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The Life & Mysterious Death of Samuel B. Watrous

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Taos, New MexicoSamuel B. Watrous (1909-1886) - Born in Montpelier, Vermont in 1809 to Erastus Watrous and Nancy Bowman, Samuel was baptized Erastus but later changed his name. Orphaned while still young he was sent to live with an uncle. At the age of 26, he joined a wagon train and headed for Taos, New Mexico.

 

Upon his arrival he began clerking at a store and within two years, he was the father of a young son named Joseph. The mother was Tomacita Crespin, but, rumors abounded that the boy was not Samuel's and that she was already pregnant when they married. However, Samuel would raise the boy as his own and the couple would go on to have six more children: Mary Antonette, Emeteria, Louisa, Abelina, Samuel, Jr., and María Antonia.

 

By 1839 he, Tomacita, and their small son were living in the mining camps of the Ortiz Mountains, just south of Santa Fe. Not a miner himself, Watrous supplied miners with goods he purchased from the Taos merchant, Charles Bent and also traded in deerskins.

 

Watrous had obviously been successful as a mining merchant, as, in the late 1840's, he purchased a one-seventh interest in the Scolly Mexican land grant and moved his family to La Junta, New Mexico (then still a province of Mexico). Though the area had long been the favorite hunting grounds of several Plains Tribes, including the Comanche, Kiowa, Apache and Ute, who were none to fond of settlers encroaching upon their lands, Watrous was seemingly unafraid.

 

Immediately, he began work on a large fort-like adobe home at the junction of the Mora and Sapello Rivers. The hacienda style home included 20 rooms, all of which opened onto an enclosed courtyard. At one end was a large store and in back, two large store rooms. In addition to rooms for the family, others included a drying room, storage for farm implements, a granary, and a room where various crafts were made. At the back were the servants' quarters. Lumber and luxury goods, including a piano, heavy marble-topped wooden furniture, china dinner sets, gilded clocks and mirrors, and books were brought by wagon from St. Louis, Missouri. More materials were imported from Mexico, including blankets and clay pots.

 

To provide shade for the home he transported cottonwood trees from the east side of the Canadian River, exported fruit tree seedlings from Missouri and even made a trip back east for willow sprouts. He was often known to have said to family and servants alike, "Come now, we will plant more trees." He also developed farm land, including hops, alfalfa, blue grass, and vegetables. By the time his home was completely built, it was basically self-contained.

 

Employees of the Watrous family included overseers, herdsmen, hunters, house maids, nursemaids, and cooks. Many of the women would gather plants from spring until fall to be used as foods, condiments, and medicines. Life in the household was one of New England discipline and Spanish ease, where the women and children, both family and employees, mingled together.

 

Over the years, Watrous amassed large herds of cattle and ample grazing land just north of the Mora River. He sold and traded what his ranch produced with local residents, travelers along the Santa Fe Trail, and, later, to troops at nearby Fort Union. In 1847, Watrous hired the Tipton brothers, William and Enoch, whom he knew during his days in the Ortiz Mountains, to help him claim and settle his portion of the Scolly Grant. The Tiptons settled what would be called Tiptonville on the Mora River, a couple of miles northwest of La Junta.

 

In 1849 Samuel's daughter, Mary, who was only 12 years old, married her father's partner, William Tipton, at which time Tipton became a partner in the firm of Watrous and Tipton. Together they owned 20 freight wagons that hauled merchandise for many years on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and New Mexico.

 

 

Samuel B. Watrous home in 1940.

In 1940 the Watrous House was falling into disrepair.

This image available for photo prints & editorial downloads HERE.

 

Samuel B. Watrous House today

Today, the owners of the Watrous Valley Ranch, located at 2286 Hwy 161, in Watrous still use the Samuel B. Watrous Ranch House and Store. The ranch includes the carefully restored Watrous House and thousands of acres of original grazing land. Kathy Weiser-Alexander, June, 2013.

This image available for photo prints & editorial downloads HERE.

 

 

Indian AttackBy that time, New Mexico had become a territory of the United States and more and more settlers came to the area, taking over the traditional hunting grounds of the Moache Ute, Jicarilla Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche. Due to the increased traffic on the Santa Fe Trail, more and more emigrants, and their game being reduced, friction between the Indians and new settlers flared. Troops were soon sent in to protect the citizens of the territory.

 

In 1851, when Lieutenant Colonel Edwin V. Sumner came in to take command, he found the military encampments in deplorable conditions and immediately disbanded these temporary posts, relocating the troops to posts closer to the Indians. That year, he would also begin work on the establishing Fort Union about nine miles northwest of La Junta on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.

 

The new fort became the principal depot for supplies for other forts in the region, utilizing the fertile Mora Valley ranchers and farmers, including Samuel Watrous, as suppliers. Because of the numerous military trails that joined at La Junta, hundreds of ox and mule teams, freighters, muleteers, drivers, escorts, and travelers passed yearly by the Watrous Store which prospered greatly.


Fort Bascom Ruins in 1907To keep up with the demand for beef Samuel had to increase his herds rapidly and established a second ranch on the Canadian River, about eleven miles up from old Fort Bascom, near the present town of Tucumcari, New Mexico. After the ranch houses and the corrals were built and stocked, Watrous returned to La Junta to visit his family. Unfortunately, while he was away, a Comanche war party raided the ranch, killed the overseer and drove off the rest of the men. They then took all the stock, including cattle, mules, and oxen, as well as a year's worth of provisions. When they obtained all they wanted, they burned the rest of the buildings and belongings including five freight wagons, and farm implements.

 

Later that year, another raid, this time by Apache warriors, was made on his La Junta ranch. After capturing the herders and stealing about 45 horses, they fled. Fort Union troops trailed them, but, were unsuccessful in capturing them or regaining the horse.

 

Watrous understood there was but one way to end the attacks. He soon made a visit to Washington D.C. to ask that the Indian agency to move the Plains tribes to a more suitable place because there was not enough game left in the area for them to live on. His request was ignored.

 

 

 

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