Modern history


Chapter 8


Kearny’s Army of the West marched steadily westward. Climbing imperceptibly into a thinner, drier atmosphere, the men found it harder to judge distances. Sometimes they found themselves tricked by optical illusions—the famous “false ponds.” In his journal, Pvt. Jacob Robinson described with astonishment the first mirage he saw. “Nothing appears as it is,” he wrote. “About a mile distant from us appeared a crystal lake, studded with numerous islands, so perfectly defined that no one could imagine it to be anything else than a real lake. Though prepared for the illusion, many of the men believed it real, bet upon it, and of course lost their bets.”

Pronghorn antelope cropped the short grass, and then sensing something untoward, whisked off like arrows. Prairie dogs sprang from their cratered towns and piped in nervous curiosity. Often the dens were also occupied by rattlesnakes or burrowing owls, predators that lived uninvited in the homes of their prey. At times, Robinson wrote, the ground was so “full of holes and burrows as to make it sound hollow like a bridge when traveled over.”

Through most of the month of June 1846, Kearny kept up a blistering pace—averaging twenty-two miles a day but sometimes exceeding thirty. The general could be seen riding up and down the miles of marchers, motivating laggards, instructing greenhorns in the rudiments of horsemanship. The volunteers viewed him with a mixture of resentment and awe. “Nothing could exceed the confidence which every man seems to have in him,” wrote one Missourian. “He is, however, fond of rapid marching and keeps us at it steadily.” Said another: “He is reputed one of the most expeditious travelers who ever crossed the plains.”

It wasn’t just a fondness for speed, however. Kearny understood that he was running a race against time and moisture: By late July the plains would lay crisped and brown, without enough good grass to keep his horses, mules, and oxen moving. Not only that, Kearny wanted to intercept the buffalo herds—he was counting on bison meat to feed his men through the middle part of the trek. If his army delayed, he might miss the buffalo altogether, for the herds generally migrated north in midsummer, trending toward the best green grass. Kearny knew enough about prairie travel to appreciate that his window of opportunity was tight.

By early July the animals were depleted. Food grew scarce, forcing Kearny to put the men on half rations. They took to foraging for the black gooseberries and wild plums and cherries that grew along the banks of meandering springs. Teams of marksmen broke off from the caravans to hunt for antelope or deer. On July 4 the Army of the West briefly halted the march to celebrate the birth of their country. “This morning we all took a drink of whiskey in honor of the day,” Robinson wrote in his journal, “but are obliged to march on, as the rations we have are nearly gone.”

To relieve the boredom of the long day, stories and rumors broke out among the men and traveled haphazardly down the line, evolving in tone and connotation in their endless soldierly repetitions. Kearny was so circumspect—“He is a man who keeps his counsels to himself,” wrote one volunteer—that no one seemed to fully understand what the mission was, or precisely where they were going—other than west. The men made disparaging remarks about Santa Anna and the Vatican. They sang patriotic songs—“Yankee Doodle” was a favorite—drowning out the grunts of the animals.

Ravens followed the long columns as seagulls would follow a ship, and often they would light on the taut canvas sheets covering the wagons, cawing intently for food. Coyotes and wolves followed the procession, too, packs of them loping along in the grass just beyond rifle range, patiently waiting for a horse to collapse.

The Army of the West was accompanied by its own internal army of attendants and tradesmen contracted to hold the ungainly procession together—wheelwrights, sutlers, laundresses, cooks, stockmen, farriers, teamsters, coopers, foragers, muleteers, hostlers, butchers, liverymen—many of them old hands on the Santa Fe Trail. In anticipation of a creek crossing, a detachment of engineers would bound ahead to study the sandy bottoms and quagmires for the most promising place to ford, bringing shovels and hoes to make small improvements along the banks to ease the passage of the heavy wagons. If the axles were made of a wood too green, they would all too often snap under the burden.

On July 8, Private Robinson’s column approached a famous landmark of the Santa Fe Trail, a prominent outcropping known as Pawnee Rock. This promontory was scrawled and chiseled with the names of countless travelers of the Santa Fe trade from decades past. Some of the more elaborate graffiti had been painted on the rock with an ointment of animal fat and black tar. Robinson climbed to the top of the rock, presumably to etch his own name, when he turned west to glimpse, as he put it, “one of the grandest sights ever beheld.”

Stretching before him, in the golden light of the afternoon, was a vast herd of buffalo, easily a quarter million strong. “Every acre was covered,” Robinson wrote, “until, in the dim distance, the prairie became one black mass from which there was no opening.”

As many as 50 million buffalo roamed the Great Plains at this time, a carnival of meat on the hoof migrating north and south with the seasons, wandering west and east with the presence or absence of water, imprinting the plains with intricate capillaries of trails. Robinson joined a party of men and approached the buffalo. They were pitifully easy to shoot—until the beasts actually saw or smelled the source of danger, they would go on stupidly cropping the grass as members of their herd dropped, one by one, all around them. Robinson’s party killed forty of them, and the carcasses were immediately butchered and prepared for dinner.

Susan Magoffin, a sprightly eighteen-year-old from Kentucky, was traveling in the midst of the Army of the West with her new husband, a veteran Santa Fe trader. In a diary that has become a classic of Western literature, Magoffin captured the spectacle of the buffalo hunts. “The men have been out since sun rise,” she wrote, “and mules loaded with the spoils of their several victories, are constantly returning to camp. It is a rich sight indeed to look at the fine fat meat stretched out on ropes to dry for our sustenance. Such soup we have made of the hump ribs. I never ate its equal in the best hotels of N.Y. and Philadelphia. And the sweetest butter and most delicate oil I ever tasted is not surpassed by the marrow taken from the thigh bones. If one cannot live and grow fat here, he must be a strange creature.”

Robinson’s party made camp beneath jumbled cottonwoods along the banks of a small brown river rippling with carp. They circled their wagons and cinched them wheel to wheel with hemp ropes as a defense against Pawnee attack, but also to form natural corrals in which they could unharness their stock. The river bottom was tangled with brown-black hair left by bison that, during the summer shedding season, liked to rub against the roughly ridged trunks of the cottonwoods.

With dusk approaching, the cooks made fires with “prairie fuel”—the dried ordure of buffalo. Robinson and his comrades broiled their steaks and shared pots of bitter coffee—or “black soup,” as the definitive beverage of the frontier was sometimes called. The men drew straws to see who would get the fatty ribs from the bison’s hump, which was considered the tastiest cut. The dung charcoal, which burned like bricks of peat, imparted a slight bitterness to the flesh, but to famished soldiers the buffalo tasted divine.

Laying out their bedrolls, they stretched beneath the glorious speckling of stars. They turned the tongue of their lead wagon toward the North Star so they would be better oriented in the morning. And in their exhaustion they soon fell asleep to the low growl of buffalo bulls in rut and the cry of the gray wolves, whose “long and doleful bugle-note,” as one put it, “makes a night upon the Prairies perfectly hideous.”


In the final weeks of July 1846, as the country grew ever more desolate and severe, the Army of the West struck the braided Arkansas River and marched for many days alongside its cottonwood-skirted banks. Then one day, like an apparition, snow-dusted mountains leapt into view. Off to the northwest the soldiers could see Pikes Peak, vaporous and shimmering and unaccountably huge. And to the southwest loomed the Spanish Peaks, twin conical mountains known to local tribes as Wah-to-Yah, “the Breasts of the World.”

The men of Missouri had never seen mountains, real mountains, like these—and they were dumbstruck. One diarist among them wrote that the “jagged peaks are towering in mid-heaven all around us…grand beyond description.”

By early August, Kearny’s troops were spread out over hundreds of miles of the Santa Fe Trail, inching forward in scores of separate caravans. Before making the final push into New Mexico, Kearny decided to pause long enough to concentrate his forces on the Arkansas at Bent’s Fort, the adobe citadel where Kit Carson had briefly worked as a hunter back in the early 1840s.

Commanding an impressive vantage along the Santa Fe Trail, the fort’s high castle tower was equipped with a nautical spyglass for keeping an eye on hostile Indians. Two live bald eagles held vigil from the rooftop, caged in the belfry. Friendly Plains tribes often pitched their tepees nearby to trade and gamble and drink at the fort. Bent’s was a loud and bustling agora, its denizens coarse-mannered but usually friendly when not too drunk, its labyrinths of storerooms stacked with beaver pelts and buffalo robes and barrels of Taos Lightning, the stout New Mexico whiskey.

This outpost of American civilization boasted all sorts of incongruous pleasures and amenities, including peacocks that roamed the compound, a French tailor, white tablecloths in the dining room, ice for the fort’s signature mint julep–like drink, which the Bents called a “hailstorm,” and the most outlandish luxury imaginable, a billiards table.

Kearny’s dragoons set up an encampment on the north side of the Arkansas while the legions of Missourians pitched their tents in a sprawling meadow just south of the river. The volunteers picketed their exhausted horses and mules in the pasture, but others were turned loose to graze. Something spooked them—one witnesss claimed it was merely the snap of a falling tree limb—and they began to stampede.

In an instant the constrained horses broke free of their irons and galloped off with the others—with dangling picket pins biting into their flanks and spurring them to greater fury. For miles the prairie swirled with hoofbeats and manic patterns of dust. General Kearny was livid at the volunteers for letting the horses graze loose. On the Santa Fe Trail, stampedes like this were considered a disaster of the first order, and a danger even graver than Indians. In their madness, many horses bolted for the far horizon and were never seen again. The Missourians spent a whole day recapturing their scattered animals, several of which were found more than fifty miles from the fort. Eighty horses were never recovered.

Among the travelers who had taken refuge in one of the fort’s many rooms was Susan Magoffin, the young diarist from Kentucky. She had taken ill and was trying in vain to get some rest, but Bent’s Fort was no place to be sick. “There is the greatest possible noise,” she wrote. “The shoeing of horses, neighing, and braying of mules, the scolding and fighting of men, are all enough to turn my head.” Not knowing what was wrong with her, she took her Sappington’s Fever and Ague Pills, a popular frontier cure-all containing quinine, and hoped to nurse herself back to health. Magoffin complained of “strange sensations in my head, my back, and hips. I am obliged to lie down most of the time, and when I get up I must hold my hand over my eyes.”

But Magoffin’s condition progressively worsened. Because she was an unusually well-connected traveler, inquiries were immediately made and a doctor was called for. Her husband, Samuel, had worked the Santa Fe trade for fifteen years and was well known to the Bent brothers. Her brother-in-law, James Magoffin, was also a shrewd old hand on the trail, fluent in Spanish and a popular fixture in Santa Fe.

A few days earlier, in fact, General Kearny had met with James Magoffin at the fort and dispatched him as a kind of shadow envoy to Santa Fe to conduct secret talks with Gov. Manuel Armijo, whom Magoffin knew well. Kearny hoped Magoffin could persuade Armijo not to fight. Although the details are lost to history, it is also believed that Magoffin was given specific instructions to sweeten the negotiations with considerable bribes. Susan Magoffin, suffering in her room, was oblivious to all of these doings.

Two other notable women had sought haven in Bent’s Fort while Kearny’s soldiers massed outside. They were two sisters from the prominent Jaramillo family of Taos, Ignacia and Josefa, Kit Carson’s young bride. Ignacia was married to Charles Bent, who normally kept his home in Taos when he wasn’t on the trail or tending to business at the fort. Fearing that the arrival of the American invaders would cause turmoil in Taos that could jeopardize his wife’s safety, he had sent for Ignacia and Josefa, intending to keep them safely ensconced in the fort until the occupation was complete and passions had cooled.

As more and more soldiers trickled in from the trail, Susan Magoffin’s illness advanced. She began to suffer “much agony and severest of pains.” Finally, around midnight on July 31, a French doctor arrived and gave her morphine. She slumped into her husband’s arms and then, as she put it, “I sunk into a kind of lethargy.”

Later that night Magoffin had a miscarriage—brought on, the French doctor assumed, by the jolting of the long trail. She had not even known she was pregnant. A few days later she was able to return to her diary. “The mysteries of a new world have been shown to me,” she wrote. “In a few short months I should have been a happy mother and made the heart of a father glad, but the ruling hand of Providence has interposed and by an abortion deprived us of the fond hope of mortals.” She feared she would not recover, that she would die of some infection in her chamber, and that she would never see “the fair and happy America again.”

The night of her miscarriage, her husband told her, a Cheyenne woman, probably the squaw of one of the traders, had given birth to a healthy baby in a room directly below hers. Within a half hour of the birth, the woman, following an ancient tribal custom, ventured out to the Arkansas and bathed herself and her newborn in the river.

While Magoffin was recovering in her bed, she listened to the noises of Kearny’s army as it made final preparations for marching one Sunday morning. “Although it was the Sabbath,” she wrote, “necessity compelled them to be busily employed. The clang of the blacksmith’s hammer was constant. The trumpet sounded oft and loud; swords rattled in their sheaths, while the tinkling spur served as an echo. Ever and anon some military command was heard.”

Magoffin, exhausted and probably medicated, lay in her darkened room and reflected on the baser shadings of Kearny’s mission. “Though forbidden to rise from my bed, I was free to meditate on the follies and wickedness of man! Of a creature formed for nobler purposes, sinking himself to the level of the beasts, waging warfare with his fellow man, even as the dumb brute. And by his example teaching nothing good, striving for wealth, honour and fame to the ruining of his soul, and losing a brighter crown in higher realms.”

Then, at Kearny’s command, the Army of the West departed the fort with more than 1,500 wagons and nearly 20,000 animals. The long columns forded the Arkansas River, thus crossing the international border into Mexico, and marched en masse across the high plains to conquer Santa Fe.

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