Adventures and Tragedies on the Overland Trail

 

By Randall Parrish in 1907

 

Sufferings from the Elements 

Conestoga Wagon

Conestoga Wagon

The Santa Fe Trail being the first used for staging purposes was also the first to be reddened with blood, and to witness the hardships of prairie travel. From the earliest attempts accidents were frequent, and suffering from exposure to the elements was common. The terrible summer storms sweeping the level Plains, or driving desert sand in clouds, would delay the weary travelers for days in the utmost discomfort. Occasionally the eight frisky mules would prove too much for their driver, and there would be a runaway, and a broken coach, to be repaired with whatever tools might be at hand. In wet weather for mile after mile the passengers might be compelled to plod beside the wheels, laboriously prying them out of the clinging mud, and burdening the air with profanity.

But in the mountain district to be traversed before reaching Santa Fe, the most serious disasters usually occurred during the winter. To be caught there by a raging snow-storm was certain to be a terrible experience. All that could be done, with the trail blotted completely from sight, was to wait the cessation of the storm. Passengers and employees had to crowd into the coach and use every effort to keep from freezing, and at the end often found themselves minus mules with which to complete the journey. Yet even more a summer hail-storm was to be dreaded, for nowhere else do such ice-chunks descend from the sky. Invariably such a storm meant a stampede of the mules, nor would a man dare to desert his shelter to seek them.

A Massacre by Apache

When the Sioux and Blackfoot meet

Indian Attack

The first notable tragedy on the Santa Fe Trail in connection with stage coaching occurred almost with the first effort at establishing the line. It was a west-bound Concord, containing a full complement of passengers, including a Mr. White, his wife, child, and colored nurse. The journey was not an unpleasant one across the wide expanse of Plains. The Raton Range had been safely surmounted, and, just about dawn one morning, the heavy coach entered the canyon of the Canadian, it occupants unsuspicious of any danger. Instantly they were fiercely attacked by an ambushed party of Apache under White Wolf. With scarcely any opportunity for defense, the unfortunate whites were shot down, scalped, and their mutilated bodies left upon the ground. Mrs. White, her child, and nurse were borne away prisoners.

At Taos were several troops of the Second Dragoons under Major Greer. The story of this outrage did not reach them for nearly two weeks, but upon its receipt the Major at once started out on a hard winter campaign in hope of rescuing the captives. The soldiers had with them as guides several famous frontiersmen, Kit Carson, “Uncle Dick” Wootton, Joaquin Leroux, and Tom Tobin.

The heavy snow made trailing almost impossible, yet the scouts discovered “signs,” and, amid much suffering, followed the Indian trail for nearly four hundred miles, and finally located the village. Everything was made ready for a charge, when Major Greer suddenly decided to have a parley with the Indians before commencing to fight. This decision not only greatly enraged the eager troopers, but gave the Indians ample time in which to prepare for action. They took full advantage of the opportunity, and poured in the first volley, Greer being struck in the breast, his life saved by a suspender buckle.

This occurrence took from him all desire for further peace talk, and the fight was on. The troopers charged twice, killing and wounding more than a hundred Indians, but the chief escaped, and, when the soldiers finally captured the village, they found there the body of Mrs. White, yet warm, with three arrows in her breast.

No trace of either the child or the colored nurse was ever found. White Wolf was killed later by Lieutenant David Bell, Second Dragoons, in a most dramatic manner, and almost on the same spot where the murders had been perpetrated. While on a scout with his troop from Fort Union, New Mexico, Bell came upon White Wolf and an equal number of Apache. A parley ensued, the controversy growing so heated that suddenly the two leaders exchanged shots, the chief sinking on one knee to aim, and Bell throwing his body forward, and causing his horse to rear. [Colonel Henry Inman] describes what followed:

“Both lines by command fired, following the example of their superiors, the troopers, however, spurring forward over their enemies. The warriors, or nearly all of them, threw themselves on the ground, and several vertical wounds were received by horse and rider. The dragoons turned short about, and again charged through and over their enemies, the fire being continuous. As they turned for a third charge, the surviving Indians were seen escaping to a deep ravine, which, although only one or two hundred paces off, had not previously been noticed. A number of the savages thus escaped, the troopers having to pull up at the brink, but sending a volley after the descending fugitives. In less than fifteen minutes twenty-one of the forty-six actors in this strange combat were slain or disabled. Bell was not hit, but four or five of his men were killed or wounded. He had shot White Wolf several times.”

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

Some Indian Leaders

In those early days of stage-coaching along the Santa Fe Trail the two most noted leaders of Indian raids were Satanta<style=”margin-top: 0; margin-bottom: 0″ 10″> (White Bear), a chief of the Kiowa Nation, and Charles Bent, a half-breed desperado. In later years Kicking Bird, also a Kiowa, became the terror of the Plains. The latter was finally poisoned by a Mexican woman in 1876. Santana had his headquarters in what is now known as the Cheyenne Bottoms, eight miles from the Great Bend of the Arkansas River, and about the same distance from old Fort Zarah. He was as cruel and heartless a savage as ever ambushed a stage-coach or murdered helpless women. For fifteen years he was the terror of the Trail, and his acts atrocity were incessant. Charles Bent had for father the famous Colonel Bent, of Bent’s Fort, but his mother was a Cheyenne woman. Well educated in St. Louis, he no sooner returned to the Plains than he developed into a blood-thirsty desperado, organizing a body of young warriors, later known as “dog soldiers,” and beginning a series of depredations against the whites.

With over a hundred men under him he robbed ranches, and attacked wagon trains, coaches, and army caravans. The history of his bloody deeds will never be told, for dead men tell no tales, and seldom did Bent leave any alive after a raid. From Walnut Creek to the mountains no traveler was safe from attack by the “dog soldiers“; and oftentimes a caravan started forth having the disguised Bent as guide, for his plans usually involved treachery. The Government offered five thousand dollars for his capture, dead or alive, but death finally came to him in the form of malarial fever.

Robbers, White and Red

Indian peril on the northern Overland route, while never wholly absent, grew most serious during the period of the Civil War, when the Plains tribes became largely hostile. Road agents also became very much in evidence, and the robbery of stages was not uncommon. In July, 1865, a stage carrying seven passengers, and containing a considerable amount of gold bullion was the object of such an attack. The passengers were all old frontiersmen, and, anticipating a possible attempt at robbery, were prepared for a desperate defense. But treachery worked their ruin. Beside the driver, named Frank Williams, sat one of the robbers, thoroughly disguised. At a lonely spot this man suddenly shouted an alarm that the robbers were upon them. A shot was fired from beside the trail, and the men inside the coach instantly discharged their guns toward the supposed ambush. Immediately a regular volley was poured in from the opposite side; four of the passengers fell dead, another was severely wounded. Two men saved their lives; one feigning death in the bottom of the coach, the other escaping into the brush. The robbers secured over $70,000, and it was later discovered that the driver, Williams, was an accomplice, and received his share. He was tracked to Denver, and hanged with very little ceremony.

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