Pawnee Rock, Kansas
through the eyes of
Matt Field

     A rare but interesting little book about James Ross Larkin on the Santa Fe Trail is entitled Reluctant Frontiersman.[1] If I were to choose a subtitle for my topic, it might well be "Unlikely Frontiersman." An image of Matthew C. Field and his wife Cornelia (whom he married after he traveled the Trail) shows Field to be something of a dandy, dressed to the nines as though he were posing for a theatrical poster, a most unpromising person for the rough and ready vigor of the Santa Fe Trail. Field was commonly called Matt. he often referred to himself as Don Mateo Compo, an unusual combination of transliteration and translation. In other instances, he identified himself as Pilgarlic, with reference to his self-medication of garlic pills. At times, he shortened the moniker to Pily.[2]

     The son of Irish immigrants, Matt had been apprenticed to a jeweler but left that craft to follow an older brother into the theater. Though he enjoyed some success on the stage, his frail health and two disappointing love affairs prompted the young thespian to consider ohter options, including the ministry and a junket to the great Southwest. During this period, Matt became fast friends with George Clark and Edmund Paul. Clark was the son of the celebrated William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Paul's mother was a Chouteau, the family which came to virtually control the fur trade in the trans-Mississippi West. By night, Matt remained on stage, but by day, he spent long hours in the dram house listening to the tales of his new-found friends. Even though these stories were of second-hand nature, Matt became fascinated with the lure of the West. The ministry could not compete with the prospects of such high adventure.

     Early in June 1839 Matt sold his watch and chain, borrowed some money from a friend, and joined a group of 17 other adventurers and merchants, Mexicans and American, intent on a trip to Santa Fe. By steamboat Field with his companions reached Independence where they secured passage to Santa Fe with a caravan of 80 wagons.

     On July 1 the caravan set forth from Independence to pursue the road to Santa Fe. Crossing the Missouri border, they entered the mixed-grass prairie of Indian Territory before reaching the tall-grass area we now know as the Flint Hills. Crossing the Neosho River at Council Grove, the caravan pressed on to the southwest, reaching Cottonwood Grove on July 15. There Matt lost the journal he had carefully kept since leaving St. Louis. Just how, remains moot. He wrote that it was lost in the pursuit of an antelope. He was in the habit of carrying a Spanish grammar and the journal on his person. Perhaps it fell from his pocket during the chase. Regardless, one of his companions offered up a blank diary, and Matt resumed his journal entries. On the 15th and 16th, Matt recorded his observations in prose, but on the 17th, he forsook the prose to make his entries in verse, heroic couplets at that. That night, he wrote (6),

     The steel is struck, the fire is burning
     And now the coffee mill is turning
     And bacon simmering in the pan
     Tells that cooking has began.

     On the following day, the caravan experienced a difficult crossing of the Little Arkansas River. Matt confided to his journal (7),

     See how the frightened mules are staring
     Hear the whips crack, drivers swearing
     Getup! Go on Gee! damn you, haw!
     Crossing the Little Arkansas.

     Cow Creek also proved to be treacherous (9-10).

     "Cow Creek" next crossed and barred our way
     And here we had the Devil to pay,
     The mud, as soft as new made mush,
     Required such loads of grass & brush,
     That even Jim at last gave o'er,
     And swore point blank he'd work no more!

     Beyond Cow Creek, the caravan arrived at Plum Buttes on July 20. Matt wrote (11-12):

     At 2 o'clock we reached "Round Mound,"
     Alias "Plum Point," where plumbs abound.
     And plumbs we eat-tho' hard and green,
     They were the best here to be seen.

     At Walnut Creek, flood waters prevented crossing, and Matt observed on July 24 (19):

     Still "Walnut Creek" is on the rise
     And hence we are in paradise?
     Nothing to do, and plenty to eat
     Makes a paradise of our retreat.

     Finally, the waters subsided and the wagons were able to crosss the swollen Walnut on July 27. The caravan passed but did not pause at Pawnee Rock, 290 miles from Independence, in the plains populated by the short grasses-buffalo and grama. Matt made only slight mention of the landmark in his July 28 journal entry(21).

     We passed quite near to "Pawnee Rock"
     From hence we saw a young Elk flock,
     Rather Some twenty young Does, led
     By an Elk with large horns o'er his head.
     I lay last night in the fair moonlight
     With a clear sky, shining o'er me
     And my thoughts went back o'er our dreary track
     And forward to that before me.

     Beyond Pawnee Rock the entourage crossed Ash Creek and Pawnee Fork before reaching the Forks in Santa Fe Road, some three-and-a-half miles southwest of present Larned.[3] There they left the Arkansas River valley to follow the Dry Route southwest to the Arkansas River. En route the caravan was fortunate to find Coon Creek filled with water, a rare occurrence in mid-summer. Matt gladly wrote on July 31 (24):

     And here we're stopped at main "Coon Creek"
     A hollow generally dry,
     But yesterday a heavy leak
     Let down the water from the sky,
     And filled Coon Creek, so fast it dropped,
     So here our cavalcade is stopped.

     At the Arkansas River the travelers ignored the usual Cimarron Route fo follow the north bank of the river to Bent's Fort. There, on August 18, Matt described Fort William, the original name of the fort(44):

     Bricks moulded from the prairie clay
     And roasted in the noontide ray.
     Large as the stones of city halls
     Form good "Fort William's" strong built walls.
     And trunks and boughs of "Cotton Wood"
     Form gates and beams and rafters good.
     While grass and mud piled closely o'er,
     Forms sheltering roof and sanded floor.

     Beyond Bent's Fort, Matt's party followed the Purgatory River to Raton Pass. After crossing the pass, Matt and one of his original 17 companions, caravan Captain Alexander Branch, left the caravan to follow a rugged road through the Cimarron canyon to Taos. There, Branch operated a store, one of the few buildings in town with a wooden floor. From Taos, Matt made his way to Santa Fe but did not tarry long.

     He departed the old city on September 21 in the company of Dr. David Waldo and a single pack mule. Waldo, a Missouri physician, appears to have been more interested in things other than his medical practice. Heavily invested in the Santa Fe trade since 1829, he became commanding officer of Company A, First Missouri Mounted volunteers during the Mexican War. In 1850, he joined Jacob Hall to establish Waldo, Hall and Company which operated the first regular mail delivery between Independence and Santa Fe.[4] As for the mule, not much is known. That night, Matt forsook his verse and returned to the previous style of prose. He wrote(50-51), "our supper was goat's milk and corn boiled into mush, which we took in an old ruined mud church in an abandoned Indian town forty-five miles from Santa Fe, where we also slept." From that date forward through the day of his last entry on October 30, Matt never returned to verse but maintained his journal entries in prose. another change was in the offing. Three days later, he began to record the day of the week of each journal entry in Spanish. Unlike many of his Anglo compatriots, he had developed an appreciation for things Hispanic.

     Making their way to San Miguel, the unlikely pair joined a group of Mexican merchants en route to Independence, accompanied by an escort of Mexican soldiers. On October 8, the retinue reached Lower Spring on the Cimarron Route, later called Wagon Bed Spring. Matt described the water source as (55) "a little lake of good water in the middle of a flat prairie."

     Two days laater the party arrived at the Arkansas River, called Nepeste, the Comanche name for the river adopted by the Mexicans. Matt wrote(55), "Made the Nepeste and camped at 7 A. M. remained for the rest of the day on the Mexican side of the river." That night, Matt wrote a letter in Spanish to Captain Branch. There, at the United States border, the escort left and Matt assumed the role of guide only to get the party hopelessly lost. After wandering aimlessly for a day and a half, Matt stumbled upon a faint trace of the river route which had fallen into disuse during this period. Matt thus led his Mexican friends along what he called the "lost track" to the Pawnee River.

     His October 15 journal entry reads (56), "Crossed 'pawnee fork' at 8 A. M., 'Ash Creek' at 10 A. M., scratched my name on 'Pawnee Rock' at 12." At that time, Matt observed 20 such inscriptions in the soft Dakota sandstone. Seven years later, Susan Magoffin wrote that there were "many hundreds inscribed on the rock."[5]

     On the 16th Matt led the little cavalcade across what he labeled "el Rio de Nuezes," Spanish for Walnut River. By this time, Matt had begun to incorporate a goodly amount of Spanish vjocabulary into his journal entries, another expression of his affinity for things Hispanic. From that point, Matt led his Mexican companions on to Independence without incident.

     The following fall Matt was employed as an assistant editor by the New Orleans Picayune and subsequently serialized a number of articles written of his travels to and from Santa Fe. His article titled "Pawnee Rock" appeared in the November 8-9 editions of the Picayune. In part, the article reads (100): "Pawnee Rock springs like a hugh wart from the carpeted green of the prairie. It is about thirty feet high, and perhaps an hundred around the base. One tall, rugged portion of it is rifted from the main mass of rock, and stands totally inaccessible and alone."

     Matt's description of the rock begs comparison. George Sibley's 1825 account reads, "a remarkable Rocky Point which projects into the bottom from a high ridge."[6] Josiah Gregg wrote, "This rock is situated at a projecting point of a ridge."[7] Susan Magoffin was less explicit, "a high mound with one side of sandstone."[8] Thomas Lester characterized the formation as, "a high abrupt eminence."[9] Joseph Pratt Allyn simply called the rock "a huge boulder."[10] Captain Philip St. George Cooke was more verbose, "a rocky hill or mound, perhaps a hundred feet high, an extraordinary feature in that region of the country."[11] Cooke's estimate of the rock's height at 100 feet is far removed from Matt's thirty-foot guess. Perhaps a more accurate estimate is that of sixty feet made by Lieutenant M. R, Brown, engineer with the 1867 Hancock Expedition.[12]

     Matt published a second article in the November 15-16, 1840, Picayune, titled "The Legend of Pawnee Rock" (101-104). In this fanciful account attributed to Pawnee sources, an evil spirit once roamed the land drinking the rivers dry and tearing up the trees. It was he who created the plains.

     In time, the spirit was confined to a cleft in what we now know as Pawnee Rock. There he was pacified by offerings. especially in the hunting season when huge quantities of buffalo meat was dropped into his gaping jaws. When the tribe prepared for war or some sickness spread, a pilgrimage would be made to the rock where prayers were said and offerings made. Those who violated tribal taboos were bound hand and foot and placed in the monster's cavernous mouth. Anyone who dared to rescue such an unfortunate soul was sure to suffer the same punishment.

     The legend tells of a Canadian trapper who was drowned in the Platte River. His son was taken into the Pawnee tribe, adopted, and grew to manhood only to fall in love with a chief's daughter. When smallpox decimated the tribe, a pilgrimage was made to the rock and the chief's daughter was consigned as an offering to the open mouth of the rocky monster. That night, the young Canadian defied the promised punishment to rescue his beloved. Not daring to be seen by the Pawnees, the couple wandered about trying to reach the settlements in Missouri. Traders, it was said, found a rude cross near the crossing of a stream on the Santa Fe Trail. Digging beneath the cross, they found the bones of a young woman and beads and ornaments traditionally worn by Pawnee girls.

     I leave to your judgment as to the truth of this legend, but if we forgive Matt's excesses with regard to "The Legend of Pawnee Rock," then perhaps we can forgive Henry Inman for telling the tale that Kit Carson shot his mule at Pawnee Rock, mistaking it for an Indian.[13] Perhaps, also, we can forgive the Kansas State Historical Society for including the fable as fact on the historical marker near the town of Pawnee Rock. By the way, Uncle Dick Wootton told the same story on himself, only he claimed to have shot his mule at the Little Cow Creek crossing near present Lyons, Kansas.[14]

     When the Santa Fe traders returned to Missouri, they brought back silver, gold, furs, hides, mules, donkeys, wool, and other products of New Mexico. Matt Field brought back none of these. But he did bring back something which, in time, was to prove quite valuable, his 108-page journal, about the size of a Reader's Digest, bound in marbled cardboard and written in pencil. This little volume, as John Sundet, editor of Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail wrote, "is a rare, perhaps unique, record of events on the trail kept by an actual participant"(xxiv-xxv).

Footnotes

  1. Barton H Barbor, ed., Reluctant Frontiersman: James Ross Larkin on the Santa Fe Trail, 1856-57 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990).

  2. The bulk of material for this study was derived from John E Sunder, ed., Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahhoma Press, 1995). Page numbers from this source are cited in the text in brackets.

  3. Matt's party took the original route of the Santa Fe Trail's Dry Route which branched off the Wet Route some three-and-a-half miles southwest of the Pawnee Fork Crossing. Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West. 1540-1854 (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 1092. On his return trip, Matt followed the Wet Route.

  4. Ibid., 593, 949.

  5. Susan Shelby Magoffin, Down The Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847,ed. By Stella M. Drumm (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), 40.

  6. Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road to Santa Fe (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 71.

  7. Josiah Gregg, The Commerce of the Prairies, ed., ed. by Milo Milton Quaife (New York: The Citadel Press 1968), 49.

  8. Kate Gregg, Road to Santa Fe, 40

  9. Thomas B, Hall, Medicine on the Santa Fe Trail (Arrow Rock, MO: Morningside Bookshop, 1987), 36.

  10. David K. Strate, ed., West By Southwest: Letters of Joseph Pratt Allyn, Santa Fe Trail, 1863 (Dodge City: Kansas Heritage Center, 1984), 70.

  11. Otis E. Young, ed., The First Military Escort on the Santa Fe Trail, 1829 (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1952), 83.

  12. Letters Received by the Office of Adjutant General, 1867, microcopy 619, National Archives and Records Service, Washington D. C.

  13. Henry Inman, The Old Santa Fe Trail (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1897), 408-409.

  14. Barry, Beginning of the West, 309.
    Used With Permission of the Author:
    David Clapsaddle




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