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Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Year of Decision

by
Bernard DeVoto

published by Little, Brown and Company,
Boston, 1943

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p243  Chapter 9:
The Image on the Sun

On June 5, three weeks before he got his expedition moving from Fort Leavenworth, Colonel Kearny sent Captain Moore with Companies C and G of the First Dragoons hurrying down the Santa Fe trail to detain some traders who had left Independence two weeks before.​a Tom Fitzpatrick went with them, Jim Clyman's old messmate and brigade leader, once Jed Smith's partner, once a partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Carson's instructor in the mountain craft, twice Frémont's guide. He was one of the greatest mountain men, perhaps the greatest. Carson was the focus of Frémont's book and so got the publicity, and Jim Bridger was about to begin the service in yellow-back novels that would insure his immortality along with Kit. But Fitzpatrick was fully as skilled in the craft and perhaps had more intelligence than either. He was an extremely valuable addition to the Army of the West.

The day after Moore's detachment set out, Kearny learned from Captain Waldo of the Missouri Volunteers, who was a Santa Fe trader, that one of the outfits Moore was pursuing belonged to a brother of Armijo's, the governor of New Mexico, and had some $70,000 worth of the governor's goods. Along the Missouri frontier there was a belief, supported by the traders who had wintered in Santa Fe and had now returned, that Armijo would not oppose the invasion, and this looked like a chance to assist his pacific impulses. So Kearny hurried out Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Noble with fifty more Dragoons to bid Moore hurry even faster. On June 22, as soon as the volunteers could be equipped and given the rudiments of drill, he dispatched Companies A and D of Doniphan's regiment, under Waldo, to reinforce Moore.

Moore traveled fast but could not overtake Armijo. A number of other wagon trains traveled far enough ahead of the army to outdistance the pursuit. They had been leaving Independence since early May and most of them had been moving fast. Moore ordered those he passed to rendezvous at Pawnee Fork and wait for instructions, and hurried on. He chased his quarry as far as the Cimarron Crossing (where they turned down the  p244 Cimarron Fork of the trail), then gave up the pursuit and went back to the Pawnee Fork, where he camped, chaperoned the arriving trains, and waited for the army to catch up with him.

Santa Fe was nearly eight hundred miles out from Independence, or about a hundred and fifty miles farther than Fort Laramie. The journey, however, was much easier. The route was mostly through plains country, there were mountains to cross only in the last stage, and though there were deserts and bad ones, they were on the last leg and (except on the Cimarron Fork) were not so difficult as those the emigrant trail had to cross. Water was not often out of reach, there was abundant grass, and the route was fixed — had even been surveyed — so that there were few detours or cut‑offs.

On the other hand, the Santa Fe trail had had blood on it from the beginning. Early in the eighteenth century a Spanish expedition had been massacred on its central marches, and from then on Spaniards, Mexicans, New Mexicans, Frenchmen, Texans, and Americans had regularly perished at one another's hands or those of the Indians. Parts of it had been the disputed frontier between Texas and New Mexico. New Mexicans and the Comancheros, whites who traded with the Comanche in stolen Texas horses and stolen Chihuahua and Sonora mules, had plentifully sprinkled it with blood. Guerrillas of both sides raided one another along the trail, freebooters and filibusters fought along it, and all of them fought the Indians.

The southern end of the trail was within striking distance of the Apache, a vigorous and cruel race, the eastern stretches were under claim of the Pawnee during the days of their vigor and ferocity, before whiskey and smallpox had tamed them. The rest of it was more dangerous, in that it was a no man's land where many tribes raided. The southern Arapaho, more populous than their northern kin and fully as dangerous, might be encountered at any time. The southern Cheyenne were also here, a power­ful and valorous people, but in our period they were not troublesome, having been pacified by the Bent brothers, with whom they kept their word. There remained the most terrible savages of the plains, the Comanche. The Comanche were not better horsemen or better warriors than other plains tribes: probably the Blackfeet, the Sioux, or the Cheyenne would have defeated them in the ultimate battle to the death which history, so prodigal of Indian wars, omitted to bring about. But they had organized marauding on a larger scale than any other tribe, and they were not only professional marauders and murderers, they were also practising sadists. Their raiding parties regularly went hundreds of miles into Mexico and Texas, cleaning out the border, depopulating the settlements, and taking back horses and  p245 cattle by the thousand. These herds were the staple of their trade with whites and Indians alike, but they also did a profitable business in white captives, Mexican, Texan, and American, whom they brought back by the score from their raids. These they held for ransom or sold into slavery; when they could not turn a profit on them, they enjoyed themselves. No one has ever exaggerated the Comanche tortures. The authenticated accounts fill thousands of pages, and some are altogether unreadable for men with normal nerves. They had great skill in pain and cruelty was their catharsis. In short, the Comanche killed and tortured more whites than any other Indians in the West, stole more horses and cattle, were a greater danger. With their allies, the Kiowa, they were for many years what the title of a recent book​b calls them, a barrier to the settlement of the plains.

There was never a time when the unwary might not be attacked by Comanche on the Santa Fe trail, but in '46 they were comparatively quiet there. The war made their customary victims, the Texans and Mexicans, even more vulnerable and they raided southward. Their herds prospered, they got many women to rape in gangs and many children who could be entertainingly dismembered. In May, while the great raid was actually in progress, commissioners from Polk signed a treaty with them at the Brazos River, and they sent a delegation of chiefs to view the white man's medicine lodge in Washington and to pay a number of ceremonial calls on their White Father. And a few months later Zachary Taylor had to raise new companies of Rangers to shove them back toward the border of Texas. They were back on the trail again in '47, more profit-minded than ever and, since the army supply trains were staffed by tenderfeet, more daring.1

Apart from the Indian menace, travel on the Santa Fe trail was necessarily easier than on the Oregon trail for it was conducted by professionals. This was the commerce of the prairies, not a migration of individualists, and the best procedures were enforced. The techniques were adapted from those of the mountain men, who, in fact, had first organized the trade. The wagon trains were more closely directed than those that traveled the northern trail, discipline was semi-military, the routines were established and there was seldom any reason to vary them. Competition between traders sometimes produced incidents at a ford or a water hole, and once the mountains were crossed it was every man for himself, but in general the relations of the trail were amiable. Beyond Council Grove trains traveled in close formation, in two parallel lines usually, in four lines where they could. The corral was formed at night, and messes were organized on a caste basis. The trip was so short — between forty-five and fifty days from Independence to Santa Fe — there was no danger of supplies running out. No trader  p246 stinted his employees and much of the route was buffalo country. Business sagacity supplied ample replacements of oxen, mules, and horses. Late or early crossings might be uncomfortable and occasionally hazardous, but in the season anyone who could take heat and sandstorms in his stride and was on the alert for Indians need not suffer.

In '46 the trade was stimulated by the war, rather than hampered, though the trains were six months later than usual in arriving at Chihuahua and the towns beyond it. The vast wagons, twice the size of the emigrant wagons, crawled down the trail behind the blubbering oxen quite as usual, except that there were more of them, they were under military guard, and the traffic was increased by the army supply trains. (Military freight wagons were small.) The Santa Fe trail was much busier than it had ever been before: the regular trade, Kearny's army, his trains and those of his supports, Price's Second Missouri, the Mormon Battalion, the developing service of supply, scouts, surveyors, couriers, expresses, ambulances, detachments of discharged and invalided soldiers. In this area Manifest Destiny took the shape of a large-scale freight operation.

* * *

When the Laclede Rangers, a hundred St. Louis volunteers, arrived at Fort Leavenworth it was too late in the day for them to be mustered in. Colonel Kearny invited the officers to dine with him but could not entertain the whole outfit — and army regulations forbade the feeding of civilians. As heroes, they were willing to die in the Halls of Montezuma but they needed to live to get there. So the officers, returning from an excellent dinner, found their command preparing to take the post apart. Fast thinking was called for and Captain Hudson, the lawyer who had raised the company, made an oration. He waved not only the flag of freedom but the silk guidon stitched by fair fingers in the homeland, not Rangers cheered. "Yes," he bellowed, "we shall knock at the gates of Santa Fe as Ethan Allen knocked at the gates of Ticonderoga, and to the question 'Who's there?' we shall reply 'Open these gates in the name of the great Jehovah and the Laclede Rangers.' " Tumultuous applause. The captain soared on, "But suppose the fellows inside should call out, 'Are you the same Laclede Rangers who went whining round Fort Leavenworth in search of a supper?' " Hudson knew his Missourians and there was no mutiny.

This reminiscence, by Lieutenant Richard Smith Elliott of the Rangers, gives the tone of the Army of the West. It was the damnedest army. It could do nothing well except march and fight, and would not do those by  p247 the numbers. For a while, till they learned to respect the unalterable, the West Pointers who had to oversee it would willingly have murdered most of its components. Kearny made his subalterns keep their shock within bounds but even he was sometimes startled out of wisdom. He was once injudicious enough to reprove Captain Reid's company for not wearing coats. Since they had been on half-rations for weeks it was not an auspicious moment, and Captain Reid replied that they had enlisted to fight for their country, not to dress for it. Kearny held his peace, and the army never bothered about the externals of discipline. They were not its forte.

They were volunteers, they were farmers mostly, they were incredibly young, they were Missourians and frontiersmen — close kin to the Big Bear of Arkansaw. All good armies grouch; probably none has ever bellyached so continuously as this one. They groused about their officers, their equipment, the food, the service regulations, the climate, the trail, the future. They would accept direction or command no more easily here than at home, and were always assaulting their noncoms on the ground that Joe's stripes could not neutralize his native stupidity and did not sanction him to put on airs. They howled derision of the officers whenever it was safe and frequently when it wasn't, made fantastic plots against the most inflexible of them, and when a vacancy occurred resolved to elect no one except from the rank of private. They abominated neatness, they hated the routine of guard duty and the care of horses, they straggled worse than any other troops in history that would fight. Till the army was concentrated at Bent's Fort, its component parts were just where whim took them — a battalion strung out for five miles while the individual soldier wasted ammunition on imaginary antilope, or three quarters of it marching in a clump with the guard just to see what the country was like.

They were extremely uncomfortable till they learned the mechanics of soldiering. Patriotic dedication and the bright dream of glory got smothered in the first day's profanity. Their equipment was incomplete and faulty. Boots didn't fit and blisters burned one's heels but were no worse than the sores made by pack straps. Saddles were rudimentary, made running sores on the horses' backs, and seemed designed to split the rider lengthwise. The cavalry saber was a purely decorative weapon, useless against any possible enemy, which was always whacking one's back or head. The first few days saw the only rain they would encounter till they reached the mountains and initiated them in the pinch of sodden saddles, daylong drenching, water-soaked blankets, cold food, and muddy underdrawers. Captain Fischer's artillery company, which had been recruited from German immigrants in St. Louis, was particularly inept, always in  p248 difficulty, and lurched across the prairies under a canopy of half-literate complaint. It never really learned its job, had to be left on guard duty at Santa Fe, and was the butt of everyone's derision. But other organizations needed time to become more expert or less dolorous.

The West Pointers moaned over the simple awkwardness of boys who were grappling with strangeness, and had to retreat upon the simple assumption of all military life, that though soldiers may be fighting men they are also children. Issued a day's rations at dawn, they would eat it all for breakfast, grouching about having to do their own cooking, or throw away what they could not eat and then, at night, curse God, Polk, Kearny, and Doniphan who required patriots to go supperless. Some would replace the water in their canteens with whiskey, sip it through torrid hours, and have to ride retching in the wagons. Or they would drink bad water till their bellies swelled, and have to crawl into the grass and lie foundered for hours. They knew the management of horses on farms but resented the cavalryman's subjection to the well-being of his mount, and took such wretched care of theirs that the officers had to hold classes of instruction. Kearny anticipated that, coupled with the probable failure of supplies, this bad management would give him an army of infantry from Santa Fe on.

However, he had a job to do and he drove them hard. He was fortunate in having Doniphan, colonel by suffrage of free electors, a drawling uncle to farm boys who were far from home, seldom or never in uniform, unfenced by discipline, always approachable, forever calling privates Jim or Charlie, a master of impromptu exhortation. The boys looked at the colonel, lounging his huge frame beside some poker game or amiably explaining that Joe had to go on guard tonight because Elmer had done his stint last night, and didn't yield to that fantasy of running a West Pointer through. They dug in and marched. Fifteen miles was a standard day's travel on the prairies but it was goo slow going for Kearny. He demanded twenty miles a day, twenty-five, twenty-eight, thirty, sometimes thirty‑two. The troops keened but took it — took it, in fact, better than the horses, which weakened on grain and developed the vicious ailments of their species. And the infantry took it best of all. Companies A and B customarily forged ahead of the cavalry they were attached to and, though they cursed the inhumanity of their officers, took pride in their mileage. Their lips parched in the prairie wind, the sun nauseated them, the wagons and ambulances were always picking up some who had not stood the pace, they were sure that Kearny was a tyrant, but they made camp some hours before the cavalry and turned out to boo them in great content when the  p249 tired beasts sagged in at twilight. Their legs swelled at the shin with a queer distemper, which turned out to be periostitis, the common splint they were accustomed to treat in plow horses. College athletes who are worked too hard are familiar with it today, and the red‑hot band it clamped along the shin made no holiday of the march.2

Most of the expedition struck the Santa Fe trail at Elm Grove or Willow Springs. (The first rumor of the enemy's approach had occurred on the Waukarusa, seven hundred miles from the nearest Mexican.) From there on they took the hard-packed, familiar road of the traders — Council Grove, Diamond Springs, the Arkansas at Great Bend, Pawnee Rock, the Pawnee Fork, the lower crossing (which they did not make), Chouteau's Island. After the rains the country dried out so that wagons and caissons got mired only at the streams, which dwindled and were farther apart. They left the high grass behind and timber with it, so that part of the duty of the soldier was to collect buffalo chips during the last hour of marching. This was another strangeness and some thought the fires stank abominably but others found that they gave a welcome tang to the salt pork and corned beef. So many things were strange: jack rabbits, antilopes, and especially the buffalo, the great legend now gaped at by these rural youths, who tried to hunt it and sometimes succeeded. The country was unimaginable, plains on a scale they had not dreamed of diminishing one to a dot that seemed to travel on the bottom of a bowl, the vast heave of the swells that seemed like the swells of the ocean they had read about, many miles long. Most of all the sun. Missouri sun is nothing amateurish but the sun of the plains flattened the life in you, filled your eyes with the color of blood, and baked you to the bone — with sudden overheated winds and violent dust storms making it worse. The boys kept going and began to stink.

There were rattlesnakes by the hundred, killed on the march, buzzing from beside the buffalo chips you stooped to pick up, slithering into your blankets at night. There were the mosquitoes, much deadlier than the snakes. There were swarms of buffalo gnats to choke the nostrils and cluster under the eyelids of men and horses. The country began to break out in patches of "saline incrustation," alkali. Like the emigrants to the northward, the army drank corrosive water and got violently physicked. And not only by alkali; the curse of armies, dysentery, had begun to flourish. Nor was the scummy standing-water of the buffalo wallows any better for them, when it was all they got to drink at nooning, crawling with infusoria and noisome with buffalo urine. The less fit began to break. As the oxen collapsed from heat and either died or had to be driven up by  p250 night, some of the troops found that they could go no farther. Here is a man discharged and sent home for d.t., another for bad eyes, another for general debility. As the trains fell farther behind rations shortened, scurvy appeared. Measles traveled with them. The wagons filled with sick; some of them died. A grave had to be dug at Pawnee Rock and from there on burial parties were no novelty. They had come for a patriotic summer while the eagle screamed, but for some of them the great adventure was ending in a short agony and a shallow grave filled with such stones as could be gathered to keep the wolves away.

* * *

On the approach of war, Senator Benton had sent word to Independence, directing one of the traders, as soon as he should arrive there from Chihuahua, to come to Washington by the fastest means. James W. Magoffin was introducing him to the President at the White House. Polk, hopeful for a bloodless conquest, thus got the services of the most sagacious man in the province he intended to invade. For twenty years Magoffin had engaged in the trade to Santa Fe and Chihuahua and he had made a fortune from it. He had been consul in Chihuahua and Durango, had built up rich properties there, and in Santa Fe had married a daughter of the native gentry. He knew more about the country, probably, than anyone else who could have been found. Two years before, when his wife died, he had moved his residence to Independence again but he was still active in the trade. He was a good deal of a man — tall, opulent in looks and behavior, an epicure, a wit, extremely companionable, and much admired by the Mexican officials, who liked his wines and anecdotes and called him "Don Santiago."

The President met him at a crowded and difficult moment. The House was harpooning Polk with the zest of Congressmen who had been denied commissions as brigadiers. Washington swarmed with the unclean who were clamoring for contracts. Someone had at last realized that the conquest of California would probably need more than the handful-and‑a‑half furnished to Commodore Sloat and General Kearny — so there was a discord of plans and ideas and no great confidence that troops could be raised. The Senate was boiling with the warhawks' resentment of the Oregon settlement: Polk could get no appointment confirmed and wondered if he could force his war measures through.

He welcomed Magoffin as one who might have a conquest in his  p251 pocket. When the President had a secret he kept it even from his diary, as we do not know what was said when he, Marcy, and Benton met with this cosmopolite. Polk says only that Magoffin could be useful in furnishing supplies and conciliating the people of New Mexico, and Benton's account was a part of his campaign to discredit Kearny. But Magoffin must have confirmed the consuls' and traders' reports of disaffection in New Mexico, must have described the helplessness of the province, and must have been quite clear about that miniature of Santa Anna in all but intelligence and courage, General Manuel Armijo, the governor. At any rate, from that conference he posted back toward Santa Fe at full speed, instructed to do what he could and bearing a letter which ordered Kearny to facilitate his mission. He was to work in what we have come to call the fifth column, resident Americans, Mexican traders, more especially the officials, and most especially the governor. Magoffin traveled fast. He was back at Independence in early July and started down the trail sometimes before the fifteenth. Never a man to skimp his comforts, he supplied his light equipage with the latest sleeping bags and other gadgets and the best wines and cigars. It was hard, however, to get good brandies at short notice, and Don Santiago had to start with a stock so small that he was afraid it would be exhausted before he could reach Santa Fe. . . . He carried the letter from Jessie Frémont to her husband quoted in our first chapter, and penalty picked up a friend and fellow merchant, José Gonzales of Chihuahua.

Meanwhile, on June 11, the spring caravan of his firm had left Independence in command of his partner and younger brother, Samuel Magoffin. So Susan Shelby Magoffin, not yet eighteen but a bride of six months, who had been honeymooning in the East, found that the first house she could call her very own was a conical tent made in Philadelphia, very luxurious, furnished with tables, cabinets, and stools, and a carpet of sailcloth. The bride's first meal in her mobile house was a supper of "fried ham and eggs, biscuit, and a cup of shrub, for I preferred it to tea or café." Her familiar combs and mirror were at hand, her Bible, her journal, and some improving books, and she slept on a camp bed made up every night with sheets, pillows, and counterpane.

Susan was pregnant and she was very much in love. The details of her husband's business were enchanting; the prairie voyage was really a continuation of her honeymoon. Samuel was taking fourteen wagonloads of goods and the train included a baggage wagon, the proprietor's carriage, a dearborn for Susan's maid Jane, and a remuda of about 200 all told, oxen, mules, and saddle horses. Twenty men staffed it, three of them Mexicans.  p252 The bullwhackers' profanity stunned her but she gratefully found that it diminished on the Sabbath.

Otherwise the bullwhackers were fascinating and so was the routine of prairie life. Her dog Ring was with her, a greyhound "of noble descent," who, she felt confident, protected her from "bruens" and Indians when she strolled off the trail. The seminary had taught her to botanize and she pressed flowers in her Bible, faithfully listing them in a gentlewoman's misspellings. There were wild raspberries, gooseberries, and "plumbs." There were exciting gallops through the grass. There were indolent noonings when she could lie on her cot and think of love in terms of Stephen Foster's songs. There were streams to fish in while the train halted to extricate a mired wagon, though she caught nothing. She recovered from the cold she had taken in Independence and found herself growing strong and gay — "I shall be fit for one of the Oregon pioneers." Not even the deluge of mid‑June could discourage her, for it was cozy to sit like a tailor on her cot with sewing and writing implements round her and listen to the drumming on the canvas roof, though one night the tent blew over in a cloudburst and she had to shiver till dawn in Jane's dearborn. The mosquitoes were bad and got worse, sometimes kept her awake all night, and increased from hundreds to thousands to millions. Snakes made her scream and a crawly prairie bug was loathsome. "I never walk in the grass without holding my dress up high, from fear that its long arm may chance to grapple me." After the rains, the heat was monstrous even at night, so that once "I had to pull all but my chemise [off], and even that would have been sent off without regret had not modesty forbid me," for a gentlewoman must not sleep naked.

She was altogether a darling, and in nothing more so than the penance that oppressed her whenever she remembered her religion. That was usually on the Sabbath, which prairie travel tended to profane, in so much that Susan would take her pleasure on horseback or even labor at her "knitting." Then she remembered that it was "appointed by my heavenly father for a day of rest," and "Oh, how could I ever have been so thoughtless, so unmindful of my duty and my eternal salvation!" She grew mindful of them as the Indian country neared and was piously pleased to see that nature was mindful likewise — on Sunday even the birds were quiet or "reverential in their songs." So she meditated on her blessings and the Creator's wisdom, then spread a buffalo robe on the shade of the carriage and took a siesta.

At Council Grove they met the train of Samuel Owens. Here also was John M. Stanley the artist, who would presently join Kearny's engineering  p253 detachment under Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Emory and make the drawings that embellish his report. Charles Bent, coming eastward up the trail, met them twelve miles out from Diamond Spring and Susan was able to send Papa a letter. They had been joined by other trains and the caravan was growing. Colonel Owens' wagons were usually near when they camped, and most days now they saw soldiers on the trail. They passed the Cottonwood and the Little Arkansas, and now the mosquitoes were worse than ever. They maddened the mules, when Susan stepped out into the grass her dress filled with them, at night they sounded like rain on the roof, and she was made sick by the stings. Oxen were dying from the heat and had to be driven at night; Susan never felt refreshed till after dark. But there was fresh buffalo and she contrived a miracle of cuisine. Supper one night was boiled chicken (from the noisy crate lashed to the baggage wagon), soup, rice, and "a dessert of wine and goosberry tart."

One evening, catching up with Owens again, they found him burying a Mexican employe who had died. This and a violent storm with "vivid and forked lightning quickly succeeded by the hoarse growling thunder" reminded Susan of God's magnanimity. That was near Pawnee Rock, the prairie register where, seeing the many names carved in soft sandstone, she desired to engrave her own. She made a hasty job of it for the site was notorious for Indian attacks and she began "to tremble all over." Samuel and Jane were on guard, however, and there were no Indians. So they rode on to catch up with the train, which had crawled ahead, and Susan and Samuel got into the carriage. A mile or so farther on they came to Ash Creek.​3 The stream could be dangerous when flooded but was now shallow. The banks were steep and Samuel and Susan intended to cross on foot. Before they could tell the driver, however, the carriage was over the edge. It teetered, slid, and crashed to the stream bed in a litter of "books, bottles, — one of which broke and on my head too I believe — guns, pistols, buckets, bags, boxes, and the dear knows what else." Samuel succeeded in clasping her in his arms and so probably saved her life, partly fending off the carriage top when it collapsed on them. But the top or the bottle knocked her out and knew she nothing till the aroma of whiskey roused her and she found her distraught husband rubbing her face. The carriage had been ruined and they had to go on in the dearborn. That night they camped at the Pawnee Fork, among the wagon trains that Captain Moore was detaining there. It was the Fourth of July. And Samuel Magoffin might worry about the effect of the day's mishap on his pregnant bride.

* * *

 p254  On July 4 most of the Army of the West was still behind the Magoffins. It was the hottest day they had had so far. Back at Fort Leavenworth the anniversary was commemorated in fitting military style, with parade and formal guard mount, the bands playing and everyone given liberty at noon. That day the artillery, farthest to the rear, were only a few miles out, competing with the baggage train in the still mugginess of the fords. Captain Fischer's Germans were all thumbs, so helpless that Kearny's staff had to explain how to water horses. Camping at Elm Grove, they were able to buy some liquor from the sutlers but were too tired to have much fun. The infantry, caught between two streams, had to march after dark, many were prostrated by the heat, and they were straggling in for hours after camp was made thirty miles from last night's bivouac. They hardly remembered it was the glorious Fourth, and the Laclede Rangers, who had chosen this torrid day to lose the road, were also done in. Farther ahead Company C of Doniphan's regiment labored toward Council Grove. John T. Hughes, the bachelor of arts, who had already jotted down the parallel with Xenophon's Ten Thousand, faced another classical obligation. "Our bosoms," they say, "swelled with the same quenchless love of freedom which animated the breasts of our ancestors of '76 and caught inspiration from the memory of their achievements. Ever and anon the enthusiastic shout, the loud huzza, and the animating Yankee Doodle were heard."​c The huzzas were mostly oaths, possibly, and only the advance guard under Captain Waldo, which was hurrying to join Moore at Pawnee Fork, had a reasonably good time. Waldo had brought a keg of whiskey with him. He issued it at breakfast, "each man drank his fill," and the twenty-five miles they covered that day were not troublesome. But rations had to be reduced a third and Private Robinson of Company D, though he liked the whiskey, wore lugubriously that "if we cannot overtake the commissary wagons we shall have nothing to eat but our own horses."

In the conquered town at Matamoros, Taylor's army had a better time. There were oratory and salutes, the cantinas were gay, no one went hungry or thirsty on Independence Day. The Mexicans made an admirable conquered people, amiable and polite, and their cookery, religious observations, and social customs had the Americans agape. The army enjoyed itself while Taylor called for reinforcements and wondered what to do. The volunteers kept coming in from the north and the staff exhausted itself trying to improve communications and supply. The correspondents, who had no new battle, went on inflating Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. They filled their space with atrocities, all Mexican, and heroisms, universally American. The hated foemen stripped and mutilated the  p255 American dead, lanced the wounded, fired on their captors after surrendering, and were running at the first fire so commonly that there was trouble describing the battles as famous victories. They were, however, and the folks back home read how Lieutenant McIntosh had stopped midway of a charge to fix a tourniquet on the arm of a dying soldier before hurrying on, how Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Kirby Smith had straddled a captured cannon and held off a counterattack with his sword, how Private Dudley had taken two prisoners barehanded, how Lieutenant Dobbins had split a perfidious Mexican's head with one blow of his bowie knife. And so on. But Old Rough and Ready was getting mad. The administration had made him a major general but no official thanks for the victories had reached him. Must be politics.

In the harbor of Monterey, California,​d the flagship Savannah, which had arrived on July 2, greeted Independence Day with the salute prescribed. So did Cyane and Levant, anchored in line with her. Commodore Sloat had sailed from Mazatlán on receipt of news that war had begun. He was afraid that the English squadron, which had the same news, might get there first, and his orders were to seize the port. But, arriving well ahead of the British, he began to fall apart from internal conflicts. He was old, sick, and a Navy fuss-budget, and the responsibility of seizing a foreign province was a heavy one — the heavier in that it had had an unfortunate dress rehearsal. Four years before, Commodore Ap Catesby Jones, in harbor at Callao, had heard rumors of war and seen a British ship acting suspiciously, and had hurried off to Monterey and run up the flag. The Secretary of the Navy had had to disavow the act and relieve Jones of his command. Sloat had that embarrassment to think of and here was Consul Larkin, horrified by the Bear Flag uprising, passionately arguing that his orders were to conciliate the Californians and could still be obeyed. It was not till July 7 that the discreet desperation of his subordinates prodded Sloat to land 250 men, plant the flag on the customhouse, and announce that the town was occupied by the United States. The natives were bewildered but politely acquiescent.

But there was one glorious Fourth on the golden shore. The one‑village California Republic still lived. Captain Frémont got back after being outwitted by de la Torre and storming the empty fortress of San Joaquin. So there were salutes to the flag and to the blended petticoats as well, and that night there was a fandango. The music of guitars drifted through the purple dark, to the continuing bewilderment of the Californians. Next day Frémont went on organizing his men and the forces of the Republic for further service. On July 9 Lieutenant Revere of the Portsmouth arrived,  p256 on Sloat's order, and took possession of Sonoma in the name of the United States. Thus the great Republic went down, passing from light opera into history.

Francis Parkman was still in camp at the mouth of the Chugwater, yearning for the Sioux, who still delayed their rendezvous at La Bonte's. Riding back from Fort Laramie on June 28, he had found Shaw and Chatillon returned and Chatillon's squaw dead. Some mountain men arrived and pitched camp with them and Parkman lay in the shade, weakened by dysentery, and listened to the epic of their wars and wanderings. "I defy the annals of chivalry to furnish the record of a life more wild and perilous than those of a Rocky Mountain trapper." On July 4 three Indians came into camp bringing with them on a mule a wretched Negro who had strayed from Richard's camp on Horse Creek thirty-three days ago, "and had been wandering in circles and starving ever since, without gun, knife, moccasins, or any knowledge of the country or its productions. We seated him in the midst of a circle of trappers, squaws, and children — the wretch could hardly speak. The men considered his escape almost miraculous." On the same day Parkman noted that "the squaws [they were the wives of the trappers and traders] are constantly laughing. It is astonishing what abominable indecencies the best of the Indian will utter in presence of the women, who laugh heartily."

A couple of days later Parkman and his party started out at last for the rendezvous at La Bonte's. There was suspense, for the fickle Indians appeared not to be keeping their appointment. But at last they came, the Whirlwind's village still smoking hot for war. Chatillon's brother-in‑law, the Bull Bear, got Parkman entree to the most select circles, his notebook filled with jottings, and in the corresponding passage The Oregon Trail attains its first ecstasy. For here he was, at last a resident of an Indian village, they were rehearsing war, and they were the real thing.

Dysentery prostrated him again. He suffered "the extremity of languor and exhaustion." Sometimes he could not move off his blanket. Opium accomplished nothing; he seemed to improve on a diet of one ship's biscuit a day, then collapsed again. Swooning, he studied the Oglala, for while he still lived he must think of the books he had planned. . . . And the Indians let him down. They whooped and charged in belligerent, sham exercises, but also they maintained the interminable ceremonies that made tribal life a blend of a sewing circle and a high-school debating club. So suddenly the caprice changed and they weren't going to La Bonte's, they weren't going to take the warpath against the Shoshoni, they were going hunting. They boiled off toward the Laramie Mountains and, impaled on his disappointment,  p257 Parkman had no recourse but to accompany them. Spoonfuls of whiskey swallowed at intervals enabled him to sit his horse.

The next day a trapper caught up with them dispatched from Fort Laramie by Bissonette, a mountain man, with words that not all the Sioux had abandoned the warpath. Ten or twelve villages would keep the rendezvous at La Bonte's and Bissonette would meet Parkman on the way there. Hope revived and he led his little company away from the Whirlwind's village. In great pain, he rode toward La Bonte's across a "dreary monotony of sun‑scorched plains, where no living thing appeared save here and there an antilope flying before us like wind." They reached Horse Shoe Creek at noon, green-banked, beautifully timbered, and there they camped. "I was thoroughly exhausted and flung myself on the ground, scarcely able to move. All that afternoon I lay in the shade by the side of the stream, and those bright woods and sparkling waters are associated in my mind with recollections of lassitude and utter prostration. When night came I sat down by the fire, longing with an intensity of which at this moment I can hardly conceive for some power­ful stimulant."

Our emigrant trains had been travelling close together since leaving Fort Laramie and were now plodding up the last marches along the Platte, through a writhen, volcanic desert that was a warning of worse ones just ahead. Laramie Peak was behind them now and the trail hugged the twisting river, here narrow and swift. The country was a succession of great bowls brimming with vacancy, the scale increasing, the buttes and obelisks bigger, the hills deeply gullied, the skyline toothed and jagged, the distance sometimes purple and white with glimpses of the Wind River Mountains. It got greener for a space near where the city of Casper, Wyoming, now stands, and the trains camped there within sight of each other on the night of July 3. Now Bryant and Russell came riding in, having been stopped, up ahead, by the need to replace Mr. Kirkendall, who had pondered Jim Clyman's warning and decided to go by way of Fort Hall. Thornton had the last watch that night and "fired my rifle and revolving pistol at the dawn of day, in honor of the Declaration of American Independence. The pulsations of my heart were quickened as I heard the morning gun and saw the banner of my country run up to the top of the staff and thought of the rejoicings of the nation."

They were a long way from the rejoicing cannon that woke Mr. Polk to a rainy dawn, that day, the crowd that filled the White House for his noon reception, and the two processions of Methodist Sunday Schools that upset his afternoon. They were far from the lush pressures of Matamoros, but they were hardly more than sixty miles from Francis Parkman,  p258 weak on his buffalo robe at the mouth of the Chugwater. The two trains joined for a celebration. The ladies did their best for a "collation." There were sentimental and patriotic songs, a volley of musketry for each toast, and, after a procession, a reading of the Declaration and — inevitably — an oration by Colonel Russell. That gorgeous voice boomed in the emptiness under the white‑hot sun, and then the Oregon train moved on. The good-byes had been said and these friends would never be all together again. But the California wagons lingered awhile and James Frazier Reed produced some fine wines and liquors which he had brought from Springfield for just such an occasion. They pledged one another, the Reeds, the Donners, Boggs, Bryant, Russell, in a moment of fellowship deep in the badlands. They shook hands. Bryant and Russell rode off through the stench of hot sagebrush, taking Hiram Miller with them, who had been a teamster for George Donner. Bryant noted the yellow cactus flowers. He would hear no more of the Donners till word of their extremity should reach him in circumstances now altogether beyond imagining. At last the California train yoked up and the shrill clamor of the wheels began again. Red Butte and Independence Rock were ahead of them, the Sweetwater, and the long plain rising toward South Pass.

* * *

In the opinion of the First Missouri, this country would be hard to farm, if not impossible: there was no timber. The army had said so in eastern Kansas and repeated the judgment with emphasis as they neared and crossed the hundredth meridian and pushed on through increasing aridity. At Pawnee Rock, Captain Reid's column was scattered by buffalo, which charged through it and scared the horses into a stampede. The army blazed away at them, killed a few, and scared the horses still worse. From there on, small or large herds were frequently in sight. Some of the troops acquired a superficial connoisseurship in buffalo meat. Also they now heard rumors of the Comanche but they met none — fortunately, for not even fear of the Comanche could discipline their marching.

Grouchy and hungry, they reached the Arkansas at its great bend. There was water in the river, which was by no means a constant condition. In these parts it is a muddy and rather odorous stream which runs in trickles through a wide bottom choked with cottonwoods and brush. Under its opaque water and between the rivulets quicksands are common, and in summer some stretches are almost dusty.​* Farther west it narrows  p259 to a more certain bed, like the Platte, and as it gets nearer the mountains has more water in it. The trail followed its general direction, touching its crazy course at the nodes, and the freighters were accustomed to camp on certain timbered islands as a defense against the Indians.

The country grew more severe now, the scale infinitely extended, the swell longer and the pitch steeper, the wind stronger, the sun hotter, the dust more inexhaustible, water scarcer and less drinkable. If there was little water, there were millions of flowers; if the steady wind blistered their faces and sudden torrid gusts sandblasted them with alkali, the infinitely blue sky produced cloud effects the most magnificent. They trudged through prairie‑dog towns a mile wide, jack rabbits by the hundreds streaked away from them, the nights were full of wolves. The horses grew weaker but the men slowly toughened. Kearny watched them and applied more pressure. They howled and lustily hated all officers, in so much that accusations of malingering and inefficiency now circulated about even the venerated Doniphan. The West Pointers did their best to make the march orderly and sometimes briefly succeeded. Moore was especially tough: anyone who broke ranks in his outfit had to march on foot for the rest of the day. The adjutant who enforced the order got well cursed, but the order stood.

The oldest trail went to Bent's Fort and thence south over Raton Pass. The traders, however, had come to prefer the shorter through more dangerous route which left the Arkansas at the Lower Crossing (near the present Dodge City) or the Cimarron Crossing, twenty miles farther west, and struck through desert for the usually waterless bed of the Cimarron River. Most of the horror stories of the trail, especially those of thirst, belong to that stretch. The army did not take it but kept to the Arkansas in less precarious but equally dreary country. True desert, sandy, sparsely vegetated, beginning to break up into foothills, but supplied with drinking water of a sort at safe intervals.​4 They crossed the river at Chouteau's Island and, since it was here the international boundary, became an army of invasion at last, though they would cross again to American soil before they reached Bent's Fort.

Inconceivably, the weather got hotter still, but one day a storm passed near enough to cool the air. The nights were always cold, campfires were just buffalo chips, and rations were slim and bad. Then the unpredictable country got green for a space and even produced some patches of trees and finally, at the Big Timbers, a substantial belt of them. Then more desert, more siroccos — and then the infantry came over an incline to a flat stretch and on the western horizon, thin, darker cloudlike masses were suddenly  p260 recognizable as a culminating wonder, the Rocky Mountains. The twinned blur to the southwest was the Spanish Peaks, Wah‑To‑Yah which Lewis Garrard would poetically translate as The Breasts of the World. To the northwest, equally indistinct and amorphous and much farther away, was a wavering phantom under cloud and snow which the knowing told the incredulous was the monument of their story books beheld at last, Pike's Peak. The doughboys yelled in delight and suddenly realized that they had come a long way from Missouri. A hell of a long way! They took up the march across a last stretch of parched sand and sagebrush and sometime before noon saw the walls of Bent's Fort rising from the plain. Two miles from it they reached Moore's detachment camped by the river, made their own camp, and started to dig a well. It was July 28 and the infantry had beaten everyone except the advance guard to the rendezvous.

Five hundred and thirty miles out from Independence, on the north bank of the Arkansas again, they had reached the first permanent settlement in what is now Colorado, Bent's Old Fort or Fort William, at a crossroads of the West. It was on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe trail; a few miles to the southwest that trail forked, and the other fork went to Taos. Westward a trail led up the Arkansas to the Fontaine Qui Bouille and on to the trappers' paradise, South Park. Northward stretched an immemorial Indian warpath and trade route to the Platte. Except for Fort Union, the American Fur Company's headquarters at the mouth of the Yellowstone, Bent's was the largest of all the trading posts, and it had perhaps the most varied and adventurous history. Its thick adobe walls made a rectangle a hundred by a hundred and fifty feet inclosing a central patio, two of them were two stories high, and there was a walled corral beyond. It was a complete factory for the Indian trade — warehouses, smithy, wagon shop, storerooms — and it had dormitories and such incredibilities as a billiard table and an ice house. Bent & St. Vrain, its owners, kept as many as a hundred and fifty men permanently employed here, many with Indian wives and families. Many mountain men wintered among its comforts; usually at least one village of Indians was camped by the river, three hundred yards away. They were usually southern Cheyenne, whose trade the firm monopolized, but might be Arapaho or Ute or even Kiowa or Comanche. The post's daily life was an adventure story and the yarns it heard are our lost history.

There were four Bent brothers in the trade, grandsons of the Silas Bent who had led the masqueraders when they threw the taxed tea into Boston Harbor; one of them was dead now and two more would die within a year. There were two St. Vrains, Ceran and Marcellin, St. Louis  p261 French, aristocrats, lovers of fine living, and Ceran had married into the New Mexico gentry. So had Charles Bent; and William Bent, the resident manager of the fort, was married to Owl Woman of the Cheyenne. The marriages were important, for they attached important loyalties in Santa Fe and Taos to the American cause, and they kept the Cheyenne peaceful. These were mighty men, whose will was prairie law, who could sway whole tribes, who knew Indians and Mexicans as few others did. They freighted their own goods from Independence and their Indian trade reached far to the north, west, southeast, and southwest. They maintained smaller posts in the Indian country and agents of theirs lived with various bands. They had great influence with all the tribes for hundreds of miles, and through William Bent they held the southern Cheyenne in the hollow of their hand.

Here, on the heat-tortured plain flickering with mirages and cooling to the freezing point at night, with the spectral mountains on the far horizon, Kearny assembled his army in the last days of July. He left the infantry near the fort, to swim in the river, guzzle Taos Lightning and other liquors at twenty-five dollars a gallon, exhaust the firm's supply of clothing, and gape at Mexicans, mountain men, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute. He took the Dragoons and most of the First Missouri ten miles farther on, hoping to condition the horses with rest and grass. The sick were to be weeded out, equipment to be repaired, something done about the collapsing commissary.

Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Clark arrived to take command of Weightman's and Fischer's artillery. He was the oldest son of William Clark and was named Meriwether Lewis for his father's great companion; his half-sister was Kearny's wife. Messengers, courtiers, expresses kept arriving. Some supply trains creaked in. Suspicious-looking Mexicans were arrested as spies and freed again to magnify the size of the army, going home. The two delayed companies of Dragoons rode in under Sumner and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Philip St. George Cooke, for whom a job was ready. Also the freighters were being concentrated and organized as the trains came up to add their noise to the confusion at the fort and extend the vast circle of used‑up grass. There were more than four hundred of their wagons now.

* * *

Susan Magoffin noted the white tents of Captain Moore's detachment along the river when she arrived at the fort, July 26. She had not been happy since her accident. Ominous symptoms had appeared and a dread  p262 possessed her. Samuel halted his train on Pawnee Fork for several days to let her rest, but neither her spirits nor her health improved. They went on through massive heat. Near the Coon Creeks there were a big herd of buffalo, which amused her for a while, "ugly, ill‑shapen things . . . and they look so droll running," but she was frightened when Ring chased them. Samuel joined his wagons with those of Manuel Harmony, Cornelius Davy, and Edward Glasgow, and two of Kearny's supply trains lengthened the caravan. Susan grew sicker and there was a flurry of alarm. Samuel rode ahead to another train to bring back Dr. Masure of St. Louis, "a polite delicate Frenchman" with a reputation in the treatment of women's ills. Susan was comforted but did not get better. A sudden storm brought the tent down on her, one night, and the next day there was an Indian scare. They got to the fort and William Bent cleared a room for his friend's wife. Susan was moderately comfortable but everything was strange — the Mexican ladies combing their hair in public and saturating it with grease, the painted Indians, the uproar and confusion of the troops.

She wrote to Papa and her sisters. Dr. Masure watched her carefully, the officers made formal calls on this gentlewoman in the wilderness, there was the changing pageant of the fort. Susan tried to be interested but religious gloom obsessed her. Thursday, July 30, was her eighteenth birthday. Samuel wanted to celebrate it properly but now it was plain that Susan was very sick. "Strange sensations in my back and hips. I am obliged to lie down most of the time, and when I get up to hold my hand over my eyes." It was said that Kearny was going to order them forward and the thought of those jolting wagons was more than she could bear. She lay in bed and "there is the greatest possible noise in the patio." Horseshoeing, children crying, servants quarreling, Arapaho singing their chants.

That was her birthday. The next morning premature labor came upon her and before midnight she had a miscarriage. It was a near thing but Dr. Masure brought her through, and "I sunk into a kind of lethargy in mi alma's arms." After a long agony, she had lost her first child. At the same moment, on the dirt floor of the room underneath her, a trader's squaw "gave birth to a fine healthy baby . . . and in half an hour after she went to the river and bathed herself and it." Susan had that casual papoose to think of when her lethargy lifted for brief moments.

She mended slowly. The clamor of the army's preparation continued and Susan reflected on this methodical preparation for bloodshed. "The follies and wretchedness of man! . . . sinking himself to the level of the  p263 beasts, waging warfare with his fellow man even as the dumb brute . . . striving for wealth, honour and fame to the ruining of his soul and loosingº a brighter crown in higher realms." While she was there the army started out for Santa Fe. In the next day or two the traders followed it. On the eighth day she was able to leave her room — just twelve days since she had reached the fort — and on the next day Samuel got his wagons started. Susan was glad to go but she wondered what dangers might be ahead. They could hardly be worse than what she had experienced already, but the thought struck her that perhaps she would never see "the fair and happy America" again.

* * *

While Susan lay unconscious, her brother-in‑law James Magoffin reached Bent's Fort and Kearny hurried him on to Santa Fe. Her journal does not mention his arrival but he must have come to the door and looked at her pale face before hurrying on to obey Mr. Polk's orders.

Kearny had been working hard to sift rumors. All the traders who had passed Bent's Fort from Santa Fe this year had predicted that New Mexico would not be defended. This agreed with the assurances Kearny had from Polk. But here at the border of the province to be invaded, the general could see clearly just how precarious the project was. His cavalry would have been better off dismounted. Sixty per cent of the artillery horses had died or become useless. The service of supply had failed badly: rations had been reduced already and would have to be reduced further. The line of communications was six hundred miles long and in constant danger from the Comanche. The route to Santa Fe lay through the mountains and any skilfully led troops could close it to Kearny's command; a reasonably large force could probably annihilate the A. E. F. In spite of the assurances that there would be no opposition, other circumstantial rumors said that Governor Armijo had raised an army, had been reinforced from Chihuahua, and would offer battle in the mountains. The two agents before Magoffin whom Polk had sent to Santa Fe had learned little and done nothing.

Well, Kearny had his orders. From Bent's Fort he issued a proclamation annexing the province of New Mexico east of the Rio Grande to the United States. (Thus using the old, shadowy claim of Texas, and sheathing his advance in a diplomatic envelope of peace.) He sent this in with some of the spies he had captured and also sent a copy to Taos, to propitiate the Pueblo Indians. And here was James Magoffin, from the President.  p264 Kearny detached Captain Cooke with twelve Dragoons to take the secret agent to Santa Fe, and had him carry a letter and a copy of the proclamation to Armijo. He told the governor that his purpose was peaceful but resolute, referred to the force he commanded and the reinforcements traveling down the trail behind him (they were just starting from Fort Leavenworth), and invited Armijo to submit gracefully to the inevitable. He would confide the rest to James Magoffin's talents.

Philip St. George Cooke was still mourning his lost chance of glory on the Mexican battlefields. (In so much that he got his metaphors mixed: "at a plaintive compliment, that I went to plant the olive where he would reap a laurel, the general endeavored to gloss the barren field of toil.") But he was a Virginian on the most generous scale and Magoffin was a Kentuckian on the same scale. Calling on Bent's ice house and personal mint bed, they made a pitcher of juleps the first act of their mission. The army was setting out at the same time and Kearny was pushing it to hard that they took several days to get ahead of it. Cooke's old sergeant was amazed but prideful. "If regulars were to straggle so," he said, "they would be considered as mutinizing."

The stretch from Bent's Fort to the summit of Raton Pass was the most difficult of the entire trail. Cooke and Magoffin saw it through a pleasant haze. Magoffin's fear had proved correct: the brandy had run out. He had plenty of claret, however. The two gourmets nooned in the shade of piñons, and when they took to the saddle again there would be more mirages than usual on the horizon. Magoffin was the most amusing man Cooke had ever met, huge, jovial, courageous, incapable of anger, a master of plains travel and of taking his ease. He laughed much, apostrophizing his pocket corkscrew, exchanging jests with José Gonzales, the Chihuahua merchant whose country he hoped to betray, discoursing with Cooke on the pleasures of gentlemen, and bragging about the virtues of his cook. The cook was a Mexican and Magoffin's praise seemed justified daily, but once he went too far. Someone caught a small turtle at a water hole and that night there was soup. Magoffin enjoyed it but Cooke had to spend a day in his new friend's carriage, languorous with opium but interested in the ruins of Pecos pueblo and still fit for claret.

Pressing hard but solaced by Magoffin's wine chest, they got over the Raton and crossed the violently colored country to San Miguel, to the Pecos pueblo, and on to the last canyons. In the adobe hamlets they encountered only the touching courtesy of the little people who had been cowed by two and a half centuries of Mexican and Indian oppression. On August 12 they rode into Santa Fe, a handful of dirty foreigners, and  p265 so surprised the guard that it howled aloud. Cooke mistook the noise for an alert, hastily tied a handkerchief to his saber, and "announced my mission in a sentence of very formal book Spanish." There was a sudden thought that the outriders of invasion might be roughly handled.

Not only a difficult of etiquette. The Mexicans had not prepared for a guest and there was the same embarrassment when, a few minutes later, Cooke rode down the twisting, garbage-littered street and came out into the historic plaza. His bugler sounded off but for some time no one answered the summons, though the windows we must have been crowded with gaping faces. Mr. Polk's Southwestern vicar felt both foolish and angry at the anticlimax. Finally an officer appeared and led him into the ancient Palace of the Governors, where Armijo welcomed him in a gorgeous uniform. Cooke and his men, the governor explained, would be cared for in the palace; then they could meet officially. Magoffin had slipped away to make his own preparation among his friends, the cavalrymen were billeted across the way, and the wife of Captain Ortiz was turned out of her room in the palace. At once some American merchants came out of the ground, Señora Ortiz found cake and whiskey for their entertainment, and, the ceremony over, Cooke hastened to make himself as presentable as possible. Shaved, washed, brushed, his shoulder straps and saber knot rubbed as bright as possible, he was formally conducted to Armijo. . . . The will of the war President had found its instrument and in the person of Captain Philip St. George Cooke, First Dragoons, Manifest Destiny was calling on its first objective to surrender.

* * *

The army of invasion moved out from Bent's Fort on August 1 and 2. Kearny had done his best to tighten its organization, had left about seventy-five on sick call to rejoin him at Santa Fe or be carted back to Fort Leavenworth, and had clamped down such discipline as was possible. He had enlisted William Bent and a number of his trappers to range ahead as scouts. With Bent was Francis Preston Blair, Jr., the son of the great editor whom Polk had forced out of the Globe. Young Blair had spent the summer of '45 with Bent & St. Vrain to improve his health, and was at the fort again when the army reached it. Now he was beginning a career that would be momentous.

The traders followed, and, army and traders, it was a formidable caravan. One census makes it 1556 wagons and nearly twenty thousand stock all told, oxen, beeves, horses, mules.​5 A long column moving through the  p266 most intense heat yet encountered and the worst desert of the trail. For four days there was almost no grass for the horses and little grass for anyone. Lieutenant Emory's thermometers showed 120° and the sirocco never died across the sand. The troops tied handkerchiefs over their mouths, to no avail. They got nosebleeds from the altitude and dysentery from the alkali. The wagons laboring behind, rations had to be cut. They could not be controlled at water holes, where the first ones spoiled the drinking for the rest. The horses were even worse; Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Johnston observed that when the water was scarcest they were most apt to urinate in it. Private Marcellus Edwards of Doniphan's Company D said of one small pool they passed on August 4 that it was "so bad that one who drank it would have to shut both eyes and hold his breath until the nauseating dose was swallowed. Notwithstanding its scarcity, some men allowed their horses to tramp through it, which soon stirred it up to a thick mud; and to give it a still greater flavor, a dead snake with the flesh just dropping from his bones."

Rear guards of detachments saw wolves trotting with them just out of rifle range. They were waiting for the horses to drop. They fed well and it looked as if Kearny's wish for infantry might be granted right here. A number of the volunteers died too, the Halls of Montezuma proving just six feet of desert earth. The volunteers were now accusing their officers of every villainy, from malingering to selling water for cash, and their complaints swelled to a sustained bellow. The West Pointers thought that morale had failed, but this was only the army exercising a freeborn American's right to express a grouch. The moment they reached the mountains, they were skylarking again.

All this time they were angling toward the mountains; the Spanish peaks grew higher every mile and the main range of the Rockies stretched its abrupt bastion out of sight, north and south. At last they struck the Purgatoire near the present site of Trinidad, Colorado, and it proved to be a stream out of paradise, swift, cold, poetically timbered. They drank till all were surfeited and some vomited, they bathed, they washed their clothes. One of them went mad, several died from the now ended strain, but game was shot, some supplies caught up and beef could be butchered, and the West Pointers had been wrong about their morale. The next night the campfires slanted upward at a steep pitch: they were in the Raton Pass. Here was the first place where an alert enemy could have destroyed them, but in spite of the daily rumors no enemy appeared; the one alarm was just some Doniphesias​6 wasting ammunition for the fun of it. Raton Pass is a long, twisting, arduous grade and they did better with it than  p267 the horses, which were now punch-drunk. They reached the top and looked off on one of the continent's great views, all New Mexico spread out below in the molten gold of the Southwestern sun. They clambered down the other side and found that the molten gold was hot.

Now Bent's scouts were bringing in various Mexicans and others were coming in to see for themselves. Spies probably, and Kearny sent more of them home to report that he was irresistible. They had proclamations by Armijo and others, the usual proclamations, and they brought notice of trouble ahead. Two thousand troops were assembling to oppose the invasion, then five thousand, eight thousand, twelve thousand. Kearny closed up his intervals, posted scouts, and kept on. At the Mora they found another beautiful camp ground and the first settlement since Fort Leavenworth, a half-dozen adobe huts and "a pretty Mexican woman with clean white stockings, who very cordially shook hands with us and asked for tobacco." Every few miles there were more huts, where the streams made a green thread across burnt plains, and the Doniphesias could buy mutton, corn, vegetables. They could also feel a hearty Protestant contempt for Popish superstitions and, gaping at the Mexicans, marvel at the extremity of poverty, dirt, obsequiousness, and desire to please the conquerors.

The daily captives told conflicting stories. Either there were no preparations to resist or the whole province had risen. Americans from Santa Fe came in and the best thought was that Armijo would fight at Apache Canyon, fifteen miles from the city. Beautifully uniformed lancers brought a letter from Armijo, suggesting that the commanders meet to the eastward of Las Vegas​e and negotiate. That was August 14. Kearny kept on, Armijo was nowhere, and the army camped a mile outside the town.

Las Vegas was the largest village they had seen so far. They heard that the Navajo had raided it since Captain Cooke passed through, a week before. They bought some sheep, scorched their palates with the native stews, and stole some corn for themselves and their horses. Kearny promptly won the villagers by promising to pay for the corn, which was not the custom of any other troops who had ever passed this way. There was a growing murmur: some of the Missourians were remembering that the Texas Expedition of 1841 had been attacked and slaughtered in the canyon just beyond Las Vegas and that at San Miguel, a few miles farther on, General Salazar had shot some of the prisoners. That night word came that a Mexican force had reached that same canyon and was fortifying it.

Word of the expected battle went far back on the trail and Captain Weightman of the artillery, coming up after convalescing at Bent's Fort,  p268 rode all night to take part in it. He reached the army at reveille and Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Swords was with him, the quartermaster, bringing Kearny's commission as brigadier general at last. Kearny made combat dispositions, spare ammunition was issued, some of Doniphan's officers reminded their men that, on General Taylor's word, Missouri volunteers had not distinguished themselves at the battle of Okechobee,​7 so maybe they had better wipe out that stain. Keyed up, the army marched through town and halted while Kearny, from a roof top, announced to the villagers that they were now Americans. He did it skillfully, reminding them of the oppressions suffered, promising them security in their property and religion, and assuring them that the United States would defend them against the Indians as in two centuries no one ever had. There is no record of what they felt, a humble folk whose entire history had been misery, paupered by all governments, preyed on by brigands, and called by the Apache the mere herders who raised stock for them. They knew no way of life that was not constant oppression and intermittent massacre. Probably the promise of protection from Indians warmed them a little, though it was not to be kept for half a century. Probably also they cared no more than anyone else to acknowledge another conqueror. However, much experience of conquest had taught them that courtesy was best. They smiled, bowed, cheered, gave fruits and wines to the guards, and took the meaningless forced oath of allegiance in the best of humor. "But listen! he who promises to be quiet and is found in arms against me, I will hang."

The first formal occupation made, Kearny prepared to drive the enemy out of the narrow canyon that today bears his name. He sent the infantry with a couple of dismounted companies of the First Missouri over the foothills to the right. He formed the rest of the Doniphesias and the artillery behind the Dragoons, took his place at the head of his old regiment, pushed out a cavalry point, and ordered the army forward. The Dragoons trotted, then broke into a gallop. There was a shine of sabers in the sunlight, the pound of hooves and the long lift of the charge — and the guidons were fluttering in the empty pass. No enemy, just another rumor, and the army rejoiced in its first battle.

That afternoon at Tecolote Captain Cooke rode in. His opinion was that they would be unopposed, but Armijo's forces kept on growing in the stories of most arrested Mexicans, though some cynics held that the discharge of one American cannon would suffice. If there was to be any fighting it would come at Apache Canyon, and you could choose any number up to twelve thousand enemies. The next day Kearny swore in another, larger  p269 town, San Miguel, and among the day's pickups was the son of the General Salazar who had slaughtered the Texans. On the following day they passed the ruins at Pecos that had once been the largest town of the Pueblo Indians. Stephen Watts Kearny had intersected a conquest of his predecessor, Coronado. The First Missouri scattered to carve their names on the fallen adobe of that pueblo and the ruined Christian church beside it, much impressed by antiquity and the promptly circulated information that what they called the sacred fire of Montezuma had burned here through the centuries till eight years ago. But they could not realize the blood which, through those same centuries, had soaked these ruined bricks — the screams and ecstasy of human sacrifice, the generations of war with wandering tribes, generations of conquest by the Spaniards and revolt against them, decimation and submission, the long darkening of the Pueblo hope, and at last the Comanche coming in raid after raid till the handful of survivors had fled to pueblos better protected by the mountains. Mr. Polk's brigadier had taken over a harvesting whose last yields are not yet in, and today at Taos or Tesuque or Santo Domingo any tourist may catch a glimpse, making what he can of it, of blood and cruelty remembered for centuries and not yet resolved. The shaping of that memory began with Coronado and the Spanish search for cities named for the buffalo, which were said to be paved and roofed with gold. . . . Most Western tribes have a myth that describes mysterious, godlike Indians whose skins are white. No one has ever fully explained it. With the Pueblo it took the form of prophecy; some day the fair gods would come from the East and deliver the village-making people from the slavery that the Spanish had riveted on them. They talked of this promise in the kivas when the army was nearing New Mexico and wondered if General Kearny might be this deliverer. Well, he was — in a way.

That same day, August 12, all messengers and prisoners said that Armijo had fled his position in Apache Canyon. So the road was open and Captain Johnston, of Kearny's staff, wrote in his journal, "here is the end of the campaign." . . . In Santa Fe there had been little will to oppose the Americans, and no hope. Why should there be? The disintegration of Great Spain was at its worst in New Mexico, and though there were castes and the exploitation of castes, there was no society. The mass of the people were inexpressibly poor and harried by their betters. Though the padres and the rich men told them that Kearny was coming to steal what they had and to debauch their women, the threat was little worse than the reality of two centuries. And at least the mountain men and the traders whom they knew had money to spend. Moreover, there was only a  p270 handful of regular troops, and they were not fighting men. The governor was a general but by courtesy only. He was also the scourge of the poor, formidable only in the stealing of sheep, a coward, and either bought or terrified by Polk's agent. Just how James Magoffin worked on him​8 is not known, but certainly he convinced him that it would be both safer and more profitable to let the conquest proceed unopposed. Magoffin found more resistant material in Diego Archuleta, the lieutenant governor, who was a brave man, a patriot, and an experienced Indian fighter. It seems probable that Magoffin, who had had no more of Mr. Polk's confidence than anyone got and was acting in good faith, successfully argued that the conquest would stop at the Rio Grande, the claimed boundary of Texas, and that Archuleta could maintain and defend the rest of New Mexico. At any rate, Archuleta did not force a stand and the handful of determined men who wanted to were not enough.

Armijo posted off to Apache Canyon with his personal retinue of dragoons. Some three thousand militia, forced peasants, and Indians gathered there. They felled trees across the narrowest point, placed some minute cannon there, and dug trenches. It was only a showing for the record, and Armijo at once announced that all was lost. Several of his officers pleaded for a fight but he ended by threatening them with his cannon. There was nothing to do but to go home. The extemporized army went home, greatly relieved, and with his bodyguard Armijo spurred southward. He rode hard and long. . . . Near Durango, Lieutenant George Frederick Ruxton of Her Majesty's 89th Regiment, who was making a pleasure trip northward through Mexico toward the States, met this "mountain of fat" conducting his private freight caravan along with Albert Speyer's. Lieutenant Ruxton gave himself the pleasure of calling General Armijo to his face an arrant coward.

Tuesday, August 18, a cloudy morning with occasional showers. The army marched before dawn, twisting through the defile. They reached the abandoned fortifications and decided that a few hundred men could have held them off, though the engineers thought that the position could have been turned. Out of the canyon to sagebrush flats, arroyos, foothills, small canyons. By midafternoon they were trudging across the high plain above Santa Fe, a slow line of dirty, ragged men on foot or riding emaciated horses.​9 They halted and waited for the laboring artillery to come up, while the clouds thickened and the sun sank lower.

They were tired and hungry, but below them lay the Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis.​f The sudden wealth of trees hid its full extent and the adobe houses were dingy against overcast skies. To most of  p271 the army it seemed a miserable and dirty town, but it was a capital city and older than any settlement in the United States. The Sangre de Cristo peaks stood up beyond the hills on which the army halted, westward were the Jémez peaks and southward the bare Scandia. A strange landscape, very beautiful, one that had a dark and bloody history reaching down from Peralta's time, who had founded it in 1609, invoking the blessing of the gentle saint who preached to his brothers the birds. El Camino Real here ended its reach from Mexico City, and every mile of that road had been bought and rebought with Indian and Spanish blood. The town's sleep was troubled with memories of flogged and murdered Indians, massacred friars, soldiers and colonists who had died for Holy Faith. The altar had been desecrated and its church made into a kiva when for twelve years the Pueblo Indians won the town back. Then De Vargas had taken it again after a vow to the Virgin, whose small image is still carried in procession every September to commemorate the victory that she gave. Then just the slow passage of years in a hard country which had to be held, as it had been won, with blood.

Late in the afternoon the conquerors were ready. Two subofficials had come out to profess submission and, sending his artillery to a hill that commanded the town, Kearny rode back with them and his staff, the army following in column. Bridles jingled and scabbards clanked in the little, twisting, dirty streets, between the brown adobe houses. There was a low wailing behind shuttered windows where women cowered in terror of the rape and branding which the priests had told them the Americans meant to inflict. Soldiers filed into the Plaza of the Constitution, which has always been the center of the town's life. The infantry stood at parade rest, the tired horses drooped, in the silence one heard the rustle of cottonwoods and the silver music of the creek. The ranks stiffened and the musket came to present arms, Kearny and his staff raised their sabers, the bugles blared down those empty streets, and the flag went up. As it touched the top of the staff, the artillery on the hilltop boomed its salute, and for the first time in history the Americans had conquered a foreign capital. And they had done exactly what Mr. Polk had instructed them to do: they had taken New Mexico without firing a shot.


The Author's Notes:

1 In the summer of '47, according to William Gilpin, who commanded a punitive expedition against them, the Comanche killed 47 men and burned 300 wagons on the trail.

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2 It and other illnesses reported were probably complicated by the lack of salt, the necessity of which for sweating men was not appreciated. The army had no supply except what came with the pork.

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3 East of Larned, Kansas. Not to be confused with the more famous Ash Hollow of the Oregon trail.

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* Phrase by courtesy of a Montana Highway Commission road sign.

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4 The army had reached what is now the Dust Bowl, in western Kansas.

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5 Hafen and Ghent; Broken Hand. I do not know what their authorities are and the number of wagons and stock is far greater than I am able to account for. I doubt if so many all told moved down the trail that summer.

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6 This came to be a prideful nickname. It had been invented by the Laclede Rangers, who, having been attached to the Dragoons, felt superior to the First Missouri.

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7 December 25, 1837, in the second Seminole War. Old Rough and Ready had made his entire reputation there, and it was true that some of the Missouri militia had run away.

Thayer's Note: See the brief account of the battle in Ganoe, The History of The United States Army, p181 f.
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8 Thomas Hart Benton's intimation, in A Thirty Years' View, that Magoffin bought Armijo, presumably for $50,000, is almost certainly untrue.

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9 The old trail came into Santa Fe not by the route of the corresponding motor road of today, Highway 85, but over the foothills to the east of it, past the site of the Laboratory of Anthropology.


Thayer's Notes:

a Details and context, as well as sources, are given in an account by James Josiah Webb (a trader in another wagon train who was for a while traveling with the traders being chased) and his editor, James Bieber: Adventures in the Santa Fé Trade, 1844‑1847, p181, n.

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b Rupert Norval Richardson, The Comanche Barrier to South Plains Settlement; a century and a half of savage resistance to the advancing white frontier (Glendale, Calif. 1933)

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c Doniphan's Expedition, p40.

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d For the same events told from a Navy point of view, see Johnson, Thence Round Cape Horn, pp77 ff.

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e The careful reader will have noticed that this is Las Vegas, New Mexico — not the now much larger and better-known Las Vegas in Nevada.

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f This is something more than a continuing sample of our writer's baroque writing: the full name of Santa Fe was La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís.


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Page updated: 28 Dec 21