The Life & Mysterious Death of Samuel B. Watrous


Taos Street

Taos Street

Samuel B. Watrous was a rancher, farmer, and trader of Mora County,  New Mexico for whom the town of Watrous is named.

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 Taos merchant, Charles Bent and also traded in deerskins.

Watrous was obviously been successful as a mining merchant, as, in the late 1840s, 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 too 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 storerooms. 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 farmland, including hops, alfalfa, bluegrass, and vegetables. By the time his home was completely built, it was basically self-contained.

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.

Employees of the Watrous family included overseers, herdsmen, hunters, housemaids, 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’s 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.

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

By 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 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.

What was left of Fort Bascom in 1907. Over the next century, the old post continued to deteriorate and  there is nothing left today.

What was left of Fort Bascom in 1907. Over the next century, the old post continued to deteriorate and there is nothing left today.

To 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.

Samuel Watrous and third wife, Josephine Chapin Watrous

Samuel Watrous and third wife, Josephine Chapin Watrous

So, Samuel took another tactic, he began to feed any Indians who would come to his ranch. All were made to feel welcome and before long, people were coming down from the mountain hamlets and were fed and befriended also. One day they came with news that a stranger, they called the “Solitary One” was living among them. He was, they said, a holy man who had come to them to preach, to heal, and to perform miracles from his cave on the rock peak of Rincon de Tecolote. Interested in their tale, Watrous wanted to meet this stranger and he soon trekked up the mountain.

The “Solitary One” is known in history today, as the Hermit of La Cueva. An Italian noble and missionary whose real name was Juan Maria Agostiniani, he had been traveling the world for more three decades before joining a caravan in Council Grove, Kansas and walking with them to Las Vegas, New Mexico. He was not only a deeply religious man but also a deep thinker and an extremely remarkable conversationalist. Watrous enjoyed being with him, hearing his tales, and exchanging ideas. For years, he visited with the old hermit, until one day, the old man was found murdered. His killer was never found.

Samuel’s first wife, Tomasita died in 1857. For several years, he would remain single with his children until about 1864, when he married Rosaline D. Chapin. The marriage; however, would be brief as Rosa died in childbirth. Samuel then married Rosa’s sister, Josephine, with whom he would have two more children —  Rosa and Charles Watrous.

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