Incidents on the Santa Fe Trail

 

By Colonel Henry Inman in 1897

Wagon Mound, New Mexico

Wagon Mound, New Mexico

The Wagon Mound, so called from its resemblance to a covered army wagon, is a rocky mesa 40 miles west of Point of Rocks. The stretch of the Trail from the latter to the mound has been the scene of several desperate encounters, only exceeded in number and sanguinary results by those which have occurred in the region of Pawnee Rock, the crossing of the Walnut, Pawnee fork and Cow Creek.

One of the most remarkable stories of Wagon Mound country dealt with the nerve and bravery exhibited by John L. Hatcher in defense of his life, and those of the men in his caravan, about 1858. Hatcher was a noted trader and merchant of New Mexico. He was also celebrated as an Indian fighter, and his name was a terror to the Indians who infested the settlements of New Mexico and raided the Santa Fe Trail. He left Taos, where he then resided, in the summer, with his caravan loaded with furs and pelts destined for Westport Landing, Missouri; to be forwarded from there to St. Louis, the only market for furs in the far West. His train was a small one, comprising about 15 wagons and handled by about as many men, including himself. At the date of his adventure, the Indians were believed to be at peace with everybody; a false idea, as Hatcher well knew, for there never was such a condition of affairs as absolute immunity from their attacks. While it might be true that the old men refrained for a time from starting out on the war-path, there were ever the vastly greater number of restless young warriors who had not yet earned their eagle feathers, who could not be controlled by their chiefs, and who were always engaged in marauding, either among the border settlements or along the line of the Trail. When Hatcher was approaching the immediate vicinity of Wagon Mound, with his train strung out in single column, to his great astonishment there suddenly charged on him from over the hill about 300 Indians, all feather-bedecked and painted in the highest style of Indian art. As they rode toward the caravan, they gave the sign of peace, which Hatcher accepted for the time as true, although he knew them well. However, he invited the head men to some refreshment, as was usual on such occasions in those days, throwing a blanket on the ground, on which sugar in abundance was served out.

The sweet-toothed warriors helped themselves liberally, and affected much delight at the way they were being treated; but Hatcher, with his knowledge of the Indian character, was firm in the belief that they came for no other purpose than to rob the caravan and kill him and his men. They were Comanche, and one of the most noted chiefs of the tribe was in command of the band, with some inferior chiefs under him. I think it was Old Wolf, a very old man then, whose raids into Texas had made his name a terror to the Mexicans living on the border. While the chiefs were eating their saccharine lunch, Hatcher was losing no time in forming his wagons into a corral, but he told his friends afterward that he had no idea that either he or any of his men would escape; only 15 or 16 men against over 300 merciless Indians, and those the worst on the continent, and a small corral, — the chances were totally hopeless! Nothing but a desperate action could avail, and maybe not even that.

Hatcher, after the other headmen had finished eating, asked the old chief to send his young warriors away over the hill. They were all sitting close to one of the wagons, Old Wolf, in fact, leaning against the wheel resting on his blanket, with Hatcher next him on his right. Hatcher was so earnest in his appeal to have the young men sent away, that both the venerable villain and his other chiefs rose and were standing. Without a moment’s notice or the slightest warning, Hatcher reached with his left hand and grabbed Old Wolf by his scalp-lock, and with his right drew his butcher-knife from its scabbard and thrust it at the throat of the chief. All this was done in an instant, as quick as lightning; no one had time to move. The situation was remarkable. The little, wiry man, surrounded by eight or nine of the most renowned warriors of the dreaded Comanche, stood firm; everybody was breathless; not a word did the Indians say. Hatcher then said again to Old Wolf, in the most determined manner: “Send your young men over the hill at once, or I’ll kill you right where you are!” holding on to the hair of the Indian with his left hand and keeping the knife at his throat.

The other Indians did not dare to make a move; they knew what kind of a man Hatcher was; they knew he would do as he had said and that if they attempted a rescue he would kill their favorite chief in a second. Old Wolf shook his head defiantly in the negative. Hatcher repeated his order, getting madder all the time: “Send your young men over the hill, I tell you!” Old Wolf was still stubborn; he shook his head again. Hatcher gave him another chance: “Send your young men over the hill, I tell you, or I’ll scalp you alive as you are!” Again the chief shook his head. Then Hatcher, still holding on the hair of his stubborn victim, commenced to make an incision in the head of Old Wolf, for the determined man was bound to carry out his threat; but he began very slowly. As the chief felt the blood trickle down his forehead, he weakened. He ordered his next in command to send the young men over the hill and out of sight. The order was repeated immediately to the warriors, who were astonished spectators of the strange scene, and they quickly mounted their horses and rode away over the hill as fast as they could thump their animals’ sides with their legs, leaving only five or six chiefs with Old Wolf and Hatcher.

Hatcher held on like grim death to the old chief’s head, and immediately ordered his men to throw the robes out of the wagons as quickly as they could, and get inside themselves. This was promptly obeyed, and when they were all under the cover of the wagon sheets, Hatcher let go of his victim’s hair, and, with a last kick, told him and his friends that they could leave. They went off and did not return.

Fort Union, New Mexico

Fort Union, New Mexico

Some laughable incidents have enlivened the generally sanguinary history of the Old Santa Trail, but they were very serious at the time to those who were the actors, and their ludicrousness came after all was over. In the late summer of 1866, a thieving band of Apache came into the vicinity of Fort Union, New Mexico, and after carefully reconnoitering the whole region and getting at the manner in which the stock belonging to the fort was herded, they secreted themselves in the Turkey Mountains overlooking the entire reservation, and lay in wait for several days, watching for a favorable moment to make a raid into the valley and drive off the herd.

Selecting an occasion when the guard was weak and not very alert, they, in broad daylight, crawled under the cover of a hill, and, mounting their horses, dashed out with the most unearthly yells and down among the animals that were quietly grazing close to the fort, which terrified these so greatly that they broke away from the herders, and started at their best gait toward the mountains, closely followed by the Indians.

The astonished soldiers used every effort to avert the evident loss of their charge, and many shots were exchanged in the running fight that ensued, but the Indians were too strong for them, and they were forced to abandon the chase. Among the herders was a bugler boy, who was remarkable for his bravery in the skirmish and for his untiring endeavors to turn the animals back toward the fort, but all without avail; on they went, with the Indians, close to their heels, giving vent to the most vociferous shouts of exultation, and directing the most obscene and insulting gesticulations to the soldiers that were after them.

While this exciting contest for the mastery going on, an old Apache chief dashed in the rear of the bold bugler boy, and could, without doubt, easily have killed the little fellow; but instead of doing this, from some idea of a good joke, or for some other incomprehensible reason, his natural blood-thirsty instinct was changed, and he merely knocked the bugler’s hat from his head with the flat of his hand, and at the same time encouragingly stroked his hair, as much as to say: “You are a brave boy,” and then rode off without doing him any harm.

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