Mak­ing tracks An­i­mals along the Santa Fe Trail

An­i­mals along the Santa Fe Trail

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - For The New Mex­i­can Casey Sanchez con­tin­ued on Page 38

IN the 19th cen­tury, the noisy din of the Santa Fe Trail ex­tended far be­yond wagon wheels and clomp­ing oxen. Gun­fire and hiss­ing snakes could be heard through­out the day as men aimed their ri­fles at an un­end­ing ar­ray of rat­tlers that roamed the wagon route from Mis­souri to New Mex­ico. “Hun­dreds at least were coiled or crawl­ing in ev­ery di­rec­tion. They were no sooner dis­cov­ered than we were upon them with guns and pis­tols, de­ter­mined to let none of them es­cape,” writes Josiah Gregg, a famed mer­chant, nat­u­ral­ist, and ex­plorer who spent much of the 1830s travers­ing the route and later pub­lish­ing his ac­counts in an 1884 trea­tise, Com­merce of the Prairies.

In his book, Gregg re­counts that on one oc­ca­sion, a bar­rage of pis­tol fire aimed at rat­tlesnakes spooked a wild young mus­tang out of the brush. The feral horse broke into the wagon line, spurring a vi­o­lent fight be­tween mules that only came to an end with the colt’s killing. Writ­ing with the re­straint of the Vic­to­rian era, Gregg de­scribed the deadly fra­cas as a “cap­i­tal scene of con­fu­sion.”

Not ev­ery day was so event­ful. But the in­ci­dent re­veals just how tightly an­i­mal lives, both wild and do­mes­ti­cated, were bound up with hu­man ones on the Santa Fe Trail. Awe-filled anec­dotes in­volv­ing an­te­lope, buf­falo, prairie dogs, wolves, coy­otes,

road­run­ners, and griz­zlies filled the let­ters and jour­nals of these set­tlers, who along­side Plains In­di­ans were the last peo­ple to see these grace­ful beasts in such vast num­bers be­fore Amer­i­can ex­pan­sion would dec­i­mate their pop­u­la­tion.

“In their let­ters and jour­nals, they talked about an­i­mals,” said au­thor Phyl­lis Mor­gan in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. “They wanted to help their fam­i­lies back home un­der­stand what re­ally thrilling things they were see­ing.”

Mor­gan’s book As Far As the Eye Could Reach: Ac­counts of An­i­mals Along the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880 (Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press) is a se­ries of 13 es­says that plucks col­or­ful en­coun­ters with an­i­mals from trav­el­ers’ ac­counts of the Santa Fe Trail, plac­ing each crea­ture in con­text with re­search from his­to­ri­ans, bi­ol­o­gists, and an­thro­pol­o­gists. If there’s any prece­dent for her book, it would be Gregg’s 1844 travel jour­nal, which de­votes sev­eral chap­ters to ex­plor­ing anec­dotes and the habits of crea­tures en­coun­tered dur­ing his decade on the trail.

Built from ex­ist­ing routes used by Na­tive Amer­i­cans and French and Span­ish ex­plor­ers, the 900-mile-long Santa Fe Trail served Amer­i­can wagon trains un­til the rail­road reached Santa Fe in 1880. Over a tur­bu­lent 60 years, the Santa Fe Trail rad­i­cally al­tered the land­scape, in­tro­duc­ing tens of thou­sands of set­tlers to the West, spurring dis­as­trous wars of con­quest on In­dian land and vastly re­duc­ing the ter­ri­tory and pop­u­la­tion of wildlife.

Mor­gan, who lives in Al­bu­querque, served as New Mex­ico di­rec­tor of the board of the na­tional Santa Fe Trail As­so­ci­a­tion from 2007 to 2011. Her in­ter­est in the trail be­gan in the late 1990s, when over a se­ries of years, she and other mem­bers of the as­so­ci­a­tion be­gan hik­ing por­tions of the 875-mile Ci­mar­ron Route branch of the trail, which runs from Mis­souri to Santa Fe. She even­tu­ally com­pleted the en­tire pas­sage by 2004. “It was one of the most ex­cit­ing high­lights of my life,” Mor­gan said. “It was what got me started on writ­ing this book.” Her in­ter­est in an­i­mals is also a nat­u­ral out­growth of her up­bring­ing on a Mid­west­ern farm, where her fam­ily raised cows, sheep, and chick­ens. “Since I was a child, I had to be fully em­ployed, so to speak, car­ing for an­i­mals.”

Cap­ti­vated by the sights and lore, she be­gan read­ing his­tor­i­cal ac­counts of the trail, not­ing how of­ten ac­counts of wildlife and live­stock ap­peared in these early mem­oirs. Sens­ing a gap in the lit­er­a­ture, she be­gan her own re­search project, pub­lish­ing

An­i­mals along the Santa Fe Trail,

“Pronghorn on the Santa Fe Trail” in 2002, the first of 12 an­i­mal es­says that would ap­pear in Wagon Tracks, the his­tor­i­cal jour­nal of the Santa Fe Trail As­so­ci­a­tion.

As a for­mer li­brar­ian, Mor­gan was trained to sift through a sea of pri­mary doc­u­ments; she even com­piled her own in­dex for As Far As the

Eye Could Reach. Her pre­vi­ous books, all pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press, are hy­brid bio-bib­li­ogra­phies of well-known New Mex­ico writ­ers, in­clud­ing Marc Sim­mons of New Mex­ico: Mav­er­ick His­to­rian (2005); Fray Angélico Chávez: A Bi­b­li­og­ra­phy of Pub­lished Works (2010); N. Scott Mo­ma­day: Re­mem­ber­ing An­ces­tors, Earth, and Tra­di­tions (2010); and A Sense of Place: Ru­dolfo A. Anaya (2000), which she co-au­thored with Ce­sar Gon­za­lez-T.

Un­like other trails of Western ex­pan­sion fer­ry­ing im­mi­grants and set­tlers (the Ore­gon, Mor­mon, and Cal­i­for­nia Trails), the Santa Fe Trail served largely as “a high­way of com­merce,” trans­port­ing traders and freighters who re­turned each sum­mer. Some of the an­i­mal ac­counts Mor­gan cites were put down not by trav­el­ers but by op­er­a­tors of rest-stop ranches. Strate­gi­cally lo­cated at spots along the trail, they were es­sen­tially the West’s first road­side con­ve­nience stores, pro­vid­ing wa­ter­ing troughs for live­stock and hot meals for trav­ellers.

One is struck by how phys­i­cally close to trav­eler car­a­vans wildlife lin­gered. As Far As the Eye Could Reach re­veals that por­tions of the trail were built on the paths worn by buf­falo herds; an­te­lope hid in the prairie grass; wild mus­tangs lured loose trail horses away from their own­ers; and even wolves and coy­otes would fol­low the car­a­van, care­ful to ob­serve the hub­bub of new­com­ers just out of ri­fle range.

Mus­tangs in par­tic­u­lar were both at­trac­tive and trou­ble­some to traders. If cap­tured and bro­ken, they could serve as fresh pack an­i­mals with hardy con­sti­tu­tions that could stand up to the rig­ors of trail life. The de­mand­ing work of track­ing and train­ing wild mus­tangs put Amer­i­cans in touch with Mex­i­can and Na­tive Amer­i­can horse­men, who were highly skilled at these op­er­a­tions. Mex­i­can cow­boys were hired on trail ex­cur­sions for their lasso skills, which al­lowed them to ap­pre­hend run­away horses that had been spooked by mus­tangs. Na­tive Amer­i­can horse­men were im­pres­sive at track­ing down wild mus­tangs, scat­ter­ing the herd and cap­tur­ing in­di­vid­ual horses us­ing noth­ing more than looped rope at­tached to the end of a long pole.

Above all, nearly ev­ery es­say in As Far As the Eye Could Reach is in­formed by a sense of loss — the reader knows that the abun­dant wildlife de­scribed in dusty pages of the jour­nals is soon to be largely wiped out by wan­ton sport hunts and habi­tat loss. “Back then, the plains and prairies were not de­void of an­i­mals like they are to­day,” said Mor­gan. “They were teem­ing with wildlife.”

“As Far As the Eye Could Reach: Ac­counts of An­i­mals Along the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880” by Phyl­lis S. Mor­gan is avail­able from Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press.

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