Indian Terrors on the Santa Fe Trail


By Colonel Henry Inman in 1897


Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

Almost immediately after the ratification of the purchase of New Mexico by the United States under the stipulations of the “Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty,” the Ute, one of the most powerful tribes of mountain Indians, inaugurated a bloody and relentless war against white settlers in the Territory. It continued for several years with more or less severity; its record a chapter of history whose pages are deluged with blood, until finally the Indians were subdued by the power of the military.

Along the line of the Santa Fe Trail, they were frequently in conjunction with the Apache, and their depredations and atrocities were numerous as they fearlessly attacked freight caravans, private expeditions, and overland stagecoaches, robbing and murdering indiscriminately.

In January 1847, the mail and passenger stage left Independence, Missouri, for Santa Fe on one of its regular trips across the plains. It had its full complement of passengers, among whom were Mr. White, hiw wife, a small child, and a colored nurse.

Day after day the lumbering Concord coach rolled on, with nothing to disturb the monotony of the vast prairies, until it had left them far behind and crossed the range into New Mexico. Just about dawn, as the unsuspecting travelers were entering the canyon of the Canadian River and probably waking up from their long night’s sleep, a band of Indians, with blood-curdling yells and their terrific war-whoop, rode down upon them.

Stagecoach attacked by Indians, Daniel Cavaliere

Stagecoach attacked by Indians, Daniel Cavaliere

In that lonely and rock-sheltered gorge, a party of the hostile Indians, led by “White Wolf,” a chief of the Apache, had been awaiting the arrival of the coach from the East; the very hour it was due was well known to them, and they had secreted themselves there the night before so as to be on hand should it reach their chosen ambush a little before the scheduled time.

Out dashed the Indians, gorgeous in their feathered war-bonnets, but looking like friends with their paint-bedaubed faces. Stopping the frightened mules, they pulled open the doors of the coach and, mercilessly dragging its helpless and surprised passengers to the ground, immediately began their butchery. They scalped and mutilated the dead bodies of their victims, not a single individual escaping, apparently, to tell of their fiendish acts.

If the Indians had been possessed of sufficient cunning to cover up the tracks of their horrible atrocities, as probably white robbers would have done, by dragging the coach from the road and destroying it by fire or other means, the story of the murders committed in the deep canyon might never have been known; but, they left the tell-tale remains of the dismantled vehicle just where they had attacked it, and the naked corpses of its passengers where they had been ruthlessly killed.

Canadian River Breaks near Nara Visa, New Mexico

Canadian River Breaks near Nara Visa, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

At the next stage station the employees were anxiously waiting for the arrival of the coach, and wondering what could have caused the delay; for it was due there at noon on the day of the massacre. Hour after hour passed, and at last, they began to suspect that something serious had occurred; they sat up all through the night listening for the familiar rumbling of wheels, but still no stage. At daylight next morning, determined to wait no longer, as they felt satisfied that something out of the usual course had happened, a party hurriedly mounted their horses and rode down the broad trail leading to the canyon.

Upon entering its gloomy mouth after a quick lope of an hour, they discovered the ghastly remains of twelve mutilated bodies. These were gathered up and buried in one grave, on the top of the bluff overlooking the narrow gorge.

They could not be sure of the number of passengers the coach had brought until the arrival of the next, as it would have a list of those carried by its predecessor; but, it would not be due for several days. They naturally supposed, however, that the twelve dead lying on the ground were its full complement.

Not waiting for the arrival of the next stage, they dispatched a messenger to the last station east of where the passengers were murdered, and there, learned the exact number of passengers it had contained. Now they knew that Mrs. White, her child, and the colored nurse had been carried off into a captivity worse than death; for no remains of a woman were found with the others lying in the canyon.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson

The terrible news of the massacre was conveyed to Taos, New Mexico, where were stationed several companies of the Second United States Dragoons, commanded by Major William Greer; but as the weather had grown intensely cold and stormy since the date of the massacre, it took nearly a fortnight for the terrible story to reach there. The Major acted promptly when appealed to, to go after and punish the Indians concerned in the outrage, but several days more were lost in getting an expedition ready for the field. It was still stormy while the command was preparing for its work; but, at last, one bright morning, in a piercing cold wind, five troops of the dragoons, commanded by Major Greer in person, left their comfortable quarters to attempt the rescue of Mrs. White, her child, and nurse.

Richens "Uncle Dick" Wooten

Richens “Uncle Dick” Wooten

Kit Carson, “Uncle Dick” Wootton, Joaquin Leroux, and Tom Tobin were the principal scouts and guides accompanying the expedition, having volunteered their services to Major Greer, which he had gladly accepted.

The massacre had occurred three weeks before the command had arrived at the canyon of the Canadian River, and snow having fallen almost continuously ever since, the ground was deeply covered, making it almost impossible to find the trail of the Indians leading out of the gorge. No one knew where they had established their winter camp — probably hundreds of miles distant on some tributary of the Canadian far to the south.

Carson, Wootton, and Leroux, after scanning the ground carefully at every point, though the snow was ten inches deep, in a way of which only men versed in savage lore are capable, were rewarded by discovering certain signs, unintelligible to the ordinary individual — that the murderers had gone south out of the canyon immediately after completing their bloody work, and that their camp was somewhere on the river, but how far off none could tell.

The command followed up the trail discovered by the scouts for nearly 400 miles. Early one morning when that distance had been rounded, and just as the men were about to break camp preparatory to the day’s march, Kit Carson went out on a little reconnaissance on his own account, as he had noticed a flock of ravens hovering in the air when he first got out of his blankets at dawn. This was sufficient indication to him that an Indian camp was located somewhere in the vicinity; for that ominous bird was always to be found in the region where the Indians took up an abode, feeding upon the carcasses of the many varieties of game killed for food. He had not proceeded more than half a mile from the camp when he discovered two Indians slowly riding over a low “divide,” driving a herd of ponies before them. The famous scout was then certain their village could not be very far away. The Indians did not observe him, as he took good care they should not; so he returned quickly to where Major Greer was standing by his camp-fire and reported the presence of a village very close at hand.

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