escape.

Having a large company, it was natural that there should be among it a number of people who were constantly seeing dangers that did not exist. They had been out but a short time when, "Alarms now began to accumulate more rapidly upon us. A couple of persons had a few days before been chased to the wagons by a band of—buffalo; and this evening the encampment was barely formed when two hunters came bolting in with information that a hundred, perhaps of the same 'enemy' were at hand—at least this was the current opinion afterward. The hubbub occasioned by this fearful news had scarcely subsided, when another arrived on a panting horse, crying out 'Indians! Indians! I've just escaped from a couple, who pursued me to the very camp!' 'To arms! to arms!' resounded from every quarter—and just then a wolf, attracted by the fumes of broiling buffalo bones, sent up a most hideous howl across the creek. 'Some one in distress!' was instantly shouted: 'To his relief!' vociferated the crowd; and off they bolted, one and all, arms in hand, hurly-burly, leaving the camp entirely unprotected, so that had an enemy been at hand indeed, and approached us from the opposite direction, they might easily have taken possession of the wagons. Before they had returned, however, a couple of hunters came in and laughed very heartily at the expense of the first alarmist, whom they had just chased into the camp."

Caravan on the prairie


While baseless Indian scares were common, they sometimes had genuine frights, as in the case of a large body of Indians met on the Cimarron River. On this occasion, "It was a genuine alarm—a tangible reality. These warriors, however, as we soon discovered, were only' the vanguard of a 'countless host,' who were by this time pouring over the opposite ridge, and galloping directly toward us.

"The wagons were soon irregularly 'formed' upon the hillside: but in accordance with the habitual carelessness of caravan traders, a great portion of the men were unprepared for the emergency. Scores of guns were 'empty,' and as many more had been wetted by the recent showers, and would not 'go off.' Here was one calling for balls; another for powder; a third for flints. Exclamations, such as, 'I've broken my ramrod!'—'I've spilt my caps!'—'I've rammed down a ball without powder!'—'My gun is choked; give me yours!'—were heard from different quarters; while a timorous 'greenhorn' would perhaps cry out: 'Here, take my gun, you can outshoot me!' The more daring bolted off to encounter the enemy at once, while the timid and cautious took a stand with presented rifle behind the wagons. The Indians, who were in advance, made a bold attempt to press upon us, which came near costing them dearly, for some of our fiery backwoodsmen more than once had their rusty, but unerring, rifles directed upon the intruders, some of whom would inevitably have fallen before their deadly aim, had not some of the more prudent traders interposed. The Indians made demonstrations no less hostile, rushing, with ready sprung bows, upon a portion of our men who had gone in search of water, and mischief would, perhaps, have ensued, had not the impetuosity of the warriors been checked by the wise men of the nation.

"The Indians were collecting around us, however, in such great numbers, that it was deemed expedient to force them away, so as to resume our march, or at least to take a more advantageous position. Our company was therefore mustered and drawn up in 'line of battle'; and, accompanied by the sound of a drum and fife, we marched toward the main group of the Indians. The latter seemed far more delighted than frightened with this strange parade and music, a spectacle they had, no doubt, never witnessed before, and perhaps looked upon the whole movement rather as a complimentary salute than a hostile array, for there was no interpreter through whom any communication could be conveyed to them. But, whatever may have been their impressions, one thing is certain—that the principal chief (who was dressed in a long red coat of strouding, or coarse cloth) appeared to have full confidence in the virtues of his calumet, which he lighted, and came boldly forward to meet our war-like corps, serenely smoking the 'pipe of peace.' Our captain, now taking a whiff with the savage chief, directed him by signs to cause his warriors to retire. This most of them did, to rejoin the long train of squaws and papooses with the baggage, who followed in the rear, and were just then seen emerging from beyond the hills."

It was estimated that there were not less than two or three thousand of these Indians, who were supposed to be Blackfeet and Gros Ventres. They remained for some days in the neighborhood of the train, and kept the traders on tenterhooks of anxiety, lest there should be an attack, or a wholesale driving off of cattle. Later there were talks—or at least friendly meeting and giving of presents; and finally, the Indians moved away without doing any harm. It was but a day or two later, however, when some Comanches had a skirmish with the train, but without evil results to either party.

It was not long after this that the train, still journeying westward, saw evidence of their approach to the Spanish settlements. On the 5th of July, as they were proceeding after the celebration of the day before, they met a Mexican cibolero, or buffalo hunter, one of those hardy wanderers of the plains, who used to venture out from the Spanish settlements to secure dried buffalo meat, killing buffalo and trading with the Indians. These wanderers made long journeys, which often extended as far as the country claimed and occupied by Crows, Cheyennes, and Pawnees. Perfectly accustomed to the life of the plains, armed with gun and lance, and bow and arrows, they were not less free than the aboriginal inhabitants, whose methods in many ways they imitated, and whose blood many of them shared. Like the Indians, these buffalo hunters killed their game chiefly with the arrow and the lance, and drying its flesh, packed it on their mules, or in their oxcarts, and carried it back to the settlements to trade.

It was not very long after, that Gregg, leaving the train and pushing ahead with others, found himself in the city of Santa Fe. He was much impressed by the new country, inhabited by a race as different as possible from those whom he had left in his Eastern home. He was a close observer and records interestingly much of what he saw.

The wild tribes are described—the Nava foes, Apaches, Yutas, and Caiguas, or Kiawas. Much is said of the raids of the Apaches and the terror in which they kept the inhabitants of the towns, as well as the Mexican troops stationed there to protect these inhabitants. The savage butchery of a lot of Apaches by a troop of men, under an American leader, may perhaps be the incident which has given rise to many similar tales concerning the similar slaughters of the olden times. It seems there was a celebrated Apache chief, called Juan Jose, whose cunning and audacity had caused him to be feared throughout the whole country. The government of Sonora had announced that all booty taken from the savages under his command should be the property of those who took it. "Accordingly, in the spring of 1837 a party of some twenty men, composed chiefly of foreigners, spurred on by the love of gain, and never doubting but the Indians, after so many years of successful robberies, must be possessed of a vast amount of property, set out with an American as their commander, who had long resided in the country. In a few days they reached a rancheria of about fifty warriors with their families, among whom was the famous Juan Jose himself, and three other principal chiefs. On seeing the Americans advance, the former at once gave them to understand that, if they had come to fight, they were ready to accommodate them; but, on being assured by the leader that they were merely bent on a trading expedition, a friendly interview was immediately established between the parties. The American captain having determined to put these obnoxious chiefs to death under any circumstances, soon caused a little field-piece, which had been concealed from the Indians, to be loaded with chain and canister shot, and to be held in readiness for use. The warriors were then invited to the camp to receive a present of flour, which was placed within range of the cannon. While they were occupied in dividing the contents of the bag, they were fired upon, and a considerable number of their party killed on the spot! The remainder were then attacked with small arms, and about twenty slain, including Juan Jose and the other chiefs. Those who escaped became afterward their own avengers in a manner which proved terribly disastrous to another party of Americans, who happened at the time to be trapping on Rio Gila, not far distant. The enraged savages resolved to take summary vengeance upon these unfortunate trappers, and falling upon them, massacred them every one."

It is added that: "The Apaches, previous to this date, had committed but few depredations upon foreigners (i.e.  Americans), restrained either by fear or respect. Small parties of the latter were permitted to pass the highways of the wilderness unmolested, while large caravans of Mexicans suffered frequent attacks."

It is generally known that the Indians of the plains regarded the Mexicans as a different people from the dwellers of the United States, and there was even a time when a distinction was made between the inhabitants of the United States and those of the Republic of Texas.

The bounty on scalps, adopted by the Mexican government in 1837, was one of the many schemes devised by the people of the borderland to check the ravages of the Indians. By this Proyecto de Guerra  a series of bounties were paid for scalps, running from one hundred dollars for the scalp of a full-grown man, down to fifty for that of a woman, and twenty-five for that of a little child. For a brief time this bounty was paid, and Gregg himself saw a scalp brought in on a pole by a Mexican officer in command of troops, precisely as the Indians, returning from the war-path, used to bring their scalps into their home village.

In 1838, Grey returned across the plains, meeting a few adventures, among which the most important was an attack on the train by Indians, who were supposed to be Pawnees. The effort was merely to steal their horses, which, happily, they saved.