Indians Along the Santa Fe Trail

Indians on the Santa Fe Trail

     Traders on the Santa Fe Trail generally left for Santa Fe in May, when the grass was high enough to afford forage for their animals and they arrived in July of the same year. The leave earlier meant the expense of carrying corn along to feed the animals in their wagon train. They departed for Missouri about September 1st to avoid the storms of winter which would kill their stock, from the effects of exposure and starvation. The return trip was much faster with lighter wagons, taking an average of 40 days. Furthermore the Missouri river was closed with ice in winter, so that the steamboats could not ascend the river until spring, when the ice broke up.

     Profit from the trade could be as much as 100%, but sometimes traders would loose their investments on the plains through Indian attacks, or may be forced to sell it at a loss for lack of a better market, or because of unexpected increase in the Mexican import duties. An average return was between 50 and 75 percent for their trouble. After the traders had learned to lessen the risk of Indian attacks on the plains, by traveling together in a single caravan or large wagon trains. The value of the goods in the trade per year, irregularly increased from a few thousand dollars in the beginning, to about half a million dollars in 1846.

     The Indians of the plains were divided into tribes, these tribes numbered in the thousands. The Comanches were the most numerous, estimated at about 7,000. {Annual Register of Indian Affairs, by Isaac McCoy, 1835 ed., p 46}

     Each tribe claimed and defended with force a vast area of the plains for its hunting ground over which it roamed, and regularly except in the winter time, each tribe sent out from its transient villages of lodges or tepees, hunting parties for fresh buffalo meat and skins, and scouting or war parties of braves against other tribes that were hereditary enemies or were infringing on their territory.

     At first the Indians didn't pay much attention to the small parties of Santa Fe traders crossing their domains on the Santa Fe Trail unless they chanced upon a party with horses or mules, and without adequate means of defense. The Indains were interested mostly in the horses and mules. The United States government made right of way treaties with the Osages, Kansas, Pawnees, and Cheyennes in 1825 for the traders.

     However, by 1828 the attention of the tribes was aroused by the large herds of mules being brought back by the traders. There were Indian raids on the Trail in that year, and lives were lost on both sides. That was when they really began to watch the Santa Fe Trail and steal the livestock from the traders. They would stamped them, often a little before sunrise, so as to take the traders by surprise. Suprise was the Indians best defence in their raids.

     These tribes were principally: the Pawnees, whose main villages were located about 70 miles upstream from the mouth of the Platte River, in the Loup River country, they ranged south each summer to the vicinity of Pawnee Rock, in present day Barton County, Kansas and Pawnee Fork on the Arkansas River, and they went into battle with their shrill Pawnee whistle against all their neighboring tribes as well as the traders, at every favorable opportunity.

     The powerful tribe of the Comanches, and their tribes, the Kiowas and a small band of Apaches of the plains.

     "During the summer months nearly the whole tribe migrates to the north, to hunt buffalo and wild horses on the plains of the upper Arkansas, but return in the autumn with the proceeds of their hunting expeditions to pass the winter in the timbered country along the valleys of the upper Colorado, Brazos, and Red rivers." {Ex. Doc. 129, H.. R., 33 Cong. 1 Sess., vol. 2, p 22}

     The southern Cheyennes and their associated tribe, the Arapahoes, who ranged from the upper Arkansas River and the South Platte River, eastward to Pawnee County, Kansas.

     The Jicarilla Apaches, who ranged from the upper Arkansas River southward to the Canadian River, crossing the Santa Fe Trail between Point of Rocks and Santa Clara Spring in New Mexico. {Ex. Doc. 26, Senate, 31 Cong. 2 Sess. vol. 3, p 13}

     The locations of these Indians in relation to the Santa Fe Trail west of Council Grove, Kansas appears as a foresaid on the map of Lt. J. W. Abert, Top. Engrs. U. S. Army. {Doc. 438, Senate, 29 Cong. 1 Sess. p 1}

     East of the great bend of the Arkansas River, located near present Ellinwood, Kansas on the Santa Fe Trail, was the country of the Kansas Indians, their principal villages were located on the Kansas River near present Manhattan, Kansas. Their claims extended to the mouth of the Kansas. East of them in present Jackson County, Missouri, and the lands to the south, was the remaining country of the Osages. The United States government made treaties with these two tribes in 1825, where by they ceded their lands, in exchange for annuities and a reservation for each well off of the Santa Fe Trail. They also promised not to interfere with the Trail, but that didn't prevent their occasional stealing from the traders, even at the risk of their annuity money.

     These Indians of the plains, through which the Santa Fe Trail passed, lived by hunting the buffalo, which thrived even in the winter on the short, nutritious buffalo grass, growing 2 or 3 inches high in patches over the plains. The herds were usually found in all seasons along the Arkansas River sector of the Trail, where that grass was chiefly found along the route. It was on these plains traversed by the Arkansas and the Platte, that the buffalo was making its last stand. Once found in Kentucky by the first settlers there, the animals, in reality bison, withdrew before the advancing American settlements. Each spring they were found as far east as Turkey Creek in the early years of the Santa Fe Trail. Since the long grasses there grew up earlier than the short buffalo grass farther west. Their vast masses, traveling in small bands, often covered the western plains as far as the eye could see. While the main mass of these huge animals moved on in search of better buffalo grass, some herds remained behind in areas where there was sufficient grass to support them.




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