Heroes of the Old Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail Caravan

Santa Fe Trail Caravan

Another notable character was John Smith, known as “Uncle John,” an old trapper and guide, who figured a great deal in frontier history. He had a remarkable experience if only the truth were told, but as the old gentleman got along in years, his imagination became more fertile and his tongue looser, and he spent most of his time in drawing long yarns for the benefit of “tender-feet.” He was a perfect guide, and an excellent hunter; he was acquainted with every fort of the west, and, as he used to say, had drunk out of every spring from the mouth of the Yellowstone to the Red River of the South. One of his characteristics, as described in Colonel Inman’s charming stories, was never to eat quail, and thereby hung a story. The old man was on the plains at one time, with some of his companions, and was about to shoot at a buffalo, when a little quail lit on the barrel of his gun and obstructed his sight. He shook it off, but it returned again. Just at that moment, the party was attacked by the Indians, and the fact that he had a load in his gun saved his life. He always believed that the interference of that quail with his buffalo shooting was a special interposition of Providence.

Some of the eyes that cross these pages perhaps have seen an Indian romance of a wild and gory character called “The Wild Huntress of the Plains,” or by a name akin to that, and read the story without suspecting that it was founded upon fact. It is true that there used to be a wild woman roaming over the plains of Kansas, riding the most intractable of mustangs, and carrying danger wherever she went. Her eye was black and wild and glittered like that of a snake, and her long, uncombed hair, which the wind had tangled, floated out behind her as she rode, like a cluster of writhing vipers. She lived in an old dug-out and ate herbs and roots and the meat of buffalo she killed. The Indians feared her, as they had a superstitious terror of all insane persons, and her presence in the neighborhood of one of their villages was a sufficient reason for immediate and hasty removal. She was known as Crazy Ann and was formerly the wife of a railroad contractor by the name of Peters, who was killed in the most brutal manner by the Indians before her very eyes. She became a maniac, and for several years roamed on the prairies unrestrained, but was finally taken to an insane asylum, where she died.

While the railroad was pushing out in the early days, Newton, Kansas was a pretty hard town, and its inhabitants were very different from the pious Mennonites who later lived there. Always, there was one or more mysterious individuals in these frontier pandemoniums, who somehow preserved their secrets and still retained the regard, if not the respect, of the community. The mystery of Newton was an old man, dwarfish in stature, and deformed, who kept a saloon and gambling house. He had a wonderfully intelligent face, quick, shrewd eyes, and had only two apparent objects in life. One was to accumulate money, for he was a perfect miser, and a handyman at all games of cards; and the other a watchful and tender solicitude for the welfare of his daughter, the only being for whom he ever showed any respect or affection. She was a beautiful girl, bright, intelligent, and apparently loved the crooked old miser.” He was educated, and taught her from books, in a building half tent and half shanty, that stood behind his gambling house. She did the cooking and was seldom seen except when he was with her. Every luxury that could be secured on the inhospitable frontier was seized for the girl by the old man, and the only money he was ever known to expend from the large quantities he gathered in, was for her benefit.

The story went that she was his only child and that he had come west to make a fortune, in order that when she grew to womanhood she might live like a lady in the States. Nobody knew where he came from, although he had for several years driven a team and handled some goods of his own on the Santa Fe Trail, nor did anyone know his name. He carried a nickname, as every other man of consequence in the community did, and it was derived from his peculiar habitual expression, “Jes-so.” To every remark that was addressed him, to every assertion that was made in his presence, be it a matter of dinner or death, he had only one reply, and that was: “Jes-so.”

The girl was about 17 and was so carefully guarded that she was discontented and used to have sly flirtations with cowboys and other hangers-on at the camp, which would have ended in murder had the old man discovered them. While he was at the card table, she was chatting at the rear of her tent with one of her many lovers. And one night she eloped!

The old man used to gamble all night and sleep all day, and when he awoke one afternoon from his slumbers, he detected her absence. A cowboy named “Bunny” was also missing, and the old man, by making inquiries, discovered that they had been seen together during the previous evening. He remarked “Jes-so,” as usual, but he crawled through the town like a wild-cat, and borrowing a horse, buckled his revolver belt around him, and started across the prairie toward the ranch where “Bunny” was employed.

The next day he returned to Newton, said “Jes-so,” as usual, but sold out his traps, and disappeared forever.

Two days later, travelers along the road reported that they had found, in an abandoned mud-hut near the river, two corpses, those of a beautiful girl and a stalwart young man. They were on their knees, their right hands were clasped, and a catholic prayerbook, covered with blood, lay on the floor beside them. The old man had discovered the betrayal of his daughter by “Bunny,” had married them, according to the catholic formula, himself, and then shot them both through the heart.

General Custer’s chief scout during the Indian war of 1867 was Will Comstock, one of the most remarkable of the many remarkable men who have filled the atmosphere of the frontier with stories of daring. Custer said of him: “No Indian knew the country more thoroughly than he; perfect in horsemanship; fearless in manner; a splendid hunter; and a gentleman by instinct, as modest and unassuming as he was brave, he was an interesting, as well as a valuable, companion.”

From the sole of his slender foot to the locks of his raven hair, he was a perfect scout and a sleuthhound on an Indian trail. His complexion was very dark, and he was said to be the son of a Delaware Indian woman by a white trapper, but no one ever actually knew his ancestry, or where he came from. He was unpretending and seclusive, but his exploits would fill a volume. Always superstitious, by virtue of his mother’s blood, there seemed to be a cloud hanging over his life which made him avoid the haunts of men and seek his own companionship. He never had a “partner,” as most scouts do, and when he undertook his perilous missions, he always went alone.

He died a victim of the treachery of the Indians. He had been dispatched by General Philip Sheridan to an Indian village to invite the chiefs to a council, and some of them started to return with him. After they had ridden a few miles together, and he was thrown off his guard, an Indian behind him leveled his gun and shot Comstock through the back, killing him instantly. Some of the chiefs who were in the party, months afterward told the circumstances of his death and explained that the treacherous deed was done, not with their consent or expectation, but by this Indian of his own motive, to revenge the death of his father, whom Comstock had killed.

Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok

A conspicuous figure upon the plains for many years after the Civil War was the notorious William Hickok, or, as he was more generally known, “Wild Bill.” This individual was at one time not only a famous, but a worthy, character, as worthy as men of his class often are, but dissipation and gambling turned a skillful guide and a brave scout into a worthless desperado. As Ned Buntline, the prolific writer of border romance discovered “Buffalo Bill,” Colonel George Ward Nichols, a gallant soldier, and later the  esthetic manager of the Cincinnati College of Music discovered “Wild Bill.” During the war Colonel Nichols was in Missouri, in the army, attached to the headquarters of the commanding officer, and there he first became acquainted with the hero of so many bloody episodes, who was then a very brave, intelligent and valuable Union scout, more dreaded and feared by the rebels than any 40 men in the Union Army. Indeed, most of the early homicides on Bill’s long catalog were the result of attempts to entrap or betray him by the rebel sympathizers of Missouri. and officially, as the sheriff of the town of Abilene. During General Hancock’s campaign in 1867, he was the chief of scouts, and General Custer, in his description of the events of that summer, said of him:

“Hickok went into the army as a private in an Illinois regiment, and his home was in one of the small towns in the interior of the state. His regiment was sent to Missouri, where his remarkable nerve, his desperate recklessness, and general intelligence, soon attracted the attention of the commanding officer, who made use of him as a scout. He was afterward detailed from his company and attached to the headquarters of General Curtis in that capacity. His services are highly commended by his commander, and he performed such feats of daring and had such wonderful escapes as to make him the text of a great many interesting chapters of both history and romance. Colonel Nichols introduced him to the public in a sketch published in a widely circulated magazine near the close of the war, and it gave the scout great fame.”

Bill was a remarkable man in appearance as well as in experience. He was six feet two inches tall, slender, and as straight as an arrow. His face was small for so large a man, his profile regular, and he habitually wore a pleasant expression. Until the close of the war, when he went on the plains, he did not wear long hair, nor beaded buckskin garments, nor did he drink liquor or gamble,—those accomplishments he acquired after he became famous.

After “Wild Bill” went to Kansas, he fell into bad ways. He kept a saloon and a gambling house, and killed many men, both on his private account and officially, as the sheriff of the town of Abilene. during General Hancock’s campaign in 1867, he was the chief of scouts, and General Custer, in his description of the events of that summer, said of him:

“Whether on foot or horseback, he was one of the most perfect types of manhood I ever saw. His influence among frontiersmen was unbounded, and his word was law. Wild Bill is anything but a quarrelsome man, yet no one but himself can enumerate the many conflicts in which he has been engaged, and which have invariably resulted in the death of his adversary. I have personal knowledge of a dozen men he has killed, one of them being a member of my own command. Others have been severely wounded, but he always escaped unhurt. Yet in all the affairs of this kind in which Wild Bill has performed a part, there is not a single instance, in my knowledge, in which the verdict of 12 fair-minded men would not have been pronounced in his favor. That the even tenor of his way continues to be disturbed by little events of this character may be inferred from an item in the press, which states that ‘the funeral of Jim Bludso, who was killed the other day by Wild Bill, took place today.’ It then adds, ‘the funeral expenses were borne by Wild Bill.’ What could be more thoughtful than this? Not only to send a fellow mortal out of the world but to pay the expenses of his transit.”

Wild Bill finally became a refugee from justice, and after “removing” numerous sheriffs, detectives and other officers of the law was shot down like a dog, in Deadwood, several years ago, by a man whom he had tried to murder.

“Buffalo Bill,” before he left the plains for the “dramatic arena,” was also a frontier figure along the Santa Fe Trail, and was originally a protege of “Wild Bill,” serving under him as Deputy Sheriff at Abilene.

By William Eleroy Curtis, A Summer Scamper Along the Old Santa Fe Trail, and Through the Gorges of Colorado to Zion; Inter Ocean Publishing Company, 1883. Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.

Santa Fe Trail Map

Santa Fe Trail Map

Also See:

Santa Fe Trail – Highway to the Southwest

Incidents on the Trail

Early Traders on the Santa Fe Trail

Massacre at Nine Mile Ridge

 

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