Making tracks Animals along the Santa Fe Trail
Animals along the Santa Fe Trail
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.