Santa Fe Trail map.

Santa Fe Trail map.
Map of the Santa Fe Trail.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Winter on the Santa Fe Trail.

Happy New Year everyone. I am going to take a brief pause in my "Into the Shadowlands" book tour blogs to contemplate winter on the Santa Fe Trail....

"With all our steady travel, we made no more than five or six miles, and encamped, as the sun was waning beyond the snowbanks ahead, sheltered in the rear by a sparse growth of stunted willows.
      We felt with our feet, on the river's edge, for pieces of wood, and, with numbed fingers, knocked the snow from them. These, with the aid of a few handfuls of dead willow twigs, served as fuel. Watering the animals through a hole in the ice-bound river, they were hobbled in a hollow and left exposed to the "storm's pitiless peltings," to eke a scanty meal from the weeds and stray blades of grass laid bare by the frame-pervading blasts.  We cut brush, and clearing a small space of the snow, laid our robes and blankets on the boughs, and sitting with crossed legs, stared at the flickering blaze rising through the still and piercing air, our pipes charged with fragrant "honeydew" or "single twist"; the holders every moment blowing out blue clouds of smoke, calculated at most any other time to sicken, but now not a bit too strong.  By turning our eyes to the darkness, we could see the dusky forms of our congregated caballada, with backs bowed and tails to the blast, too cold to paw for grass, now snorting as a hungry wolf crossed the wind, or feebly answering an inquiring whinney from a timid mule, scared at its own tramping in the dry, frosty snow."

Lewis H. Gerrard, "Wah-to-yah and The Taos Trail"

~From a wonderful memoir he wrote about crossing the Santa Fe Trail in 1846.

One of my mustangs, Solo, "with back bowed and tail to the blast."

    Over Christmas and New Year we had very cold temps and snow and it made me think of those Santa Fe Trail travelers a lot. With temps below freezing during the day and below zero (F) at night, I can't even imagine what that would have been like with just a wagon canvas to protect you from the elements and the wind chill (which I have known to be 30 below out here!! Other locals remember it when it was 50 below!) Especially on the open plain where the snow would be blowing sideways and drifting. Ugh! Most Santa Fe Trail travelers didn't cross the plains in winter, but for those who thought they could tempt the fates or who got caught in an early (or late) snowstorm, the losses were enormous. And, there was nobody coming to pull you out or rescue you either. No 911 calls!

"In 1844, Dr. H. Connelly and Mr. Spyre, as early in the season as the 12th of October, encountered a storm near the Arkansas River, in which a number of mules perished, and the remainder were only saved by running them into the timber on the river, a distance of some 15 miles. 
     The same party, a few days subsequently, met a second storm, on the Cimarron, in which they lost in one night over 300 mules, and were compelled to remain until mules were sent from Santa Fe to their relief."

The above is from a report on winter travel (along the trail) by James L. Collins in 1852. 

Like I said, I have known it be 30 below zero (F). Before I moved up to Watrous full time, I used to come up (from Cerrillos, just south of Santa Fe) every other day to check on my horses and spend the night in a tiny camper trailer I kept on the land. I did this winter and summer and I can remember several hair-raising trips up I-25 in blizzards, trying to get some hay to my horses. On one trip, I managed to get out onto the land (about 10 miles off the interstate - down dirt roads) and sighed a big breath of relief when I got the heater going in my trailer and settled in for the night. Just after sundown though, the heater sputtered out. Despite many tries to get it re-started, it just wouldn't fire up. I later learned that moisture had gotten into the regulator and frozen. It was a sinking and somewhat scary feeling. I knew it was forecast to be at least 20 below that night and it would be easy to freeze to death. Getting back on the interstate (which had been closed by now) was not an option. To cut a long story short, I put on every article of clothing (which included several pairs of thermal underwear, hats, gloves and a coat) I had and then my dog and I squashed ourselves into my sleeping bag together, which I then covered with a comforter. We survived the night but by morning everything was brutally frigid and frozen and I was relieved when my very reluctant truck started.

I was lucky, I had a camper trailer and a truck I could start up in the morning (with heater up on high). I can only imagine the misery and danger those kinds of conditions presented to the travelers of the trail in the 1800s. I was also lucky enough to have tree cover to help break the howling wind. Watrous is just a few miles east of the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Although we have open plain here, it is still broken country with canyons and ridges where ponderosa pines and pinon and juniper trees offer some cover. Out on the flat plains to the east of us, the only lumber or forest would have been what grew along the infrequent rivers. I am also amazed at how much the horses can stand. If they can get into a tree line and put their backs into the wind, they seem to do OK. I am sure they have their limits, but I know mine have gotten through 2-3 days of 30 below. But in many accounts of travelers caught in blizzards along the trail, it was not uncommon for a train to lose most, if not all, of their animals. In some cases the losses of horses, mules and cattle could be as high as 1000 head in just a matter of a few hours. On other occasions, half buried wagons were chopped up for firewood, leaving any surviving travelers stranded, sometimes for months.

An old covered wagon in the snow at Shadowlands Ranch. A thick layer of frost covers all of the tree branches.

Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts in the snow.

"In the morning, seeing that the caballada had had but little to eat and the cold being so intense, a day in camp was thought best. A snowstorm, with all its blustering fury, burst upon us during the morning and lasted half the day, driving the rotting-wood smoke in our eyes, so that small comfort was gained by the fire. We would sit in one position until nearly stifled; a change to the opposite side was only for the wind to veer and drive us again away. We had no tent, of course, and the shifting wind monopolized every good position. 
   What prospect was in advance! Snow twenty-two to twenty-eight inches deep; our mules starving; the oxen broken down with fatigue; not more than one day's scanty portion of dried meat, and nothing else; an attempt at hunting almost certain death; and, at least, two days' travel to William Bent's village, although there were but forty miles between the two (one day's trip in pleasant weather, now five for us). Verily, this is the dark side of prairie life!
     We ventured to start the following morning, but dared not ride for fear of freezing to the saddles, though tramping in the snow was severely fatiguing."

Lewis H. Gerrard,  "Wah-t-yah and The Taos Trail."

My herd of frosty mustangs running to the hay truck after a winter storm. At the time I took this photo, 8.30 am with the sun fully up, it was 1 degree (F).

The Mora River in winter, with ice and snow. Willows line its banks with a small bosque of cottonwood trees.

Fancy and I in the snow at Shadowlands Ranch.

Once again I wish you all a happy and healthy 2019. Stay warm and safe and long may we get moisture up here in New Mexico's arid plains!! I will try to endeavor to look upon any of this new year's challenges the way Lewis does in his memoirs. To see the bright side in even the most harshest of situations:

"It is strange how self-satisfied one is, when safely in camp.  There we, almost at an unapproachable distance from anywhere, amid snowstorms, with scarce a hearty meal, in a barren country, and too freezing cold to hunt, sat on our soft robes, acknowledging the grateful warmth of the coals (shuddering, perhaps, as a cold puff of wind, coursing on the crusted snow, struck our backs and caused us to pull the blankets more closely to our necks) - chatting as unconcernedly as if surrounded by luxuries, such as large fires and plenty to eat. It is by some experience in a prairie voyageur's life that I can say, never was I more contented, silently happy than when, with snow wreaths drifted interminably for miles and miles around, with a choice companion or two, cosily seated by a small comfortable fire, with plenty of tobacco and a modicum of meat to sustain life, I have listened to the baying of wolves and have imagined the Hamadryads' tuneful sighs mingling with the crackling of the frosted tree branches, while the mournful cadences of the wind, sweeping up the vale with wild fury, would burst over our heads with the shrieks of crazy delight - now dying away in harmonious deflections, anon increasing in vigor, yet never ending."

Lewis H. Gerrard, "Wah-to-yah and The Taos Trail."   

Winter sunset.


  1. I love these entries. I just rode horses at cavalcade at Philmont this summer with one other lady advisor and all boys as scouts. I can imagine riding the trails at shadowland ranch...and I so wished I could have worn a skirt to ride at Philmont. I am an artist, and art teacher. I am wondering if you know the story of the grave at (I think it was Miranda... I'll check on that) in the white picket fence called the white ghost grave at Philmont? The story I heard from the male advisor with us from Nebraska as he had heard it, was that the grave was a wife of a minor that was accidentally beheaded at the creek where we camped-sometime in the 1850's or 60's. I have not found the story written anywhere as I search. I am a creative writer, but mostly poems, or short paragraphs for grants, etc. I teach 590 students and so that takes up most of my time. So my time with scouts and horses this summer was a bucket list for me. Thanks for writing!

  2. Replies
    1. So sorry! I just saw this. It seems that blogger doesn't inform me when I have comments. Thank you for your interest. I am afraid I do not know the story of the miner. Maybe you could contact somebody from the Santa Fe Trail Association. It must have been lovely to ride all around that gorgeous Philmont area :)