William H. Hagan
Wagonmaster on the Santa Fe Trail

William H. Hagan Wagonmaster on the Santa Fe Trail

     William H. Hagan’s adventures on the Santa Fe Trail were taken from "Tails of Tragedy Trail" written by his grandson George L. Hagan and printed in 1974 by the Printery in Clinton, Missouri. George Hagan, in his youth, was fortunate to have listened to his grandfather tell about his experience and adventures on the Santa Fe Trail and in his later years wrote about these experiences to record and publish them. This information was compiled by Steve Charles, a great grandson of William Hagan.

     My great grandfather, William H Hagan, came from Kentucky to Jackson County Missouri in the early 1840’s and settled in the area of Independence, Missouri. After he was married in 1850, and needing the income, he began working for the freighting firm of West, Majors, Russell & Waddell. At that time the firm was headed by Alexander Major. He signed to make a round trip to Santa Fe. The man in charge of the twenty-five to thirty wagon train was the "Trail Captain". Arriving in Santa Fe, the trail captain of the particular train deserted to go to California gold fields. Great grandfather was put in charge of the return trip of the train and thereafter he continued as a trail captain until 1874.

     Great grandfather lived on a farm that had been purchased from the government about 10 miles south of Independence, Missouri. When he returned from each trip on the trail he would add his salary for the trip to the family coffers. His wife, Sedelia, was assisted by an adult cousin and the children to keep the farm going while he was gone. They had seventeen children. From savings and frugal living, the family managed to own seven farms by 1874, all but one in Jackson County, Missouri. My great grandfather lived to be 89 and in 1916 he passed away as a result of a train striking him when he walked from the post office in Lee’s Summit and crossed the railroad tracks. He apparently did not hear the warning of the approaching train. He carried to his grave two Comanche Indian mini-balls bullets in his body from the Santa Fe Trail.

     The famous James and Younger families lived in the vicinity of the Hagan’s and the following story which starts on the Santa Fe Trail relates to Jesse James.

The Return of Old Harry
     Shortly after the surrender of Lee at Appomattox, great grandfather’s wagon train had arrived in Santa Fe and after the formalities of disposing the freight and the usual paper work on the bills of lading, etc., he and his right hand man, Jeremiah Dark, went on a trip of inspection to the wagon yard and there they noticed a very fine coal black stallion feeding at one of the feed stalls. While they were admiring the animal, one of the stable men approached and said, "I see that you admire the stallion, Senores. He is a fine animal that belong to a friend of mine, a Mexican card dealer who is in trouble with the military government and has been fined one hundred dollars. He does not have the money so they put him in the stockade. So now he wants to sell the stallion for one hundred dollars, American money in order to pay his fine. You must remember, Senores, this horse is a most gentle animal and my friend told me that his young brother and sister had petted the horse and rode him without a bridle. Because he is so black, the kids had named him Diablo, Spanish for devil; because they said their priest had remarked that the horse was ‘black as sin.’ "

     Realizing that his wife, Sedelia, loved to ride and since her birthday would be at about the time that he would arrive back in Independence, he determined to buy the horse. If he proved to be as gentle as represented he would present him as a birthday present to his dear wife, Sedelia.

     The next morning, a call was made upon the adjutant of the military post and it was found that the report was substantially correct and the adjutant would have the Mexican sign a bill of sale and that the commandant would be glad to be rid of the culprit and collect the fine. Thus great grandfather acquired a fine-looking animal to serve him as his chief mount on the return trip to Independence. It was amazing how gentle the horse proved out to be. But there was one correction to be made!

     Since great grandmother had been raised a very strict Missionary Baptist, she had been taught that the name "Devil" (i.e. Diablo) was never used by a Christian lady. Back in Virginia the people had used the words, "Old Harry", (to denote the fallen angel when speaking of him) so, Diablo was thereafter always called "Old Harry"

     Beginning in the mid 1850’s and until after the civil war ended bands of border ruffians committed terrible acts of ruin, horse stealing, arson, death and debauchery in the border counties of Missouri. There was fear in the hearts of the people if some stranger came to a home; it became the custom to never hail one by name if one recognized or guessed the identity for fear that he would be a "wanted person" with a reward posted for his capture and retaliation would follow! So every precaution was taken. The main road that led from Liberty, Missouri crossing the Missouri River via Independence and on southward had been traveled by the Indians for generations and battles fought before the coming of the white man. Because of the cruelty and wanton violence, this route can easily be looked upon and called "Tragedy Trail". In its course, it passed by my great grandparent’s farm and many strangers came by.

     On one occasion, while great grandfather was enroute to Santa Fe, the boys at home were called early by their mother admonishing them to hurry and feed the livestock at the barn and then come to breakfast. Arriving at the barn, they discovered that "Old Harry" had been stolen from his stall.

     Now at this time it was useless to even report such losses, as some of those who had belonged to the border ruffians had, after the war, turned to highway robbery, train robbing, horse stealing, bank hold ups and other forms of banditry, even staging the hold up of a county fair on one occasion. Heavy rewards were offered for their capture dead or alive.

     Two days after the disappearance of "Old Harry", great grandmother and her children had just finished their noonday meal and washed the dishes when four heavily bearded and armed horsemen rode into their place and called, "Hello!" When the door was opened they asked, "Can we light and have dinner?" They were told "Yes, you may, but we only have mutton stew, beans, cornbread, molasses, butter and milk or parched corn coffee."

     (Real coffee and cane sugar could not be had at the close of the war.) They were told to come in and the boys would water and feed their horses. But one of the group of men, distrustful of everyone, accompanied the boys who attended the horses.

     When the meal was served, the four men sat arranging their firearms on the table as if ready for unexpected callers, if any came.

     Apparently, the man setting at the head of the table was the leader and the spokesman for the four. He looked up and said, "Aunt Dee Dee, you don’t know me do you?" Her bold reply was, "Well, if I could whisper in your ear what I have to say to you, I would do so." He said, "Well, go ahead and whisper in my ear, or are you afraid to do so?" So she whispered in his ear, whereupon he roared in laughter and pounded the table with his knife and fork.

     Finishing the meal, the men sat for a brief time at the table--they looked as if they were tired and as if they had ridden far and fast. They sent one man with the boys to get their horses and as the other three were leaving one of them laid a five dollar gold piece on the table. As they mounted to ride away, one shouted, "Thanks, Aunt Dee Dee!"

     Three mornings later when the boys came to the barn to feed the livestock they were pleasantly surprised to find "Old Harry" peacefully munching hay in his regular stall.

     When the grandchildren would ask great grandmother what she whispered in that man’s ear, she would reply that she had said to him, "Young man, when you were a baby and your father came to Big Cedar Baptist Church to preach we women took our turn tending the cradle roll, changing diapers or trotting baby on our knee if it was colicky. I thought you such a fine baby and that someday you would be a fine handsome man. Now since I know who you are, I want you, Jesse James, to see that my horse is returned to me for some of your gang stole him. Otherwise, I will not think of you as such a fine handsome man."

     A few days later, it was learned from Pinkerton detectives who came by, that a train had been held up and passengers and the express car robbed on the night before great grandmother fed the four riders. When we ask great grandmother how she recognized the man by name she explained to us: "When he was just a ‘toddler’ and able to take, his mother brought him to visit a neighbor who was Mrs. James’ cousin, and while there she took very sick. To help out great grandmother took care of ‘the toddler.’ He could not pronounce "Aunt Sedelia" but called her "Aunt Dee Dee." He was the only person to ever call her by that name.

Santa Fe Trail Grasshopper Invasion
     The first Sunday in June, 1874 dawned as a perfect June day. As the day progressed a "storm cloud" materialized as hoards of grasshoppers so dense that they obscured the sight of the sun invaded along the eastern end of the trail. On that Sunday my great grandfather’s Santa Fe Trail wagon train was crossing Franklin County, Kansas inbound to Westport Landing. Around the night camp, the men discussed with amazement about the abundant growth of bluestem and prairie grass that was growing throughout the area.

     Tuesday as the wagon train approached Westport Landing, they met an outbound wagon train and were told of the great calamity that had occurred. Soon, they themselves began to view the disaster. Grasshoppers covered the trail, some mashed by the horses’ feet or the wagon wheels, some jumping and flying into the faces and eyes of both man and animal. Trees were already "stripped" of foliage. Great grandfather and his second in command, who also was a neighbor as well as a fellow livestock owner, remembered the luxuriant grasses that they had seen near the headwaters of the Marias des Cygne River in Franklin County, Kansas.

     Arriving at Westport, the reports, manifests and inventories were soon disposed of and the two neighbors were hurriedly on their way home to their families. Enroute they discussed the possibility of driving their herds of livestock to Franklin County, Kansas in order to save them. They formulated a plan which was revised when they realized the plight of their herds. Instead of profiting from the neighbors’ plight, they thought in terms of sharing. Nearing home, they were blocked by a freight train at the crossing.

     The mashed grasshoppers on the track made it impossible for the engine drive wheels to get traction to move the train up the grade. The two men suggested to the crew that the train be "cut" and pulled up the grade "piece meal." This they did with success.

     The proposed livestock drive to Kansas was received with enthusiasm by some of the neighbors, others were pessimistic. Time was of the essence, as already the animals were starving as it was necessary to drive them while they were yet strong enough to travel. Both the men and their wives had been frugal and the wages from the "Trail" had not been squandered, so some farmers tried to "sell" their livestock to them. They refused to buy on the grounds that if the venture was successful then the "friends" would be enemies.

     If the plan worked out, the families would stay at home. The fathers (sixteen of them with as many boys) together with camping supplies, hay making machinery, and livestock equipment, were on the road at daylight, driving a herd of some 950 cattle and 82 horses on an 80 mile or more drive. Twenty-four cattle and two horses were lost enroute by injury or death. (*These figures are approximately correct.)

     There was some apprehension that the scattered settlers in Franklin County might be "leary" of a group of Missourians coming to Kansas, for the old border warfare between the two states was still in the minds of the people. While the first task of branding each owner’s animals was necessary (in the hurried preparations of getting the animals to feed, each owner had "ear tagged" his stock), the branding irons were now used for permanency. While this chore was being done, great grandfather, who as Trail Captain had had business relations with some of the County’s merchants, made a number of calls and acquainted those that knew him with the program of saving livestock. There was never any disturbance or ill feeling manifested.

     It was necessary to prepare for winter, make sod houses, haul coal for winter fuel and above everything else, to mow, cure and stack more than a thousand tons of wild hay for the emergency feed during snow storms, etc. The boys were willing workers attending to camp chores, herding the stock, supplying small game and fishing in the small river for fish.

     The mothers at home did their share in baking, making roasts and vying with others to make "goodies" to send to their "men". Each week two of the wives accompanied by a couple of the boys at home would drive the eighty or so miles to bring supplies and perhaps doing a lot of "tidying" up at the camp.

     There was only one case of bad illness in the camp. A boy, with his dog, chased a rabbit into a hollow log. Reaching into the log attempting to retrieve the rabbit, he was bitten by a rattlesnake. One of the men of the camp was riding by and immediately used his sharp knife to open the wound, and after sucking out some of the poison, he poulticed the hand with a "cud" of chewed tobacco. Since two of the wives were in camp with a road wagon, they drove all night to get the boy to Westline to a doctor.

     At Christmas time all of the families wished to come to camp, but fortunately the husbands vetoed the idea for fear of storms. It happened that the worst storm of the winter set in the day before Christmas and lasted a week. There was no other deep snow all winter, and the livestock was able to graze on dry grass. Only about half of the stacked hay was consumed. The spring of 1875 came early with warm winds and rain. The prairie was outdoing its usual self with succulent green grasses and the prairie flowers.

     Not to be out done by the flora display, nature looked kindly upon the crop of young animals. Baby calves appeared in sets of twins, in quite a few cases. Among the baby colts, there were three or four sets of twin colts, including a surprise for all. There was not a jack in the herd but on Ground Hog Day, February 2, a mare presented twin mule colts. The boys thought the mule babies so cute they petted and spoiled them until they became nuisances.

     By the last of April, the animals were becoming rounded with fat and began to look like marketable stock. By June, the men were debating whether to sort out the cattle to be marketed and to drive them to the Kansas City market. Just at this time great grandmother and two of the other wives came with news. On the morning of the first Sunday in June, just as if some magic signal had come to the millions of grasshoppers, they spread their wings and flew away, obscuring the sun by their numbers. Where the ‘hoppers went, no one seemed to know.

     It was still early enough for planting many crops and work animals were badly needed at home for the planting. The following day these horses and the wagons loaded with equipment were started homeward. Next the cattle were rounded into two groups. The home-bound herd was started first. Then the marketable heard was started up the Santa Fe Trail to Kansas City. At market, the grass fed cattle sold remarkable well, in fact, better than was anticipated. At least sixteen farm families rejoiced that their hopes and prayers had borne fruit, in spite of sacrifice and hard work.

     The following information which refers to HAGAN the Wagonmaster was taken from "OVER THE SANTA FE TRAIL - 1857", from the original 1905 edition by William B. Napton. Published by the Stagecoach Press, Santa Fe, 1964.

Chapter 4 - Companions of Voyage
Pages 24 through 27.

     Before reaching Pawnee Rock we overtook a train of thirty wagons belonging to the leading freighters of the West, Majors, Russell & Waddell, with which we traveled to Fort Union, their freight being consigned to that post. This train had thirty wagons, built, I believe, In Philadelphia, with heavy iron axles and spindles, which seemed superior to any others I had seen on the prairie. Hagan a sandy-haired man, who rode a large bay mule, a drowsy animal with immense lop ears that moved back and forth as he walked. This ungainly mule, I found out, in a day or two afterwards, had his good points. He could run as fast and get up close to a buffalo as any horse in either outfit.

     Notwithstanding Hagan’s generally uncouth appearance, he was a man of sterling worth and a capital hand at killing buffalo. Subsequently we joined in many chases, and I found him an agreeable companion. On the rear end of each of the wagons in Hagan’s train there was pasted a set of printed rules for the government of the employees in the service of Majors, Russell & Waddell. Both liquor and profanity were absolutely prohibited, but of the strict enforcement of the rules I cannot speak.

     While riding in advance of the train, in company with Captain Chiles, we saw our Mexican friend, whose acquaintance we had formed at Westport, the master of his own train, galloping toward us, with a buffalo cow following close behind his horse. As was his habit, he had attacked the animal with his spear, stabbing her until se became infuriated so that she turned on him and was following him a little too closely to be agreeable. We rode rapidly toward him, an as we were drawing near the cow became so exhausted by loss of blood that she stopped still, when Captain Chiles rode up and gave her a broadside with his shotgun, which finished her.

     Whenever they found buffalo in plenty the Mexicans would halt for several days to kill enough to supply their trainmen. They preserved the meat by cutting it in thin strips and hanging it on ropes about the corral until it was dried by the sun. But thus cured, it had a sour and disagreeable taste to me. The Mexicans would stew it with quantities of red pepper and devour it with great relish.

     As we approached the valley of the Little Arkansas, where the view of the country was more extensive than any we had yet seen, there was no limit to the herds of buffalo, the face of the earth being covered with them. We camped at noon at the crossing of this stream. The buffalo were crossing the creek above us, moving westward, in bands of from twenty-five to a hundred or more. At the crossing they had a trail cut down through the steep banks of the stream three or four feet in depth.

     But I had had enough of buffalo chasing, except when we were in need of fresh meat. It was too much like riding out into the pasture and killing your own domestic cattle. I found antelope hunting much better sport.

     After Walnut Creek, the next place of interest was Pawnee Rock near which many battles between the traders and the Indians had taken place. This bluff, facing the road on the right hand side, at a distance, perhaps, of a hundred yards, was of brown sandstone about fifty feet high, the bluff end of the ridge extending down to the river bottom. I climbed up the almost perpendicular face of the elevation, where I found many names cut in the soft stone - names of Santa Fe traders who had traveled the trail, among them that of Colonel M. M. Marmaduke, who crossed to Mexico as early as 1826, and was afterwards governor of Missouri, and James H. Lucas, a prominent and wealthy citizen of St. Louis.

     We were not particularly apprehensive of Indian troubles, although we knew the Cheyenne’s were turbulent. Elijah Chiles, a brother of our captain, had been loading goods at Kansas City when we left - a train of twenty-six wagons for the Kiowas and Comanches - and was doubtless a few days drive behind us. But we kept on the lookout day and night; the guard around the cattle doubled, and each teamster had a gun of some sort, which he kept strapped to the wagon bed, loaded and ready for service.

Chapter 5 - Pestiferous Indians
Pages 21 through 28.

     All the while we knew the Indians could wipe us out if they were determined to do so. In both trains there were not above sixty men, while there were, nearby, warriors by thousands. A days journey beyond Pawnee Rock, we were visited by a hunting party of fifteen or twenty young Kiowa bucks, the first real "wild" Indians we had seen. They did not seem the least wild, however, but uncomfortable "tame," and disposed to make us the objects of their amusement that afternoon.

     They scattered up and down the length of both trains, taking and laughing with the teamsters. Two of them took particular fancy to my friend Reece, riding on either side of him, taking hold of his arms and seeming to admire his long hair and the handsome horse he rode. Reece was not at all afraid of them and permitted no undue interference with his person or property.

     Reece was no coward. While we were still in the dangerous region, he would ride for miles ahead of the train, alone, dismount and lie down to rest or sleep. When I said to him that he was incurring unnecessary risk of being killed by the Indians, he remarked that if the did kill him they could not rob him of much in this world.

     Along where we were traveling at the time of the visit of the Kiowa bucks, the river bottom was as smooth as a billiard table. Hagan’s train was in the lead of ours a space of perhaps thirty yards intervening. Hagan and I were riding abreast at the rear of his train, when suddenly; two of the young bucks raised up a loud whoop and started their horses at full speed. Taking a corner of their blankets in each hand and holding them above their heads so that they made a slapping sound in the air, they went sweeping along right against the cattle, almost instantly creating a stampede, the cattle turning out of the highway making the big wagons rattle as they went.

     For an instant Hagan sat on his mule stock still, apparently dumbfounded. In another moment he put spurs to his mule, intending to head the fleeing cattle. But instead of running, the mule suddenly "bucked," throwing Hagan and his saddle also (the girth breaking) over his head and landing him in the road, flat on his back. Hagan got up, pulled himself together and rubbed the dust out of his eyes, but said nothing, though gifted in the way of eloquent profanity.

     No great harm resulted from the stampede. Some others of the party of Indians ran ahead and stopped the cattle. There was no collision of wagons and no damage, but the affair left an ugly feeling of resentment among the teamsters toward the Indians. The Indians laughed and talked about the affair among themselves. Any effort to punish them was out of the question, the entire tribes of Kiowas and Comanches being encamped within a day’s journey above us.

     The Indians kept along with the train all of the afternoon. Observing my horse and accouterments, they inquired through Juan, the Spaniard, if he was fleet and good for buffalo, and pressed me to go out with them for buffalo the next day. I would gladly have seen the Indians engaged in a buffalo chase, but declined the invitation, making such excuses as I could without expressing any want of confidence as to their good fellowship. My scalp was intact and I felt disposed to keep it so.

     The Kiowas begged Captain Chiles and Hagan to give them some flour and sugar, but they refused, knowing that a donation would be necessary later on, when we should meet the entire tribes of Kiowas and Comanches encamped above us, awaiting the arrival of their agent and the train load of goods for them.

     Late in the evening, after we had corralled and the cooks were preparing to get supper these Indians having ridden off in the direction of the river, two of them reappeared. They returned to the camp, each with a bundle of dry driftwood, picked up on the river bank, which they threw down near the camp fire. This meant that they wanted supper, and Captain Chiles gave directions for the preparation of food for them. The Indians took supper with us, after which they departed, evidently feeling better and good naturedly disposed toward us.

     That night there was much discussion of the Indian problem, with which we seemed now confronted. At noon the next day, as the cattle were being driven into the corral, another party of young warriors made their appearance at our camp, and came near involving us in a serious conflict. The trouble was brought on by the impatient action of our assistant Wagonmaster, Rice. Four or five young fellows rode up into the rear entrance of our corral and were sitting there on their horses looking on at the yoking of the cattle. They partially blocked up the opening and interfered with egress of the teams. Rice, coming up behind them, without warning gave one of their horses a blow with a heavy blacksnake whip. The horse spring forward, nearly unseating the rider, who, as soon as he could gather up the reins of his bridle, turned upon Rice in a towering rage, jerked an arrow from its quiver and fixed it in his bow. Forcing his horse right upon Rice, the Indian punched him with the point of the arrow until he knocked his hat off his head. Rice made no effort to resist the affront and threatened assault, but kept backing out of the Indian’s reach.

     I was standing near by and seized my pistol, thinking that a fight was imminent. At the height of the excitement, Captain Chiles made his appearance and commanded peace, in manner and language that the Indians could understand, but it required some time a deal of talk to get them quieted. They denounced Rice's conduct as an insult they were bound to resent, and declared they would kill Rice sooner or later. Captain Chiles, speaking through Juan, our Spaniard, told them that if they commenced killing they would have to kill us all, for we were bound to stand together when it came to that. After a long wrangle the Indian said he would be satisfied if allowed to give Rice a sound flogging with a whip, but Captain Chiles refused. Finally the Indians seemed to recover their composure, to some extent, and rode off in the direction of the main camp.
Used With Permisssion of the Author:
© by S. C.
Alabama 2005

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