II - F. X. Aubry

     The name of Francois Xavier Aubry must surely be near the top of any list of men who figured extensively in the history of the southwestern United States. He succeeded in leaving his mark all across the Great Plains area, and a cutoff on the Santa Fe Trail, an army fort, and a western Kansas town, all bear his name.

     Aubry, whose first name is often referred to in the more Americanized form, Francis, and whose last name appears in three ways, Aubrey, Auberry, and most frequently, Aubry, was a French Canadian. He was born in Maskinonge, a village on the St. Lawrence River in western Quebec, on December 4, 1824. Little is known about Aubry's early childhood, although he received an elementary education, and then due to the financial hardship of his parents he took a job in a near-by town, leaving it to go to St. Louis, where he arrived in 1843 at eighteen years of age. Clerking in a store did not appeal to Aubry, and he next appears in Independence, Missouri. Shortly, he was starting his own commercial enterprise of freighting cargoes to Santa Fe, New Mexico. [1]

     Aubry made his reputation in this era by making quick trips between Independence and Santa Fe. He accomplished these trips by changing horses every hundred miles or so. He had previously left the horses stationed along the way for use when traveling in the opposite direction.

     As a regular trader on his own, Aubry went twice to Santa Fe in 1847, making rapid journeys, although his commercial gains were modest. [2] Returning to Independence on January 5, 1848, he managed to cover the 780 miles between Santa Fe and the Missouri trading center in a little over fourteen days. [3]

     Also in 1848, Aubry ventured again to Santa Fe with a cargo train and then left for the return trip, alone, on May 19, reaching Independence in only eight days and ten hours -- a very impressive record. [4]

     The Independence Expositor published an extra on May 29 to herald Aubry's feat. On June 3 the St. Louis Republican, reporting his arrival in that city on the previous evening, wrote of Aubry's "unexampled' traveling that "he lost, from detention by the Indians [near Pawnee Fork], more then a day [also lost his "baggage, provisions, packages of letter, &c.], and really made the distance . . . in seven days"; . . . that he "killed three horses and two mules [by hard riding]" walked 40 miles [to Fort Mann, where he got a horse]; was three days without provisions; slept "only four or five hours on the route." [5]

     Again in 1848 Aubry went to Santa Fe with a wagon train and then left there, on September 12 alone. He reported changing horses some seven different times and he reached Independence on September 17 in the amazing time of only five days and sixteen hours. The Aubry legend also includes a story about Aubry's being so very tired from going without sleep that he actually strapped himself into his saddle for a period of forty hours, at the end of the trip, in order to keep from collapsing and falling off the horse. Some of the drama, excitement, and hardship encountered by Aubry, in that speedy September ride, was reported over a century ago by the Missouri Republican on the day of his arrival:

     On his way he had to swim every stream, was delayed by the transaction of business at Fort Mann, with his own teams which passed that way, and with the various parties of troops; and beside breaking down six horses and walking 20 miles on foot, he made the trip traveling time only counted, in about four days and a half! During this time he slept two and a half hours and ate only six meals. It rained upon him 24 consecutive hours, and nearly 600 miles of the distance was performed in the mud, and yet, what is strange, the rain did not reach Council Grove. . . . We hear from Mr. A. that he made some portion of the trip between Santa Fe and Independence at the rate of 190 mile to the 24 hours. He had no one to accompany him. [6]

     This trip earned Aubry the title, "Skimmer of the Plains." [7]

     Aubry also received the title of Colonel, apparently honorary and bestowed upon him out of respect for his authority as a wagon master. This title was used in a recent 1954 item in the Ulysses News entitled "Old Graves Mark Historic Crossing Over Bear Creek." Here it was stated that in "1851 and 1852 Colonel Aubrey had a small garrison of troops stationed on the south side of the Arkansas River . . . . He was protecting wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail." [8] Although the title was used, this is the only military reference to him, however, and the opinion that Aubrey's title was one earned while in military service is not supported by available sources.

     It has been suggested that the motivational force behind Aubry's feats of speed and daring stem from his physical characteristics. He was five feet four inches in height, although some say five feet two inches, and he was described as having "small hands and feet." [9] More likely, however, he was just extremely energetic and took great pride in his personal accomplishments. Howard Bryn, of the Albuquerque Tribune, gave this account of Aubry:

     Francis X. Aubry was one of the most popular men in Santa Fe a century ago.

     This dapper young French-Canadian . . . was equally at home on a dance floor or in a boxing ring. He was a graceful man of remarkable endurance and agility -- a trail blazer and a record setter.

     Francis X. Aubrey was described as a "boon companion and a dashing cavalier -- popular among the men and more then popular among the women." He could speak several languages. He was a dead shot with a pistol or a rifle. [10]

     The only available sketch of him shows him to be bearded and with a mustache. It is said by some authors that he had brown eyes and was extremely alert, with a Gallic temper. [11]

     Aubry's title, "Skimmer of the Plains," was certainly no detriment to him as an enterprising young businessman engaged in carrying freight across the Great American Desert. He apparently had all the business he could handle and managed to guide as many as three trains a year from Independence to Santa Fe, and then back again. [See Figure One].

     On June 12, 1850, Aubry left Santa Fe with another wagon train of merchandise and reached Independence on July 3. On this trip however, he had chosen to leave his company of forty-two men, ten wagons, and 200 mules at Cottonwood Crossing (about 185 miles from Independence) two days earlier. [12] Aubry had ridden the last part of the journey alone and as quickly as he could. Perhaps the old spirit for adventure via fast riding had overtaken him, or perhaps he just wanted to add some diversity and excitement to an otherwise routine trip. The usual newspaper sources reported Aubry's arrival in Independence, pointing out that Aubry traveled the last "125 miles of this distance in twenty hours and a half!" [13]

     Aubry's stay at Independence this particular summer was short, lasting only about a month. He must immediately have set about assembling another wagon caravan to take to Santa Fe. Various newspapers, in recording the arrival of travelers from Santa Fe, published accounts of meetings on the trail to Santa Fe, and Aubry was already on the trail a month later. Several newspapers reported that:

     Eastbound travelers who left Santa Fe in mid-July (and reached Ft. Leavenworth in mid-August) . . . [later] met Francis X. Aubry's train at Big Bend of the Arkansas . . . .

     The eastbound mail which left Santa Fe August 1 met . . . Aubry's wagons at Lower Cimarron Springs. . . . Aubry reached Santa Fe some time in mid-August, in 36 1/2 days from Independence. Of his round trip it was reported: "The wagons were absent from Santa Fe 77 days being 21 days less than any previous trip." [14]

     With his final caravan of that year, Aubry then returned to Independence where he spent the ensuing winter months. As soon as the weather improved, he assembled another wagon train of commodities and on or about march 10, 1851 he left Independence once again. This is recorded as apparently the first merchandise train on the trail in 1851. [15]

     Aubry sold his goods in Santa Fe and promptly assembled another cargo of merchandise to sell in Independence. This trip was to prove one of the more interesting of Aubry's trading career.

Figure One
Summary of some of Aubry's Trips during the Height of His
Career as Trader and Explorer on the Santa Fe Trail
Date of DepartureDestinationRouteDate of ArrivalDays in Route
Dec. 22, 1847IndependenceCimarronJan. 5, 184814
May 19, 1848IndependenceCimarronMay 27, 18488
Sept. 12, 1850IndependenceCimarronSept. 17, 18495
June 12, 1850IndependenceCimarronJuly 3, 185023
July 14, 1850Santa FeCimarronAugust 18, 185036
March 10, 1850Santa FeCimarron??
April 23, 1850Independenceunsuccessful
attempt to find
new route
May 12, 185119
June, 1851Las Vegas, NMCimarronSept., 185160+
Sept. 19, 1851IndependenceAubryOct. 11, 185122
Oct. 24, 1851Santa FeAubry??
Dec. 31, 1851IndependenceAubryFeb. 5, 185238
March, 1852Santa FeAubry??
April 11, 1852IndependenceAubryMay 8, 185227
May, 1852Santa FeAubryJuly 3, 1852?
July 31, 1852IndependenceAubryAugust 25, 185225
Sept., 1852Santa FeAubryOct., 1852?
The sketchiness of the early portion of the summary is due to the fact that only
Aubry's "fast" trips gained him fame enough to have dates accurately recorded.
The regularity established in the latter part of the summary comes about as
Aubry regularly used his route and the speed of his wagon trains was someting
for newspapers of the day to write about.

     Aubry left Santa Fe on April 23 and reached Cold Spring (see reference in Section III) in the Oklahoma Panhandle on April 29. Aubry chose to leave the regular Santa Fe road about two miles northeast of the spring and attempted a new road running in an east-north direction. He was hoping to find a better trail to the Arkansas River. Aubry hoped that by choosing a new route the wagons could avoid the dreaded Jornada (a trip over the extreme dry area of the Cimarron Trail) and reach the river faster. But this trip, thought to be his first try at shortening the Santa Fe Trail was unsuccessful. A contemporary account said, based on Aubry's journal:

     On the 2d [May] they arrived at the [Arkansas] river, their animals having been two days without water. The last day the party had no water to drink, and they traveled through sand and a hot sun, and had to drink the blood of the Antelope. [16]

     On May 4 Aubry reported passing thirty lodges of Cheyenne Indians on their way to a peace council at Fort Mackay. The next day, upon reaching the fort, which was located about two miles west of present Dodge City, Aubry and his party witnessed a gigantic gathering of Indians. The Indian lodges crowded both sides of the Arkansas River for fifteen miles and the chiefs were sitting in council with the United States representatives. Bvt. Colonel William Hoffman was commandant. Aubry appeared on the scene just as the chiefs of the various Indian tribes and Colonel Hoffman had completed the ritual of smoking the pipe of peace. [17]

     A few days farther along the trail Aubry's spirit for adventure again overcame him. After seeing his wagon train safely to the Cottonwood Crossing, he rode swiftly on ahead to Independence and arrived there in a total of nineteen days travel from Santa Fe. He completed the final approximately 200 miles of his trip in two days plus one hour. [18]

     Aubry spent the next six weeks in Independence leisurely readying a wagon train. He departed in late June with his second wagon train of the 1851 season. This trip was plagued with illness -- namely cholera that raged throughout the towns and settlements of the Great Plains at this time. Many wagon caravans were stricken with cholera; Aubry's was no exception. The July mail party reported seeing Aubry and his company west of Council Grove at 142 Mile Creek and said that Aubry and hands who had been sick were well now. The August mail party, upon arriving at Independence near the end of August, mentioned seeing Aubry's train at the Crossing of the Arkansas River and said they had been told by Aubry's group that the cholera among them had just subsided. A correspondent to the Missouri Republican gave the place of the meeting with Aubry as ten miles above Lower Cimarron and someone from Aubry's company, in a letter to the Republican dated August 8 and written at Arkansas Crossing, said that they had been bothered quite extensively with cholera. It reported ten cases of the disease between Pawnee Fork and the Arkansas Crossing but said that only one person had actually died from the disease. [19] Many deaths are recorded in Plains history from cholera, and it is easy to understand the dread that must have accompanied Aubry's company when the disease was detected among them.

     The illness, coupled with the fact that the summer of 1851 found Kansas rivers and streams all flooding, must have made this particular trip the most difficult of Aubry's career. The group was delayed several times by sickness as well as by the elements of nature. This is illustrated by the fact that on August 23, the mail party arriving at Independence, reported having met Aubry at the Arkansas Crossing a few days earlier. It had taken Aubry's group about sixty days to go only half the distance to Santa Fe; he normally covered the entire distance to Santa Fe in only forty days.

     Aubry disposed of this trainload of wares in and around Las Vegas, New Mexico, and once again assembled his wagons for the return trip to the northeast. This trip became very important to the history of the Santa Fe Trail, for Aubry attempted and established a new route between Cold Spring and the Arkansas River Crossing. This route was subsequently traveled by many wagon trains and became known as "Aubry's Trail." Aubry had left Las Vegas on September 19 and probably reached Cold Spring about September 25. Leaving Cold Spring, the group struck out in a new direction. Several Missouri newspapers commented on the venture:

     Aubry (and train) has left the Santa Fe Trail (about September 25?) at Cold Spring . . . and traveled "from 10 to 40 degrees east of North" to the Arkansas, finding (as reported) " and excellent wagon road, well supplied with water and grass, and avoiding the Jornada and Cimarone [Cimarron] trail altogether." [20]

     A few days out of Independence, Aubry again chose to beat his wagon train to its destination. Leaving the merchandise train once more at the Cottonwood Crossing, Aubry covered the distance from there to Westport at a rate of a little over 100 miles per day, riding his favorite mare, Dolly. [21]

     Aubry again wasted no time between trips. He reached Independence on October 11 and immediately began making arrangements for stock to take to New Mexico. He was ready to leave in less than two weeks, which was record, or near-record time. This was the third merchant train of the year to New Mexico for Aubry. With his caravan in tow, he struck out once again in the now very familiar southwesterly direction of the much worn Santa Fe Trail. The first recorded information concerning this trip comes from the Missouri Republican, October 28, 1851. It reported Aubry's location as ten miles west of the Cottonwood Fork, in present Marion County, Kansas. [22]

     It is interesting to note now that Aubry's train was not met by the November mail party. Aubry had utilized his new route, the one he perfected on the previous trip in September and October. The Missouri-bound mail party, however, reported his location farther along the trail, and it described Aubry's train as getting on well. [23]

     Aubry sold the merchandise in Santa Fe and remained but a short while. Attempting travel during the winter months with loaded wagons was nearly unheard of, and considered quite impossible, but not so to Aubry. Never content, he did not hesitate to ignore the threat of inclement weather, and in the middle of winter, on December 31, 1851, he departed with a twelve-wagon caravan and a complement of men. Aubry's craving for the daring ruled his actions once again. Upon reaching Cold Spring, he selected still another route to the Northeast. This time he crossed the Arkansas River at a point higher up than usual. His party experienced very intense cold weather, recording temperatures of sub-zero readings on several occasions. On both January 18 and 19 the temperature dipped to minus twenty degrees. One night the party camped on an island in the Arkansas River and cut through two feet of solid ice without finding water. They struggled through snow up to eighteen inches deep. Nevertheless, they managed to get to Independence on February 5, presumably with a large amount of specie, and without losing a single mule. The Missouri Republican designated Aubry "the most daring traveler on the prairies." [24]

     On February 14 Aubry went to St. Louis, Missouri, and shortly thereafter the Missouri Republican, questioned Aubry about the possibility of his having discovered a newer and better route to the southwest. Aubry said, however, that he did not consider this route as good a trail as was his former one. [25]

     By this time Aubry's name was well known throughout the Midwest. Many wagons traversed "Aubry's Route" (Aubry's Trail) and people referred to the trail's crossing on the Arkansas River as "Aubry's Crossing." Located near this crossing was a spring, also known as "Aubry's Spring." He was, perhaps, the only wagon master daring and skillful enough to attempt and successfully complete a winter trip. A modern historian has referred to Aubry as "intrepid and indefatigable" [26] in describing his immense energy and drive. He could not be idle. In fact, in only two short weeks after his arrival in St. Louis, Aubry was back again in Independence and ready with a full wagon train of goods to take to Santa Fe. His was the first wagon train bound for New Mexico in the 1852 year.

     He reached Santa Fe, arranged his trading business, and left again for Independence on April 11. He arrived there on May 8. The Occidental Messenger, official newspaper in Independence, added its applause for Aubry's accomplishments. Referring to the fact that this was Aubry's second arrival in Independence for that year, it said, "As a traveler . . . Aubry has not an equal in the Union." [27]

     This trip found Aubry still exploring and trying to find the best route between Santa Fe and the Missouri border. He traveled his regular "Aubry Route" to Arkansas River, but once across the river sought a newer route. According to the Occidental Messenger, one William S. Allen accompanied Aubry, and historians have assumed that it was Allen who corresponded with a larger newspaper, The Missouri Republican, supplying some notes about this exploration of Aubry north of the Arkansas River. Among other things, he said,

     Leaving Santa Fe . . . we pursued the usual route as far as Cold Spring. Two miles northeastwardly of that point we turned off, and shaping our course north by east, reached the Cimarone river at a distance of 7 miles from the Spring. Crossing it, we proceeded on a general course N. 25 E. to Bear Creek, touching it at a bend 25 miles from the crossing of the Cimarone. . . . [After following down Bear creek for some 20 miles] we crossed over to the Arkansas, in the directions N 20 E., 15 miles distant, striking that river 12 miles above Choteau's Island and 58 above the point where the Cimarone road crosses the Arkansas . . . . [28]

     Aubry apparently then made guinea pigs out of this wagon train, for once across the river he departed from the regular route. The correspondent wrote,

     Mr. Aubry, being satisfied that a still further saving of distance could be made on this side of the Arkansas, determined to test the point, on his present journey, by leaving that river some miles below his crossing. The point chosen was five miles below Elk Island, and twenty-five miles above the Cimarone Crossing.

     From this point we set out on the 25th ulto., our general course being N. 25 E. . . . Next day they came to "Buffalo Creek," . . . [and several days later] found themselves, not near the mouth of Pawnee Fork, as anticipated but "at the Big Bend of the Arkansas" . . . and learned that the stream they had followed was Walnut Creek. . . . [29]

     Aubry was apparently well satisfied with these explorations and considered this road very good, but he felt it would be even better if the United States government would establish military posts at Walnut Creek and near Cold Spring. [30] Considering such adventure under the circumstances surrounding these explorations, historians have perhaps not even credited Aubry with having the bravery and skill which he obviously possessed. His confidence in himself and his abilities apparently never wavered. He did not hesitate to take an entire wagon train over foreign terrain, and he evidently was so sure of his capabilities as a scout and trail guide that failure was inconceivable.

     Perhaps, in Aubry's experiences, there was more danger in the contraction of the uncontrollable diseases of the time than from the wilderness and the Indians. Cholera plagued his caravan for the second time, and Aubry again had to contend with the epidemic proportions the illness reached within his group.

     May found Aubry again on the trail, heading for Santa Fe. Near Plum Buttes, about June 12, Aubry's train was encamped with cholera raging heavily in it. The Missouri Republican reported on June 25 and 26 that seventeen cases of cholera had occurred at one time in Aubry's train, but went on to say that due to Aubry's careful attention to his men, only one of them had succumbed to the illness. [31] Elsewhere in the same issue, the arrival of another trader was noted, and he reported that he had met Aubry's caravan and that it "was progressing very well, the sickness in his party having abated. . . . " [32] The June mail party reported meeting Aubry's train between the Coon Creeks and said that it was getting along very well. [33]

     Aubry and his company finished the venture to Santa Fe and were ready again to leave there on July 31. The Independence-bound August mail party which was on the Aubry Trail about the same time, overtook Aubry's party at the Arkansas Crossing. They had utilized Aubry's Route between Cold Spring and the Arkansas River, and after their arrival at Independence reported to the Occidental Messenger that they found Aubry's route a most excellent one for both summer and winter travel. [34] The Messenger issued further compliments, "Aubry deserves praise for making it out so successfully, and in spite of all oppositions and danger, opening up a way so useful to all who cross the plains." [35]

     Aubry's company arrived in Independence, this time on August 25. The trip from Santa Fe had taken a mere twenty-five days. It was reported that they brought in "25,000 in specie and $30,000 in drafts." [36] On this mission, Aubry carried copies of the Santa Fe Gazette Extra, dated July 17, 1852. This issue contained an article written by Aubry, in which he replied to Bvt. Capt. John Pope, topographical engineer, in defense of his discovery of the new road which he had established between Cold Spring and the Arkansas River. Pope was publicly making a claim as the discover of what was called "Aubry's Route." The Gazette Extra editorialized, Aubry was apparently not to impressed by the claims made by Pope.

     "The probability is that civilians will generally call it Aubrey's Route, while the military will designate it as Pope's Route." The Occidental Messenger . . . of June 26(?) had stated: "We Learn from our exchanges and other sources, that Captain Pope disputes with Aubry the right of discovery to his new route." [37]

     He had been known to travel the route as early as 1850 while Pope's explorations did not begin until a year later. Aubry's Route was the name bearing fame, and notes of the people traveling with him leave little doubt that he was the original determiner of the cutoff.

     Aubry began his last journey on the Santa Fe Trail about mid September, 1852. The Independence-bound October mail party reported meeting Aubry at "Aubry's Crossing" on about October 10. [38] Aubry reached Santa Fe and the next account of his whereabouts comes in a letter written by New Mexico's governor, William Carr Lane. The letter, dated November 16, 1852, stated,

     (Aubry) sets out tomorrow, for California, via the Mexican state-Sonora, with a flock of sheep. He appears to be restless, when stationary, & only contented, when making these appalling Journeys. [39]

     Aubry made a successful sheep-selling trip to California and kept a careful diary of this journey. A year later he took another similar trip and again kept a diary. Why he did not keep a careful diary while exploring the Santa Fe route is not known; or, perhaps, if he did keep notes, they have been lost. Certainly a realm of worthwhile information could have been obtained from such a record and much clarification of the early history of the cutoff and the Santa Fe Trail itself could have been documented.

     At any rate, Aubry's flamboyant days of exploration were soon to end. Just prior to his departure on his second sheep-herding trip to California, Aubry was interviewed by Richard Hanson Weightman, good friend of Aubry, and the publisher of the Amigo del Pais, an Albuquerque newspaper. It was in the fall of 1853 and Weightman told Aubry that he planned to publish an account of Aubry's first trip to California in his newspaper. When it appeared, however, the article was not just an account of Aubry's travels. It was apparently quite abusive of Aubry's character and reputation, and it "ridiculed his personal attractions." [40] A copy of Weightman's article reached Aubry while he was still in California, and he set about immediately to return to New Mexico. He arrived there during the middle of August, and on August 20 confronted Weightman at a local bar, Moncure's Saloon. While Weightman and certain of his associates tried to convince Aubry that the article was written just for fun and to play a joke on Aubry, Aubry was not convinced. During an ensuing conversation, drinks were thrown at Aubry, who then drew a revolver. One account says that a bullet prematurely exploded, but whether it was just accidental or fired, a bullet did pierce the ceiling of Moncure's Saloon. Weightman retaliated by drawing a Bowie knife and stabbing Aubry severely. Aubry died of the stab wounds a short while later. It is no doubt true that his temper matched his quick wit. Justice later saw fit to acquit Weightman of the murder charge on the claim that he was acting in self-defense. The same personal qualifications which led Aubry to become one of the great men of the Santa Fe Trail Days also , in all probability, caused his premature death at only twenty-nine years of age. [41]

  1. Ralph P. Bieber, ed, Exploring Southwestern Trails, 1846-1854 (Glendale, California: Arthur H. Clark Company, vol. VII of Southwest Historical Series, 1931-1943), "Introductions," 38-39.
  2. Ibid., 40-41.
  3. Ibid., 42.
  4. Louise Barry, The Beginnings of the West, Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West 1540-1854 (Topeka, Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 753-54.
  5. Barry, 754.
  6. Barry, 775-76, This ride is featured in David Dary, "The Crazy Bet and Fantastic Ride of F. X. Aubry," The Kansas City Star Magazine, January 23, 1972, 18, 21, 23.
  7. Barry, 77.
  8. "Old Graves Mark Historic Crossing Over Bear Creek," Ulysses News June 17, 1965. Also see discussion in text in Section III at footnote 1.
  9. Howard Bryan, "Off the Beaten Path," Albuquerque Tribune, April 22, 1954.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Durham, Ks., is now located at the point Aubry referred to as Cottonwood Crossing.
  13. Barry, 950-51.
  14. Barry, 956.
  15. Barry, 985.
  16. Barry, 999.
  17. Barry, 997.
  18. Barry, 999.
  19. Barry, 1015.
  20. Barry, 1042-43.
  21. Barry, 1042.
  22. Barry, 1046.
  23. Barry, 1046.
  24. Barry, 1064.
  25. Barry, 1064.
  26. Barry, 1064.
  27. Barry, 1089.
  28. Barry, 1089.
  29. Barry, 1089-90.
  30. Barry, 1090.
  31. Barry, 1097.
  32. Barry, 1097.
  33. Barry, 1097.
  34. Barry, 1121.
  35. Barry, 1121.
  36. Barry, 1123.
  37. Barry, 1123.
  38. Barry, 1125.
  39. New Mexico Historical Review, III (1928), 190.
  40. Bryan, Albuquerque Tribune, April 22, 1954.
  41. Walker D. Wyman, "F. X. Aubrey, Santa Fe Freighter, Pathfinder and Explorer," New Mexico Historical Review, VII (1932), 9-10; Bieber, ed., Southwestern Trails "Introduction," 59-61; Hobart E. Stocking, The Road to Santa Fe (New York: Hastings House, 1971), 235, 238.
    Used With Permisssion of the Author:
    E. P. Burr

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