From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.

Solitary Buffalo Played Major Role In Development of

the Santa Fe Trail

An Aged Bull, Deserted by the Rest of the Herd, Led Thirsty Band of Traders to Water Beneath the Sands of the Cimarron river Bed--The Discovery Opened a New Trail to the Southwest.

by Wayne Damker.

Kansas City Times, Tuesday, April 19, 1949.


The role of the buffalo in the historic drama of this country's expanding era is well established. Not so well established is the buffalo's role in the development of one specific facet of this pioneer history--the Santa Fe trail. Yet had it not been for a solitary, mangy old bull buffalo--so ragged a specimen that even his own kind had deserted him--there might never have been a Santa Fe trail.

According to information in one of the tales told by Frederick R. Bechdolt in his book, "Giants of the Old West," it happened on a June day, 1822, in the sand hills of what is now the northwest arm-like protrusion of Oklahoma. William Becknell sat facing the hopeless, dust-reddened eyes of his thirst-crazy band of traders. Undoubtedly water was the uppermost thought in his mind. Yet perhaps he, in a kind of cynical despair, let his thoughts wander back over the events leading up to the unenviable position in which he found himself.

In Country Before.

Becknell had been in the country before. The preceding year he had st out from his Franklin, Mo., home, at the head of a band of seventeen local adventurers, each mounted and leading a pack-horse laden with trinkets, calico and beads. Their destination was somewhere south of the headwaters of the Arkansas river. They had hoped to trade their Missouri goods for mules which the Indians had rustled from Spanish settlers farther south. At that time mules brought up to $75 a head in St. Louis, and it was believed that the Comanches would consider $3 worth of knickknacks satisfactory compensation for a good hybrid.

But the Missourians, after a hard climb over the bitter-cold mountains somewhere near the place which today is called Raton pass, had found no Indians. Rather they encountered Spanish cavalry who, they thought, would throw them in jail. But, surprisingly enough, the Spaniards proved to be friendly and escorted the strangers to San Miguel where Becknell learned the reason for their friendship: Mexico's secession from Spain.

After visiting in San Miguel, Becknell's band set out for Santa Fe where they opened their packs to the amazed eyes of the trinket-loving citizenry. That day the Spaniards bought quite ordinary St. Louis commodities for many times what these same articles were worth in St. Louis.

A short time later the governor of New Mexico requested a social call from the leader of the Americans, and, after showing a deep interest in the affairs of the United States, encouraged him to repeat the journey.

So the Missourians had gone back to Franklin, and a new expedition was planned. On May 22, 1822, it had set out. This time there were twenty-one men, three covered wagons, each drawn by a 6-mule team, each full of trading goods.

Peril in Journey.

The first part of the journey had not been easy. A herd of buffalo stampeded twenty of the horses. And while searching for their mounts, the Missourians were attacked by Osage Indians. Two of the company were captured and flogged. It took eight days to round up the horses and recover the goods which the Indians had taken.

Then they came to the sand hills where they were to leave the Arkansas river valley. This route was a short cut; Becknell had not traversed it the previous year. It was a way to avoid the high, bleak mountains around Raton where the horses had had an almost impossible time of it the year before and where it would have been impossible to take wagons.

So they undertook the miserable task of traversing the treacherous sand hills. It was burning hot. Man and animal suffered greatly. At last they found themselves on the rim of a broad plateau. The water they had carried was almost depleted as a result of the arduous climb. But the worst part was over. The way ahead was level; and when they reached the far rim of the plateau, they would have only to descend to the cool, plentiful waters of the Cimarron.

So the next day they pressed forward, draining the water in the canteens, brutally ignoring the unmistakable signs of thirst in the animals. All could endure a while--then would come the river. The Spaniards had said it would be so.

And it was almost just as those well-meaning ones had said. The plateau was just as wide, just as bare. They came to the far rim at the correct time. Everything was going as was to be expected--except that, when they descended to where the Cimarron was to have been, they found only a dried up river bed. The Spaniards had not known that the Cimarron in this area sinks into the sand in the hot months and flows underground.

The river bed was so unrecognizable that Becknell blindly crossed it without knowing it for what it was.

This was the third day some of the men had been without water. And those who had been thirsty longest felt their tongues push between their cracked, bleeding lips.

They had pushed on across the wash, and the land had started to slope upward again. That was when Becknell had decided to hold council.

Perhaps, sitting there, facing the bleak, hopeless eyes of his comrades, he experienced a feeling of regret at having undertaken such a bold venture.

But is was no time for regret. It was a time for action.

What kind of action? Lives hung in the balance. there was no time for trial and error. Whatever was to be done immediately and it had to be done correctly.

Consider Three Plans.

There were three courses of action open for them: they could abandon the wagons, take the horses and mules and go back to the Arkansas--probably some would not survive the journey, but chances were that most of them could make it; or, they could climb the new bunch of sand hills to the plateau which must be up there--maybe water was close in this direction, yet it was risky, and they all might perish; or, they could wander up and down the dry valley, looking for a water hole, staking all on the existence of one stagnant pool.

Whichever way they want--whatever they did--their lives, as well as the establishment of the Santa Fe trail, were at stake. Then they saw the buffalo.

Up out of the dry wash he came. A lean, lonely old bull. He moved slowly along; and even form a distance, they could see what a miserable critter he was. A mangy, aged male who had been driven away from the herd--or who could not keep up with it. One of those old fellows which it would have been useless to shoot for meat. yet, to the eyes of the thirst-maddened Missourians, he was just about the sweetest sight they had ever seen. For this decrepit maverick must have found water someplace.

Quickly the strongest of the men took their guns and crept back toward the wash. Warily they his themselves along the trail the bull was traveling; and when he was in close range, they fired, bringing him down neatly.

Then the men fell on the carcass. Swiftly they ripped open the abdomen. The stomach bulged. Eagerly they punctured the tissue and caught the tepid fluid. there was some for everyone.

Now the problem was to find the water hole.

Pool in the Sand.

Two of the strongest men took empty canteens and set out along the old bull's fresh trail. A few miles back they found what they were searching for, a pool in the sand. They filled the canteens and returned to the wagons. Soon the entire party was in fair enough shape to move the equipment up to the pool.

Then, refreshed and rested, Becknell, his mind clearing, soon understood the situation. This dry arroyo was the Cimarron!

So they set out again, moving upstream--or what would have been upstream, had there been any water flowing. Sometimes they found pools; sometimes they dug into the sand and found water a few feet down. They were careful not to venture too far from the last waterhole until they found a new one.

But, though the rest of the journey was by no means easy, Becknell and his men succeeded in surmounting all obstacles. They left the Cimarron and headed into the country to the southwest. And the day came when the band entered Santa Fe where the trading and reception went as it was expected to go. The migration over the trail to Santa Fe was begun! The words, Santa Fe, became common in the most widely scattered sections of the expanding country.

But who can say how many would have uttered those magic words if a solitary bull buffalo had chosen a different time to wander along beside the dried-up bed of the Cimarron?

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