COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume II



Preparations for a Start to Chihuahua Ineptness of Married Men for the Santa Fe Trade The Chihuahua Trade Annoying Custom-house Regulations Mails in New Mexico Insecurity of Correspondence Outfit and Departure Derecho de Consumo Ruins of 'Valverde 'Towns without Houses' La Jornada del Muerto Laguna and Ojo del Muerto A Tradition of the Arrieros Laborious Ferrying and Quagmires Arrival at Paso del Norte Amenity of the Valley Sierra Blanca and Las Organos Face of the Country Sea-grass An accidental River Laguna de Encinillas Southern Haciendas Arrival Character of the Route and Soil.

     AFTER passing the custom-house ordeal, and exchanging some of our merchandise for 'Eagle Dollars' an operation which occupied us several weeks, I prepared to set out for the Chihuahua market, whither a portion of our stock had been designed. Upon this expedition I was obliged to depart without my brother, who was laboring under the 'home fever,' and anxious to return to his family. "He that hath wife and children," says Lord Bacon, "hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief." Men under such bonds are peculiarly unfitted for the chequered life of a Santa Fe trader. The domestic hearth,


with all its sacred and most endearing recollections, is sure to haunt them in the hour of trial, and almost every step of their journey is apt to be attended by melancholy reflections of home and domestic dependencies.

     Before starting on this new journey I deem it proper to make a few observations relative to the general character of the Chihuahua Trade. I have already remarked, that much surprise has frequently been expressed by those who are unacquainted with all the bearings of the case, that the Missouri traders should take the circuitous route to Santa Fe, instead of steering direct for Chihuahua, inasmuch as the greatest portion of their goods is destined for the latter city. But as Chihuahua never had any port of entry for foreign goods till the last six or eight years, the market of that department had to be supplied in a great measure from Santa Fe. By opening the ports of El Paso and Presidio del Norte, the commercial interest was so little affected, that when Santa Anna's decree for closing them again was issued, the loss was scarcely felt at all.

     The mode of transmitting merchandise from the ports to the interior, is very different from what it is in the United States. It is not enough to have to pass the tedious ordeal of custom-houses on the frontier, and we have not only to submit to a supervision and repayment of duty on arriving at our point of destination, but our cargo is subject to scrutiny at every town we have to pass through on our


journey. Nor would it be advisable to forsake the main route in order to avoid this tyrannical system of taxation; because, according to the laws of the country, every cargamento which is found out of the regular track (except in cases of unavoidable necessity), is subject to confiscation, although accompanied by the necessary custom-house documents.

     There are also other risks and contingencies very little dreamed of in the philosophy of the inexperienced trader. Before setting out, the entire bill of merchandise has to be translated into Spanish; when, duplicates of the translation being presented to the customhouse, one is retained, while the other, accompanied by the guia (a sort of clearance or mercantile passport), is carried along with the cargo by the conductor. The trader can have three points of destination named in his guta, to either of which he may direct his course, but to no others: while in the drawing up of the fegetura, or invoice, the greatest care is requisite, as the slightest mistake, even an accidental slip of the pen, might, according to the terms of the law, subject the goods to confiscation.*

     The guia is not only required on leaving the ports for the interior, but is indispensable to the safe conveyance of goods from one department of the republic to another: nay, the

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* In confirmation of this, it is only necessary to quote the following from the Pauta de Comisos, Cap. 11., Art. 22: 'Ni lasguias, ni las facturas, ni los pases, en todos los cagos de que trata este decreto han de contener enmendadura, raspadura, ni entrerenglonadura alguna' and this under penalty of confiscation.


simple transfer of property from town to town, and from village to village, in the same department, is attended by precisely the same proportion of risk, and requires the same punctilious accuracy in the accompanying documents. Even the produce and manufactures of the country are equally subject to these embarrassing regulations. New Mexico has no internal custom-houses, and is therefore exempt from this rigorous provision; but from Chihuahua south every village has its revenue officers; so that the same stock of merchandise sometimes pays the internal duty at least half a-dozen times before the sale is completed.

     Now, to procure this same guia, which is the cause of so much difficulty and anxiety in the end, is no small affair. Before the authorities condescend to draw a single line on paper, the merchant must produce an endorser for the tornaguia, which is a certificate from the custom-house to which the cargo goes directed, showing that the goods have been legally entered there. A failure in the return of this document within a prescribed limit of time, subjects the endorser to a forfeiture equal to the amount of the impost. Much inconvenience and not a little risk are also occasioned on this score by the irregularity I may say, insecurity of the mails.

     Speaking of mails, I beg leave to observe, that there are no conveniences of this kind in New Mexico, except on the route from Santa Fe to Chihuahua, and these are very


irregular and uncertain. Before the Indians had obtained such complete possession of the highways through the wilderness, the mails between these two cities were carried semimonthly; but now they are much less frequent, being mere expresses, in fact, dispatched only when an occasion offers. There are other causes, however, besides the dread of marauding savages, which render the transportation of the mails in New Mexico very insecure: I mean the dishonesty of those employed in superintending them. Persons known to be inimical to the post-master, or to the 'powers that be,' and wishing to forward any communication to the South, most generally either wait for a private conveyance, or send their letters to a post-office (the only one besides that of Santa Fe in all New Mexico) some eighty miles on the way; thus avoiding an overhauling at the capital. Moreover, as the post-rider often carries the key of the mail-bag (for want of a supply at the different offices), he not unfrequently permits whomsoever will pay him a trifling douceur, to examine the correspondence. I was once witness to a case of this kind in the Jornada del Muerto, where the entire mail was tumbled out upon the grass, that an individual might search for letters, for which luxury he was charged by the accommodating carrier the moderate price of one dollar.

     The derecho de consumo (the internal or consumption duty) is an impost averaging nearly twenty per cent. on the United States cost of


the bill. It supplies the place of a direct tax for the support of the departmental government, and is decidedly the most troublesome, if not the most oppressive revenue system that ever was devised for internal purposes. It operates at once as a drawback upon the commercial prosperity of the country, and as a potent incentive to fraudulent practices. The country people especially have resort to every species of clandestine intercourse, to escape this galling burden; for, every article of consumption they carry to market, whether fish, flesh or fowl, as well as fruit and vegetables, is taxed more or less; while another impost is levied upon the goods they purchase with the proceeds of their sales. This system, so beautifully entangled with corruptions, is supported on the ground that it supersedes direct taxation, which, in itself, is an evil that the 'free and independent' people of Mexico would never submit to. Besides the petty annoyances incidental upon the laxity of custom-house regulations, no one can travel through the country without a passport, which, to free-born Americans, is a truly insupportable nuisance.

     Having at last gone through with all the vexatious preparations necessary for our journey, on the 22d of August we started for Chihuahua. I fitted out myself but six wagons for this market, yet joining in company with several other traders, our little caravan again amounted to fourteen wagons, with about forty men. Though our route lay through


the interior of Northern Mexico, yet, on account of the hostile savages which infest most of the country through which we had to pass, it was necessary to unite in caravans of respectable strength, and to spare few of those precautions for safety which are required on the Prairies.

     The road we travelled passes down through the settlements of New Mexico for the first hundred and thirty miles, on the east side of the Rio del Norte. Nevertheless, as there was not an inn of any kind to be found upon the whole route, we were constrained to put up with very primitive accommodations. Being furnished from the outset, therefore, with blankets and buffalo rugs for bedding, we were prepared to bivouac, even in the suburbs of the villages, in the open air; for in this dry and salubrious atmosphere it is seldom that travellers go to the trouble of pitching tents.* When travelling alone, however, or with but a comrade or two, I have always experienced a great deal of hospitality from the rancheros and villageois of the country. Whatever sins these ignorant people may have to answer for, we must accord to them at least two glowing virtues gratitude and hospitality. I have suffered like others, however, from one very disagreeable custom which prevails

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* How scant soever our outfit of 'camp comforts' might appear, our Mexican muleteers were much more sparely supplied. The exposure endured by this hardy race is really surprising. Even in the coldest winter weather, they rarely carry more than one blanket apiece the sarape, which serves as a cloak during the day, and at night is their only 'bed and bedding.'


among them. Instead of fixing a price for the services they bestow upon travellers, they are apt to answer, "Lo que guste,"or "Lo que le de la gana" (whatever you please, or have a mind to give), expecting, of course, that the liberal foreigner will give more than their consciences would permit them to exact.

     In about ten days' drive we passed the southernmost settlements of New Mexico, and twenty or thirty miles further down the river we came to the ruins of Valverde. This village was founded about twenty years ago, in one of the most fertile valleys of the Rio del Norte. It increased rapidly in population, until it was invaded by the Navajoes, when the inhabitants were obliged to abandon the place after considerable loss, and it has never since been repeopled. The bottoms of the valley, many of which are of rich alluvial loam, have lain fallow ever since, and will perhaps continue to be neglected until the genius of civilization shall have spread its beneficent influences over the land. This soil is the more valuable for cultivation on account of the facilities for irrigation which the river affords; as it too frequently happens that the best lands of the settlements remain unfruitful for want of water.

     Our next camping place deserving of mention was Fray Cristobal, which, like many others on the route, is neither town nor village, but a simple isolated point on the riverbank a mere parage, or camping-ground. We had already passed San Pascual, El Con-


tadero, and many others, and we could hear Aleman, Robledo, and a dozen such spoken of on the way, leading the stranger to imagine that the route was lined with flourishing villages. The arriero will tell one to hasten "We must reach San Diego before sleeping." We spur on perhaps with redoubled vigor, in hopes to rest at a town; but lo! upon arriving, we find only a mere watering-place, without open ground enough to graze the caballada. Thus every point along these wilderness highway is used as a camping-site, has received a distinctive name, well known to every muleteer who travels them. Many of these parages, without the slightest vestige of human improvement, figure upon most of the current maps of the day as towns and villages. Yet there is not a single settlement (except of very recent establishment) from those before mentioned to the vicinity of El Paso, a distance of near two hundred miles.

     We arrived at Fray Cristobal in the evening, but this being the threshold of the famous Jornada del Muerto, we deemed it prudent to let our animals rest here until the following afternoon. The road over which we had hitherto been travelling, though it sometimes traverses upland ridges and undulating sections, runs generally near the border of the river, and for the most part in its immediate valley: but here it leaves the river and passes for nearly eighty miles over a table-plain to the eastward of a small ledge of mountains, whose western base is hugged


by the circuitous channel of the Rio del Norte. The craggy cliffs which project from these mountains render the eastern bank of the river altogether impassable. As the direct route over the plain is entirely destitute of water, we took the precaution to fill all our kegs at Fray Cristobal, and late in the afternoon we finally set out. We generally find a great advantage in travelling through these arid tracts of land in the freshness of the evening, as the mules suffer less from thirst, and move on in better spirits particularly in the season of warm weather.

     Early the next morning we found ourselves at the Laguna del Muerto, or 'Dead Man's Lake,' where there was not even a vestige of water. This lake is but a sink in the plain of a few rods in diameter, and only filled with water during the rainy season. The marshes, which are said by some historians to be in this vicinity, are nowhere to be found: nothing but the firmest and driest table land is to be seen in every direction. To procure water for our thirsty animals, it is often necessary to make a halt here, and drive them to the Ojo del Muerto (Dead Man's Spring), five or six miles to the westward, in the very heart of the mountain ridge that lay between us and the river. This region is one of the favorite resorts of the Apaches, where many a poor arriero has met with an untimely end. The route which leads to the spring winds for two or three miles down a narrow canon or gorge overhung on either side by abrupt pre-


cipices, while the various clefts and crags, which project their gloomy brows over the abyss below, seem to invite the murderous savage to deeds of horror and blood.

     There is a tradition among the arrieros from which it would appear that the only road known in ancient time about the region of the Jornada, wound its circuitous course on the western side of the river. To save distance, an intrepid traveller undertook to traverse this desolate tract of land in one day, but having perished in the attempt, it has ever after borne the name of La Jornada Del Muerto, 'the Dead Man's Journey,' or, more strictly, 'the Day's Journey of the Dead Man.' One thing appears very certain, that this dangerous pass has cost the life of many travellers in days of yore; and when we at last reached Robledo, a camping-site upon the river, where we found abundance of wood and water, we felt truly grateful that the arid Jornada had not been productive of more serious consequences to our party. We now found ourselves within the department of Chihuahua, as the boundary betwixt it and New Mexico passes not far from Robledo.

     We were still some sixty miles above Paso del Norte, but the balance of the road now led down the river valley or over the low bordering hills. During our journey between this and El Paso we passed the ruins of several settlements, which had formerly been the seat of opulence and prosperity, but which have since been abandoned in consequence


of the marauding incursions of the Apaches.

     On the 12th of September we reached the usual ford of the Rio del Norte, six miles above El Paso; but the river being somewhat flushed we found it impossible to cross over with our wagons. The reader will no doubt be surprised to learn that there is not a single ferry on this 'Great River of the North' till we approach the mouth. But how do people cross it? Why, during three-fourths of the year it is everywhere fordable, and when the freshet season comes on; each has to remain on his own side or swim, for canoes even are very rare. But as we could neither swim our wagons and merchandise, nor very comfortably wait for the falling of the waters, our only alternative was to unload the vehicles, and ferry the goods over in a little 'dug-out' about thirty feet long and two feet wide, of which we were fortunate enough to obtain possession.

     We succeeded in finding a place shallow enough to haul our empty wagons across: but for this good fortune we should have been under the necessity of taking them to pieces (as I had before done), and of ferrying them on the 'small craft' before mentioned. Half of a wagon may thus be crossed at a time, by carefully balancing it upon the canoe, yet there is of course no little danger of capsizing during the passage.

     This river even when fordable often occasions a great deal of trouble, being, like the Arkansas, embarrassed with many quicksand


mires. In some places, if a wagon is permitted to stop in the river but for a moment, it sinks to the very body. Instances have occurred where it became necessary not only to drag out the mules by the ears and to carry out the loading package by package, but to haul out the wagon piece by piece wheel by wheel.

     On the 14th we made our entrance into the town of El Paso del Norte,* which is the northernmost settlement in the department of Chihuahua. Here our cargo had to be examined by a stern, surly officer, who, it was feared, would lay an embargo on our goods upon the slightest appearance of irregularity in our papers; but notwithstanding our gloomy forebodings, we passed the ordeal without any difficulty.

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* This place is often known among Americans as 'The Pass.' It has been suggested in another place, that it took its name from the passing thither of the refugees from the massacre of 1680 yet many persons very rationally derive it from the passing of the river (el paso del Rio del Norte) between two points of mountains which project against it from each side, just above the town.

      The valley of El Paso is supposed to contain a population of about four thousand inhabitants, scattered over the western bottom of the Rio del Norte to the length of ten or twelve miles. These settlements are so thickly interspersed with vineyards, orchards, and cornfields, as to present more the appearance of a series of plantations than of a town: in fact, only a small portion at the head of the valley, where the plaza publica and parochial church are located, would seem to merit this title.


     Two or three miles above the plaza there is a dam of stone and brush across the river, the purpose of which is to turn the current into a dike or canal, which conveys nearly half the water of the stream, during a low stage, through this well cultivated valley, for the irrigation of the soil. Here we were regaled with the finest fruits of the season: the grapes especially were of the most exquisite flavor. From these the inhabitants manufacture a very pleasant wine, somewhat resembling Malaga. A species of aguardiente (brandy) is also distilled from the same fruit, which, although weak, is of very agreeable flavor. These liquors are known among Americans as 'Pass wine' and 'Pass whiskey,' and constitute a profitable article of trade, supplying the markets of Chihuahua and New Mexico.*

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* There is very little wine or legitimate aguardiente manufactured in New Mexico. There was not a distillery, indeed, in all the province until established by Americans some fifteen or twenty years ago. Since that period, considerable quantities of whiskey have been made there, particularly in the vicinity of Taos, distilled mainly from wheat, as this is the cheapest grain the county affords.

     As I have said before, the road from Santa Fe to El Paso leads partly along the margin of the Rio del Norte, or across the bordering hills and plains, but the sierra which separates the waters of this river and those of the Rio Pecos was always visible on our left. In some places it is cut up into detached ridges, one of which is known as Sierra Blanca, in consequence of its summit's being covered with snow till late in the spring, and having all


the appearance of a glittering white cloud. There is another still more picturesque ridge further south, called Los Organos, consisting of an immense cliff of basaltic pillars, which bear some resemblance to the pipes of an organ, whence the mountain derived its name. Both these sierras are famous as being the strongholds of the much-dreaded Apaches.

     The mountains from El Paso northward are mostly clothed with pine, cedar, and a dwarfish species of oak. The valleys are timbered with cottonwood, and occasionally with mezquite, which, however, is rarely found higher up than the lower settlements of New Mexico. In the immediate vicinity of El Paso there is another small growth called tornillo (or screw-wood), so denominated from a spiral pericarp, which, though different in shape, resembles that of the mezquite in flavor. The plains and highlands generally are of a prairie character, and do not differ materially from those of all Northern Mexico, which are almost everywhere completely void of timber.

     One of the most useful plants to the people of El Paso is the lechuguilla, which abounds on the hills and mountain sides of that vicinity, as well as in many other places from thence southward. Its blades, which resemble those of the palmilla, being mashed, scraped and washed, afford very strong fibres like the common Manilla sea-grass, and equally serviceable for the manufacture of ropes, and other purposes.


     After leaving El Paso, our road branched off at an angle of about two points to the westward of the river, the city of Chihuahua being situated nearly a hundred miles to the west of it. At the distance of about thirty miles we reached Los Medanos, a stupendous ledge of sand-hills, across which the road passes for about six miles. As teams are never able to haul the loaded wagons over this region of loose sand, we engaged an atajo of mules at El Paso, upon which to convey our goods across. These Medanos consist of huge hillocks and ridges of pure sand, in many places without a vestige of vegetation. Through the lowest gaps between the hills, the road winds its way.

     What renders this portion of the route still more unpleasant and fatiguing, is the great scarcity of water. All that is to be found on the road for the distance of more than sixty miles after leaving El Paso, consists in two fetid springs or pools, whose water is only rendered tolerable by necessity. A little further on, however, we very unexpectedly encountered, this time, quite a superabundance of this necessary element. Just as we passed Lake Patos, we were struck with astonishment at finding the road ahead of us literally overflowed by an immense body of water, with a brisk current, as if some great river had suddenly been conjured into existence by the aid of supernatural arts. A considerable time elapsed before we could unravel the mystery. At last we discovered that a freshet had lately occur-


red in the streams that fed Lake Patos, and caused it to overflow its banks, which accounted for this unwelcome visitation. We had to flounder through the mud and water for several hours, before we succeeded in getting across.

     The following day we reached the acequia below Carrizal, a small village with only three or four hundred inhabitants, but somewhat remarkable as being the site of a presidio (fort), at which is stationed a company of troops to protect the country against the ravages of the Apaches, who, notwithstanding, continue to lay waste the ranchos in the vicinity, and to depredate at will within the very sight of the fort.

     About twelve miles south of Carrizal there is one of the most charming warm springs called Ojo Caliente, where we arrived the next day. It forms a basin some thirty feet long by about half that width, and just deep and warm enough for a most delightful bath at all seasons of the year. Were this spring (whose outlet forms a bold little rivulet) anywhere within the United States, it would doubtlessly soon be converted into a place of fashionable resort. There appears to be a somewhat curious phenomenon connected with this spring. It proceeds, no doubt, from the little river of Carmen which passes within half a mile, and finally discharges itself into the small lake of Patos before mentioned. All the water of this stream disappears in the sand several miles above the spring; and what medium it traverses in its subterranean passage to impart


to it so high a temperature, before breaking out in this fountain, would afford to the geologist an interesting subject of inquiry.

     After fording the Rio Carmen, which, though usually without a drop of water in its channel, we now found a very turbulent stream, we did not meet with any object particularly worthy of remark, until we reached the Laguna de Encinillas. This lake is ten or twelve miles long by two or three in width, and seems to have no outlet even during the greatest freshets, though fed by several small constant flowing streams from the surrounding mountains. The water of this lake during the dry season is so strongly impregnated with nauseous and bitter salts, as to render it wholly unpalatable to man and beast. The most predominant of these noxious substances is a species of alkali, known there by the title of tequesquite. It is often seen oozing out from the surface of marshy grounds, about the table plains of all Northern Mexico, forming a grayish crust, and is extensively used in the manufacture of soap, and sometimes by the bakers even for raising bread. Here we had another evidence of the alarming effects of the recent flood, the road for several miles along the margin of the lake being completely inundated. It was, however, in the city of Chihuahua itself that the disastrous consequences of the freshet were most severely felt Some inferior houses of adobe were so much soaked by the rains, that they tumbled to the ground, occasioning the loss of several lives


     The valley of Encinillas is very extensive and fertile, and is the locale of one of those princely estates which are so abundant further south, and known by the name of Haciendas. It abounds in excellent pasturage, and in cattle of all descriptions. In former times, before the Apaches had so completely devastated the' country, the herds which grazed in this beautiful valley presented much the appearance of the buffalo of the plains, being almost as wild and generally of dark color. Many of the proprietors of these princely haciendas pride themselves in maintaining a uniformity in the color of their cattle: thus some are found stocked with black, others red, others white or whatsoever shade the owner may have taken a fancy to.

     As we drew near to Chihuahua, our party had more the appearance of a funeral procession than of a band of adventurers about to enter into the full fruition of 'dancing hopes,' and the realization of 'golden dreams.' Every one was uneasy as to what might be the treatment of the revenue officers. For my own part, I had not quite forgotten sundry annoyances and trials of temper I had been made to experience in the season of 1837, on a similar occasion. Much to our surprise, however, as well as delight, we were handled with a degree of leniency by the custom-house deities, on our arrival, that was almost incomprehensible. But the charm which operated in our favor, when understood, was very simple. A caravan had left Chihuahua direct


for the United States the spring previous, and was daily expected back. The officers of the custom-house were already compromised by certain cogent arguments to receive the proprietors of this caravan with striking marks of favor, and the Senor Administrador de Rentas, Zuloaga himself, was expecting an ancheta of goods. Therefore, had they treated us with their wonted severity, the contrast would have been altogether too glaring.

     We arrived at Chihuahua on the first of October, after a trip of forty days, with wagons much more heavily laden than when we started from the United States. The whole distance from Santa Fe to Chihuahua is about 550 miles, being reckoned 320 to Paso del Norte, and 230 from thence to Chihuahua. The road from El Paso south is mostly firm and beautiful, with the exception of the sandhills before spoken of; and is only rendered disagreeable by the scarcity and occasional ill savor of the water. The route winds over an elevated plain among numerous detached ridges of low mountains spurs, as it were, of the main Cordilleras, which lie at a considerable distance to the westward. Most of these extensive intermediate plains, though in many places of fertile looking soil must remain wholly unavailable for agricultural purposes, on account of their natural aridity and a total lack of water for irrigation.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

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