Incidents on the Santa Fe Trail

By Colonel Henry Inman in 1897

Wagon Mound, New Mexico, by Kathy Alexander.

Wagon Mound, New Mexico, by Kathy Alexander.

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 in 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. In the summer, he left Taos, where he resided, with his caravan loaded with furs and pelts destined for Westport Landing, Missouri, to be forwarded to St. Louis, the only market for furs in the far West. His train was small, 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 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 on the warpath, there was ever the vastly greater number of restless young warriors who had not yet earned their eagle feathers, who their chiefs could not control, 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 a 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 accurate, although he knew them well. However, he invited the headmen to some refreshment, as was usual on such occasions in those days, throwing a blanket on the ground, on which much sugar was served.

Westport Landing, Missouri by William Henry Jackson

Westport Landing, Missouri, by William Henry Jackson

The sweet-toothed warriors helped themselves liberally and were incredibly delighted at how they were being treated. Still, 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 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 hopeless! Nothing but a desperate action could avail, and maybe not even that.

After the other headmen had finished eating, Hatcher 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, leaning against the wheel resting on his blanket, with Hatcher next to 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 sheath and thrust it at the throat of the chief. All this was done instantly, 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 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 to 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 possible and get inside themselves. This was promptly obeyed, and when they were all under 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 by Kathy Alexander.

Fort Union, New Mexico, by Kathy Alexander.

Some laughable incidents have enlivened the generally gory history of the Old Santa Trail. Still, they were earnest 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. After carefully inspecting the whole region and understanding how the stock belonging to the fort was herded, they secreted themselves in the Turkey Mountains overlooking the entire reservation. They wait for several days, watching for a favorable moment to raid 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 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 triumph, and directing the most obscene and insulting gestures to the soldiers that were after them.

While this exciting contest for mastery was going on, an old Apache chief dashed in the rear of the bold bugler boy and could, without a doubt, easily have killed the little fellow. However, instead of doing this, his natural blood-thirsty instinct was changed from some idea of a good joke or some other incomprehensible reason. 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.

Pike's Peak Express at Leavenworth, Kansas

Pike’s Peak Express at Leavenworth, Kansas

In August 1867, I rode in the overland coach from Fort Larned, Kansas, to Fort Union, New Mexico. I had one of my clerks with me; we were the only passengers and arrived at Fort Dodge, Kansas, which was the commencement of the “long route” at midnight. There we changed drivers, and at the break of day were some 24 miles on our lonely journey. The coach rattled along at a breakneck gait, and I saw something was evidently wrong. Looking out of one of the doors, I noticed that our Jehu (stage driver) was intoxicated. It was a most dangerous portion of the Trail; the Indians were not in the best humor, and an attack was not improbable before we arrived at the next station, Fort Lyon, Colorado.

I told my clerk that something must be done, so I ordered the driver to halt, which he did willingly, got out, and found that he was very pleasant and disposed to be full of fun, notwithstanding his drunken mood. I suggested that he get inside the coach and lie down to sleep off his potations, to which he readily assented, while I and my clerk, after snugly fixing him on the cushions, got on the boot, took the lines, he seizing an old trace-chain, with which he pounded the mules along; for we felt ourselves in a precarious predicament should we come across any of the brigands of the plains, on that lonely route, with the animals to look out for, and only two of us to do the fighting. Suddenly we saw, sitting on the bank of the Arkansas River, about a dozen rods from the Trail, an antiquated-looking Indian with his war bonnet on, armed with a long lance and bow and arrows. We did not care a cent for him. Still, I thought he might be one of the tribe’s runners, lying in wait to discover the condition of the coach— whether it had an escort, how many were riding in it, and that then he would go and tell how ridiculously small the outfit was, and swoop down on us with a band of his colleagues, that were hidden somewhere in the sandhills south of the river. He rose as we came near and made the sign after he had given vent to a series of “How’s!” that he wanted to talk. Still, we were not anxious for any general conversation with his Indian majesty just then, so my clerk applied the trace chain more vigorously to the tired mules to get as many miles between him and the coach as we could before he could get over into the sandhills and back. It was, fortunately, a false alarm; the old warrior perhaps had no intention of disturbing us. We arrived at Fort Lyon in good season, with our courageous driver sobered, requesting me to say nothing about his accident, which, of course, I did not.

Overland Caravan

Overland Caravan

As has been stated, the caravans bound for Santa Fe and the various forts along the line of the Old Trail did not leave the eastern end of the route until the grass on the plains, on which the animals depended solely for subsistence the whole way, grew sufficiently to sustain them, which was usually about the middle of May. But a great many years ago, one of the high officials of the quartermaster’s department at Washington, who had never been for a moment on duty on the frontier in his life, found a good deal of fault with what he thought the dilatoriness of the officer in charge at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas who controlled the question of transportation for the several forts scattered all over the West, for not getting the freight caravans started earlier, which the functionary at the capitol said must and should be done. He insisted they must leave the Missouri River by the middle of April, a month earlier than usual, and came out himself to superintend the matter. He made the contracts accordingly, quickly finding contractors that suited him. He then wrote to headquarters triumphantly that he had revolutionized the whole system of army transportation of supplies to the military posts. Delighted with his success, he rode out about the second week of May to Salt Creek, only three miles from the fort, and, very much to his astonishment, found his teams, which he had believed to be on the way to Santa Fe a month ago, snugly encamped. They had “started,” just as was agreed.

There are, or instead were, hundreds of stories of stage-coach adventures on the Trail; a volume could be filled with them, but I must confine myself to a few. John Chisholm was a famous ranchman long ago who had so many cattle that it was said he did not know their number. At one time, he had a large contract to furnish beef to an Indian agency in Arizona; he had just delivered an immense herd there and very wisely, after receiving his cash for them, sent most of it on to Santa Fe in advance of his journey. When he arrived there, he started for the Missouri River with $1000 and sufficient small change to meet his current expenses on the road. The first night out from Santa Fe, the coach was halted by a band of men watching Chisholm’s movements from the time he left the agency in Arizona. The instant the stage came to a standstill, Chisholm divined what it meant and had time to thrust a roll of money down one of the legs of his trousers before the door was thrown back, and he was ordered to fork over what he had. He invited the robbers to search him and take what they might find but said he was not financially able to turn over much. The thieves found his watch, took that, and then began to search him. As luck would have it, they entirely missed the roll that was down his leg and discovered but a two-dollar bill in his vest. When he told them it was all he had to buy grub on the road, one of the robbers handed him a silver dollar, remarking as he did so: “That a man who was mean enough to travel with only two dollars ought to starve, but he would give him the dollar just to let him know that he was dealing with gentlemen!”

Fort Larned Parade Grounds by Kathy Alexander.

Fort Larned Parade Grounds by Kathy Alexander.

One of the essentials to the comfort of the average soldier is tobacco. He must have it; he would sooner forego any component of his ration than give it up. In November 1865, a detachment of Company L, of the Eleventh Kansas Volunteers, and the Second Colorado were ordered from Fort Larned, Kansas, to Fort Lyon, Colorado, on a scouting expedition along the line of the Trail; the Indians have been very active in their raids on the freight caravans. In a short time, their tobacco began to run low, and as there was no settlement between the two military posts, there was no chance to replenish their stock. One night, while encamped on the Arkansas River, the only piece left in the whole command, about half a plug, was unfortunately lost, and there was dismay in the camp when the fact was announced. Hours were spent searching for the missing treasure. The following day the march was delayed while all hands instituted a further diligent search. Still, without result, the command set out on its weary tramp, as disconsolate as may well be imagined by those who are victims to the habit of chewing the weed. Arriving at Fort Lyon, to their greater discomfort, it was learned that the sutler at that post was entirely out of the coveted article, and the troops began their return journey more disconsolate than ever. Dry leaves, grass, and even small bits of twigs were chewed as a substitute until, reaching the spot where they had lost the part of a plug, they determined to remain there that night and begin a more vigorous hunt for the missing piece. Just before dark, their efforts were rewarded; one of the men found it, and such a scramble occurred for even the smallest nibble at it! Enormous prices were given for a single chew. It opened at one dollar for a mere sliver, rose to five, and closed at ten dollars when the last morsel was left.


The End of the Santa Fe Trail by Gerald Cassidy, about 1910

The End of the Santa Fe Trail by Gerald Cassidy, about 1910

By Colonel Henry Inman, 1897. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated April 2023.

About the Author: Excerpted from the book, The Old Santa Fe Trail by Colonel Henry Inman, 1897. Note: The text is not verbatim, as minor edits have been made throughout the tale. Henry Inman was well known as an officer in the U.S. Army and an author dealing with subjects of the Western plains. During the Civil War, Inman was a Lieutenant Colonel, and afterward, he won distinction as a magazine writer. He wrote several books, including his Old Santa Fe Trail, Great Salt Lake Trail, The Ranch on the Ox-hide, and other similar books dealing with the subjects he knew so well. Colonel Inman left several unfinished manuscripts at his death in Topeka, Kansas, on November 13, 1899.

Also See:

Early Traders on the Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail Slideshow

Santa Fe Trail – Highway to the Southwest

Pathways To the West