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KEARNEY'S DARING EXPEDI
TION AND THE CONQUEST OF
We have told the story of the remarkable expedition of Vasquez de Coronado from Mexico northward to the prairies of Kansas. We have now to tell the story of an expedition which took place three centuries later from this prairie land to the once famous region of the “Seven Cities of Cibola." In 1542, when Coronado traversed this region, he found it inhabited by tribes of wandering savages, living in rude wigwams. In 1846, when the return expedition set out, it came from a land of fruitful farms and populous cities. Yet it was to pass through a country as wild and uncultivated as that which the Spaniards had traversed three centuries before.
The invasion of Mexico by the United States armies in 1846 was made in several divisions, one being known as the Army of the West, led by Colonel Stephen W. Kearney. He was to march to Santa Fé, seize New Mexico, and then push on and occupy California, both of which were then provinces of Mexico. It was an expedition in which the soldiers would have to fight far more with nature than with man, and force their way through
desolate regions and over deserts rarely trodden by the human foot.
The invading army made its rendezvous at Fort Leavenworth, on the Missouri River, in the month of June, 1846. It consisted of something over sixteen hundred men, all from Missouri, and all mounted except one battalion of infantry. Accompanying it were sixteen pieces of artillery. A march of two thousand miles in length lay before this small corps, much of it through the land of the enemy, where much larger forces were likely to be met. Before the adventurers, after the green prairies had been passed, lay hot and treeless plains and mountain-ranges in whose passes the wintry snow still lingered, while savage tribes and hostile Mexicans, whose numbers were unknown, might make their path one of woe and slaughter. Those who gathered to see them start looked upon them as heroes who might never see their homes again.
On the 26th of June the main body of the expedition began its march, taking the trail of a provision train of two hundred wagons and two companies of cavalry sent in advance, and followed, three days later, by Kearney with the rear. For the first time in history an army under the American standard, and with all the bravery of glittering guns and floating flags, was traversing those ancient plains. For years the Santa Fé trail had been a synonym for deeds of horror, including famine, bloodshed, and frightful scenes of Indian cruelty. The bones of men and of beasts of burden paved the way, and
served as a gruesome pathway for the long line of marching troops.
The early route led, now through thick timber, now over plains carpeted with tall grasses, now across ravines or creeks, now through soft ground in which the laden wagons sank to their axles, and tried the horses severely to pull them out. To draw the heavy wagons up the steep ridges of the tablelands the tugging strength of a hundred men were sometimes needed.
Summer was now on the land, and for days together the heat was almost unbearable.
There was trouble, too, with the cavalry horses, raw animals, unused to their new trappings and discipline, and which often broke loose and scampered away, only to be caught by dint of weary pursuit and profane ejaculations.
For six hundred miles the column traversed the great Santa Fé trail without sight of habitation and over a dreary expanse, no break to the monotony appearing until their glad eyes beheld the fertile and flowery prairies surrounding Fort Bent on the Arkansas. Here was a rich and well-watered level, with clumps of trees and refreshing streams, forming convenient halting-places for rest and bathing. As yet there had been no want of food, a large merchant train of food wagons having set out in advance of their own provision train, and for a few days life ceased to be a burden and became a pleasure.
They needed this refreshment sadly, for the jour
ney to Fort Bent had been one of toil and hardships, of burning suns, and the fatigue of endless dreary miles. The wagon-trains were often far in advance and food at times grew scanty, while the scarcity of fuel made it difficult to warm their sparse supplies. During part of the journey they were drenched by heavy rains. To these succeeded days of scorchingly hot weather, bringing thirst in its train and desert mirages which cheated their suffering souls.
When at length the Arkansas River was reached, men and animals alike rushed madly into its waters to slake their torment of thirst.
At times their route led through great herds of grazing buffaloes which supplied the hungry men with sumptuous fare, but most of the time they were forced to trust to the steadily diminishing stores of the provision wagons. This was especially the case when they left the grassy and flowery prairie and entered upon an arid plain, on which for months of the year no drop of rain or dew fell, while the whitened bones of men and beasts told of former havoc of starvation and drouth. The heated surface was in places incrusted with alkaline earth worn into ash-like dust, or paved with pebbles blistering hot to the feet. At times these were diversified by variegated ridges of sandstone, blue, red, and yellow in hue.
A brief period of rest was enjoyed at Fort Bent, but on the 2d of August the column was on the trail again, the sick and worn-out being left behind. As they proceeded the desert grew more arid still.
Neither grass nor shrubs was to be found for the famishing animals; the water, what little there was, proved to be muddy and bitter; the wheels sank deep in the pulverized soil, and men and beasts alike were nearly suffocated by the clouds of dust that blew into their eyes, nostrils, and mouths. Glad were they when, after three days of this frightful passage, they halted on the welcome banks of the Purgatoire, a cool mountain-stream, and saw rising before them the snowy summits of the lofty Cimmaron and Spanish peaks and knew that the desert was passed.
The sight of the rugged mountains infused new energy into their weary souls, and it was with fresh spirit that they climbed the rough hills leading upward towards the Ratan Pass, emerging at length into a grand mountain amphitheatre closed in with steep walls of basalt and granite. They seemed to be in a splendid mountain temple, in which they enjoyed their first Sunday's rest since they had left Fort Leavenworth.
The food supply had now fallen so low that the rations of the men were reduced to one-third the usual quantity. But the new hope in their hearts helped them to endure this severe privation, and they made their way rapidly through the mountain gorges and over the plains beyond, covering from seventeen to twenty-five miles a day. Ammunition had diminished as well as food, and the men were forbidden to waste any on game, for news had been received that the Mexicans were gathering to dis