What it was like to cross Texas by wagon train
A government wagon train forded the Red River on Aug. 23, 1857 and began the long, hard trip across the Lone Star State.
Ever wonder what it was like to travel in Texas in those hot and dangerous days before cars, trains, planes and -- heaven forbid! -- air conditioning? While most voyagers were too busy staying alive to record their impressions for posterity, a member of an 1850’s odyssey kept an unusually detailed daily log that provides a rare first-hand account.
The men-only caravan under the leadership of Col. James B. Leach was 53 days out of Memphis, when it rolled into Texas on that summer day more than a century and a half ago. The job of the construction crew was to improve the road from El Paso to Fort Yuma, but first they had to get there.
Their first night under the Lone Star stars was spent nine miles southwest of Preston, a Grayson County hamlet dismissed by the anonymous commentator as “a place of but little note.” (Old Preston, as it is now called, lies in a watery grave under Lake Texoma.) Three days later, they passed through Gainesville, the only town on the itinerary.
The next day, the expedition encountered “several antelope, the first we have met with. A few hot headed Nimrods gave chase to them but they might as well have chased the North Wind.” Camp was pitched that evening at Head of Elm, soon to be renamed Saint Jo, in the brand-new county of Montague.
Following the trail blazed in 1849 by Gen. Randolph B. Marcy, Col. Leach and his men saw their first rattlesnake on Aug. 30 and on the 31st finally came face-to-face with honest-to-goodness Indians. The rattler was killed, but the red men, a couple of Caddo and a like number of Delaware, could not have been friendlier and were allowed to live.
The next noon, the wagon train reached Fort Belknap on a hill overlooking the Brazos River and a short hop from the future town of Graham. Refreshed by two days of military hospitality, the gadabouts abandoned Marcy’s trail for a more southerly course.
The long-distance sighting of Comanches clearly unnerved the chronicler. Conceding the fact that the Indians on their reservation were “at present at peace with the U.S.,” he added ominously, “But little reliance is placed in the good faith of these savages. Certainly a more villainous and treacherous looking set have not often been seen.”
After four days of complaints about “a severe and obstinate case of inflammation of the bow(e)ls and stomach,” Col. Leach awoke too sick to travel on Sep. 6. The highlight of the day off was the discharge of a man “for idleness and insubordination.” “He will tomorrow commence his solitary march back to the States,” explained the expedition reporter, who seemed to forget Texas was no longer a foreign country.
Though still under the weather the next morning, Leach refused to let his illness impede their progress and gave the order to break camp. He spent the following week flat on his back without once relinquishing command.
The subject of the longest entry in the journal was “a village of prairie dogs” seen on Sep. 11. “The active little denizens of this populous settlement were out of sight in an instant. During the day we passed through a number of these towns and invariably found the little folk living therein retreating at a moments warning to their burrows where they are altogether safe from attack.”
By the time the wagon train pulled into Fort Chadbourne, halfway between modern Abilene and San Angelo, on Sep. 12, Col. Leach was sinking fast. He agreed to stay behind under the care of the post physician and to catch up as soon as he was back on his feet.
During the colonel’s absence, “an incident rather laughable” occurred. Everyone had turned in for the night, when without warning the sentries test-fired their muskets.
“One person, from whom nothing else could have been expected, sought a safe hiding place in the tall bear grass. He was speedily joined by another, a great tall strapping booby, who tremblingly asked in a whisper, ‘Do you think we shall be safe here?’”
At midday on Sep. 18, “Col. Leach rejoined the train much improved in health” and was welcomed four afternoons later by the worst storm of the journey. “Wind, rain and hail of great severity overtook us (and) such was the quantity of water which fell in the space of one hour that it converted the road into a quagmire. A norther in the meantime came sweeping down upon us, which rendered our situation exceedingly disagreeable.”
The wagons crossed the Pecos on Sep. 30 and tracked the river downstream for two days before turning due west toward the Davis Mountains. Fort Davis was a sight for sore eyes on Oct. 8 after a difficult week in some of the roughest and driest country in Texas.
The weeklong trek to the Rio Grande tested the endurance of man and beast, but the leisurely pace of the last leg along the great river let both catch their breath. The Leach wagon train entered El Paso on Oct. 22 completing the “waltz” across Texas in 62 days.
The rugged bunch covered 824 miles in 56 travel days for an average of slightly under 15 miles. And this was accomplished without the loss of a single life in spite of the man-eating reputation of the Lone Star frontier.
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