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Early Transportation on the Great Plains

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By Randall Parrish in 1907


Indian Methods of Transportation


Indian Dog TrainThe earliest method of transporting goods across the Plains must have been upon the shoulders of men. Long before Cabeca de Vaca wandered through his ten thousand miles of wilderness in search of Mexico, the Indians of the Plains had taken a step upward, and learned to shift their burdens onto the backs of patient dogs. Castaneda, the historian of Coronado's Expedition to the buffalo plains in 1541, wrote: "They go like Arabs with their tents, and their droves of dogs harnessed with saddle-cloths, and pack-saddles, and a cinch. When their load shifts, the dogs howl for someone to straighten it for them." One hundred years later another Spanish wanderer, Benavides, wrote:


"I cannot refrain from mentioning something rather incredible and ridiculous, which is that when these Indians go off to trade the whole rancheros go, with their women and children. They live in tents made of buffalo hide, very thin and tanned; and these tents they carry on pack-trains of dogs, harnessed with their pack-saddles. The dogs are medium sized, and it is customary to have five hundred dogs in one pack train, one in front of another; and thus the people carry their merchandise laden, which they barter for cotton cloth, and other things they need."


By the time the first American adventurers had penetrated beyond the Missouri River, the horse had come to the Indian, and been broken to the duties of a burden-bearer. The horse came from the South, gradually overrunning the Plains in wild bands, until the Indian tribes as far north as the Missouri River were well supplied with them. These wild horses were the descendants of those Arabian steeds brought to the New World by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico. As we think of their probable number ranging the Great Plains as long ago as 1750, it is interesting to take note of their small beginnings, when Cortez, in 1519, brought the first horses to the mainland of North America. According to the historian, Bernal Diaz, there were sixteen horses of the captains, and five mares; and he names and describes the latter with care, mentioning the colt born on their voyage from Cuba. And horses had a price in those days in this new land, when for many a year the market held firm at a thousand pieces of eight. But the increase of the stock the Spaniards imported was marvelous, and the prices fell accordingly until, by 1728, horses were down to six dollars each, and mules to ten. It was the wild horse, straying from its old-time Mexican owner into the freedom of the wilderness, captured again by the roaming Indian and reduced to slavery, which, almost in a day, lifted the Indian into a new age of development. The tribes of the Plains knew and used the horse for transportation long before men of English blood came wandering into their villages. Yet, their accepted method was extremely crude, being merely the utilization of two sticks attached to the sides of a horse, the ends dragging on the ground. It was the same plan by which they had loaded their dogs. The French called it the "travois," and its use was universal from the Great Lakes to Texas.


Spanish Methods


The next step in the advance of Plains transportation was the pack-train of the early Spaniards. The idea was merely an importation from Europe, but its value in the development of the West is beyond computation. The work of the muleteer became almost an art, and there were few regions so isolated, either in mountain or plain, as to remain long unvisited by the pack-train. The distance traveled, and the value of merchandise and coins transported in this manner, are beyond estimate. In the early history of the Southwest there were ordinary commercial routes, regularly traveled over, more than 1,500 miles long. In 1774 Captain Anza took such a train from Sonora, Mexico to San Francisco, California and Coronado wandered the Plains nearly two years, a pack-train bearing his supplies. On the old Vera Cruz Trail it is said that 70,000 mules were employed each year, the commerce carried on their backs reaching yearly a total of $64 million dollars. In those days everything went mule-back, the only concession made to travelers unable to ride in this way being a rude litter on shafts swung to the saddles of two mules walking in single file. Regular commercial routes, over which the pack-mules traveled in long columns, were early established between Mexico and the border Spanish settlements along the Rockies, and thus was the pack-train introduced upon the Plains.




As early, possibly, as the beginning of the seventeenth century the first wheeled vehicle made its appearance in this neighborhood, but was probably never used on the Plains outside New Mexico. This was the carreta, built without nails or a scrap of iron, being a rude ox-cart, so heavy that no other motive power could pull it. It had two wheels, made from three sections of Cottonwood logs, fastened to a wooden axle, and without tires. Some carretas were still in use within the memory of living men; their creaking and groaning while in motion imparted to the traveler a sensation never to be forgotten. The first wheeled vehicles ever used within the limits of what is now the United States were those Zacatecas wagons with which Juan de Onate traveled in 1596 in his expedition to colonize New Mexico. We only know they were hauled by oxen, and that for two centuries following, a fairly regular communication was kept up over the same route.


The Mexican Pack-Train


The first overland commerce established by Americans was that along the Santa Fe Trail, and until 1827 it was carried on entirely by pack-trains. After that date wagons were introduced, yet the other method was never wholly abandoned. The Mexican pack-train, or "atajo," adopted by the Americans almost in its entirety, was an institution worthy of description. Henry Inman tells the story as follows:


"A pack-mule was termed a mula de carga, and his equipment consisted of several parts; first the saddle, or aparejo, a nearly square pad of leather stuffed with hay, which covered the animal's back on both sides equally. The best idea of its shape will be formed by opening a book in the middle and placing it saddle fashion on the back of a chair. Each half then forms a half of the contrivance. Before the aparejo was adjusted to the mule, a zalea, or raw sheep-skin, made soft by rubbing, was put on the animal's back to prevent chafing, and over it the saddle-cloth, or xerga. On top of both was placed the aparejo, which was cinched by a wide grass bandage. This band was drawn as tightly as possible, to such an extent that the poor brute grunted and groaned under the apparently painful operation, and when fastened he seemed to be cut in two. This always appeared to be the very acme of cruelty to the uninitiated, but it is the secret of successful packing; the firmer the saddle, the more comfortably the mule can travel, with less risk of being chafed or bruised. The aparejo is furnished with a huge crupper, and this appendage is really the cruelest of all, for it is almost sure to lacerate the tail. Hardly a Mexican mule in the old days of the trade could be found which did not bear the scar of this rude supplement to the immense saddle."



Continued Next Page

Early Spanish methods of transportation included the use of the

Early Spanish methods of transportation included the use of the

 carreta, a rude ox-cart. Photo by the William Henry Jackson, about 1900.


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