At La Junta, NM (now Watrous,) the wagon trains could choose between two different routes of the Santa Fe Trail on their voyage northeast to Missouri. The Mountain Branch and the Cimarron Cutoff. The Mountain Branch was longer but offered plenty of sources of water and safer passage from potential indian attacks. The Cimarron Cutoff Branch (the original route taken by the first traders to travel the Santa Fe Trail,) was more direct but had less reliable water and, during times of indian troubles, was more vulnerable. It crossed the plains (rather than skirting the base of the mountains) and so traversed very flat and open ground. Any kind of rock formation, hill or mountain would have been visible from miles away and so many of these became critical navigation markers for those traveling the trail. Although my novel "Into the Shadowlands" takes place along the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, I was very excited to visit many of the major landmarks of the Cimarron Cutoff Branch this spring with my horse Fancy and my wee dog Holly. Since I have yet to complete my 'Mountain Branch version of the trail' (I hope to ride the Raton Pass this fall,) I will start by following the Cimarron Cutoff for this chapter of my blog. The next stop (and navigation landmark) for those traveling the Cimarron Cutoff trail after leaving La Junta would have been Wagon Mound. Early travelers of the trail thought it resembled a covered wagon pulled by oxen (from a distance and in profile!) and so that is how it got its name. Near its base there was a spring and so this was an ideal rest stop for caravans although the surrounding buttes and hills also made it an ideal spot for ambush. In 1850, a party of mail carriers were ambushed a half a mile from the foot of Wagon Mound. The mail wagon, traveling to Santa Fe from Fort Leavenworth, had been accompanied by ten men when it was attacked in the early hours by a large band of Jicarilla Apache and Ute Indians. All members of the group were killed by arrows. Their bodies were discovered by a party of traders who passed by the Wagon Mound a few days later on their way north but they turned back to Las Vegas to report the grisly scene. A military detachment was immediately sent to investigate, led by a Lt. Ambrose E. Burnside. When the soldiers reached the spot, they found the wagon surrounded by the bodies of dead men, horses and mules as well as indian arrows and mail sacks ripped open with their contents strewn around the prairie. Some pieces of mail had been impaled on the spikes of Yucca plants. This attack, amongst others, led to the construction of Fort Union, 8 miles northwest of Watrous (La Junta,) which is just twenty miles south of Wagon Mound, in 1851. The Wagon Mound was also where the daughter of an Apache chief, Lobo Blanco, was killed. She had been captured in a skirmish between U.S. troops and Apache Indians on the outskirts of Las Vegas in 1849. When the military had taken her to Wagon Mound, where they demanded she point out the location of the Apache camp, the girl had tried to escape. She was shot by her captors and this event contributed to triggering an uptick in violence and attacks along the trail, including the infamous attack of the White family at "Point of Rocks."
My dog Holly, Fancy and me on a mesa at Watrous (La Junta.) Behind us you can see the profile of Wagon Mound 20 miles to the northeast.
Fancy and I at the base of Wagon Mound on the Cimarron Cutoff branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
Wagon Mound as seen from the north.
After Wagon Mound, wagon trains would have headed northeast across the open plains towards a landmark known as "Point of Rocks," a large mesa that jutted out onto the plains. Along their way they would have had to cross the Canadian River. A stretch along the river that offered a natural rocky bottom became know as the Canadian Crossing (El Vado de las Piedras.) There are many references to "Point of Rocks" in the journals and memoirs of folks who traveled the Santa Fe Trail. It was not only a vital navigation landmark but was also a popular camping site. In October 1849, James M. White, his wife Anne, their baby daughter and a black female servant, plus a handful of other men were attacked by Jicarilla Apaches as they camped near "Point of Rocks." All of the men were killed immediately but Anne White and her baby and the servant girl were captured and taken away. The story of these captives is a tragic one which I will only summarize here. When word of their capture reached Las Vegas, a search party was quickly formed. One of the party who went on the rescue mission was Kit Carson, who joined a company of dragoons led by Maj. William N. Grier. After reaching the massacre site, they trailed the indians east for 10-12 days. Eventually, after tracking the indians through occasional snow, the soldiers caught up with the Jicarillas but alas, not in time to save Anne White. Well, they were in time but Anne was killed just before her liberators could save her. The opportunity for a stealth attack was unfortunately lost (much to Kit Carson's disgust) and once the presence of the rescue party was detected, the indians killed Anne before she could be saved. Her body was found, still warm, with an arrow in her heart. Nothing was discovered of her baby or the black servant girl. To those in the rescue party, Anne's death was probably a blessing. Her condition was grim and signs of trauma, starvation and disease were all about her body. That said, it sounded like she had held out hope for rescue. Some accounts have it that Anne had left clues for the trackers to follow. It seemed that Anne had even tried to escape when she realized that rescue was so close at hand. She may have even guessed (or hoped) that it was Kit Carson who was part of the party. As the story goes, near Anne's body was found a small book about the legendary mountain man and soldier. Kit Carson was famous in his own day and many a pulp novel had been written about his exploits (fact and fiction) which were very popular in the East. Anne had evidently read about this famous New Mexico citizen and perhaps even hoped that this heroic figure was somewhere out there, coming to her rescue.... which he was.
Thanks to the kindness of Faye Gaines, the owner of the "Point of Rocks Ranch," I was lucky enough to be able to ride my horse Fancy around the "Point of Rocks" landmark. I could truly feel what it must have been like to be camped out there on the trail with vast, open views of the plains and mountains rolling out in every direction.
Fancy and I in front of "Point of Rocks." Sadly this camera angle really dwarfs the rock formation, which actually towers above us.
My dog Holly, me and Fancy up in "Point of Rocks." Behind us you can see the flat open plains disappear into the horizon.
A lone grave marker of a long ago trail traveler stands in solitary memory of all those trail travelers who passed by this spot.
Wagon ruts near "Point of Rocks."
Antelope stand in front of the 'mirage' of "Point of Rocks," as seen from the northeast. Mirages were a very common phenomenon along the trail and many travelers made mention of them in their journals and memoirs.
I would like to say here that these stories of indian 'depredations' and attacks are very one-sided. Most of history is recorded by the white travelers of the trail and so it is told from their perspective. Violence was committed by both sides and, in truth, as we all know, more harm was done to the indians and their culture and their way of life by white man than was ever done to the masses of white settlers and traders who trespassed on and eventually seized their native lands.
STAY TUNED FOR MORE OF FANCY'S, HOLLY'S AND MY ADVENTURES ALONG THE TRAIL.