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The Pueblo and Bent’s Fort
Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Oregon | No Comments
e approached the gate of the Pueblo. It was a wretched species of fort of most primitive construction, being nothing more than a large square inclosure, surrounded by a wall of mud, miserably cracked and dilapidated. The slender pickets that surmounted it were half broken down, and the gate dangled on its wooden hinges so loosely, that to open or shut it seemed likely to fling it down altogether. Two or three squalid Mexicans, with their broad hats, and their vile faces overgrown with hair, were lounging about the bank of the river in front of it. They disappeared as they saw us approach; and as we rode up to the gate a light active little figure came out to meet us. It was our old friend Richard. He had come from Fort Laramie on a trading expedition to Taos; but finding, when he reached the Pueblo, that the war would prevent his going farther, he was quietly waiting till the conquest of the country should allow him to proceed. He seemed to consider himself bound to do the honors of the place. Shaking us warmly by the hands, he led the way into the area.
Here we saw his large Santa Fe wagons standing together. A few squaws and Spanish women, and a few Mexicans, as mean and miserable as the place itself, were lazily sauntering about. Richard conducted us to the state apartment of the Pueblo, a small mud room, very neatly finished, considering the material, and garnished with a crucifix, a looking-glass, a picture of the Virgin, and a rusty horse pistol. There were no chairs, but instead of them a number of chests and boxes ranged about the room. There was another room beyond, less sumptuously decorated, and here three or four Spanish girls, one of them very pretty, were baking cakes at a mud fireplace in the corner. They brought out a poncho, which they spread upon the floor by way of table-cloth. A supper, which seemed to us luxurious, was soon laid out upon it, and folded buffalo robes were placed around it to receive the guests. Two or three Americans, besides ourselves, were present. We sat down Turkish fashion, and began to inquire the news. Richard told us that, about three weeks before, General Kearny’s army had left Bent’s Fort to march against Santa Fe; that when last heard from they were approaching the mountainous defiles that led to the city. One of the Americans produced a dingy newspaper, containing an account of the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. While we were discussing these matters, the doorway was darkened by a tall, shambling fellow, who stood with his hands in his pockets taking a leisurely survey of the premises before he entered. He wore brown homespun pantaloons, much too short for his legs, and a pistol and bowie knife stuck in his belt. His head and one eye were enveloped in a huge bandage of white linen. Having completed his observations, he came slouching in and sat down on a chest. Eight or ten more of the same stamp followed, and very coolly arranging themselves about the room, began to stare at the company. Shaw and I looked at each other. We were forcibly reminded of the Oregon emigrants, though these unwelcome visitors had a certain glitter of the eye, and a compression of the lips, which distinguished them from our old acquaintances of the prairie. They began to catechise us at once, inquiring whence we had come, what we meant to do next, and what were our future prospects in life.
The man with the bandaged head had met with an untoward accident a few days before. He was going down to the river to bring water, and was pushing through the young willows which covered the low ground, when he came unawares upon a grizzly bear, which, having just eaten a buffalo bull, had lain down to sleep off the meal. The bear rose on his hind legs, and gave the intruder such a blow with his paw that he laid his forehead entirely bare, clawed off the front of his scalp, and narrowly missed one of his eyes. Fortunately he was not in a very pugnacious mood, being surfeited with his late meal. The man’s companions, who were close behind, raised a shout and the bear walked away, crushing down the willows in his leisurely retreat.
These men belonged to a party of Mormons, who, out of a well-grounded fear of the other emigrants, had postponed leaving the settlements until all the rest were gone. On account of this delay they did not reach Fort Laramie until it was too late to continue their journey to California. Hearing that there was good land at the head of the Arkansas, they crossed over under the guidance of Richard, and were now preparing to spend the winter at a spot about half a mile from the Pueblo.
When we took leave of Richard, it was near sunset. Passing out of the gate, we could look down the little valley of the Arkansas; a beautiful scene, and doubly so to our eyes, so long accustomed to deserts and mountains. Tall woods lined the river, with green meadows on either hand; and high bluffs, quietly basking in the sunlight, flanked the narrow valley. A Mexican on horseback was driving a herd of cattle toward the gate, and our little white tent, which the men had pitched under a large tree in the meadow, made a very pleasing feature in the scene. When we reached it, we found that Richard had sent a Mexican to bring us an abundant supply of green corn and vegetables, and invite us to help ourselves to whatever we wished from the fields around the Pueblo.
The inhabitants were in daily apprehensions of an inroad from more formidable consumers than ourselves. Every year at the time when the corn begins to ripen, the Arapahoes, to the number of several thousands, come and encamp around the Pueblo. The handful of white men, who are entirely at the mercy of this swarm of barbarians, choose to make a merit of necessity; they come forward very cordially, shake them by the hand, and intimate that the harvest is entirely at their disposal. The Arapahoes take them at their word, help themselves most liberally, and usually turn their horses into the cornfields afterward. They have the foresight, however, to leave enough of the crops untouched to serve as an inducement for planting the fields again for their benefit in the next spring.
The human race in this part of the world is separated into three divisions, arranged in the order of their merits; white men, Indians, and Mexicans; to the latter of whom the honorable title of “whites” is by no means conceded.
In spite of the warm sunset of that evening the next morning was a dreary and cheerless one. It rained steadily, clouds resting upon the very treetops. We crossed the river to visit the Mormon settlement. As we passed through the water, several trappers on horseback entered it from the other side. Their buckskin frocks were soaked through by the rain, and clung fast to their limbs with a most clammy and uncomfortable look. The water was trickling down their faces, and dropping from the ends of their rifles, and from the traps which each carried at the pommel of his saddle. Horses and all, they had a most disconsolate and woebegone appearance, which we could not help laughing at, forgetting how often we ourselves had been in a similar plight.
After half an hour’s riding we saw the white wagons of the Mormons drawn up among the trees. Axes were sounding, trees were falling, and log-huts going up along the edge of the woods and upon the adjoining meadow. As we came up the Mormons left their work and seated themselves on the timber around us, when they began earnestly to discuss points of theology, complain of the ill-usage they had received from the “Gentiles,” and sound a lamentation over the loss of their great temple at Nauvoo. After remaining with them an hour we rode back to our camp, happy that the settlements had been delivered from the presence of such blind and desperate fanatics.
On the morning after this we left the Pueblo for Bent’s Fort. The conduct of Raymond had lately been less satisfactory than before, and we had discharged him as soon as we arrived at the former place; so that the party, ourselves included, was now reduced to four. There was some uncertainty as to our future course. The trail between Bent’s Fort and the settlements, a distance computed at six hundred miles, was at this time in a dangerous state; for since the passage of General Kearny’s army, great numbers of hostile Indians, chiefly Pawnees and Comanches, had gathered about some parts of it. A little after this time they became so numerous and audacious, that scarcely a single party, however large, passed between the fort and the frontier without some token of their hostility. The newspapers of the time sufficiently display this state of things. Many men were killed, and great numbers of horses and mules carried off. Not long since I met with the gentleman, who, during the autumn, came from Santa Fe to Bent’s Fort, when he found a party of seventy men, who thought themselves too weak to go down to the settlements alone, and were waiting there for a re-enforcement. Though this excessive timidity fully proves the ignorance and credulity of the men, it may also evince the state of alarm which prevailed in the country. When we were there in the month of August, the danger had not become so great. There was nothing very attractive in the neighborhood. We supposed, moreover, that we might wait there half the winter without finding any party to go down with us; for Mr. Sublette and the others whom we had relied upon had, as Richard told us, already left Bent’s Fort. Thus far on our journey Fortune had kindly befriended us. We resolved therefore to take advantage of her gracious mood and trusting for a continuance of her favors, to set out with Henry and Delorier, and run the gauntlet of the Indians in the best way we could.
Bent’s Fort stands on the river, about seventy-five miles below the Pueblo. At noon of the third day we arrived within three or four miles of it, pitched our tent under a tree, hung our looking-glasses against its trunk and having made our primitive toilet, rode toward the fort. We soon came in sight of it, for it is visible from a considerable distance, standing with its high clay walls in the midst of the scorching plains. It seemed as if a swarm of locusts had invaded the country. The grass for miles around was cropped close by the horses of General Kearny’s soldiery. When we came to the fort, we found that not only had the horses eaten up the grass, but their owners had made away with the stores of the little trading post; so that we had great difficulty in procuring the few articles which we required for our homeward journey. The army was gone, the life and bustle passed away, and the fort was a scene of dull and lazy tranquillity. A few invalid officers and soldiers sauntered about the area, which was oppressively hot; for the glaring sun was reflected down upon it from the high white walls around. The proprietors were absent, and we were received by Mr. Holt, who had been left in charge of the fort. He invited us to dinner, where, to our admiration, we found a table laid with a white cloth, with castors in the center and chairs placed around it. This unwonted repast concluded, we rode back to our camp.
Here, as we lay smoking round the fire after supper, we saw through the dusk three men approaching from the direction of the fort. They rode up and seated themselves near us on the ground. The foremost was a tall, well-formed man, with a face and manner such as inspire confidence at once. He wore a broad hat of felt, slouching and tattered, and the rest of his attire consisted of a frock and leggings of buckskin, rubbed with the yellow clay found among the mountains. At the heel of one of his moccasins was buckled a huge iron spur, with a rowel five or six inches in diameter. His horse, who stood quietly looking over his head, had a rude Mexican saddle, covered with a shaggy bearskin, and furnished with a pair of wooden stirrups of most preposterous size. The next man was a sprightly, active little fellow, about five feet and a quarter high, but very strong and compact. His face was swarthy as a Mexican’s and covered with a close, curly black beard. An old greasy calico handkerchief was tied round his head, and his close buckskin dress was blackened and polished by grease and hard service. The last who came up was a large strong man, dressed in the coarse homespun of the frontiers, who dragged his long limbs over the ground as if he were too lazy for the effort. He had a sleepy gray eye, a retreating chin, an open mouth and a protruding upper lip, which gave him an air of exquisite indolence and helplessness. He was armed with an old United States yager, which redoubtable weapon, though he could never hit his mark with it, he was accustomed to cherish as the very sovereign of firearms.
The first two men belonged to a party who had just come from California with a large band of horses, which they had disposed of at Bent’s Fort. Munroe, the taller of the two, was from Iowa. He was an excellent fellow, open, warm-hearted and intelligent. Jim Gurney, the short man, was a Boston sailor, who had come in a trading vessel to California, and taken the fancy to return across the continent. The journey had already made him an expert “mountain man,” and he presented the extraordinary phenomenon of a sailor who understood how to manage a horse. The third of our visitors named Ellis, was a Missourian, who had come out with a party of Oregon emigrants, but having got as far as Bridge’s Fort, he had fallen home-sick, or as Jim averred, love-sick—and Ellis was just the man to be balked in a love adventure. He thought proper to join the California men and return homeward in their company.
They now requested that they might unite with our party, and make the journey to the settlements in company with us. We readily assented, for we liked the appearance of the first two men, and were very glad to gain so efficient a re-enforcement. We told them to meet us on the next evening at a spot on the river side, about six miles below the fort. Having smoked a pipe together, our new allies left us, and we lay down to sleep.
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