Monday, December 31, 2012

Trail Dust: Early American traders nearly made fatal mistake

by Marc Simmons

Frontier merchant Thomas James on May 10, 1821, departed St. Louis carrying a large stock of trade goods that he intended to sell in Santa Fe. With him were nine other men, including businessman John McKnight.

At this time, the Santa Fe Trail, as we know it, was not yet defined. The Thomas James party, therefore, simply followed a compass west and a bit south into wild country in the northeast quadrant of today’s New Mexico.

There, in the vicinity of the upper Canadian River, they ran into a huge tepee camp of Comanches numbering in the hundreds, or even thousands, as James remembered it.

One of their chiefs, “a vicious old man with one eye,” ordered the strangers to unload and open their horse packs. Then the Indians began plundering the piles.

By the time a high chief named Big Star showed up and put a stop to the theft, James estimated he’d lost $2,000 worth of the total merchandise. Even worse, the Comanches refused to release them.

The Americans remained virtual prisoners for three days, while more seizures were made on the trade stock. Big Star continued to be friendly, but he was the only one.

On the third morning, the women and children began pulling down the tepees in preparation for a move. The leading chiefs and warriors climbed a low mound nearby to smoke and hold a council. “They are deciding whether you live or die,” Big Star informed the group.

When the council ended and the verdict of death was shouted, James and his fellows formed a circle and faced outwards holding their weapons.

No comments: