By Michael Webster
Excerpt from the Book "THE REDROAD" By Michael Webster.
My Granddad was the epitome of a real rail-road-man. He wore his cream colored long johns, his Railroad bibbed Blue overalls with his red bandanna, and his hard leather boots, all as if they were his second skin. And, of course, he was never without his gold railroad “Santa Fe Special” pocket-watch with the copper chain and leather tabs. He wore that watch like a badge of honor.
My granddad was a big man, nearly six-feet tall. He had a dark leathery complexion with strong features revealing his Early peoples heritage. He was a man of conviction. He was a man not afraid of hard work. He had worked hard all of his life. Even before he worked on the railroad, he worked his own Farm/ranch, raised cattle and was a blacksmith near Clayton, New Mexico. Folks would bring him blacksmith work from a hundred miles around. The famous Santa Fe Trail and its cut-off the Cimarron Trail run right along side his farm/ranch for over a 1/4-mile. Today, as I stand their, a chilling fall wind whistles through the rusty barb-wired cedar posts and waving tall grama grass,... just tall grama grass covers the still remaining deep indentations carved into the hard weathered earth from bygone years of settlers passing in their great mode of travel, the Prairie Schooners, and early trade wagons. The prairie schooner loaded with all of there earthly belongings must have looked like a sail boat with its canvas cover blowing in the wind and appearing to be sailing across the golden prairie on wheels. Like "sails on a sea of grass." This description of covered wagons inspired the name Prairie Schooner.
The most common wagons used for hauling freight back East were the Conestogas, developed in Pennsylvania by descendants of Dutch colonists. Conestoga wagons were large, heavy, and had beds shaped somewhat like boats, with angled ends and a floor that sloped to the middle so barrels wouldn't roll out when the wagon was climbing or descending a hill. Like the covered wagons of the western pioneers, it had a watertight canvas bonnet to shelter the cargo. Conestogas were pulled by teams of six or eight horses and could haul up to five tons.
Traders on the Santa Fe Trail adopted the Conestoga design for its durability and size, but they found that bullwhackers or muleskinners were preferable to teamsters -- the immense distances and scarcity of good water along the Santa Fe Trail precluded the use of horses as draft animals. Teams of up to two dozen oxen or mules were used to haul the heaviest loads. Sometimes a second wagon, or "backaction," was hitched behind the lead wagon.
Overlanders on the Oregon Trail, in contrast, quickly learned that Conestoga wagons were too big for their needs: the huge, heavy wagons killed even the sturdiest oxen before the journey was two-thirds complete. Their answer to the problem was dubbed the "Prairie Schooner," a half-sized version of the Conestoga that typically measured 4' wide and 10' to 12' in length. With its tongue and neck yoke attached, its length doubled to about 23 feet. With the bonnet, a Prairie Schooner stood about 10' tall, and its wheelbase was over 5' wide. It weighed around 1300 pounds empty and could be easily dismantled for repairs en route. Teams of 4 to 6 oxen or 6 to 10 mules were sufficient to get the sturdy little wagons to Oregon. Manufactured by the Studebaker brothers or any of a dozen other wainwrights specializing in building wagons for the overland emigrants, a Prairie Schooner in good repair offered shelter almost as good as a house.
The wagon box, or bed, was made of hardwoods to resist shrinking in the dry air of the plains and deserts the emigrants had to cross. It was 2' to 3' deep, and with a bit of tar it could easily be rendered watertight and floated across slow-moving rivers. The sideboards were beveled outwards to keep rain from coming in under the edges of the bonnet and to help keep out river water. The box sat upon two sets of wheels of different sizes: the rear wheels were typically about 50" in diameter, while the front wheels were about 44" in diameter. The smaller front wheels allowed for a little extra play, letting the wagon take slightly sharper turns than it would otherwise have been able to negotiate without necessitating a great deal of extra carpentry work to keep the bed level. All four wheels had iron "tires" to protect the wooden rims, and they were likewise constructed of hardwoods to resist shrinkage. Nonetheless, many emigrants took to soaking their wagon wheels in rivers and springs overnight, as it was not unheard of for the dry air to shrink the wood so much that the iron tires would roll right off the wheels during the day.
Hardwood bows held up the heavy, brown bonnets. The bows were soaked until the wood became pliable, bent into U-shapes, and allowed to dry. They would hold their shape if this was done properly, which was important to the emigrants: if the wagon bows were under too much tension, they could spring loose and tear the bonnet while the wagon was jostled and jounced over rough terrain. The bonnets themselves were usually homespun cotton doubled over to make them watertight. They were rarely painted (except for the occasional slogan such as "Pike's Peak or Bust" in later years) as this stiffened the fabric and caused it to split. The bonnet was always well-secured against the wind, and its edges overlapped in back to keep out rain and dust. On some wagons, it also angled outward at the front and back, as shown in the illustration above, to lend some additional protection to the wagon's interior.
While wagons were minor marvels of Nineteenth Century engineering, they inevitably broke down or wore out from the difficulty and length of the journey. Equipment for making repairs en route was carried in a jockey box attached to one end or side of the wagon. It carried extra iron bolts, linch pins, skeins, nails, hoop iron, a variety of tools, and a jack. Also commonly found slung on the sides of emigrant wagons were water barrels, a butter churn, a shovel and axe, a tar bucket, a feed trough for the livestock, and a chicken coop. A fully outfitted wagon on the Oregon Trail must have been quite a sight, particularly with a coop full of clucking chickens raising a ruckus every time the wagon hit a rock.
There was only one set of springs on a Prairie Schooner, and they were underneath the rarely-used driver's seat. Without sprung axles, riding inside a wagon was uncomfortable at the best of times. Some stretches of the Trail were so rough that an overlander could fill his butter churn with fresh milk in the morning, and the wagon would bounce around enough to churn a small lump of butter for the evening meal. The simple leaf springs under the driver's seat made that perch tenable, but not particularly comfortable. The illustration above does not show the driver's seat, and its placement of the brake lever is questionable. The brake lever was usually located so it could be pressed by the driver's foot or thrown by someone walking alongside the wagon, and it was ratcheted so the brake block would remain set against the wheel even after pressure was taken off the lever.
While Prairie Schooners were specifically built for overland travel, many emigrants instead braved the Oregon Trail in simple farm wagons retrofitted with bonnets. Farm wagons were typically slightly smaller than Prairie Schooners and not as well sheltered, as their bonnets usually were not cantilevered out at the front and back, but they were quite similar in most other respects.
The trade wagons on the other hand were massive, as tall as a man’s head, with wooden heavy iron-rimmed wheels, wheels that could be heard crackling under a load of 2 tons or more of needed supplies. The load would often consist of badly needed items by the travelers and soon to be settlers. Those trade wagons were something like a traveling trading post with such typical things to sale as guns, knives, tools, pots, iron skillets, calico, tobacco, food stables like bags of flour and sugar with other various sundry supplies. Oxen, horse, or mule drew these great wagons across the now eerie silence of the vast prairie.
Wagon Illustration: George R. Stewart in The California Trail
You have to be careful not to pack too much!
In the desert between present-day Lovelock and the Sierras, exhausted pioneers had to jettison much of their cargo just to be able to keep going:
"A scene of destruction began. Trunks, bags, boxes were brought out, opened and ransacked. Cut down to 75 lbs. a man. The scene can be easily imagined. In the evening the plain was scattered with waifs [stray articles] and fragments, looking as though a whirlwind had scattered about the contents of several dry goods, hardware and variety shops."
—Diary of Bernard J. Reid, 1849
This much food was suggested for each adult in the group:
200 pounds of flour
30 pounds of pilot bread (hardtack)
75 pounds of bacon
10 pounds of rice
5 pounds of coffee
2 pounds of tea
25 pounds of sugar
½ bushel of dried beans
1 bushel of dried fruit
2 pounds of saleratus (baking soda)
10 pounds of salt
½ bushel of corn meal
½ bushel of corn, parched and ground
1 small keg of vinegar
—Jacqueline Williams, Wagon Wheel Kitchens
These ruts that remain stretch to the east and the west horizons and are all that remain offering any evidence of my Granddad’s stories of his old place and of the first major trade route that connected New Mexico to the eastern United States.
Wagon Ruts on the Cimarron
The Cimarron Cut-off was the main trade route to the southwest and cut off more than ten days of the trip. But it meant crossing a 60-mile chunk of the feared Llano Estacada. Some of the hazards they had to contend with were not only the weather, hunger and the hard going of the trail but also the roving bands of Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, Pawnee and Ute Indians who roamed across the vast grassland, hunting buffalo but leaving no evidence of any permanent settlements. The Athabascans probably passed through the area during their fourteenth century migrations from Canada whom later was to become known as the Navajo people.
From the turn off the Santa Fe Trail continued on into Colorado where their were fewer hostel Indians, but more water, and where firewood was more plentiful and where their were many trading posts to buy, sale and trade their goods.
The story of the Santa Fe Trail is a story of business - international, national and local. In 1821, William Becknell, bankrupt and facing jail for debts, packed goods to Santa Fe and made a profit. Entrepreneurs and experienced business people followed - James Webb, Antonio José Chavez, Charles Beaubien, David Waldo, and others.
The Santa Fe trade developed into a complex web of international business, socail ties, tariffs, and laws. Merchants in Missouri and New Mexico extended connections to New York, London and Paris. Traders exploited legal and social systems to facilitate business. Partnerships such as Goldstein, Bean, Peacock & Armijo formed and dissolved. David Waldo "converted" to Catholicism - and also became a Mexican citizen. Dr. Eugene Leitensdorfer, of Missouri, married Soledad Abreu, daughter of a former New Mexico governor. Trader Manuel Alvarez claimed citizenship in Spain, the United States and Mexico.
After the Mexican-American War, Trail trade and military freighting boomed. Both firms and individuals obtained and subcontracted lucrative government contracts. Others operated mail and stagecoach services.
Trade created other opportunities. From New York, Manuel Harmony shipped English goods to Independence for freighting over the Santa Fe Trail. New Mexican saloon owner Doña Gertrudis "La Tules" Barcelo invested in trade, and trader Charles Ilfeld ran mercantile stores. Wyandotte Chief William Walker leased a warehouse in Independence and his tribe invested in the trade. Hiram Young bought his freedom from slavery and became a wealthy maker of trade wagons - and one of the largest emloyers in Independence. Blacksmiths, hotel owners, muleteers, lawyers, and many others found their places along the Trail. In 1822, trade totaled $15,000; by 1860, $3.5 million, or more than $53 million in today's dollars.
As I looked around in a whipping wind I could see brown specks of cattle in the distance in a broader landscape which I envisioned the Cimarron, Canadian and Pecos rivers, which are the longest of the waterways. They snake through the sprawling plains of northeastern New Mexico, a land known as the Llano Estacada, stretching north to southeastern New Mexico and west Texas. Also known as Wild Indian Territory.
You can see that time, weather and erosion have not erased the deep wagon ruts stretching across this vast country. I was sensing the stark isolation of prairie travel and was able to glimpse the subtle prairie tapestry that was savored by countless Trail travelers. I was Stepping back in time and enjoying virtually the same prairie vistas and unspoiled beauty that travelers encountered more than 120 years ago.
The Santa Fe Trail on the Kiowa National Grassland affords an almost three-mile stretch of exceptionally well-preserved wagon ruts. This area is reserved for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding and camping. Several windmills along the route provide ample water. The trail is well marked with limestone "Kansas fence posts." One homestead ruin is located at the end of the hiking path.
The Trail across the Kiowa lies between McNees Crossing and Turkey Creek, both resting and watering areas for weary trail caravans. Rabbit Ears Mountain and Round Mound can be seen looming to the west.
Famous Early Travelers
Some famous Spanish travelers in this area include Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who passed through in 1541 on his return to the Rio Grande Valley from his search for Quivira in present-day Kansas. Don Juan de Onate passed this way in 1601 during his tour of "the kingdom and provinces of New Mexico," during which he visited most of the pueblos, the Llano Estacado, Quivira and the Colorado River of the West. Juan de Ulibarri traveled from Taos Pueblo in 1706, passing east of present-day Capulin Volcano National Monument down the Dry Cimarron Valley on his way to El Cuartelejo. Don Carlos Fernandez and 600 Spanish troops met and killed a great number of Comanche Indians on Don Carlos Creek in western Union County in 1774. Sergeant Juan de Dios Pena led an expedition from Taos to the plains, passing through Union County. He was possibly the first to use the name Orejas de Conejo (Rabbit Ears) as the landmark is called today.
Major Steven Long and his 1820 expedition traveling south entered Union County a little north of Emery Peak and continued south to Ute Creek, following the creek out of the county. And finally, an old map shows a trail marked "Buffalo Road" coming from the Taos area to the Clayton area, indicating that the early Spanish settlers in the Rio Grande Valley came out to the prairies of eastern New Mexico to hunt buffalo every year.
There are no known permanent non-prehistoric sites or settlements discovered in this area yet, but we know that many tribes passed through and hunted in the area, including Comanche’s, Apaches, Kiowa, Cheyenne and others. Many arrowheads, pottery shards and other artifacts have been collected and continue to be found in the area, and in the caves north of here along the Dry Cimarron prehistoric mummies and pottery have been found.
They Could Have Used That Lake
Clayton Lake, 12 miles north of Clayton on Hwy 370, was created by the New Mexico Game and Fish Department in 1955 as a fishing lake and winter waterfowl resting area. A dam was constructed across Seneca Creek. Travelers on the Santa Fe Trail couldn't take advantage of the lake, but modern visitors can! Along its spillway are more than 500 tracks left by at least eight different kinds of dinosaurs 100 million years ago.
Trail Sites Northwest of Clayton
Other well-known Santa Fe Trail campgrounds in the area are Turkey Creek Camp (now known as Seneca Creek), just east of Clayton Lake State Park, and Rabbit Ears Creek Camp, located five miles north of Mt. Dora, on A-65. Both are on privately-owned cattle ranches and are not generally open to the public. At a point on Hwy 64-87 between Mt. Dora and Grenville, a one-picnic-table roadside park contains a small monument established by the Colorado and Southern Railroad at the site where the railroad crossed the Santa Fe Trail. The ruts here have been obliterated. Mt. Dora and Round Mound are both Trail landmarks in this area.
Drive a winding, two-mile road to the top of Capulin Volcano National Monument, climbing 1,000 feet from the valley floor. From 8,182 feet, on a clear day, visitors can see the five states of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. On the west side winds a portion of the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail (1867-76). On the southeast side of the crater looms the vast portion of land through which the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail passed.
Union County was crossed by the old roads, specifically the Tascosa to Springer Road in the southern part of the county and the Ft. Union to Granada Military Road which crossed the mesas north of Capulin Volcano in Toll-Gate Canyon, Hwy 551.
The Aubrey Cutoff was a short-lived portion of the Santa Fe Trail. It began at Fort Dodge, ran to the southwest corner of Kansas, into the Oklahoma Panhandle, up the Dry Cimarron River in New Mexico to the Folsom Falls. From there it went east of Capulin Mountain, south to Wagon Mound, ending at Santa Fe. Some of the early settlers of Madison and later of Folsom, had come up this trail and left the wagon train to make this their home. In places, the ruts of this trail can still be seen.