In the late 1990s, I was backpacking with a group in the Chicago Basin area of Colorado, about halfway between Durango and Silverton; we rode the train to get to and from the trailhead.
At our high camp, we met a group of mountain men reenactors. From the Phoenix area, the six men had committed themselves to making a multi-week hike from the Wolf Creek Ski Area near Pagosa Springs to the Silverton area dressed only in authentic clothing from the 1836-1845 era, and using equipment (other than survival and first aid gear required by the Forest Service) that was available during that timeframe. They were given special permission to hunt small game with black powder muskets so they could forage for their own food.
It was fascinating to see their handmade clothes, their aged weapons (including handmade arrows for their handmade bows), walk through their camp (no tents or sleeping bags – only wool blankets wrapped by waterproofed animal hides), and listen to their descriptions of how people in the backcountry lived without telephones, cameras, batteries, cushioned footwear, clearly marked trails, aspirin or Tylenol, sunglasses, prepackaged foods, maps, waterproof-windproof-insulated-zippered-monogrammed clothing, anything made of plastic, multi-fueled camp stoves, lighters, anything made of aluminum, modern weapons, compasses, watches, tea bags, hot chocolate mix, trail mix, water filters, sunscreen, bug spray, bear spray, and other items that I currently take for granted.
It made me wonder about what life was really like for those who lived a century and a half before us. What, for instance, did people read? Regular fiction books were hardbound and prevalent but usually associated with classic literature, the era of “paperback” not coming until the 1930s. There were also newspapers, magazines, journals, story papers, five- and ten-cent weeklies, assembled reprints, and a few early pulp magazines. The famous “dime novels” began in the 1860s and were immediately popular.
The following is an excerpt from Fort Bascom, by James Bailey Blackshear, and gives an idea of the literacy of soldiers at Fort Bascom. The era would have been around three decades after the group of Mountain Men reenactors, but that still makes it 1860-1870.
“Communications with friends and family, especially after the mid-1860s, was a key source of entertainment for soldiers posted far from home. Before a prolonged scout, some troops would write several letters because they did not know when they would get another opportunity. A few kept journals of their experiences on scouts and then mailed them east after returning to the post.
“Soldiers like Private Matthews of the Eighth Cavalry and Captain Dubois of the Third Cavalry often spent their first hours back at Fort Bascom catching up on what was happening with their families…..Matthews bragged to his father that ‘ours was a very literary troop, when any ten cent novels are to be had.’ While stationed at Fort Bascom, he read The House of the Seven Gables and noted that all the New York papers, as well as the Democratic Advocate, circulated among the men.
“Reading materials helped to pass the time, yet their acquisition also held an intrinsic value. Captain Dubois related to his mother that with just a few books, pictures, and minimal furniture, he was able to make a ‘great show’ of his quarters at Fort Bascom. Such items, including newspapers and dime novels, were both links to the world from which they came and intellectual status symbols among their peers.
“In November 1869 Lt. Wilson Hartz, Fifteenth Infantry, acting in the role of post treasurer, placed an order for several books and volumes with D. Appleton and Company of New York. The titles included Arabian Nights, Burns’ Poetical Works, all available publications by Anthony Trollop, and the Reveries of a Bachelor, by Ik Marvel (Donald Grant Mitchell). Whatever the topic, such media proved to be both informative and transformative, allowing the lonely trooper the opportunity to escape the isolation he associated with the Eroded Plains environment.”
I have not read Reveries of a Bachelor, but I’m ready to admire anyone who has. Kit Carson relates a story, while searching for Virginia White, a woman who had been captured by Jicarilla Apaches, of finding a novel in an Indian camp written about the daring exploits of Frontier Scout Kit Carson, Indian fighter and hero. That was in 1849. Unfortunately, he was not able to revel in the descriptions of his exploits: though he was fluent in English, Spanish, and several Indian languages, Kit Carson could not read or write.
On state highway 104 north out of Tucumcari, New Mexico, there is a roadside sign marking the location of “Fort Bascom”. Looking across the countryside, there seems to be nothing to indicate the existence of a frontier fort. Maybe a lumpy rise or two, but Fort Bascom, made mostly out of adobe bricks, always had leaky roofs, walls, and windows, and, after it was abandoned, slowly melted back into the earth from which it had sprung. Pictures from the early 1900s show crumbling wall segments standing in the rugged landscape like a set of broken teeth, but even those are no more.
It is unfortunate. Fort Bascom is surprisingly important to the history of the Southwest, more to Texas than to New Mexico, but it served both well through its major period, 1863-1870, and a few years afterwards.
I have written about Colonel Kit Carson leaving Fort Bascom with an expedition of soldiers along an ancient wagon road that eventually led him to the site of the old Adobe Walls trading post, on the Canadian River a few miles northeast of my home town. The ensuing battle with the Kiowas was Carson’s largest Indian fight and ended with his immediate retreat (Carson had a few hundred men fighting a few thousand Indians). He told his officers that they would regroup and return to the battle, but he correctly realized that his men’s horses and mules were in too bad a condition to resume the fight. He continued westward and returned to Fort Bascom.
Carson had been in the country some years before and knew that he could find sufficient water (almost always by streams or springs, not by way of the Canadian River, which was sometimes undrinkable), and enough forage for the animals. On the other hand, he chose to make his expedition travel during the winter, hoping to find the Kiowa and Comanche tribes settled in their winter camps. If he could fight battles, it would be good, but it was as important to destroy the Indian villages, their goods and stored food, and, in particular, their horses.
Carson’s expedition had barely made the two hundred miles to Adobe Walls (it took a couple of weeks) before he had to immediately go into battle. He had traveled a long, hard, barely-capable road; didn’t have enough rest time for the animals to recuperate from their efforts; had found sufficient water, but not enough time to drink as much as needed (he had about 500 horses, mules, and cattle that needed to drink every day, as well as 400 or more men); had found the winter grass and other field foods at a low; and struggled against the savage winter weather.
He had expected and planned for the degradation of his military capabilities, but was still surprised that his army was so worn-out. If he had not turned around when he did, history would be describing his massacre.
The book, Fort Bascom, by James Bailey Blackshear, describes Kit Carson’s expedition and the other military campaigns involving soldiers from Fort Bascom from 1863, when it was built, to 1875, after the Red River War was finished.
In his descriptions, I was amazed at the shear volume of stuff needed by the U.S. Army to wage war against the Southern Indian tribes (mainly Kiowa and Comanche) that inhabited the Panhandle of Texas and the western edge of Indian Territory, later called Oklahoma. There were military forts scattered around the perimeter of the area, but none were located within the Comancheria, meaning that any military campaigns to engage the tribes involved traveling hundreds of miles.
Based on Kit Carson’s experience in the First Battle of Adobe Walls, later Army commanders chose to take along the forage needed by their animals – hay, oats, corn, other grains – as well as the food, weapons, ammunition, and supplies required by the soldiers and non-military contractors (teamsters, packers, ox drivers, farriers, butchers, etc). That meant wagons – lots of wagons. And they expected to be in the field for weeks or months, which demanded the establishment of supply lines, with people dedicated to maintaining and protecting those supply lines.
For example, four years after Carson’s expedition, during General Sheridan’s 1868 Winter Campaign, Major Evans, from Fort Bascom, took 442 enlisted men, 10 officers, 72 civilians, 9 scouts, 47 supply wagons, 3 ambulances, a herd of 329 extra horses, 27 mules, 20 packers, and four mountain howitzers with a squad of twenty gunners to operate them. He also took a herd of 300 cattle.
At the last minute, he added two ten-wagon ox trains, carrying 93,000 pounds of corn and 64,600 pounds of oats. He established a supply depot close to the Canadian River (several miles farther east from Adobe Walls) as a base for the smaller expeditions that would be sent out to pursue their adversaries. Once the depot was operating, empty wagons and ox trains returned to Fort Bascom to be reloaded and driven back.
Sheridan’s Campaign included a similar force under the command of Major Eugene Carr from Fort Lyon, Colorado, while a third force from Camp Supply was commanded by an experienced cavalry officer named Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The three forces were to be coordinated between the commanders, but it did not significantly materialize.
Another example is when Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie, from Fort Concho, led an expedition to find the camps of the Comanches and Kiowas in June of 1872. He established a supply base at Blanco Canyon (close to present-day Crosbyton, Texas). He had about 500 soldiers, 12 six-mule wagon teams and pack animals from Fort Richardson; 8 six-mule wagon teams and pack animals from Fort Griffin; and 5 six-mule wagon teams from Fort Concho, all of which hauled forage, food, and supplies. They were driven by civilian teamsters. Additionally, there was a herd of cattle, two butchers, and an ambulance.
In August of 1872, Colonel Gregg, from Fort Bascom, led an expedition into Texas, with 214 Eighth Cavalry soldiers, 11 officers, 38 supply wagons, and a large herd of cattle.
In the second half of 1874, General Sheridan launched the Red River War. It was the largest military campaign in the region and was intended to be the final effort to either destroy the Indian tribes or to force them onto reservations in Indian Territory. He devised a five-pronged campaign to eventually destroy the resources of the tribes and put them into a position where their continued survival would mean surrender.
From Fort Bascom, Major Redwood Price led an expedition with 225 soldiers, 20 mule-drawn wagons provided by the army, 24 mule-drawn wagons provided by contractors, and 30 pack mules, plus a herd of cattle. They created a supply depot on the Canadian River at Adobe Walls.
Major General Nelson Miles, leaving from Camp Supply in northwest Indian Territory, had similar numbers of men, horses, mules, wagons, and cattle, as did Colonel Mackenzie from Fort Concho, Lt. Colonel George Buell from Fort Richardson, and Lt. Colonel John Davidson from Fort Sill. They established supply depots where needed.
In terms of performance, Sheridan’s plan worked well enough: each prong killed few warriors but destroyed camps, shelters, food supplies, ammunition, and, most importantly, horses. By winter, General Sheridan achieved his goals: the tribal chiefs found themselves unable to defeat starvation, lack of mobility, and the weather. They began moving to the reservations.
I had previously read about the Red River War, but never comprehended the scale of the operation. The challenge of the logistics, the timing, the management of men, animals, and resources, not to mention herds of cattle, and the shear audacity it took to move just one of the forces is hard to imagine.
When I was in high school, a friend and I drove his dad’s pickup onto a dry branch of the Canadian River. It seemed a great idea at the time: my friend’s church youth group was having a party/picnic along some small dunes on the riverbed after dark, with a bonfire, and driving the heavily loaded pickup to the site of the picnic would save a lot of effort toting drinks, hotdogs, ice, and other picnic supplies.
If you’re not familiar with dry riverbeds, think of rivers of sand that look hard-packed but aren’t, about fifty yards wide. The Canadian River, when I was growing up, was a stream ten to twenty feet wide, while the riverbed was a quarter-mile wide, bordered by rugged bluffs a few hundred feet high, which leaves a lot of room for sand, gravel, and a clutter of spindly trees, tall grasses, and bushes with thorns the size of my fingers. The branches coming out of the plains down into the river corridor were always dry.
It didn’t take long to get the pickup stuck in the middle of the riverbed, some distance from the picnic site. It wouldn’t be until the next day that his not-very-pleased dad would come and drive it out. I don’t remember how the picnic got its supplies; I don’t even remember how we got back to town.
To get to our destination, we had to have crossed a little used wagon path close to the bluffs, hidden amongst the mesquite trees, china berry trees, riverbed grasses, cactus, yucca, and other plants, as well as a proliferation of oil field roads, pipe lanes, and the rocking arms of oil well pumps.
That we could have seen the wagon path at all was unlikely, but almost a hundred years before, in 1864, it was a highly traveled and significant road that, within twenty-four hours, would lead Kit Carson to the largest Indian battle of his career.
A few weeks ago, I listed several of the historical “roads” that crossed Hutchinson County in the vicinity of the Canadian River where I grew up. I recently found another one, this one also of significant historical importance. Visiting the local historical museum, I bought a book titled Kit Carson and the First Battle of Adobe Walls, by Alvin R. Lynn. It is one of the most fascinating and informative books I’ve read in several years.
Alvin R. Lynn is a retired social studies and science teacher, and was also a coach, in the Dumas, Texas, area, I believe. While researching a contribution to a Moore County history journal, in 1992, he discovered that a narrow strip of land following the Canadian River from one side of Texas to the other, had been a thoroughfare of activity for Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexican traders, buffalo hunters, California gold seekers, emigrants, and the military.
In particular, he discovered that the strip included the route used by Colonel Kit Carson in his role as commandant of Fort Bascom (on the Canadian River, east of Conchas Lake in New Mexico), when he took a force of 335 soldiers east into Texas and fought one of the largest battles ever fought between Native Americans and the U.S. armed forces west of the Mississippi, involving as many as 3,000 Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, and Arapahos. The battle and Carson’s subsequent retreat was close to the ruins of the first Adobe Walls trading post (on the Canadian River, a few miles east Borger, Texas), a distance of about two hundred miles from Fort Bascom.
This sudden interest into what seemed a remarkable void in historical literature and research, turned into a fifteen-year project that would take Alvin Lynn “driving about thirty thousand miles on highways and the backcountry of New Mexico and Texas; walking a few hundred miles through yucca, sagebrush, grass burrs, and other sticky plants; suffering the bites of gray-back deer flies, gnats, and mosquitoes; dodging a few rattlesnakes; enduring hot weather, cold weather, and winds that could blow the bark off cedar posts.”
Having been allowed access to twenty-two different ranches along the way, Lynn used his trusty metal detector to locate, identify, and catalogue more than 1,800 artifacts. The location of those artifacts discovered or confirmed the locations of the major camps used by Colonel Carson while traveling to and from the battle site. Lynn’s research was accurately and thoroughly done, and the book is a great contribution to the history of the road, the major battle, and the various skirmishes that occurred over a two-day period.
The battle, known as the First Battle of Adobe Walls (there would be a second and more famous one ten years later) was not a victory for either side. Carson was savvy enough to recognize that he faced a far greater enemy than he had expected, so he retreated from the area within the day that he had arrived, and made his way back to New Mexico along the same road he had taken to get there. If he had not brought along two cannons with him, his force might have been massacred.
The major result of his campaign was that his men located and destroyed the Kiowa camp, burning more than 150 teepees, stores of dried meat, blankets, buffalo robes, powder, cooking utensils, and other supplies, including a buggy wagon that belonged to the Kiowa Chief. The battle occurred on Thanksgiving and the destruction of the camp left the Kiowas destitute for the start of winter.
I am fascinated with the idea that it all occurred within miles of my house, and that what happened and exactly where it happened wasn’t explicitly researched until Lynn’s quest. I’m thankful for him and his book, and really wish that I had owned a metal detector in high school. Maybe I would have used it.
It’s not a bad thing to know exactly what you’re going to do during the day when you wake up in the morning. As a veteran list-maker, I like the idea of writing a to-do list that has only one entry.
I’ve been writing. More correctly, I’ve been revising, rewording, and polishing an official draft for a novel now named Black Magic Dreams, going word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. This is my sequel to Smoke Dreams, my first adult novel published in 2013. It’s the one that has the house with a personality, and is centered around the story of a ten-year-old boy who is kidnapped by the Comanche Indians in 1870.
I started writing the sequel in 2016, so the text I’m currently working on has a lengthy ancestry, but the major work has been in the last six months, when I committed to getting the sequel published. I officially renamed my manuscript this week and it will be the version I give to an editor in June.
I’m on page 242 of 303, so I’m closing in fast and will be finished by the end of the week. I’ll let it rest a few weeks, read it one last time, and then let it go.
I’m a binge writer when I’m preparing a manuscript for someone else to edit. I don’t read other novels because I don’t want to confuse writing styles; I don’t write on other stories because I don’t want to have my mind divided between different characters and plots; I don’t keep up with my blogging; I don’t even watch TV shows, other than PBS.
My goal for each day is to advance my manuscript, which is only possible because I have the time and space to do it—old man, lives alone, no marriage to maintain, no other obligations beyond taking people to lunch, buying groceries, and walking. And golf. It’s my latest passion; I play a round every week and am hoping to play more. And I also help take care of my granddaughter a day each week.
I did recently take a week of sick leave. I caught the latest virus that’s going around New Mexico and spent a few days flushing out my intestines. Even then, I managed to edit a few chapters in between trips to the bathroom.
It’s nice that the end of this period is coming. I’m tired of working on it, tired of serving a stern taskmaster, and it’s time for another set of eyes to review the story, the structure, and how effectively I’ve told the tale. Once this manuscript is sent to my editor, I expect to not be writing at all during the summer. I’ve got seven books in a to-read stack, ranging from a history of Fort Bascom in northeastern New Mexico, to more research about Coronado’s journey, to a new WWII fiction book about a young Jewish man who ends up being the driver for a Nazi general. I have an on-line presentation about Teddy’s War for the Santa Fe Library next week, a short story ready to submit tomorrow for a writing contest, a rafting trip during the second week of June, another one in July, a book to finalize that will be published on September 1, a video to make for a grandson, and several landscaping projects that I will be helping with. I have a special trip to Glacier National Park in September to celebrate my 70th birthday.
I’m going to be happy to leave writing behind for a while.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.