Kearney’s Daring Expedition And The Conquest Of New Mexico by Charles Morris
Story type: Literature
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 Fe, 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 Fe 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 table-lands the tugging strength of a hundred men was 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 Fe 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 journey 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 Raton 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 dispute their path and all their powder and shot might be needed.
The vicinity of the Mexican settlements was reached on August 14, and their desert-weary eyes beheld with joy the first cornfields and gardens surrounding the farm-houses in the valleys, while groves of cedar and pine diversified the scene. With new animation the troops marched on, elated with the tidings which now reached them from the north, that Colonel Kearney had been raised to the rank of brigadier-general, and a second item of news to the effect that two thousand Mexicans held the canon six miles beyond Las Vegas, prepared to dispute its passage.
This was what they had come for, and it was a welcome diversion to learn that the weariness of marching was likely to be diversified by a season of fighting. They had made the longest march ever achieved by an American army, nearly all of it through a barren and inhospitable country, and it was with genuine elation that they pressed forward to the canon, hopeful of having a brush with the enemy. They met with a genuine disappointment when they found the pass empty of foes. The Mexicans had failed to await their coming.
Kearney had already begun his prescribed work of annexing New Mexico to the United States, the Alcalde and the prominent citizens of Las Vegas having taken an oath of allegiance to the laws and government of the United States. As they marched on, a similar oath was administered at San Miguel and Pecos, and willingly taken. Here the soldiers fairly revelled in the fresh vegetables, milk, eggs, fruits, and chickens which the inhabitants were glad to exchange for the money of their new guests. Orders had been given that all food and forage obtained from the peaceable inhabitants should be paid for, and Kearney saw that this was done.
At Pecos they had their first experience of the antiquities of the land. Here was the traditional birthplace of the great Montezuma, the ancient temple still standing whose sacred fire had been kindled by that famous monarch, and kept burning for long years after his death, in the hope that he would come again to deliver his people from bondage. At length, as tradition held, the fire was extinguished by accident, and the temple and village were abandoned. The walls of the temple still stood, six feet thick, and covering with their rooms and passages a considerable space. The Pueblo Indians of the region had refused to fight for the Mexicans, for tradition told them that a people would come from the East to free them from Spanish rule, and the prophecy now seemed about to be fulfilled.
The next hostile news that reached the small army was to the effect that seven thousand Mexicans awaited them in Gallisteo Canon, fifteen miles from Santa Fe. This was far from agreeable tidings, since the Mexicans far outnumbered the Americans, while the pass was so narrow that a much smaller force might have easily defended it against a numerous foe. The pass had been fortified and the works there mounted with six pieces of cannon, placed to make havoc in the invaders’ ranks.
Fortunately, once more the advancing troops found a strong pass undefended. The Mexican officers had quarrelled, and the privates, who felt no enmity towards the Americans, had left them to fight it out between themselves. Deserted by his soldiers, Governor Armijo escaped with a few dragoons, and the Americans marched unmolested through the pass. On the same day they reached Santa Fe, taking peaceful possession of the capital of New Mexico and the whole surrounding country in the name of the United States.
Not for an hour had the men halted that day, the last of their wearisome march of nine hundred miles, which had been completed in about fifty days. So exhausting had this final day’s march proved that many of the animals sank down to die, and the men flung themselves on the bare hill-side, without food or drink, glad to snatch a few hours of sleep. As the flag of the United States was hoisted in the public square, a national salute of twenty-eight guns was fired from a near-by hill, and the cavalry rode with waving banners and loud cheers through the streets. They had cause for great gratulation, for they had achieved a remarkable feat and had won a great province without the loss of a single man in battle.
By the orders of General Kearney a flag-staff one hundred feet high was raised in the plaza for the American flag, and the oath of allegiance was taken by the officials of the town. They were willing enough to take it, since their new masters left them in office, while the people, who had been told that they would be robbed and mercilessly treated, hailed the Americans as deliverers rather than as enemies. The same was the case with all the surrounding people, who, when they found that they would be paid for their provisions and be left secure in their homes, settled down in seeming high good will under the new rule.
Santa Fe at that time contained about six thousand inhabitants. After St. Augustine it was the oldest city within the limits of the United States. When the Spaniards founded it in 1582, it was built on the site of one of the old Indian pueblos, whose date went back to the earliest history of the country. The Spanish town–The Royal City of the Holy Faith, La Villa Real del Santa Fe, as they called it–was also full of the flavor of antiquity, with its low adobe houses, and its quaint old churches, built nearly three centuries before. These were of rude architecture and hung with battered old bells, but they were ornamented with curiously carved beams of cedar and oak. The residences were as quaint and old-fashioned as the churches, and the abundant relies of the more ancient Indian inhabitants gave the charm of a double antiquity to the place.
From Santa Fe as a centre General Kearney sent out expeditions to put down all reported risings through the province, one of the most important of these being to the country of the warlike Navajo Indians, who had just made a raid on New Mexico, driving off ten thousand cattle and taking many captives. The answer of one of the Navajo chiefs to the officers of the expedition is interesting.
“Americans, you have a strange cause of war against the Navajos,” he said. “We have waged war against the New Mexicans for several years. You now turn upon us for attempting to do what you have done yourselves. We cannot see why you have cause of quarrel with us for fighting the New Mexicans in the West, while you do the same thing in the East. We have no more right to complain of you for interfering in our war than you have to quarrel with us for continuing a war we had begun long before you got here. If you will act justly, you will allow us to settle our own differences.”
The Indians, however, in the end agreed to let the New Mexicans alone, as American citizens, and the matter was amicably settled. We may briefly conclude the story of Kearney’s expedition, which was but half done when Santa Fe was reached. He was to continue his march to California, and set out for this purpose on the 25th of September, on a journey as long and difficult as that he had already made. He reached the Californian soil only to find that Colonel Fremont had nearly finished the work set for him, and a little more fighting added the great province of California to the American conquests. Thus had a small body of men occupied and conquered a vast section of northern Mexico and added some of its richest possessions to the United States.