COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume II



From Chihuahua to Aguascalientes, in 1835 — Southern Trade and Ferias — Hacienda de la Zarca, and its innumerable Stock — Rio Nazas, and Lakes without outlet — Perennial Cotton — Exactions for Water and Pasturage — Village of Churches — City of Durango and its Peculiarities — Persecution of Scorpions — Negroship in the ascendant — Robbers and their modus operandi — City of Aguascalientes — Bathing Scene —Haste to return to the North - Mexican Mule-shoeing — Difficulties and Perplexities — A Friend in time of need — Reach Zacatecas — City Accommodations — Hotels unfashionable — Locale, Fortifications, etc. of the City of Zacatecas — Siege by Santa Anna and his easy-won Victory — At Durango again — Civil Warfare among the 'Sovereigns' — Hair-breadth 'scapes —Troubles of the Road — Safe Arrival at Chihuahua — Character of the Southern Country.

     THE patient reader who may have accompanied me thus far, without murmuring at the dryness of some of the details, will perhaps pardon me for presenting here a brief account of a trip which I made to Aguascalientes, in the interior of Northern Mexico, in the year 1835, and which the arrangement I have adopted has prevented me from introducing before, in its chronological order.

     The trade to the South constitutes a very important branch of the commerce of the country, in which foreigners, as well as na-


tives, are constantly embarking. It is customary for most of those who maintain mercantile establishments in Chihuahua, to procure assortments of Mexican fabrics from the manufactories of Leon, Aguascalientes, and other places of the same character in the more southern districts of the republic. At certain seasons of the year, there are held regular ferias, at which the people assemble in great numbers, as well of sellers as of purchasers. There are some eight or ten of these annual fairs held in the republic, each of which usually lasts a week or more. It was about as much, however, from a desire to behold the sunny districts of the South, as for commercial purposes, that I undertook this expedition in 1835; and as my engagements have not permitted me to revisit this section since, the few notes of interest I was then able to collect, seem to come more appropriately in this part of my work than in any other place that I could readily select.

     I set out from Chihuahua on the 26th of February, 1835. My party consisted of four men (including myself) and two empty wagons, not a very formidable escort to protect our persons as well as specie and bullion (the only transmissible currency of the country) against the bands of robbers which at all times infest that portion of our route that lay south of Durango. From Chihuahua to that city the road was rendered still more perilous by the constant hostilities of the Indians. On the 7th of March, however, we arrived, with-


out accident, at the town of Cerro Gordo, the northernmost settlement in the department of Durango; and the following day we reached La Zarca, which is the principal village of one of the most extensive haciendas in the North. So immense is the amount of cattle on this estate, that, as it was rumored, the proprietor once offered to sell the whole hacienda, stock, etc., for the consideration alone of fifty cents for each head of cattle found on the estate; but that no person has ever yet been able or willing to muster sufficient capital to take up the offer. It is very likely, however, that if such a proposition was ever made, the proprietor intended to include all his stock of rats and mice, reptiles and insects — in short, every genus of 'small cattle' on his premises. This estate covers a territory of perhaps a hundred miles in length, which comprises several flourishing villages.

     In two days more, we reached Rio Nazas, a beautiful little river that empties itself into Lake Cayman.* Rio Nazas has been celebrated for the growth of cotton, which, owing to the mildness of the climate, is sometimes planted fresh only every three or four years. The light frosts of winter seldom destroy more than the upper portion of the stalk, so that

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* The numerous little lakes throughout the interior of Mexico without outlet, yet into which rivers are continually flowing, present a phenomenon which seems quite singular to the inhabitants of our humid climates. But the wastage in the sand and still greater by evaporation in those elevated dry regions, is such that there are no important rises in the lakes except during unusual freshets.


the root is almost perennial. About twenty five miles further, we stopped at the mining village of La Noria, where we were obliged to purchase water for our mules — a novel expense to the American travellers, but scarcely to be complained of, inasmuch as the water had to be drawn from wells with a great deal of labor. It is not unusual, also, for the proprietors of haciendas to demand remuneration for the pasturage on the open plains, consumed by the animals of travellers a species of exaction which one never hears of in the North of Mexico.

     Our next stopping-place was Cuencame, which may well be called the Village of Churches: for, although possessing a very small population, there are five or six edifices of this description. As I had business to transact at Durango, which is situated forty or fifty miles westward of the main Southern road, I now pursued a direct route for that city, where I arrived on the 16th of March.

     Durango is one of the handsomest cities in the North, with a population of about 20,000. It is situated in a level plain, surrounded in every direction by low mountains. It presents two or three handsome squares, with many fine edifices and some really splendid churches. The town is supplied with water for irrigating the gardens, and for many other ordinary purposes, by several open aqueducts, which lead through the streets, from a large spring, a mile or



two distant; but as these are kept filthy by the offal that is thrown into them, the inhabitants who are able to buy it, procure most of their water for drinking and culinary purposes, from the aguadores, who pack it, on asses, usually in large jars, from the spring.

     This is the first Northern city in which there is to be found any evidence of that variety of tropical fruits, for which Southern Mexico is so justly famed. Although it was rather out of season, yet the market actually teemed with all that is most rich and exquisite in this kind of produce. The maguey from which is extracted the popular beverage called pulque,* is not only cultivated extensively in the fields, but grows wild everywhere upon the plains. This being the height of the pulque season, a hundred shanties might be seen loaded with jugs and goblets filled with this favorite liquor, from its sweetest unferrmented state to the grade of 'hard cider;' while the incessant cries of "Pulque! pulque dulce! pulque bueno!" added to the shrill and discordant notes of the fruit venders, created a confusion of

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* Also, from the Pulque is distilled a spiritous liquor called mezcal. The maguey (Agave Americana) is besides much used for hedging. It here performs the double purpose of a cheap and substantial fence, and of being equally valuable for pulque. When no longer serviceable in these capacities, the pulpy stalk is converted, by roasting, into a pleasant item of food, with the fibrous blades being suitably dressed, are still more useful. They are manufactured into ropes, bags, etc., which resemble those made of the common sea-grass, though the fibres are finer. There is one species (which does not produce pulque, however), whose fibres known in that country as pita, are nearly as fine as dressed hemp and are generally used for sewing shoes, saddlery, and similar purposes.


sounds amidst which it was impossible to hear oneself talk.

     Durango is also celebrated as being the head-quarters, as it were, of the whole scorpion family. During the spring, especially, so much are the houses infested by these poisonous insects, that many people are obliged to have resort to a kind of mosquito bar, in order to keep them out of their beds at night. As an expedient to deliver the city from this terrible pest, a society has actually been formed, which pays a reward of a cuartilla (three cents) for every alacran (or scorpion) that is brought to them. Stimulated by the desire of gain, the idle boys of the city are always on the look-out: so that, in the course of a year, immense numbers of this public enemy are captured and slaughtered. The body of this insect is of the bulk and cast of a medium spider, with a jointed tail one to two inches long, at the end of which is a sting whose wounds are so poisonous as often to prove fatal to children, and are very painful to adults.

     The most extraordinary peculiarity of these scorpions is, that they are far less dangerous in the North than in the South, which in some manner accounts for the story told Capt. Pike, that even those of Durango lose most of their venom as soon as they are moved a few miles from the city.

     Although we were exceedingly well armed, yet so many fearful stories of robberies said to be committed, almost daily, on the Southern roads, reached my ears, that before


leaving Durango, I resolved to add to my weapons of defence one of those peculiarly terrible dogs which are sometimes to be found in this country, and which are very serviceable to travellers situated as I was. Having made my wishes known to a free negro from the United States, named George, he recommended me to a custom-house officer, and a very particular friend of his, as being possessed of the very article I was in search of. I accordingly called at the house of that functionary, in company with my sable informant, and we were ushered into a handsome parlor, where two or three well-dressed senoritas sat discussing some of the fruitful topics of the day. One of them — the officer's wife, as it appeared, and a very comely dame she was — rose immediately, and, with a great deal of ceremonious deference, saluted Senor Don Jorge, inviting him at the same time to a seat, while I was left to remain perfectly unnoticed in my standing position. George appeared considerably embarrassed, for he had not quite forgotten the customs and manners of his native country, and was even yet in the habit of treating Americans not only with respect but with humility. He therefore declined the tendered distinction, and remarked that 'el senor' had only come to purchase their dog. Upon this, the lady pointed to a kennel in a corner, when the very first glimpse of the ferocious animal convinced me that he was precisely the sort of a customer I wanted for a companion. Having therefore paid


down six dollars, the stipulated sum of purchase, I bowed myself out of the presence of the ladies, not a little impressed with my own insignificance, in the eyes of these fair donas, contrasted with the grandeur of my sable companion. But the popularity of negroes in Northern Mexico has ceased to be a matter of surprise to the traveller.

     With regard to Don Jorge, if I was surprised at the marks of attention paid him by a white lady, I had cause to be much more astonished shorty after. As the sooty don was lounging about my wagons, a clever visaged youth approached and placed in his hands a satin stock, with the compliments of his sister (the officer's wife), hoping that he would receive that trifle, wrought by her own hand, as a token of her particular regard! But, notwithstanding these marks of distinction (to apply no harsher epithet), George was exceedingly anxious to engage in my employ, in whatsoever capacity I might choose to take him; for he had discovered that such honors were far from affording him a livelihood: yet I did not then need his services, and have never heard of him since.

     On the 22d we left Durango, and after a few days' march found ourselves once more in the camino real that led from Chihuahua to Zacatecas. All the frightful stories I had heard about robbers now began to flash upon my memory, which made me regard every man I encountered on the road with a very suspicious eye. As all travellers go armed, it


is impossible to distinguish them from banditti;* so that the unsuspecting traveller is very frequently set upon by the very man he had been consorting with in apparent good-fellowship, and either murdered on the spot, or dragged from his horse with the lazo, and plundered of all that is valuable about him.

     I have heard it asserted that there is a regular bandit trade organized throughout the country, in which some of the principal officers of state (and particularly of the judicial corps) are not unfrequently engaged. A capital is made up by shares, as for any other enterprise, bandits are fitted out and instructed where to operate, and at stated periods of the year a regular dividend is paid to the stockholders. The impunity which these 'gentlemen of the order' almost everywhere enjoy in the country, is therefore not to be marvelled at. In Durango, during my sojourn there, a well dressed caballero was frequently in the habit of entering our meson, whom mine host soon pointed out to me as a notorious brigand. "Beware of him," said the honest publican; "he is prying into your affairs" — and so it turned out; for my muleteer informed me that the fellow had been trying to pump from him all the particulars in regard to our condition and destination. Yet this worthy was not only suffered to prowl about unmolested

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* Travellers on these public highways not only go 'armed to the teeth,' but always carry their weapons exposed. Even my wagoners carried their guns and pistols swung upon the pommels of their saddles. At night, as we generally camped out, they were laid under our heads, or close by our sides.


by the authorities, but appeared to he on familiar terms with many of the principal dignitaries of the city. Notwithstanding all our apprehensions, however, we arrived at our place of destination without even the novelty of an incident to swell our budget of gossip.

     The city of Aguascalientes is beautifully situated in a level plain, and would appear to contain about twenty thousand inhabitants, who are principally engaged in the manufacture of rebozos and other textures mostly of cotton. As soon as I found myself sufficiently at leisure I visited the famous warm spring, (ojo caliente) in the suburbs, from which the city derives its euphonious name. I followed up the acequia that led from the spring — a ditch four or five feet wide, through which flowed a stream three or four feet in depth. The water was precisely of that agreeable temperature to afford the luxury of a good bath, which I had hoped to enjoy; but every few paces I found men, women, and children, submerged in the acequia; and when I arrived at the basin, it was so choked up with girls and full-grown women, who were paddling about with all the nonchalance of a gang of ducks, that I was forced to relinquish my long-promised treat.

     It had been originally my intention to continue on to Leon, another manufacturing town some seventy or eighty miles from Aguascalientes; but, hearing that Santa Anna had just arrived there with a large army, on his way to Zacatecas to quell an insurrection, I


felt very little curiosity to extend my rambles further. Having, therefore, made all my purchases in the shortest possible time, in a few days I was again in readiness to start for the North.

     That my mules might be in condition for the hard travel before me, it was necessary to have them shod: a precaution, however, which is seldom used in the north of Mexico, either with mules or horses. Owing a little to the peculiar breed, but more still no doubt to the dryness of the climate, Mexican animals have unusually hard hoofs. Many will travel for weeks, and even months, over the firm* and often rocky roads of the interior (the pack mules carrying their huge loads), without any protection whatever to the feet, save that which nature has provided. But most of mine being a little tender-footed, I engaged Mexican herreros to fit them out in their own peculiar style. Like almost everything else of their manufacturing, their mule-shoes are of a rather primitive model — broad thin plates, tacked on with large club-headed nails. But the expertness of the shoers compensated in some degree for the defects of the herraduras. It made but little odds how wild and vicious the mule — an assistant would draw up his foot in an instant, and soon place him hors de combat; and then fixing a nail, the shoer

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* Some of these table-plain highways, though of but a dry sandy and clayey soil, are as firm as a brick pavement. In some places, for miles, I have remarked that the nail-heads of my shod animals would hardly leave any visible impression.


would drive it to the head at a single stroke, standing usually at full arm's length, while the assistant held the foot. Thus in less than half the time I had ever witnessed the execution of a similar job before, they had completely shod more than twenty of the most unruly brutes without once resorting to the expedient so usuaI in such cases, of throwing the animals upon the ground.

     Just as the process of shoeing my mules had been completed, a person who proved to be a public officer entered the corral, and pointing to the mules, very politely informed me that they were wanted by the government to transport troops to Zacatecas. "They will be called for to-morrow afternoon," he continued; "let them not be removed!" I had of course to bow acquiescence to this imperative edict, well knowing that all remonstrance would be vain; yet fully determined to be a considerable distance on the road northward before that 'morrow' should be very far advanced.

     But a new difficulty now presented itself. I must procure a guia or passport for my cargo of merchandise, with a responsible endorser, — an additional imposition I was wholly unprepared for, as I was hen ignorant of any law to that effect being in force, and had not a single acquaintance in the city. I was utterly at a loss what to do: under any other circumstances I might have left the amount of the derecho de consumo in deposit, as others have been obliged to do on similar occasions; but


unfortunately I had laid out the last dollar of my available means.

     As I left the custom-house brooding over these perplexities, one of the principal clerks of the establishment slipped a piece of paper into my hand containing the following laconic notice: — Aguardeme afuera" (wait for me without); — an injunction I passively obeyed, although I had not the least idea of its purport. The clerk was soon with me, and remarked, "You are a stranger in the city, and ignorant of our severe revenue laws: meet me in an hour from this at my lodgings, and we will dispense some remedy for your difficulties." It may be well supposed that I did not fail to be punctual. I met the obliging officer in his room with a handful of blank customhouse pases. It should be understood that a pase only differs from a guia in requiring no endorser, but they can only be extended for amounts of goods not exceeding fifty dollars. Taking my bill, he very soon filled me up a pase for every package, directing each to a different point in the North. "Now," observed my amiable friend, "if you are disposed to do a little smuggling, these will secure your safety, if you avoid the principal cities, till you reach the borders of Chihuahua: if not, you may have a friend on the way who will endorse your guia." I preferred the latter alternative. I had formed an acquaintance with a worthy German merchant in Durango, who I felt convinced, would generously lend his signature to the required document.


     As the revenue officers of Northern Mexico are not celebrated for liberality and disinterestedness, I took it for granted that my friend of the custom-house was actuated by selfish motives, and therefore proffered him a remuneration for the trouble he had taken on my account; but to my surprises he positively refused accepting anything, observing that he held it the duty of every honest man to assist his fellow creatures in case of difficulty. It is truly a pleasant task to hear record of such instances of disinterestedness, in the midst of so many contaminating influences.

     While speaking of guias, I may as well remark that they are also frequently required for specie and always for bullion. This is often very annoying to the traveller, not only because it is sometimes inconvenient to find an endorser, but because the robbers are thus enabled to obtain precise and timely information of the funds and route of every traveller; for they generally have their agents in all the principal cities, who are apt to collude with some of the custom-house clerks, and thus procure regular reports of the departures, with the amounts of valuables conveyed.

     I was not long in taking leave of Aguascalientes, and heard nothing more of the impressment of my mules. It was not my good fortune, however, to remain for any length of time out of trouble. Being anxious to take the city of Zacatecas in my route without jeoparding my goods, I took passage by the diligencia while my wagons continued on in


the camino real or main road. On my arrival at Zacatecas, I very soon discovered that by leaving 'my bed and board' behind with the wagons, I had doomed myself to no small inconvenience and privation. It was with the greatest difficulty I could obtain a place to lie upon, and clean victuals with which to allay my hunger. I could get a room, it is true, even for a real per day, in one of those great barn-like mesones which are to be met within all these cities, but not one of them was at all furnished. There is sometimes, in a corner, a raised platform of mud, much resembling a common blacksmith's hearth, which is to supply the place of a bedstead, upon which the traveller may spread his blankets, if he happen to have any. On this occasion I succeeded in borrowing one or two of the stagedriver who was a Yankee, and so made out 'pretty comfortably' in the sleeping way. These mesones are equally ill-prepared to furnish food for the traveller, unless he is willing to put up with a dish of frijoles and chili guisado with tortillas, all served up in the most filthy manner. I therefore sought out a public fonda kept by an Italian, where I procured an excellent supper. Fondas, however, are mere restaurants, and consequently without accommodations for lodging.

     Strange as the fact may appear, one may travel fifteen hundred miles, and perhaps more, on the main public highway through Northern Mexico, without finding a single tavern with general accommodations. This, however, may


be accounted for, by taking into consideration the peculiar mode of travelling of the country, which renders resorts of this kind almost unnecessary. Arrieros with their atajos of pack mules always camp out, being provided with their cooks and stock of provisions, which they carry with them. Ordinary travellers generally unite in little caravans, for security against robbers and marauders; and no caballero ever stirs abroad without a train of servants, and a pack-mule to carry his cantinas (a pair of large wallets or leathern boxes), filled with provisions, on the top of which is lashed a huge machine containing a mattress and all the other 'fixings' for bed furniture. Thus equipped, the caballero snaps his fingers at all the hotels garnis of the universe, and is perfectly independent in every movement.

     The city of Zacatecas, as my readers are doubtless aware, is celebrated for its mining interests. Like all other Mexican towns of the same class, it originated in small, insignificant settlements on the hillsides, in the immediate vicinity of the mines, until it gradually grew up to be a large and wealthy city, with a population of some 30,000 inhabitants. Its locale is a deep ravine formed among rugged mountain ridges; and as the houses are mostly built in rows, overtopping one another, along the hillsides, some portions of the city present all the appearance of a vast amphitheatre. Many of the streets are handsomely paved, and two of the squares are finely ornamented with curiously carved jets-d'eau,


which are supplied with water raised by mule power, from wells among the adjacent hills. From these the city is chiefly furnished with water.

     I have already mentioned, that General Santa Anna was at this time marching against Zacatecas with a large force. It may be remembered that after the General's accession to the supreme authority of Mexico (upon the establishment of Centralissimo), he deemed it expedient to issue a decree abolishing the state militia, known as Civicos, as being dangerous to the liberties of —— the dictador. Zacatecanos, so far from obeying this despotic mandate, publicly called on the Civicos to defend their rights, and Santa Anna was now descending upon them with an army double that which the city could raise, to enforce their obedience. The Zacatecanos, however, were not idle. The militia was pouring in from the surrounding villages, and a degree of enthusiasm prevailed throughout the city, which seemed to be the presage of a successful defence. In fact, the city itself, besides being from its location almost impregnable, was completely protected by artificial fortifications. The only accessible point was by the main road, which led from the south immediately up the narrow valley of the ravine. Across this a strong wall had been erected some years before, and the road passed through a large gate, commanded by a bastion upon the hillside above, whence a hundred men well supplied with arms and ammunition, might easily cut


off thousands upon thousands, as fast as they advanced. The city was therefore deemed impregnable, and being supplied with provisions for a lengthy siege, the patriots were in high spirits. A foreign engineer or two had been engaged to superintend the fortifications.

     Santa Anna reached Zacatecas a few days after my departure. As he had no idea of testing the doubtful mettle of his army by an attempt to storm the place which presented so formidable an appearance, he very quietly squatted himself down at the village of Guadalupe, three miles below. From this point he commenced his operations by throwing 'missiles' into the city — not of lead, or cast iron, or any such cruel agents of warfare, but bombs of paper, which fell among the besieged, and burst with gentle overtures to their commanding officers. This novel 'artillery' of the dictator produced a perfectly electric effect; for the valor of the Commandant of the Civicos rose to such a pitch, that he at once marched his forces out of the fortifications, to attack the besiegers in the open field — face to face, as true bravery required. But on the very first onset, this valiant officer, by some mysterious agency which could not be accounted for, was suddenly seized with a strange panic, and, with all his forces, made a precipitate retreat, fleeing helter-skelter, as if all the engines of destruction that were ever invented, had been brought to bear upon them; when the victorious army of Santa Anna marched into the city without further opposition.


This affair is a pretty just sample of most of the successful battles of this 'great general.' The treacherous collusion of the principal Zacatecas officers was so apparent, that they deemed it prudent to fly the city for safety, lest the wrath of their incensed fellow-citizens should explode upon them. Meanwhile the soldiery amused themselves by sacking the city, and by perpetrating every species of outrage that their mercenary and licentious appetites could devise. Their savage propensities were particularly exercised against the few foreigners that were found in the place.

     By this time I was journeying very leisurely towards Durango, where I arrived on the 21st of April. As the main wagon road to the north does not pass through that city, it was most convenient and still more prudent for me to leave my wagons at a distance: their entrance would have occasioned the confiscation of my goods, for the want of the 'necessary documents,' as already alluded to. But I now procured a guia without further difficulty; which was indeed a principal object of my present visit to that city.

     Before leaving Durango I witnessed one of those civil broils which are so common in Mexico. I was not even aware that any difficulty had been brewing, till I was waked on the morning of the 25th by a report of firearms. Stepping out to ascertain what was the matter, I perceived the azotea of the parochial church occupied by armed men, who seemed to be employed in amusing them-


selves by discharging their guns at random upon the people in the streets. These bravos, as I was afterwards informed, belonged to the bishop's party, or that of the Escoceses, which was openly at war with the liberalists, antihierarchists, or Yorkinos, and were resorting to this summary mode of proceeding, in order to bring about a change of affairs; for at this time the liberal party had the ascendancy in the civil government of Durango.

     Being somewhat curious to have a nearer view of what was going on, I walked down past the church, towards a crowd which was assembled in a plaza beyond. This movement on my part was rather inconsiderate: for foreigners were in extremely bad odor with the belligerents; nor had I mingled with the multitude many minutes, before a sober-looking citizen plucked me by the sleeve, and advised me, if I valued my two ears, and did not wish to have my career of usefulness cut short prematurely, to stay within doors. Of course I needed no further persuasion, and returned at once to my lodgings, where I made immediate preparations for a speedy departure. As I was proceeding through the streets soon afterward, with a cargo of goods I received, just after leaving the custom-house, a very warm salutation from the belligerents, which made the dust start from almost under my very feet. The cargadores who were carrying my packages were no doubt as much frightened as myself. They supposed the reason of their shooting at us to be be-


cause they imagined we were carrying off the parque (ammunition) of the government, which was deposited in the building we had just left.

     We were soon under way, and very little regret did I feel when I fairly lost sight of the city of scorpions. But I was not yet wholly beyond the pale of difficulties. Owing to the fame of the Indian hostilities in the North, it was almost impossible to procure the services of Mexican muleteers for the expedition. One I engaged, took the first convenient opportunity to escape at night, carrying away a gun with which I had armed him; yet I felt grateful that he did not also take a mule, as he had the whole caballada under his exclusive charge: and soon after, a Mexican wagoner was frightened back by the reports of savages.

     After a succession of such difficulties, and still greater risks from the Indians that infested the route, I was of course delighted when I reached Chihuahua, on the 14th of May, in perfect safety.*

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*The distance from Chihuahua to Durango is about five hundred miles, and from thence to Aguascalientes it is nearly three hundred — upon the route we travelled, which was very circuitous. The intermediate country resembles, in its physical features, that lying immediately north of Chihuahua, which has already been described.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

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