COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume I



Domestic Animals and their Condition Indifference on the subject of Horse-breeding Caballos de Silla Popularity and Usefulness of the Mule Mode of harnessing and lading Mules for a Journey Arrieros and their System The Mulera or Bell-mare Surprising Feats of the Muleteers and Vaqueros The Lazo and its uses Ridiculous Usages of the Country in regard to the Ownership of Animals Anecdote of a Mexican Colonel The Burro or Domestic Ass and its Virtues Shepherds and their Habits The Itinerant Herds of the Plains Sagacity of the Shepherds' Dogs The Sheep Trade Destruction of Cattle by the Indians Philosophical Notions Of the Marauders Excellent Mutton Goats and their Utility Wild Animals and their Character A 'Bear Scrape' Wolves, Panthers, Wild Birds and Reptiles The Honey-bee, etc.

     NOTHING that has come within my sphere of observation in New Mexico, has astonished me more than the little attention that is paid to the improvement of domestic animals. While other nations have absolutely gone mad in their endeavors to better their breeds of horses, and have ransacked the four quarters of the world for the best blood and purest pedigrees, the New Mexicans, so justly celebrated for skilful horsemanship, and so much devoted to equestrian exercise, that they have been styled a race of centaurs, leave the propagation of their horses exclusively to


chance, converting their best and handsomest steeds into saddle-horses.

     Their race of horses is identical with that which is found running wild on the Prairies, familiarly known by the name of mustang. Although generally very small, they are quick, active and spirited; and were they not commonly so much injured in the breaking, they would perhaps be as hardy and long-lived as any other race in existence. Some of their caballos de silla, or saddle-horses are so remarkably well trained, that they will stop suddenly upon the slightest check, charge against a wall without shrinking, and even attempt to clamber up its sides. In addition to this, a complete riding horse should have a peculiar up and down gait affording all the exercise of the most violent trotter, while he gets over the ground so slowly as to enable the caballero to enjoy the 'pleasures' of a fatiguing ride of hours, without losing sight of his mistress's balcony.

     The little attention paid to the breeding of horses in New Mexico, may perhaps be accounted for from the fact that, until lately, when the continued depredations of the hostile Indians discouraged them from their favorite pursuit, the people of the country had bestowed all their care in the raising of mules. This animal is in fact to the Mexican, what the camel has always been to the Arab invaluable for the transportation of freight over sandy deserts and mountainous roads, where no other means of conveyance could be used to


such advantage. These mules will travel for hundreds of miles with a load of the most bulky and unwieldy articles, weighing frequently three or four hundred pounds.

     The Aparejo (or pack-saddle, if it can be so styled), is a large pad, consisting of a leathern case stuffed with hay, which covers the back of the mule and extends half way down on both sides. This is secured with a wide seagrass bandage, with which the poor brute is so tightly laced as to reduce the middle of its body to half its natural size. During the operation of lacing, the corseted quadruped stands trembling in perfect agony, not an inapt emblem of some fashionable exquisites who are to be met with lounging on tip-toe, in all the principal thoroughfares of large cities.

Mexican Arrieros with an Atajo of Pack-Mules     The muleteers contend that a tightly laced beast, will travel, or at least support burdens with greater ease; and though they carry this to an extreme, still we can hardly doubt that a reasonable tension supports and braces the muscles. It is necessary too for the aparejo to be firmly bound on to prevent its slipping and chafing the mule's back; indeed, with all these precautions, the back, withers and sides of the poor brute are often horribly mangled so much so that I have seen the rib-bones bare, from day to day, while carrying a usual load of three hundred pounds! The aparejo is also furnished with a huge crupper, which often lacerates the tail most shockingly. It is this packing that leaves most of the lasting cicatrices and marks common upon Mexican mules.


     The carga, if a single package, is laid across the mule's back, but when composed of two, they are placed lengthwise, side by side, and being coupled with a cord, they are bound upon the aparejo with a long rope of seagrass or raw-hide, which is so skilfully and tensely twined about the packages as effectually to secure them upon the animal. The mule is at first so tightly bound that it seems scarcely able to move; but the weight of the pack soon settles the aparejo, and so loosens the girths and cords, frequently to render it necessary to tighten them again soon after getting under way. It keeps most of the muleteers actively employed during the day, to maintain the packs in condition; for they often lose their balance and sometimes fall off. This is done without detaining the atajo (drove of pack-mules), the rest of which travel on while one is stopped to adjust its disordered pack. Indeed it is apt to occasion much trouble to stop a heavily laden atajo; for if allowed a moment's rest the mules are inclined to lie down, when it is with much difficulty they can rise again with their loads. In their efforts to do so they sometimes so strain their loins as to injure them ever after. The day's travel is made without a nooning respite; for the consequent unloading and reloading would consume too much time: and as a heavily packed atajo should rarely continue en route more than five or six hours, the jornada de recua (day's journey of a pack-drove) is usually but twelve or fifteen miles.


     It is truly remarkable to observe with what dexterity and skill the Arrieros, or muleteers, harness and adjust the packs of merchandise Upon their beasts. Half a dozen usually suffice for forty or fifty mules. Two men are always engaged at a time in the dispatch of each animal, and rarely occupy five minutes in the complete adjustment of his aparejo and carga. In this operation they frequently demonstrate a wonderful degree of skill in the application of their strength. A single man will often seize a package which, on a 'dead lift,' he could hardly have raised from the ground, and making a fulcrum of his knees and a lever of his arms and body, throw it upon the mule's back with as much apparent ease as if the effort cost him but little exertion. At stopping-places the task of unpacking is executed with still greater expedition. The packages are piled in a row upon the ground, and in case of rain the aparejos are laid upon them, over which is stretched a covering of mantas de guangoche (sheets of sea-grass texture), which protects the goods against the severest storms; a ditch also being cut around the pile, to prevent the water from running underneath. In this way freights are carried from point to point, and over the most rugged mountain passes at a much cheaper rate than foreigners can transport their merchandise in wagons, even through a level country. The cheapness of this mode of transportation arises from the very low wages paid to the arrieros, and the little expense incurred to feed


both them and the mules. The salary of the muleteer ranges from two to five dollars per month; and as their food seldom consists of anything else except corn and frijoles, it can be procured at very little cost. When the arrieros get any meat at all, it is generally at their own expense.

     An atajo is conducted in a very systematic manner, each arriero having his appropriate sphere of action allotted to him. They have also their regulations and technicalities, which, if not as numerous, are about as unintelligible to the uninitiated as sailors' terms. One person, called the savanero, has the charge of the mules at night, which are all turned loose without tether or hopple, with the mulera or bell-mare, to prevent them from straying abroad. Although the attachment of the mules to the mulera appears very great, it seems to be about as much for the bell as for the animal. What the queen-bee is to a hive, so is the mulera to an atajo. No matter what may be the temper of a mule, it can seldom be driven away from her; and if she happen to be taken from among her associates, the latter immediately become depressed and melancholy and ramble and whinny in every direction as if they were completely lost. In addition to preparing food for the party, is the office of the madre (or mother, as the cook of the company is facetiously called) to lead the mulera ahead, during the journey, after which the whole pack follows in orderly procession.


     The muleteers, as well as the vaqueros (cow-herds), are generally mounted upon swift and well-trained horses, and in their management of the animals will often perform many surprising feats, which would grace an equestrian circus in any country; such, for instance, as picking up a dollar from the ground at every pass with the horse at full gallop. But the greatest display of skill and agility consists in their dextrous use of the lazo or lareat,* which is usually made of horse-hair, or seagrass tightly twisted together, with a convenient noose at one end. Their aim is always more sure when the animal to be caught is running at full speed, for then it has no time to dodge the lareat. As soon as the noose is cast, the lazador fetches the end of his lazo a turn round the high pommel of his saddle, and by a quick manoeuvre the wildest horse is brought up to a stand or topsy-turvy at his pleasure. By this process, the head of the animal is turned towards his subduer, who, in order to obtain the mastery over him more completely, seldom fails to throw a bozal (or half-hitch, as boatmen would say) around the nose, though at full rope's length.

thin black line
* Lasso and lariat, as most usually written, are evidently corruptions of the Spanish lazo and la reata (the latter with the article la compounded), both meaning kinds of rope. I have therefore preferred retaining the orthography indicated by their etymology.

     If the object of pursuit happens to be a cow or an ox, the lazo is usually thrown about the horns instead of the neck. Two vaqueros,


each with his rope to the horns, will thus subject the wildest and most savage bull, provided they are mounted upon well-trained steeds. While the infuriated animal makes a lunge at one of his pursuers, the other wheels round and pulls upon his rope, which always brings the beast about in the midst of his career; so that between the two he is jerked to and fro till he becomes exhausted and ceases to make any further resistance. The use of the lazo is not confined to the arrieros and vaqueros, although these generally acquire most skill in that exercise: it prevails in every rank of life; and no man, especially among the rancheros, would consider his education complete until he had learned this national accomplishment. They acquire it in fact from infancy; for it forms one of the principal rural sports of children, who may daily be seen with their lazitos noosing the dogs and chickens about the yards, in every direction.

     The lazo is often employed also as a 'weapon' both offensive and defensive. In skirmishes with the Indians, the mounted vaquero, if haplessly without arms, will throw this formidable object round the neck or the body of his enemy, who, before he has time to disencumber himself, is jerked to the ground and dragged away at full speed; when, if his brains are not beaten out against the stones, roots, or trees, he becomes at least so stunned and disabled that the lazador can dispatch him at his leisure. The panther, the bear, and other ferocious animals of the mountains and


prairies, are also successfully attacked in this manner.

     The laws and customs of the country with regard to the ownership of animals are very annoying to the inexperienced foreign traveller. No matter how many proprietors a horse or mule may have had, every one marks him with a huge hieroglyphic brand, which is called the fierro, and again, upon selling him, with his venta, or sale-brand; until at last these scars become so multiplied as to render it impossible for persons not versed in this species of 'heraldry,' to determine whether the animal has been properly vented or not; yet any fierro without its corresponding venta lays the beast liable to the claim of the brander. Foreigners are the most frequently subjected to this kind of imposition; and when a party of estrangeros enters any of the southern towns, they are immediately surrounded by a troop of loungers, who carefully examine every horse and mule; when, should they by chance discover any unvented brand, they immediately set to work to find some one with a branding-iron of the same shape, by which the beast is at once claimed and taken; for in all legal processes the only proof required of the claimant is his fierro, or branding-iron, which, if found to assimilate in shape with the mark on the animal, decides the suit in his favor. A colonel in Chihuahua once claimed a mule of me in this manner, but as I was convinced that I had bought it of the legitimate owner, I refused to give it up. The officer, unwilling

Page 187 THE BURRO.

to lose his prize, started immediately for the alcalde, in hopes of inducing that functionary to lend him the aid of the law; but during his absence I caused the shoulder of the animal to be shorn, so that the venta became distinctly visible. As soon as the discovery was made known to the colonel and his judge, they made a precipitate exit, as though conscious of detected fraud.

     But while I fully acknowledge the pretensions of the mule, as an animal of general usefulness, I must not forget paying a passing tribute to that meek and unostentatious member of the brute family, the 'patient ass;' or, as it is familiarly called by the natives, el burro. This docile creature is here emphatically the 'poor man's friend,' being turned to an infinite variety of uses, and always submissive under the heaviest burdens. He is not only made to carry his master's grain, his fuel, his water, and his luggage, but his wife and his children. Frequently the whole family is stowed away together upon one diminutive donkey. In fact, the chief riding animal of the peasant is the burro, upon which saddle, bridle, or halter, is seldom used. The rider, seated astride his haunches instead of his back, guides the docile beast with a bludgeon which he carries in his hand.

     Nothing, perhaps, has been more systematically attended to in New Mexico than the raising of sheep. When the territory was at the zenith of its prosperity, ranchos were to be met with upon the borders of every stream,


and in the vicinity of every mountain where water was to be had. Even upon the arid and desert plains, and many miles away from brook or pond, immense flocks were driven out to pasture, and only taken to water once in two or three days. On these occasions it is customary for the shepherds to load their burros with guages filled with water, and return again with their folds to the plains. The guage is a kind of gourd, of which there are some beautiful specimens with two bulbs, the intervening neck serving to retain the cord by which it is carried.

     These itinerant herds of sheep generally pass the night wherever the evening finds them, without cot or enclosure. Before nightfall the principal shepherd sallies forth in search of a suitable site for his hato, or temporary sheep-fold; and building a fire on the most convenient spot, the sheep generally draw near it of their own accord. Should they incline to scatter, the shepherd then seizes a torch and performs a circuit or two around the entire fold, by which manoeuvre, in their efforts to avoid him, the heads of the sheep are all turned inwards; and in that condition they generally remain till morning, without once attempting to stray. It is unnecessary to add that the flock is well guarded during the night by watchful and sagacious dogs against prowling wolves or other animals of prey. The well-trained shepherd's dog of this country is indeed a prodigy: two or three of them will follow a flock of sheep for a dis-


tance of several miles as orderly as a shepherd, and drive them back to the pen again at night without any other guidance than their own extraordinary instincts.

     In former times there were extensive proprietors who had their ranchos scattered over half the province, in some cases amounting to from three to five hundred thousand head of sheep. The custom has usually been to farm out the ewes to the rancheros, who make a return of twenty per cent. upon the stock in merchantable carneros a term applied to sheep generally, and particularly to wethers fit for market.

     Sheep may be reckoned the staple production of New Mexico, and the principal article of exportation. Between ten and twenty years ago, about 200,000 head were annually driven to the southern markets; indeed, it is asserted, that, during the most flourishing times, as many as 500,000 were exported in one year. This trade has constituted a profitable business to some of the ricos of the country. They would buy sheep of the poor rancheros at from fifty to seventy-five cents per head, and sell them at from one to two hundred per cent. advance in the southern markets. A large quantity of wool is of course produced, but of an inferior quality. Inconsiderable amounts have been introduced into the United States via Missouri, which have sometimes been sold as low as fifteen cents per pound. It is bought, however, at the New Mexican ranchos at a very low rate 


three or four cents per pound, or (as more generally sold) per fleece, which will average, perhaps, but little over a pound. Yet, from the superiority of the pasturage and climate, New Mexico might doubtless grow the finest wool in the world. In conformity with their characteristic tardiness in improvement, however, the natives have retained their original stocks, which are wretchedly degenerate. They formerly sheared their flocks chiefly for their health, and rarely preserved the fleece, as their domestic manufactures consumed but a comparatively small quantity.

     But the ganado menor, or small beasts of pasture (that is, sheep and goats in general), have of late been very much reduced in quantity, having suffered to a deplorable extent from the frequent inroads of the aboriginal 'lords of the soil,' who every now and then, whenever hunger or caprice prompts them, attack the ranchos, murder the shepherds, and drive the sheep away in flocks of thousands. Indeed, the Indians have been heard to observe, that they would long before this have destroyed every sheep in the country, but that they prefer leaving a few behind for breeding purposes, in order that their Mexican shepherds may raise them new supplies!

     The sheep of New Mexico are exceedingly small, with very coarse wool, and scarcely fit for anything else than mutton, for which, indeed, they are justly celebrated. Their flesh has a peculiarly delicious flavor, and is reckoned by epicures to be far superior to our best


venison, owing probably in part to the excellence of the grass upon which they feed. The flesh of the sheep is to the New Mexican what that of the hog is to the people of our Western States, while pork is but seldom met with in Northern Mexico. The sheep there are also remarkable for horny appendages, which frequently branch out in double or triple pairs, giving the head a very whimsical and grotesque appearance. I have seen some of them with at least six separate horns, each pointing in a different direction.

     Although the raising of goats has not been made so much of a business as the raising of sheep, the former are nevertheless to be found in great abundance. Their milk is much more generally used than that of the cow, not only because it is sweeter and richer, but because the goat, like the burro, sustains itself upon the mere rubbish that grows in the mountain passes, and on the most barren hills, where cows could not exist without being regularly fed. The flesh of the goat is coarse, but wholesome, and being cheaper than mutton or beef, it is very freely used by the poor. That of the kid is hardly surpassed for delicacy and sweetness.

     With regard to domestic fowls, it may be worthy of remark, that there is not to be found, as I believe, in all New Mexico, a single species (saving half a dozen turkeys perhaps, and a few pigeons), except the common hen, of which, however, there is a sufficient


abundance. The goose, the duck, the peacock, etc., are altogether unknown.

     Of wild animals there is not so great a variety as in the southern districts of the republic, where they are found in such abundance. The black and grizzly bear, which are met with in the mountains, do not appear to possess the great degree of ferocity, however, for which the latter especially is so much famed further north. It is true they sometimes descend from the mountains into the corn-fields, and wonderful stories are told of dreadful combats between them and the labradores; but judging from a little adventure I once witnessed, with an old female of the grizzly species, encountered by a party of us along the borders of the great prairies, I am not disposed to consider either their ferocity or their boldness very terrible. It was noon, and our company had just halted to procure some refreshment, when we perceived a group of these interesting animals, a dam with a few cubs fully as large as common wolves, busily scratching among the high grass in an adjacent valley, as if in search of roots or insects. Some of our party immediately started after the brutes, in hopes of getting a shot at them, in which, however, they were disappointed. One or two 'runners,' who had followed on horseback, then made a desperate charge upon the enemy, but the old monster fled to the thickets, without even so much as turning once upon her pursuers, although one of her cubs was killed, and the remainder

Page 193 A BEAR SCARE.

were scattered in different directions, during the general scamper.

     The sequel of the adventure served to confirm me in the opinion I had of the exaggerated stories in regard to these much dreaded animals. We had in our company a giant blacksmith and general repairer of wagons, named Campbell, who measured full six feet eight in his stockings, and was besides, elegantly proportioned. Independently of his universal utility as 'Jack-of-all-trades,' our colossal friend was in such constant requisition, that he might well have given origin to the western phrase of one's being 'a whole team,' for if a wagon happened to be in the mire, he was worth more than the whole team to extract it. He was, in short, the most appropriate subject for a regular grizzly-bear scrape. On the occasion I speak of, Campbell had laid himself down under the shade of a bush, upon the brink of a precipice about ten feet high, and was taking a comfortable snooze, while his companions were sporting in the neighborhood. During the chase, one of the young bears, which had been scared from its mother, was perceived loping down the trail towards our camp, apparently heedless of the company. Several of us seized our guns, and as it sprang across the ravine through a break near the spot where Campbell lay, we gave it a salute, which caused it to tumble back wounded into the branch, with a frightful yell.

     Campbell being suddenly roused by the noise, started up with the rapidity of lightning, and


tumbled over the precipice upon the bear. "Whuah!" growled master bruin "Murder!" screamed the giant "Clinch it, Campbell, or you're gone!" exclaimed his comrades; for no one could venture to shoot for fear of killing the man. The latter, however, had no notion of closing clutches with his longclawed antagonist, but busied himself in vain attempts to clamber up the steep bank while the bear rising upon his hinder legs and staring a moment at the huge frame of the blacksmith, soon made up his mind as to the expediency of 'turning tail,' and finally succeeded in making his escape, notwithstanding a volley of shot that were fired after him.

     The large gray wolf of the prairies is also to be found in great abundance in Northern Mexico. They sometimes make dreadful havoc among the cattle, frequently killing and devouring even mules and horses; but they never extend their rapacity so far as to attack human beings, unless urged by starvation. There are other animals of prey about the mountains, among which the panther is most conspicuous.

     Elk and deer are also to be met with, but not in large quantities. Of the latter, the species known as the black-tailed deer is the most remarkable. It differs but little from the common buck, except that it is of darker color and its tail is bordered with black, and that, though its legs are shorter, its body is larger. The carnero cimarron or bighorn of the Rocky Mountains the berrendo or an-


telope and the tuza or prairie dog of the plains hares, polecats, and other animals of lesser importance, may also be considered as denizens of these regions.

     Of wild birds, the water fowls are the most numerous; the ponds and rivers being literally lined at certain seasons of the year with myriads of geese, ducks, cranes, etc. In some of the mountains, wild turkeys are very numerous; but partridges and quails are scarce. There is to be found in Chihuahua and other southern districts a very beautiful bird called paisano (literally 'countryman'), which, when domesticated, performs all the offices of a cat in ridding the dwelling-houses of mice and other vermin. It is also said to kill and devour the rattlesnake; a reptile, however, which seems much less vicious here than elsewhere. Scorpions, tarantulas and centipedes also, although found in this province, are almost harmless, and very little dreaded by the natives. Another indigenous reptile is the horned-frog of the Prairies, known here by the name of camaleon (or chameleon), of which it is probably a species, as its color has been observed to vary a little in accordance with the character of the soil it inhabits.

     The honey-bee would seem to have originated exclusively from the east, as their march has been observed westward, but none have yet reached this portion of the Mexican dominion. According to ancient historians, different species were indigenous to the south of


the republic; but in the north, the only insect of the kind more resembles the bumble-bee than that of our hives; and builds in rocks and holes in the ground, in some parts of the mountains. They unite in but small numbers (some dozens together), and seldom make over a few ounces of honey, which is said, however, to be of agreeable flavor.

     As to flies, like the high plains, this dry climate is but little infested particularly with the more noxious kinds. Fresh meats are preserved and dried in mid-summer without difficulty, as there are very few blow-flies. Horse-flies are not seen except sometimes in the mountains: the prairie-fly, so tormenting to stock with us in the West, is unknown.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

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