Old Dan & His Traveling Companions
Oxen on the Sanata Fe Trail

     Some two centuries prior to the advent of the Santa Fe Trail, English settlers moved to the mountains of New Hampshire. They brought with them from the Boston-Salem area large red oxen imported from Denmark. Later, other breeds such as Galloways and Durhams were introduced from Ireland; and in the late 17th century, Yankee traders brought to New England black Andalusia cattle which Spaniards had shipped to Cuba. These breeds became the progenitors of the big, broad shouldered oxen used extensively in agriculture and logging throughout New England and later in the Northwest Territory.[1]

     On the trans-Mississippi frontier, oxen were not so well defined by pedigree. Horace Greeley wrote of oxen owned by the Russell, Majors and Waddell Company as "lean, wild looking oxen, mainly of the long horned stripe, which indicated Texas their native land, and which had probably felt the yoke within the past week."[2] Earlier, the oxen had come from Missouri and other nearby states. Oxen were often referred to as steers or cattle. Sometimes, they were called working cattle to distinguish them from bovines used for dairy and beef production. Ironically, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, ox trains were known as bull trains, even though oxen were castrated.[3]

     American oxen in the Santa Fe trade weighed 1,800 to 2,000 pounds. One yoke of oxen in 1864 "weighed 4,300 pounds each, but were not fat, were a full eighteen hands (six feet) tall, five feet, ten inches long, and eight feet around the girth."[4] On the other hand, Mexican oxen were smaller than the American steers. Thomas Burns, a settler in early territorial Kansas, described them "as small Mexican cattle, many of them black or black and tan in color and they all had short horns."[5]

     Oxen were notorious for their tender feet. Josiah Gregg wrote that, in the early days of the Santa Fe trade, oxen were shod with what he called moccasins made of raw buffalo hide. This invention worked rather well until the rawhide became wet and soon wore through.[6] In time, oxen were shod with iron shoes, the split hoof requiring two shoes. In almost every frontier settlement was a farrier who maintained a contraption used to secure oxen while they were being shod. It is very difficult for cattle to stand on three legs for any length of time. By means of a belly band and a windlass, the ox was elevated and his feet extended one at a time. The shoes were nailed to hooves in the same manner as equines were shod. These contraptions were variously called an ox press, ox sling, or shoeing stall.[7] If an ox press was not available, the ox was "cast," to use a modern term from veterinarian practice. That is, ropes were attached to the ox's feet, and by pulling the ropes, the ox was put off balance and laid on his side. Thus, the animal could be restrained while the shoes were attached.[8]

     As to the oxen equipage, (known contemporarily as furniture), there were but two components, the yoke and the chain.[9] The American yoke was fashioned from a block of wood four feet in length, flat on the top and arched on the underside at each end to accommodate the curvature of the ox's neck. Two holes were bored at each end of the yoke, spaced apart about the width of an ox's head to receive the bow which encircled the ox's neck. Most often made of hickory, the bow, bent in the configuration of the letter U by soaking it in hot water, was placed in a jig for drying. Holes were drilled in the ends of the bows (usually one hole on the inside member of the bow). Through these holes, pegs (called "pins") were inserted to hold the bow in place.[10] Later in the period, manufactured iron "keys" were introduced for the same purpose.[11] Another hole was drilled in the middle of the yoke and fitted with a piece of hardware from which was suspended an iron ring.

     The Mexican traders used yokes without bows which were lashed to animals' horns. As Gregg explained, "Thus the head so maintained in a fixed position, and they pull or rather push by the force of the neck, which of course, is kept constantly strained upward."[12] The American yoke with its bows allowed the ox to put the full measure of his strength into the pull, far more efficient than the Mexican method.

     The chain, nine-ten feet long, had links four inches wide. Attached to each end of the chain was a sturdy hook. Once the wheelers were yoked and stationed next to the wagon, one on each side of the tongue, the ring of the yoke was suspended through a curved iron device at the end of the tongue called a gooseneck. From the gooseneck, a chain extended to the next yoke and hooked to the ring. Each additional yoke had its own ring from which a chain was hooked to the ring of the yoke behind it.[13]

     As to the driver's accoutrements, he had but two, his whip and his voice. The whip had a stock ten feet in length made of a hickory sapling with a lash of the same length made of rawhide. Attached to the end of the lash was a strip of soft leather five-six inches long, called a popper or cracker.[14] A similar whip was used by men capturing wild Spanish cattle in the everglades. The term "cracker" evolved into the language of the deep South to designate an unsophisticated person. When the whip was cracked, it produced a sound as pronounced as a gun shot. U. S. Army scientists in 1959 measured the speed of a cracker as it was snapped. The conclusion was that the cracker exceeded the speed of sound, and the loud noise resulted from breaking the sound barrier.[15] Thus there was one item traveling the Santa Fe Trail that exceeded the speed of sound.

     Regardless of conventional wisdom, drivers were often encouraged to spare the whip, especially during the latter part of the period when American traffic on the Santa Fe Trail was monopolized by large freighting firms. The handling of oxen was stipulated in great detail by written regulations issued to personnel employed by the various firms. Tom Cranmer compiled a set of such regulations and wrote, "I would therefore, most emphatically denounce the practice of beating oxen under all circumstances."[16] However, such was not the case with the Mexican drivers. James Mead recalled, "The drivers were known as 'bull whackers' or 'mule skinners,' mostly semi-Indian half civilized, faithful, brown skinned, with hair of jet hanging on their shoulders, wielding lashes with such skill as to cut a rattlesnake's head off at 20 feet, or cut through the hide of an refractory ox."[17]

     Perhaps more effective then the whip were the voice commands of the driver. Walking near the head of the wheelers (yoke closest to the wagon), he spoke well recognized commands the oxen learned quickly to obey.[18] Originally, gee-up meant to move up. In time, the command became giddap. Gregg wrote that a simple hep was the command to turn left. Whoa, originally ho, was the command to stop.[19] With regard to other voice commands, Cranmer wrote, "No loud cursing, swearing, or frightening of cattle should ever be allowed in the corral."[20]

     In the settled part of the country, calves at an early age would be yoked together and exercised daily. Small training yokes were used and sometimes sliding (adjustable) yokes were employed to accommodate the animals' growth. The calves were allowed to grow to full maturity at age three before being castrated. This allowed the animal to mature into a strong animal before the neutering process rendered him more docile.[21]

Sliding Yoke Error Fixed
by David K. Clapsaddle

     My article in the February 2008 Wagon Tracks, [this article] "Old Dan and His Traveling Companions: Oxen on the Santa Fe Trail," contains a significant error. It was reported that sliding (adjustable) yokes were employed to train young steers and were used to accommodate the animals' growth. Such I have since learned from an expert in New Hampshire was not the case. Rather, sliding yokes were used to accommodate the spacing of the oxen. By way of example in a logging operation, when a yoke of oxen had to move close together to pass between two trees, the bows would slide toward the middle of the yoke. When the oxen pulled a heavy load and moved farther apart to gain traction, the bows would automatically slide toward the end of the yoke. I am happy to make this correction and express thanks to my New Hampshire friend.

     Freighters on the frontier did not have the luxury of time to train oxen. Rather, they often purchased mature but unbroken (green) steers at the trailheads and immediately put them into service. Unbroken oxen would be yoked and stationed between pairs of experienced oxen. There they had no choice in spite of their protestation by means of backing and bawling but to proceed in step with their broken brothers.[22]

     As the caravan proceeded, the green oxen remained yoked together day and night for some two weeks. Thus, they were forced not only to work together but to eat and sleep together on a 24-hour basis. Subsequently, they performed as broke oxen in an amicable manner.[23] The author in recent years had the opportunity to talk with a Flint Hills rancher who imported cattle from Mexico. He observed, from time to time, a pair of steers which appeared to be inseparable; they were together constantly. Upon closer inspection, he found that the animals were shod, a sure sign of their draft animal status in Mexico. Thus, it would appear that the yoking of oxen produced a reciprocation by which the animals maintained a steadfast relationship, working or not.

     Tom Cranmer's regulations stipulated, "See that all hands temporarily mark their cattle the first time they unyoke, so they may be able to recognize them afterwards."[24] Robert Howard recalled, "One driver tied bits of black cloth to the tails of his team."[25] Another scheme employed by the freighters was "coloring" the cattle. James Meline remarked on ox trains he observed in Leavenworth in 1866, "Each wagon team consisting of ten yokes of fine oxen, selected and arranged not only for drawing but for pictorial effect, in sets of twenty, either all black, all white, all spotted or otherwise marked uniformly."[26] Mark Gardner opined that this "was likely the bullwhackers' system for quickly identifying their oxen in a train's large herd at yoking."[27]

     As previously noted, the large freighting firms issued explicit directions as to handling of oxen. In tedious detail, Cranmer set forth the procedures for yoking. "The moment the cattle are all in the corral, the command should be given by the Wagon Master or Asst., "Yoke up!" Every teamster should immediately enter the corral with his wheel yoke under his left arm, or on his left shoulder, and n as good a humor as possible, holding the bow belonging on the off wheeler in his right hand, the key in his left. As soon as he finds his off wheeler he should approach him gently, put the bow on him, and yoke him; the key in properly, drop the end of the yoke, and go for the near wheeler in like manner, put the bow on him and lead him up; when his wheelers are yoked, he should drive them out at the most convenient gap, and hitch them to his tongue, and then go for his off leader in like manner, yoke him, take out the other bow, tap him lightly if necessary, never letting the end of the yoke drop till he gets him to his inside hind wheel, to which he should always have his fourth chain attached, and chain him up, then drop the end of the yoke and 'go for' the near leader, with the bow in his right hand, key in his left, put the bow on his neck gently, and lead him up to the off leader and yoke him; hitch his lead chain in the staple, laying the other end of it over the near leader's back, by which to hitch his off second ox, and then for the rest as the leaders, till he gets back to his pointers, which is the yoke next to his wheelers. Yoke them together anywhere in the corrall, as he did his wheelers. For this reason, his fifth, or point chain by which his pointers pull is on his gap, and the fourth chain, which is next in front of them, his leaders are chained by, so then drive his pointers up to their proper place, stop them gently, and go for his fourth chain, hitch them to his team, and drive out at the rear gap, if he is farther from the front than the two third wagons. When he gets his team to its proper place, go for his fifth chain and hitch on."[28]

     Once all the teams were yoked, the wagon master would call out the well recognized command of "stretch out." The oxen slowly began the day's work as the loaded wagons creaked under their heavy loads. At this point, mention needs to be made of the phenomenon called "cold collars."[29] For whatever reason, oxen were reluctant to enter a stream early in the morning. Consequently, they would only do so after being driven around the camp grounds for a mile or so. For this reason, among others, the caravan would always cross a stream in the evening before making camp.

     Once underway, the wagons had to halt early in the morning after traveling a half hour or so for some ten minutes to allow the cattle to urinate and take a "breather." Without the halt, the oxen could not perform well for the rest of the day.[30]

     Another stop called "nooning" was made at 10:00. Cranmer mandates four hours for the stop. This allowed the oxen time to graze, rest, and fortify their strength after the morning's pull. It was also the recommended time for breakfast. Cranmer cautioned: "Never get breakfast before the morning drive; corral about 10 o'clock, and lay by about four hours; here you rest during the heat of the day, but if you get breakfast before the morning drive, you will be in the dust and the heat of the day." Other regulations called for two-three hours.[31]

     Following the nooning, the caravan would resume the trip until evening. Cranmer wrote the following instructions, "Corral in the evening about sunset, giving yourselves time to water your cattle and get them on the grass before dark, but in the autumn, you should drive a little later in the evening, as the days are getting short. Never hurry your cattle to water in hot weather-they drink better after they graze and cool a half hour or so."[32] Josiah Gregg reported that in the early days of the Santa Fe trade, the oxen were tethered at night. "Of later years the tethering of oxen has also been resorted to with advantage. It was thought at first that animals thus confined by ropes could not procure a sufficient supply of food; but experience has allayed all apprehension on the subject. In fact, as the camp is always pitched in the most luxuriantly clothed patches of prairie that can be selected, a mule is seldom able to dispatch in the course of one night, all the grass within his reach. Again, when animals are permitted to range at liberty, they are apt to mince and nibble at the tenderest blades and spend their time in roaming from point to point, in search of what is most agreeable to their 'epicurean palates'; whereas if they are restricted by a rope, they will at once fall to with earnestness and clip the pasturage as it comes."[33]

     Oxen had a number of liabilities, not the least of which was "spooking." They, like horses and mules, were sometimes caught up in the excitement of a buffalo stampede and ran away with their wild cousins.[34] Distractions of less magnitude were likewise alarming. Robert Wright tells of one such incident. "I was driving the cavayado (cave-yard-that is, the loose cattle). The Mexicans always drove their cavayado in front of their trains, while the Americans invariably drove theirs behind. I had on a heavy linsey-woolsey coat, manufactured from the loom in Missouri, lined with yellow stuff, and the sleeves lined with red; and, as I said, it was very warm; so I pulled off my jacket, or coat, and in pulling it off turned it inside out. We had an old ox named Dan, a big, old fellow with rather large horns, and so gentle we used him as a horse in crossing streams, when the boys often mounted him and rode across. Dan was always lagging behind, and this day more than usual, on account of the heat. The idea struck me to make him carry the coat. I caught him and by dint of a little stretching placed the sleeves over his horns and let the coat flap down in front.

     "I hardly realized what I had done until I took a front view of him. He presented a ludicrous appearance, with his great horns covered with red and the yellow coat flapping down over his face. He trudged along unconscious of the appearance he presented. I hurried him along by repeated punches with my carajo pole, for in dressing him up he had gotten behind. I could not but laugh at the ludicrous sight, but my laughter was soon turned to regret, for no sooner did old Dan make his appearance among the other cattle than a young steer bawled out in the steer language, as plain as good English, 'Great Scott! what monstrosity is this coming among us to destroy us?' and, with one long, loud, beseeching bawl, put all the distance possible between himself and the terror behind him. All his brothers followed his example, each one seeing how much louder he could bawl than his neighbor, and each one trying to outrun the rest. I thought to myself, 'Great guns! what have I done now!' I quickly and quietly stepped up to old Dan, fearing that he too might get away. and with the evidence of my guilt, took from his horns and head what had created one of the greatest stampedes ever seen on the plains, and placed it on my back, where it belonged. In the meantime the loose cattle had caught up with the wagons, and those attached to the vehicles took fright and tried to keep up with the cavayado. In spite of all the drivers could do, they lost control of them, and away they went, making a thundering noise. One could see nothing but a big cloud of dust. The ground seemed to tremble."[35]

     Storms were another threat. Janet Lecompte repeated the story of one such occurrence. "Late in November, 1846 the twenty-eight-wagon train of Bullard, Hook & Co. carrying merchandise to Santa Fe, crossed the Arkansas at Cimarron Crossing and camped in the sand hills on the south side of the river. During the night a blizzard blew in from the northwest so quickly and violently that the oxen panicked, broke through the guard and scattered out in the darkness over snowy, wind-swept plains. Three mules died, and twenty oxen disappeared in the storm. The teamsters cached their goods, abandoned half their wagons and made for Bent's Fort, 150 miles west, with the goods they could carry in the thirteen wagons for which they had oxen."[36]

     A final liability of oxen was their susceptibility to disease. At times all the oxen in a caravan would succumb to murrain, a catchall term for any number of infectious diseases. Such was the case with a caravan belonging to the Irwin, Jackson and Company in 1863, when every animal was lost.[37]

     In spite of the previously mentioned liabilities, the oxen had a number of advantages, the chief asset being cost. James Josiah Webb purchased oxen at $28 per yoke from C. S. Owen in 1844. In 1866, oxen sold for $75 to $145 per yoke, unbroken steers, $110 to $120 per yoke; mules, $200-$400 per span.[38] In addition to the initial cost, oxen had the advantage over mules because their keep was much cheaper. Their finely-tuned digestive system could convert the rough forage of the Southwest into nutritional value at no cost to the traders. On the other hand, mules were grain dependent and the price of corn was high on the frontier. In 1849, according to Donald Chaput, the annual cost of keeping a mule, including grain, medicine, wages for the wagon master and farrier services was $275.[39] Add to that amount the pounds of freight displaced by the grain needed to feed the mules and the costs rose. Finally, the costs incurred in outfitting oxen were slight, $5.00 for a chain and $5.00 for a yoke. Compare those figures with the price of mule harness. In 1859, harness for a ten-mule team cost $300-$600.[40]

     Beyond the advantages of oxen related to cost, the record is replete with references to other variables. Thomas Forsyth wrote, "oxen will answer for provisions,"[41] and Henry Walker stated, "In mud or sand, the cloven hoof of the ox gave a better purchase for heavy pulling then the small hoof of the mule."[42]

     Such assets made the ox the most popular draft animal on the Trail. However, the popularity was not concomitant with the genesis of the Santa Fe trade. Rather, the popularity came on the heels of horses and mules, a full decade after William Becknell's first trip to Santa Fe.

     On his inaugural trip to Santa Fe, William Becknell set forth from Franklin, Missouri, on September 1, 1821, with five companions and a string of pack horses carrying $300 worth of trade goods. On his return trip, he arrived back in Franklin in January 1822 with specie, mules, asses, and Spanish blankets.[43]

     In early May 1822, another Santa Fe-bound expedition headed by Benjamin Cooper and his nephew Stephen Cooper left Franklin with pack horses laden with merchandise valued at $4,000-$5,000.[44] Later in the same month, Becknell departed Fort Osage on his second trip to Santa Fe, this time with three wagons loaded with trade goods and drawn by horses.[45] In May of the following year, Stephen Cooper led a party of 31 men from Missouri, each man with one or two pack horses carrying goods for the Santa Fe trade. Returning to Missouri in November of the same year, the traders brought back jacks, jennets, and mules, a quantity of beaver pelts, and a considerable sum of specie.[46] As reflected in the above citations, Alphonso Wetmore stated in 1826 that the merchandise destined for Santa Fe was "transported by means of horses raised here(Missouri)."[47]

     However, the horse soon proved to be less than adequate for long distance travel. Such was demonstrated by the failure of horses used in the 1825 survey of the Santa Fe Trail. Leaving Fort Osage on July 17, the survey team made its way to Mulberry Creek on September 6, a distance of 314 miles. George Sibley, one of three men appointed to oversee the survey, recorded, "our Horses tired and poor and Several of them actually give out." When the survey team broke camp on the 9th, Sibley wrote, "We were obliged to leave one of our Horses this morning, some tired, poor, and sick. The horses had an opportunity to rest for the next eleven days as the survey team waited for a courier with news that the party had permission to enter Mexican Territory. The courier did not come, and part of the team returned to Missouri while Sibley resumed the survey with the remaining men. Sibley's party reached Taos Gap on October 19. There, the commissioner gave thought to his next course of action. Confiding to his journal, he wrote, "If I had attempted to reach S(an)ta fee, by way (of) San Miguel, my Horses must nearly all have failed, and many of them been lost. If I attempt to haul the Waggons over the Mountains loaded as they are, the Horses must necessarily fail. If I leave the Waggons & Pack the Horses, still the Horses must fail, & probably the Waggons be lost entirely. If I hire Mules to pack my Baggage &c. over to Taos, I believe I shall be able to get the empty Waggons over the Mountains, and thus at a small expense save all my Horses and Waggons, & prove the existence of a Waggon route over the Mountains into the Valley of Taos: And I determined, upon all these considerations, to adopt the latter plan." On the following day, he dispatched John Walker and Singleton Vaughan to Taos to bring back mules to pack the baggage over the mountains. On the 24th, Walker and Vaughan returned with the mules, and by the 30th, the party, safe and sound, arrived at Taos.[48]

     In reviewing the evolution of draft animals used in the Santa Fe trade, Josiah Gregg wrote, "As soon as the means for procuring these animals (mules) increased, the horse was gradually and finally discarded, except for occasionally riding and the chase."[49] Gregg, of course, was referring to the animals taken in trade by the Missouri merchants with their Mexican counterparts.

     Regardless, the mule's claim to fame began to fade with the introduction of oxen in 1829 by Brevet Major Bennet Riley during the first military escort on the Santa Fe Trail. Departing Cantonment Leavenworth on June 3, Riley's battalion made a circuitous trip to Round Grove by way of a ferry near Kaw's mouth where the column crossed the Missouri. From there the command marched 25 miles to the Grove where they met with the trade caravan moving southwest from Independence. Remarking on the last leg of the trip, Otis Young concluded that the "twenty five miles was a respectable figure, and nearly twice as far as oxen were thought capable of going."[50]

     Leaving Round Grove on June 12, the escort preceded the caravan captained by Charles Bent. Without incident, the entourage arrived at the Upper Crossing of the Arkansas River on July 9. There, the escort remained in camp as the caravan crossed the Arkansas and proceeded south into Mexican territory. With the caravan was a yoke of oxen loaned to Bent. Bent observed that the oxen performed better than horses or mules in the absence of water. Young stated, "Bent simply was interested in learning whether he could not replace his expensive horses and mules with cheaper oxen."

     The caravan returned to the Arkansas on October 12, and two days later the caravan and escort began the return trip to Missouri. En route, the traders complained that the escort was moving too far in a single day and they had trouble keeping pace. At the Little Arkansas River, the traders split into small groups and proceeded on without escort. Riley's command continued on the Santa Fe Trail to a point east of 110 Mile Creek where they turned northeast to cross the Kansas River and marched on to Leavenworth, arriving at the cantonment on November 8.[51] The performance of the oxen was earlier assessed by an unidentified officer of Riley's battalion, "Since we have traveled upon the prairie, we have made good progress for our ox teams--some days twenty-five miles."[52]

     Charles Bent was equally impressed. In 1831, he conducted a caravan to Santa Fe, all of the wagons drawn by oxen.[53] Subsequently, the number of oxen employed in the Santa Fe trade grew in great numbers. As Josiah Gregg reported, "Since that time, upon an average about half the wagons in the expeditions have been drawn by oxen."[54] In his 1839 expedition, Gregg wrote that the caravan was made up of "fourteen road-wagons, half drawn by mules, the others by oxen."[55] Such a pattern would extend through the genesis of the Mexican War in 1846. Prior to that date, caravans were, in the main, composed of several proprietors, each of which opted for the draft animals of his choice.

     The war with Mexico produced a decided change in Santa Fe Trail traffic. The tons upon tons of supplies needed for troops in the Southwest were transported via the Santa Fe Trail by the U. S. Army Quartermaster Department with miserable results. The army had little experience with overland freighting and thus their teams and teamsters performed in a most unacceptable manner. Realizing that the military was ill-equipped for such freighting, the army began to contract with large freighting companies for the transportation of material and supplies. These companies chose to use oxen or mules exclusively; but soon, most of the animals employed by the huge firms were oxen.[56]

     Half of the civilian trade on the Santa Fe Trail by the early 1840s had come under the control of Mexican merchants.[57] Mexican domination of the civilian trade continued through the 1860s and 1870s when the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division (later Kansas Pacific Railway) and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad rendered obsolete the huge freighting firms such as Russell, Majors and Waddell. In their place, forwarding companies such as Ortero, Sellar and Company contracted with the freighters of less magnitude to deliver merchandise from the various railheads to Santa Fe and other points in the Southwest. In turn, the same freighters delivered Santa Fe goods to the railheadsf. By way of example, Morris Taylor reported that from West Las Animas, Colorado Territory, "In one week of July 1874, 182,863 pounds of wool were shipped from there, and the average shipment of hides was given as 87,000 pounds."[58] Like the Americans, the Mexicans had come to prefer the ox as their primary beast of burden. Though accounts of Mexican oxen do not frequently appear in American records, William Bell in 1867 reported one such narrative. "From Salina to Fort Harker our course took us along the traveled road to Denver and New Mexico, and plenty of company we had on the way. At every mile or so we would pass long ox-trains heavily laden with goods (I have counted as many as eighty wagons in a train), and if we found the bad roads difficult, how much worse was the traveling for them! Each wagon carrying from 6,000 lb. to 8,000 lbs., would be drawn by eight, sometimes ten, yoke of oxen, which number would require about three 'bull-whackers' (generally swarthy Mexicans) 'to help them along,' with their heavy leather thongs. When one of these wagons stuck fast in a gulley, it was amusing to see the enormous amount of brute force which was applied to pull it out. The oxen from two of the wagons which had passed safely across would be attached to the one in difficulties, making a continuous string of from eighteen to twenty yoke. To accomplish even this, usually required an amount of swearing and torturing on the part of the drivers which would be startling to the nerves of most men not reared on the plains. When all was ready, and a dozen 'bull-whackers' had taken their places along each side of the line of oxen, a frightful shout would fill the air, followed by the fierce cracking of whips on the devoted hides, and the usual chorus of endearing terms. The poor oxen, thus goaded on to madness, would give one tremendous tug, the usual finale of which used to be, not in the least to move the wagon, but to break the thick iron chain which fastened all together. As we retired out of sight over the brow of the next undulation of the plain, we would usually leave our Mexican friends trying in vain to stop the loosened string of oxen (who could not be persuaded they were not dragging something), preparatory to going through the whole process again."[59]

     A similar story was told by P. G. Scott, who secured passage with Dolore Pathea's caravan from Kit Carson to Trinidad, Colorado, in 1870. Scott's diary entry of Saturday, August 30 reads as follows. "Startedf from Carson at 7 o'clock, and in one half hour came to a sandy bottom where there were several mule teams stuck, but by dint of whipping and shouting they got through. In our train, they put nine yoke of oxen to one wagon, but it took a great deal of shouting in their own Mexican lingo, and a great deal of cracking of these terrible bullock whips before we got through. The 'lash' of their whips is about 12 to 14 feet long and the handle about two feet with a buckskin cracker and the crack of them is like a pistol going off. These fellows can swing their whips round their heads and strike a terrible blow."[60]

     Without question, by the time of Scott's journey, most Mexican freighters and their American counterparts had come to view the ox as their preferred draft animal. As early as 1860, the Seth M. Hays Company recorded that from May 24 to October 1 the numbers of oxen and mules "passing west" through Council Grove were as follows: mules, 5,819; oxen 22,738.[61] Five years later, Charles Withington reported that from May 21 to November 25, 1865, 38,281 oxen as compared to 6,452 mules crossed his toll bridge at 142 Mile Creek in present Lyon County, Kansas.[62] Thus, at that date, oxen outnumbered mules at the rate of more than six to one. Such is testimony to the persistent plodding beasts, without which the story of the Santa Fe Trail might well be told from a different perspective.


  1. Robert West Howard, The Wagonmen (New York: G. P. Putmans Sons, 1964), 23-24, 147.

  2. Henry Pickering Walker, The Wagonmaster (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,1966), 107.

  3. Winifred Blevins (comp.), The Wordsworth Dictionary of the American West (Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. Cumberland House, 1995), 163.

  4. Walker, Wagonmasters, 107.

  5. Thomas F. Burns, "The Town of Wilmington and the Santa Fe Trail," Kansas State Historical Society Transactions, 6 (1900): 599.

  6. Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958), 25.

  7. David Clapsaddle, "Did You Know?" Traces, 6 (Summer 1993): 3.

  8. From a conversation with Michael Burdett, DVM, August 10, 2007, Larned, Kansas

  9. Furniture in this context is an archaic term for a set of fittings or necessary equipment.

  10. Eliot Wiggins (ed.), "Making an Ox Yoke," Foxfire 2 (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973), 112-117.

  11. Tom C. Cranmer, Rules and Regulations By Which To Conduct Wagon Trains Drawn By Oxen On The Plains (Kansas City: Commercial Advertised Job Rooms, 1866), 9; Eggenhoffen, Wagons, Mules, and Men (New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1961), 109, has a sketch of three different types of keys.

  12. Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 147. The dimensions for the chain were taken from one in the author's personal collection.

  13. Mark L. Gardner, Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000), 10.

  14. Ibid., 144.

  15. Howard, Wagonmen, 32-33.

  16. Cranmer, Rules and Regulations, 12.

  17. James R. Mead, Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains 1859-1875 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 46-47.

  18. Cranmer, Rules and Regulations, 10.

  19. Howard, Wagonmen, 26; Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 36.

  20. Cranmer, Rules and Regulations, 10.

  21. Eggenhoffen, Wagons, Mules, and Men, 109, has a nice sketch of an adjustable yoke.

  22. Walker, Wagonmasters, 110-111, Walker has a different take on breaking a green ox. He has him yoked with "an already broken steer."

  23. Ibid., 111.

  24. Cranmer, Rules and Regulations, 26.

  25. Walker, Wagonmasters, 111.

  26. James E. Meline, Two Thousand Miles on Horseback (Albuquerque: Horn and Wallace, 1966), 3. Coloring was also a practice of the U. S. Dragoons. Per company, the horses were variously colored roan, bay, black, etc. During the 1868-1869 winter campaign against the southern plains tribes, Lt. Col. George A. Custer revived the practice. Capt. Albert Barnitz reported that all company commanders were ordered "to exchange horses so as to secure a uniformity of colors in each company." Robert M. Utley (ed.). Life in Custer's Cavalry (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), 204.

  27. Gardner, Wagons, 9.

  28. Cranmer, Rules and Regulations, 9-10.

  29. The phenomenon was also called "cold hitch-hot-hitch."

  30. Raymond W. and Mary Lund Settle, War Drums and Wagon Wheels (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1966), 175.

  31. Cranmer, Rules and Regulations, 25.

  32. Ibid., 26.

  33. Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 44.

  34. Ibid., 45.

  35. R. M. Wright, "Personal Reminiscences of Frontier Life in Southwest Kansas," Kansas State Historical Society Transactions, 7, (1902): 48.

  36. Jane Lecompte, Pueblo, Hardscrabble, and Greenhorn (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978), 192.

  37. Walker, Wagonmasters, 109.

  38. Ibid., 106-107.

  39. Donald Chaput, Frances X. Aubry, Trader and Trailmaker in the Southwest (Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1975), 71.

  40. Walker, Wagonmasters, 103.

  41. Ibid., 106.

  42. Ibid., 107-108.

  43. Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 97.

  44. Ibid., 105.

  45. Ibid.

  46. Ibid., 110.

  47. Augustus Storrs and Alphonso Wetmore, Santa Fe Trail First Reports (Houston: Stagecoach Press, 1960), 61.

  48. Kate L. Gregg (ed.), The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 34-76, 105-111.

  49. Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 24.

  50. Otis E. Young, The First Military Escort on the Santa Fe Trail, 1829 (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1952), 71-86.

  51. Ibid., 148-163.

  52. Stephen G. Hyslop, Bound for Santa Fe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 113.

  53. Barry, Beginning of the West, 207.

  54. Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 24-25.

  55. Ibid., 229.

  56. Gardner, Wagons, 7.

  57. R. L. Duffus, The Santa Fe Trail (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975), 134.

  58. Morris Taylor, First Mail West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press,1971), 164.

  59. William A. Bell, New Tracks in North America (Albuquerque: Horn and Wallace Publishers, 1965), 26-27.

  60. P. G. Scott, "Diary of a Freighting Trip from Kit Carson to Trinidad in 1870," Colorado Magazine, 4 (July 1931): 146-147.

  61. John D. Cruise, "Early Days on the Union Pacific," Kansas Historical Collections, 11 (1909-1910): 533.

  62. Mamie Stine Sharp, "Homecoming Centennial Celebration at Council Grove, June 27 to July 2, 1921," Kansas Historical Collections, 16 (1923-1925), 554.
         Used With Permission of the Author
         David Clapsaddle

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