As Far as the Eye Could Reach: Accounts of Animals along the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880

As Far as the Eye Could Reach: Accounts of Animals along the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880

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As Far as the Eye Could Reach: Accounts of Animals along the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880 by Phyllis S. Morgan, Ronald Kil

Travelers and traders taking the Santa Fe Trail’s routes from Missouri to New Mexico wrote vivid eyewitness accounts of the diverse and abundant wildlife encountered as they crossed arid plains, high desert, and rugged mountains. Most astonishing to these observers were the incredible numbers of animals, many they had not seen before—buffalo, antelope (pronghorn), prairie dogs, roadrunners, mustangs, grizzlies, and others. They also wrote about the domesticated animals they brought with them, including oxen, mules, horses, and dogs. Their letters, diaries, and memoirs open a window onto an animal world on the plains seen by few people other than the Plains Indians who had lived there for thousands of years.

Phyllis S. Morgan has gleaned accounts from numerous primary sources and assembled them into a delightfully informative narrative. She has also explored the lives of the various species, and in this book tells about their behaviors and characteristics, the social relations within and between species, their relationships with humans, and their contributions to the environment and humankind.

With skillful prose and a keen eye for a priceless tale, Morgan reanimates the story of life on the Santa Fe Trail’s well-worn routes, and its sometimes violent intersection with human life. She provides a stirring view of the land and of the animals visible “as far as the eye could reach,” as more than one memoirist described. She also champions the many contributions animals made to the Trail’s success and to the opening of the American West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806152998
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 08/24/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Following a professional career in education, information resources, and research, Phyllis S. Morgan has focused on writing nonfiction works about the Santa Fe Trail and the Southwest. Her award-winning bio-bibliographies on acclaimed New Mexican writers include Marc Simmons of New Mexico: Maverick Historian;A Sense of Place: Rudolfo A. Anaya (coauthored with Cesar A. González-T.); and N. Scott Momaday: Remembering Ancestors, Earth, and Traditions. She has served as the New Mexico Director on the board of the Santa Fe Trail Association. 

Historian Marc Simmons is a founder and the first president of the Santa Fe Trail Association. His forty-nine books include six about the Trail and The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest.

Ron Kil is an artist of the historical West who lives in Santa Fe.

Read an Excerpt

As Far as the Eye Could Reach

Accounts of Animals along the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880

By Phyllis S. Morgan, Ronald Kil


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5299-8



Buffalo were the most important wild animals on the prairies to the travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. They were the focus of attention when the caravans reached buffalo country. Without them to provide the life-sustaining protein and other nutrients required for the arduous journey from Missouri to New Mexico and back again, the traders and others on the Trail, as well as the early settlers on the plains, would most likely not have fared as well as they did. Indians had depended on these animals for thousands of years, and the Spanish colonists and ciboleros (buffalo hunters), relied on them for more than two hundred years before the trade caravans arrived in the 1820s.

During his first journey over the prairies to Santa Fe, merchant William Becknell, remembered as "the Father of the Santa Fe Trail," recorded in his journal on September 24, 1821: "We reached the Arkansas [River], having traveled during the day in sight of buffaloe, which are here innumerable."

During the surveying of the Santa Fe Trail, George Champlin Sibley, who led the survey conducted from 1825 to 1827, reported: "The Road, in nearly its whole extent passes over open, grassy prairie.... Caravans may obtain their chief Supplies for Subsistence, without difficulty or delay, from the numerous herds of Buffaloes that are almost continually passing and repassing over the plain, crossing the Route everywhere along the greater part of the way; and many years must elapse before this great Resource will fail, or materially diminish."

In those days, herds of "the monarch of the plains" made a magnificent scene to behold, each animal an impressive member of the animal kingdom. The largest land mammal of North America, a male buffalo, or bull, can reach a height of six to six-and-one-half feet at the shoulders, seven to eleven feet in length, and weigh nearly a ton. Once ranging as far east as New England and the Atlantic coast, these massively built animals reigned supreme over the prairies and woodlands for thousands of years. Roaming is in their nature; about three hundred thousand years ago they roamed across the Bering land bridge from their home in Asia to North America.

This member of the bovid family, Bovidae, is not a true buffalo, but a species of bison. Called the American bison (Bison bison), this bovid is distinguished from the true buffalo, such as the Cape buffalo of Africa and the Asian water buffalo, by the hump on his shoulders and his extra pair of ribs. The American bison has fourteen pairs of ribs, while the true buffalo has thirteen pairs. The early French explorers called this animal boeuf, meaning ox, changing over time to buffalo. The Spanish word for buffalo is cíbola.

A number of travelers on the Santa Fe Trail were aware that "bison" is the precise and scientifically correct term, but still preferred "buffalo," the name that continues to be more popular. In a country where words are frequently replaced because the former belonged to another time, no one has reported hearing the coin that pictures the distinctive profile of this American icon referred to as a bison nickel. Nor has anyone insisted on changing "buffalo" to "bison" in Kansas pioneer Dr. Brewster M. Higley's well-loved "The Western Home," written in 1873 and known to all as "Home on the Range." It would be unthinkable for William F. Cody fans to start referring to him as "Bison Bill." The word "buffalo" has made a deep and lasting impression on the American psyche, and it seems certain that "buffalo" and "bison" will be used interchangeably for a long time to come.

Colonel Richard I. Dodge, who commanded Fort Dodge, Kansas, from 1872 to 1873, explained why he chose to use "buffalo" in his long chapter about this gregarious animal in The Plains of the Great West and Their Inhabitants (1877): "I suppose I ought to call this animal the 'bison'; but, though naturalists may insist that 'bison' is his true name, I, as a plainsman, also insist that his name is buffalo. As buffalo he is known everywhere, not only on the plains but throughout the sporting world; as buffalo he lives and moves and has his being; as buffalo he will die; and when, as must soon happen, his race has vanished from earth, as buffalo he will live in tradition and story." Dodge's last words here are foreboding. In the 1870s, buffalo were already in serious decline.

Colonel Dodge, Indian leaders, trader and chronicler of the Santa Fe trade Josiah Gregg, artist George C. Catlin, and others who knew the Trail foresaw the grim future of the buffalo and their demise on the plains. Some expressed their beliefs that this important animal was in danger of extermination. Most travelers on the plains, however, paid no heed, positive that the buffalo would last forever.

People following the routes of the Santa Fe Trail, the Mountain Route and the Cimarron Route, sometimes referred to as the Cimarron Cutoff or Dry Route, seldom overlooked describing or commenting on the sight of buffalo herds. They had heard many stories and read about them in books and newspapers. They imagined what buffalo country would be like, but they were totally astounded by what they saw, a scene far beyond their imaginings or expectations.

Lydia Spencer Lane saw buffalo on a number of occasions in travels with her army husband. She wrote about them during a trip over the Trail in the 1850s from Fort Union in New Mexico to Kansas City, Missouri, traveling with a party of ten-mule wagons for twenty-four days. She also told of the many perils of hunting on the land where the buffalo roamed: "In those days the whole country was covered with immense herds of buffalo; there were thousands and thousands of them; yes, a million. They never molested the trains crossing the Plains, though sometimes a great drove of them came thundering down to the road, and the wagons were obliged to halt until they passed.

"There was no difficulty in killing one when fresh meat was needed; but the wary hunter seldom wandered far away, as there were plenty of Indians abroad as well as buffalo. A man strayed off one day, and we knew nothing of him until night, when he came into camp, naked. Indians had caught him while hunting, taken all his clothes, even his shoes, and then turned him adrift. He kept at a respectful distance from the wagons until darkness covered him, the only mantle he had, and then came into camp. He did not care much for hunting during the rest of his travels."

In his popular book The Old Santa Fe Trail (1939), Stanley Vestal described the heart of buffalo country: "Far and wide, on every hand, the sign of those majestic animals was to be seen, and at all seasons.... Everywhere the soil had been scooped into shallow, saucer-like depressions by wallowing bison. These wallows were indestructible, unmistakable from their circular shape — though they varied in size from four or five to fifty feet across.... In any season, those wallows were an unfailing sign that buffalo ranged the country. And now, as gray wolves were seen insolently trotting along the ridges, everyone knew the herds could not be far off. Every man in the caravan felt his blood begin to heat with buffalo fever."

This feverish affliction raged across the prairies and plains. It gripped the men, young and old, as they drew closer to the far-flung region on both sides of the Arkansas River. Their expectations of shooting and killing buffalo became palpable. In the excitement, the chase would sometimes turn into riotous confusion with buffalo and hunters going in every direction, creating a dangerous situation for all. Many buffalo were killed only for sport. Historian Marc Simmons has commented: "It was a kind of primitive blood lust that led to pointless slaying of buffalo."

Philip Gooch Ferguson, a company clerk of the First Regiment of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers in General Stephen Watts Kearny's Army of the West during the Mexican War, caught "buffalo fever" as he headed over the Trail to Santa Fe. He recorded in his diary during a rest stop on July 22, 1847: "We came in sight of black-looking masses on the prairie, which some said were buffaloes, but others could scarcely believe it. There were such numbers of them. Yet buffaloes they proved to be, and forgetting our duty as scouts, we determined to give them a chase. Lindemore [another regiment member] and I rode out to drive them down, but this proved a vain attempt, for as soon as the herd took the alarm, they broke off and could not be headed.

"Finding we could not turn the course of this living current, I determined to have a shot at them as they passed. But Black Hawk [Ferguson's horse], not fancying the looks of the shaggy animals, refused to go close to them, and I fired my musket at an old bull over a hundred yards distant while my horse was at full speed. But if I hit him, he did not mind it, as he continued on at a rolling gallop.... Being nearly exhausted myself and having run my horse about six miles, I returned to the company, which was now out of sight. Thus ended my first buffalo chase, and I had fully experienced the wild excitement it inspires."

William B. Napton, Jr., was eighteen in June 1857 when he left the Westport, Missouri, area (close to Kansas City) in a train of twenty-six wagons headed for Santa Fe. Two of the wagons were loaded with bottles of champagne for Colonel Céran St. Vrain, former mountain man and partner of Charles and William Bent, whose Bent's Fort on the Mountain Route was a renowned landmark. That year about 12,000 wagons left the Kansas City area for Santa Fe; 9,884 of those went to New Mexico.

The son of a wealthy family residing in Saline County, Missouri, young Napton was well educated, proficient with horses, and skilled in the use of guns. His health, however, was "indifferent," and his father thought a trip over the Trail would help to improve it. He was able to acquire a well-trained, experienced buffalo horse and looked forward to his first buffalo chase.

Napton did not have to wait long. His first chase proved exhilarating but unsuccessful. He later wrote about his initial attempt at hunting buffalo: "As we were drawing near the buffalo range, preparations were made for a chase. The pistols were freshly loaded and butcher knives sharpened.... One morning about 9 o'clock on Turkey Creek, a branch of the Cottonwood, we came in sight of buffalo, in a great mass, stretching out over the prairie as far as the eye could reach, though the topography of the country enabled us to see for several miles in each direction.

"We rode slowly until we got within three or four hundred yards of the edge of the vast herd. Then they began to run and we followed, gaining on them all the time. Pressing forward, at full speed of my horse, I discovered that the whole band just in front of me were old bulls. I was so anxious to kill a buffalo that I began shooting at a very large one, occasionally knocking tufts of hair off his coat, but apparently having little other effect. However, after a lively run of perhaps a mile or two he slackened his pace, and at last stopped still and, turning about, faced me. I fired the one or two remaining charges of my revolver, at a distance of twenty or thirty yards, and thought he gave evidence of being mortally wounded."

The old buffalo looked intently and steadily at Napton for a few minutes, then turned and walked away. Napton followed the buffalo until the animal began galloping toward the main herd and disappeared behind a ridge. Disappointed over his failure and worn out by the chase, Napton headed back to the wagon train. The captain of the caravan laughed at him at first but gave the young man hope for a better second attempt. Instructed by the captain "as to the modus operandi of killing buffalo on horseback at full speed," the young adventurer resolved to try another chase.

The next morning, he mounted his rested, eager steed and "sallied forth." The buffalo still filled the scene in front of him. Napton wrote in his reminiscences: "At the left of the road, in sight, thousands of buffalo were grazing in a vast plain, lower than the ridge down which we were riding. Opened up in our view was a scope of country to the southeast of us, a distance of ten miles. This plain was covered with them, all heading towards the northwest." Obviously a quick learner, he rode his horse up next to a fat cow and, with his second shot, brought down his first buffalo.

The young hunter was faced, however, with a difficult situation. His shots had set the herd in motion, and he was completely surrounded by the rushing mass of buffalo. "The air," he recalled, "was so clouded with dust that I could hardly see more than twenty yards from where I was standing, near the carcass of the cow I had killed. There was danger of being run over by them, but they separated as they approached, passing on either side of me, a few yards distant. After a while the rushing crowd thinned." The captain had been watching the action and rode up close to Napton. He urged the young man to try to shoot another buffalo. Napton headed his horse into the midst of the herd and was able to kill one more buffalo. He had managed to kill two buffalo in less than half an hour. After the second chase, he did not experience any problems in killing all of the buffalo his company needed for food.

Napton marveled at the great number of buffalo and at the quality of buffalo meat: "For a week or ten days they were hardly out of sight. We found them as far west as Pawnee Rock. All told, I killed about twenty on the journey out and back. A good steak, cut from the loin of a buffalo cow, broiled on the coals with a thin slice of bacon attached to it to improve its flavor, was 'good eating,' and I soon became an accomplished broiler."

All agreed that the numbers of buffalo were "immense" and "overwhelming." Before the opening of the Trail in 1821, Zebulon Montgomery Pike recorded in a journal of his 1806–1807 expedition through the Louisiana Purchase territory: "I will not attempt to describe the drove of animals we now saw on our route [in Kansas headed west of present-day Cimarron]; suffice it to say that the face of the prairie was covered with them, on each side of the river; their number exceeded imagination."

The day before, Pike had climbed a hill to watch the action as members of his party took a break to kill some buffalo cows and calves for their food supply. He wrote that the scene "gave a lively representation of an engagement. The herd, having been divided into separate bands, first charged on one side and then to the other, as the pursuit of the men on horseback impelled them.... The report and smoke from the guns, added to the pleasure of the scene, which in part compensated for our detention. The cow buffalo was equal to any meat I ever saw, and we feasted sumptuously on the choice morsels." Among the morsels considered delicacies were tongue, liver, marrow, and the fat anterior portions of the buffalo's hump.

Like Pike and Napton, most of the Trail travelers considered buffalo meat, except that from tough, old bulls, to be more savory and juicier than beef, probably because the fat is more evenly distributed in the meat. Frank S. Edwards, a Missouri Mounted Volunteer in the Mexican War, had a differing opinion, although his first impression may have been affected by the age of the buffalo and the way it was cooked. He wrote in camp at Pawnee Fork on July 15, 1846: "Here I first tasted buffalo meat. Our hunters, who were selected from the companies each morning, had been successful in killing three out of an immense herd which we had seen crossing a roll of the prairies during the day. There must have been over three or four thousand in the herd, and from the distance, they resembled a shadow cast upon the earth from a black cloud as it passes across the sun. The buffaloes killed consisted of two old tough bulls and a nice young cow, the latter of which Antoine, our hunter had taken....

"On account of the entire absence of wood here, we had to use the dry dung of the buffalo, called by the hunters bois de vâche [cow wood] or buffalo chips, for fuel. There was plenty of it around our camp, and it had one advantage over wood — it required no chopping. It makes a good and hot fire without flame, but had a strong ammoniacal odor, which is imparted to everything cooked by it. Our buffalo meat, which we simply roasted on the live embers, of course partook largely of this flavor.... To tell the truth, I was much disappointed in the flavor of buffalo meat, and would rather have a piece of good beef."

Edwards also commented on the buffalo wallows: "The mud-holes where they roll or wallow, become, sometimes of very large size, from these living mud-scows carrying off, one after another, considerable quantities of the moist soil.... The rain forms them into ponds, and fish are frequently found in them." Wondering about such a phenomenon as fish in a buffalo wallow in the midst of the plains, Edwards ended his entry: "Where do these fish come from?" Whether Edwards found the answer to that question, we will never know.


Excerpted from As Far as the Eye Could Reach by Phyllis S. Morgan, Ronald Kil. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword, by Marc Simmons,
Part I. Wild Animals on the Santa Fe Trail,
Chapter 1. Buffalo,
Chapter 2. Pronghorn,
Chapter 3. Prairie Dogs,
Chapter 4. Wolves,
Chapter 5. Coyotes and Roadrunners,
Chapter 6. Prairie Chicken,
Chapter 7. Rattlesnakes,
Chapter 8. Grizzlies and Black Bears,
Chapter 9. Mustangs — The Wild Horses,
Part II. Domestic Animals on the Santa Fe Trail,
Chapter 10. Oxen,
Chapter 11. Mules,
Chapter 12. Burros (Donkeys) and Horses,
Chapter 13. Dogs,

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As Far as the Eye Could Reach: Accounts of Animals along the Santa Fe Trail, 18211 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Tangen More than 1 year ago
A far better read than most "publish or perish" or doctoral theses. Apparently researched in depth using memoirs of eyewitnesses of the time, a clear picture of what we have destroyed and lost in the animal kingdom of the US is presented with clarity. Specific animals are targeted in this piece, and the "before" is well demonstrated with much for the reader to learn, and the how and why of the depopulation with or without the need of relocation of each is equally depicted. This is an excellent study piece for the ecologically minded, whether as required reading or personal enrichment. I found it to be a page-turner for me, and I learned a great deal that I did not realize I wanted to know.