On the Fringe of Fame, by Elizabeth Fleming Rhodes, Chapter 4

On the Fringe of Fame


On to Santa Fe

IT WAS THE FIRST WEEK of May 1833 when Captain Richard Bland Lee stood at the entrance to the frontier, the unmapped, largely unknown West.1 The log village of Independence, Missouri, recently hacked out of the woods, was charged with excitement, like the prairie before a lightning storm. Settlers, mountain men, traders, Indians, and bales of merchandise were being unloaded from a paddle-wheeler which had struggled upstream from St. Louis. The voices of hunters, Negro slaves, farmers, Catholic priests and New England protestant missionaries formed descants of accents.

On the outskirts of town, oxen and herds of mules were being tended by Mexican muleteers in serapes and wide-brimmed sombreros. Lee watched the last items being fitted into the huge two-and-a-half-ton Pittsburgh wagons: glass beads, Jews harps, silk stockings, ribbons, calicoes, velvets, razors, butcher and barlow knives, ivory combs—and with the merchandise the provisions for each member of the caravan: 50 pounds of sugar, bacon, salt, beans, and crackers. The great wagons had double canvas tops between which were laid heavy mackinaw blankets which would protect the other merchandise and hopefully be smuggled through the Mexican customs.

Lee had recently invested in this highly speculative merchandise which Charles Bent was taking to Santa Fe.2 Although on leave from the Army and a new partner of the Bent St. Vrain Company, Lee had been commissioned to send regular reports to his commanding officer. The United States Army needed information about the Mexican lands to the west.

They started out through meadows and gentle timbered land to Blue Camp, twenty miles- away, where last-minute adjustments were made to the cargo. Since there was no danger from Indians here, the various parties were traveling separately at their own pace to Diamond Spring where the caravan would form.

Forty-three miles from Independence the road forked, the unmarked trail to Oregon showing little evidence of use. Taking the more traveled route, they came to Black Jack Point, with its dwarf oak trees, and the Narrows, a thin ridge between the Osage and Kansas, where the ground became a quagmire.

The going was hard and discouraging. Often they were halted, marooned for days by unrelenting rains that made the prairie spongy and impassable for wheels. Day after day, they huddled over fitfully sputtering fires of buffalo dung, isolated from the world by gray shrouds of rain. The men were wet, chilled, and impatient; tempers were frayed and brittle. Old dog-eared Bibles and worn greasy copies of Shakespeare were read aloud. Backgammon and mumblety-peg were played by the hour, but still the time dragged tediously.

The second week of June the weather cleared, and the wagons began to straggle into lovely, thickly wooded Council Grove where shafts of good hardwood were cut and lashed to every wagon bottom, for hardwood further on was worth many buffalo robes or beaver pelts.

On June 19th, Richard arrived at Diamond Spring. Here, most of the caravan had assembled with the military escort, the Company of Matthew Duncan, which consisted of 144 mounted infantry and a howitzer, under the command of Captain William N. Wickliffe of the 6th Infantry.

Although the caravan had made an unsuccessful attempt to elect officers at Council Grove, the election at Diamond Spring, on June 20th, went smoothly. Charles Bent was elected Captain, for his fifth time, and Legrave, Barnes, Smith, and Branch were made lieutenants of the caravan of 184 men and 103 wagons and carriages.3 The caravan was divided into four sections, a lieutenant being assigned to each division. The men were as assorted a composite as could be imagined: French, Mexican, German, Anglo-Saxon, and men of mixed racial descent, most of them illiterate, and all of them rugged. There were ex-criminals and adventurers, men escaping a past and men seeking a future.

The cry, “All’s set” rang out and was carried through the camp. Then Charles Bent’s “Stretch out” set the caravan in motion. Bullwhackers’ whips, ten feet long, cracked the air, and the great Pittsburgh wagons groaned as they followed the next command of “Fall in.” Scouts rode ahead, hunters to the side and rear. Later, through dangerous country, the caravan would move in two parallel columns so it could form a corral quickly in case of an Indian attack. At night the wagons always formed such a corral, the front wheel of one wagon touching the rear wheel of the next. When the weather was hot, they observed a long rest period in the middle of the day, called a “nooning.” There was constant road-making, holes to be filled in, obstructions to be cut away.

On they plodded to the little Arkansas, where they had to make another back-breaking bridge over swampy ground and the next day, at Cow Creek, the same arduous operation had to be repeated, to the tune of colorful swearing. Half a day beyond, they came to the valley of the Arkansas River, 270 miles from Independence. From a height above the river they saw “a ledge of wave-like yellow sand ridges and hillocks spreading far beyond” through which flowed the great river, a quarter of a mile wide.

Captain Wickliffe describes this part of the journey in his report, as follows:

On the 21st we took up our line of march for the Arkansas, the escort in front, and the caravan formed into two lines following in the rear, on the second of July we arrived at what is called the great South bend of the Arkansas river, the traders were of opinion that by crossing the plains two days marching would take us to a point on the river, which would require four or five days march if the course of the river were pursued, and accordingly the route across the plains was chosen as the most preferable, it was further urged as an inducement to leave the river that there were good and sufficient guides with the traders, that could pilot us across the plains, the guides however missed the proper direction, and we did not reach the Arkansas river till the Seventh, during our march across the plains we suffered much for the want of water, but more for the want of grass for our horses and oxen, and on this part of our march, disease to some poisonous weed which we supposed they are on the route. Our marching was slow and we did not reach the point on the Arkansas river, where the traders cross it till the 9th of July. While on the Arkansas river our camp was frequently disturbed by false alarms, but I did not know that we were at any time in the vicinity of Indians. . . .4

Although they were lost on the short cut, they celebrated the Fourth of July in true American style. The howitzer saluted the day, accompanied by a barrage of rifles from the military escort and Santa Fe traders. Men shouted and sang, and the drum and fife played patriotic tunes. The “Star Spangled Banner” resounded over the immense, lonely prairie.5

Near the “Caches,” the Santa Fe trail forked; on the longer mountain route, near the Purgatory River, [W]illiam Bent was starting the construction of his trading post called Bent’s Fort. The caravan, however, chose the shorter, more dangerous route, and at the Lower Crossing of the Arkansas, parted from their escort on July 10th.

Crossing the Arkansas was perilous business. The traders were forced to double the teams and dared not stop in midstream because of the quicksand. Once across, they were on Mexican soil and faced the dreaded fifty-eight miles of treacherous desert that lacked water and landmarks to guide them: the wagon wheels of former parties had left no marks on the baked earth of the Cimarron Valley.

It was like a nightmare, this vast wasteland, trackless except for the labyrinth of buffalo trails. Rocks, sand, and acres of blinding alkali glistened in the harsh sunlight. Now and then strange mirages shimmered in the heat waves, and men found themselves losing their grip on reality. The dryness and the searing winds parched and scorched them. Everyone knew that more than one party had perished on this terrible jornada; the great explorer, Jedediah Smith, had been killed by Indians here.

Richard wrote to Adjutant General Roger Jones on August 15 with school-boy spelling.

On our rout [sic] we met with no obstruction from Indians, although for ten days after leaving the escort were were litterally [sic] surrounded by them, and scarcely a day passed that we did not find their fresh encampments, and frequently not a day old. They made but one attempt to approach us, when four mounted on very fleet horses endeavoured to cut off a straggler from our camp. They were met by an equal number of traders, both parties charging at full speed, the Indians armed with lances, bows and guns, and the traders with their rifles. When at about the distance of a hundred yards they fled and never afterward approached nearer than a mile. . . .6

It took the caravan three days to traverse this desolate area. They rationed the water they had been able to carry, a five-gallon cask to each wagon; several of the mules and oxen dying of thirst. The Middle Spring of the Cimmaron seemed like a paradise to the exhausted, parched travelers.

At Cool Spring the road left the valley of the Cimarron. Generally scouts were sent ahead from this place to spy out the land and to ascertain the conditions of the customs regulations in Santa Fe. The duty on American merchandise varied from year to year, and the traders were anxious to avoid overpayment. This year, there was an additional reason for sending an advance party: the caravan was in serious trouble. Richard wrote:

Upon reaching a point on the Cimarron about ten days march from the Arkansas, and one hundred and eighty miles from Taos the frontier town of this province, it was found necessary to send forward a detachment to Taos to obtain provisions and fresh animals for some of the teams. With this party of twenty-two men I started on the night of the 18th of July and moved in advance of the company about ten miles in order to avoid the Indian scouts which were doging [sic] us in every quarter. On the next morning at day light we started and our man who went back to look for some article he had forgotten was pursued by two Indians who however soon abandoned the chase. These were the last Indians we saw although the day following we passed within twenty miles of an encampment of several thousand. This we learned from some hunters whom we met, and has since been confirmed through other channels. We have also learned since that a band of 800 warriors of the Comanche tribe were waiting for the company for several weeks, for the purpose as they say of making peace or fighting, as the case might be.7

When they came to the Rio Colorado, which starts the Spanish Peaks and flows south into the Canadian River, they left the Santa Fe Trail and headed over the mountains. Instead of traveling the 140-mile wagon road to Santa Fe, they took a 70-mile trail over rugged country. The clear air, the smell of piñon pines and the dramatic beauty of afternoon thunderstorms seemed intoxicating after the 700 miles of plains and desert. At long last they were riding through the fields of corn and wheat that surrounded the adobe village of Taos.

The riders announced their arrival with rifle shots, and all the population came streaming out of the low baked mud houses, shouting, clapping and gesticulating—Indians, peons in serapes, heavily jewelled ladies in bright silks and velvets, and men in braided chaquetas, laced calzoneras, and bright sashes. Everyone wanted to hear the news from the far-away United States.

After assisting in procuring provisions and stock for the distressed caravan and seeing the rescue party off, Richard set off for the nearby capitol of New Mexico, Santa Fe, where he waited for the arrival of the caravan on August 15. Here, he met the Bents’ partner, Ceran St. Vrain,8 age 31, a stocky, jolly man, whose round face sported a glossy black beard. Born an American Roman Catholic, he had become a Mexican citizen in 1832 to facilitate his business enterprises. Of aristocratic French origin, the St. Vrains were a prominent family in Missouri. Ceran’s brother, Felix, agent of the Sacs and Foxes, had been killed by the Indians during the Black Hawk War, his hands and feet amputated and his heart eaten by the warriors, so that they might gain some of his strength.

Another interesting person in Santa Fe was twenty-seven-year-old Josiah Gregg, who was waiting to return to Missouri with the fall caravan. Gregg had taken to the Santa Fe Trail in 1831, as a cure, prescribed by his physician, for chronic dyspepsia and consumption. The rigors of the trail had ousted him from his dearborn (a light, four-wheeled wagon) in two weeks, and so restored his health that he soon prospered as a book-keeper and trader. Josiah was alert and observant, with a scientific interest in the world around him; he carefully recorded his observations in a diary which later was transcribed into his famous book, Commerce of the Prairies.

Gregg describes Santa Fe as a Mexican frontier town of adobe buildings “of the rudest possible description.” The Governor’s Palace, with doors so low that tall men had to stoop on entering; customhouse, barracks, church and other public buildings stood around a small plaza. Music and dancing every day of the week, even on the Sabbath, offended Gregg’s #&8220;protestant ears,” because the same instruments played the same tunes for dancing and divine services.

Social customs, as described by Greg, seemed foreign indeed to Americans:

One of the most attractive sports of the rancheros and the peasantry is called correr el gallo. . . . A common cock or hen is tied by the feet to some swinging limb of a tree . . . or the fowl is buried alive in a small pit in the ground leaving only the head above the surface. . . . The racers, passing at full speed, grapple the head of the fowl, which being well greased, generally slips out of their fingers. . . .

Among the baqueros, and even among persons of distinction el coleo (tailing) is a much nobler exercise. . . . For this sport the most untractable ox or bull is turned loose. . . . The most successful rider, as soon as he gets near enough to the bull, seizes him by the tail, and with a sudden manoeuvre, whirls him topsy-turvy upon the plain—to the no little risk of breaking his own neck.9

Bull-baiting and cock-fighting . . . are also very popular “amusements” . . . and generally lead to the same excesses and the same results as gaining. The cock fight rarely fails to be crowded on Sundays and other feast days; on which occasions the church, the ball-room, the gambling-house, and the cock-pit look like so many opposite establishments; for nothing is more common than to see people going from one place to another by alternate fits, just as devotional feeling or love of pleasure happens to prompt them.10

Of all the petty vices practiced by the New Mexicans, the vicio inocente of smoking among ladies, is the most intolerable; and yet it is a habit of which the loveliest and most refined equally partake. The puro or cigarro is seen in the mouths of all: it is handed round in the parlor, and introduced at the dinner table—even in the ball-room it is presented to the ladies as regularly as any other species of “refreshment” and in the dance the senorita may often be seen whirling round with a lighted cigarrito in her mouth. The belles of the Southern cities are frequently furnished with tenazitas de oro (little golden tongues), to hold the cigar with, so as to prevent their delicate fingers from being polluted either with the stain or scent of tobacco; forgetting at the same time its disagreeable effects upon the lips and breath.11

The bloom of novelty shriveled, and Richard became bored. The only relief to monotony was when bands of Indians passed through town. Referring to the band of eight hundred Comanches who had been waiting for the caravan, Richard wrote on September 8th:

This band a few days since passed through Taos in search of the Utans with whom they are at war. Not being able to find them they have recrossed the mountain, and it is reported design to meet the Company which starts tomorrow on the high grounds between mid-river and the Cimarron. Should they meet, the Company will if properly managed whip them easily, although they are said to be well armed, and no warrier has less than two horses.

My visit to this country has been very uninteresting except in a military point of view. I have had opportunities of seeing much of Indian character, and of ascertaining their mode of warfare, and traits which at some future day may be of service to me. It is my intention to spend the winter in writing the most important points of this most uninteresting country, and to avail myself of the first opportunity to return to the United States in the spring.12



1. Nebraska State Historical Society, Vol. XX, p. 54. St. Louis Republican, April 23, 1833, “Many of our enterprising young men have already left, and others are preparing to take their departure for Santa Fe. The upper country will also send out an unusual number of traders. They are to rendezvous at the Round Prairie, near the Missouri line, on the 15th of next month; whence they will be escorted as far as the boundary between the United States and New Spain, by a detachment of the U.S. Army.— Round Prairie, or Round Grove, was thirty-five miles from Independence.

2. In his autobiography, Kit Carson refers to Lee as a partner of Bent and St. Vrain at this time. Many individuals invested in this highly speculative trade and were subsequently considered to be partners.

3. Niles Weekly Register, Vol. 44, August 3, 1833, p. 374, states that the caravan had “ninety-three wagons, carriages and dearborns attached to it, sixty-three of which were loaded with goods.” Captain Wickliffe’s report (note 4) mentions “one hundred and three waggons [sic] and carriages and one hundred and eight-four men, the probable amount of Capital invested in the trade is one hundred thousand dollars.”

4. Letter written by C[a]ptain Wickliffe to Major B. Riley, August 4, 1833 (National Archives, Record Group No. 94); this letter gives a complete report of the expedition.

5. Gregg, Josiah, Commerce of the Prairies, Dallas, 1933. For the 4th of July celebration, the various camps and daily runs, I have borrowed from that wonderful hypochondriac who traveled to Santa Fe in 1831 to cure his health.

6. Letter written by Brevet Captain Richard B. Lee to Colonel R. Jones, August 15, 1833, sent via Mexico City (National Archives, Record Group No. 94).

7. Letter written by Brevet Captain Richard B, Lee to Colonel R. Jones, September 8, 1833 (National Archives, Record Group No. 94).

8. As Ceran St. Vrain was in Santa Fe at this time, it seems highly probable that he would have met Lee and shown him around.

9. Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies, New York, 1844, pp. 241–242.

10. Ibid., p. 238–241.

11. Ibid., p. 243–244.

12. R. B. Lee letter, dated December 8,1833, op. cit. One is startled that Richard should find Santa Fe uninteresting. Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies describes some pleasant moments and events. However, as we read more journals and letters of the time, we find that most of the trappers and traders felt that Santa Fe was squalid and wretched. It was therefore natural for Richard, with his Virginia background, to share this feeling of disgust. See Lavender, David, Bent’s Fort, for a delightful description of life in Taos and Santa Fe.

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