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Pre-twentieth Century Transportation

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It was less than fifty years from Columbus' landing to the day when a dying De Soto explored the Mississippi River. Yet, in this short span of time, the world began to move. There were uncharted seas for a Vespucius and a Magellan to sail and lands unknown to white men for Ponce de Leon, Cartier and Cortez to see. Whether these ambitious expeditions were the result of material greed or just plain curiosity is not the point. What is important is that wherever there is a frontier there will be men, even if they have to walk to get there. And many of them did.

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was one. With three other survivors of an ill-fated Spanish expedition to Florida in 1528, he managed to escape across the Gulf of Mexico and for eight years wandered among the tribes of what later became New Mexico and Arizona. Pack on back, he walked the great grasslands, came to the desert escarpments, looked down on butte and mesa, waterless seas of cacti and brittle brush. Wherever he went he found that red men had walked before him. And on the high plains of Texas he must have noticed that buffalo had walked before them.

It was the buffalo that were the real road engineers of the Great Plains. Centuries before the first Spaniard set foot in America buffalo had marked their routes from watercourse to watercourse across a world of grass as flat as the ocean. They had established for themselves, and those who followed, the "superhighways" of their day. Secondary roads and detours were designed by deer and antelope. Indians made good use of all these pathways in their constant search for game.

Though these trails were ideal for the hunt, the Indian soon needed others. So it was that for purposes of peaceful trade with friends, and war with enemies, and for just plain visiting-the American Indian became a road builder in his own right. The trails that con-verged at The Dalles trading center on the Columbia River, the Olachen Trail over which candlefish oil was moved from the Pacific coast, and the network of paths from California to the Rio Grande were by-products of the red traders.

All the native tribes of North America, except the Eskimos, engaged in some form of inter-group trade. And most of these tribes had to wander far and wide just in their normal food-gathering activities. Gettin from one place to another, then, was a necessity of Indian life long before Cabeza de Vaca walked the West - and long before the three tiny ships captained by Columbus touched the coast of San Salvador.

Although the pre-Columbian Indian had trails, he also had major handicaps: He had no horse, nor had he invented the wheel. But despite these shortcomings, he made excellent use of what he did have-his head. Or, for the sake of accuracy, her head, for it was the squaws who carried the loads by means of "burden straps," or tumplines, across their foreheads. The male of the species had to remain alert, ready for instant combat, the hunt-and sometimes just plain loafing.

Human portering was not the only means by which Indians moved things from place to place. They had tamed the dog into a hunting companion, a pack and draft animal. When an encampment was to be broken up, so that the tribe could move on to greener pastures, two poles were lashed far enough apart to allow room for a dog between the ends. The other ends were allowed to drag. On this affair would be bundled the covering of the small shelter tent and the rest of the family possessions. A big dog could drag as much as fifty pounds.

This type of rig, known as the travois, was commonly used by the migratory Plains Indians even after the arrival of the horse and the Spaniards' introduction of the wheel. Travois trails were still common sights in the nineteenth century when George Catlin, the noted artist, traveled to the upper Missouri River in order to see and draw horse Indians in their natural haunts. One of Catlin's canvases offers a vivid picture of a band of Comanche on the move; it demonstrates as no words possibly could the effectiveness of the crude travois system. In fact in later years this same device, used on horses, proved useful and efficient to American frontiersmen and army units in the West.

Neither the travois nor human portering, however, could solve the problem of water transport. Few of the Indian tribes were completely landlocked, and they were often forced to cross streams and rivers. Dugouts, balsa and dry-grass rafts as well as the sleek bark canoe can all be credited to Indian inventiveness. Once the stream was crossed, the contrivance might be cast aside and forgotten or perhaps it would be used by the next traveler going the other way. But the old slogan, "Waterways in the East; wagon ways in the West," pretty much tells the story of pre-twentieth century transportation in this part of America.

The beginning of the seventeenth century was the beginning of a new era for both the Indian and the white man, for this date marked the introduction of the horse into the Indian culture. Though it was Columbus who had first brought horses to the New World on his second voyage in 1493, it was Coronado, in 154o, who brought them into the American West. The introduction of the horse had an immediate and profound effect on the Indian. During his early and ill-tempered contacts with the white invader, the aborigine had been treated to many painful demonstrations of the worth of the horse-in the open a moccasined brave was no match for a rider (though in the skulking, tree-to-tree type of warfare a horse was not as useful). Before long the horse became possibly the most cherished, and consequently the most stolen, beast in the West.

It put a culture on the move. It also was used for food among the Digger Indians, for it beat, as one old-timer put it, "snakes and snails and the like." Above all though, it was a beast of burden that had replaced the dog but, much to her sorrow, not the squaw.

In the first hundred years after the introduction of the horse, the total horse population among such nations as the Comanche, Crow, Sioux and Blackfoot had grown to number scores of thousands. The horse had become a measure of personal wealth, a medium of exchange, a class symbol, a means of hunting buffalo, a tactical instrument in war.

And with it had come the development of one of the most skilled horsemen the West has ever known. Riding at full gallop with nothing but a pelt cinched to the horse's back and belly, the Indian put to shame the generation of "leather pullers" that was to come. In battle or in play the Indian and the horse were one, and out of that association something new was born to him: a deep sense of friendship with an animal. In later years when the sunshine of his day had become the sunset of his memories and the red man was pacified and "civilized" or restricted to reservations, his mustang was still his inseparable companion.

In 1540, Francisco de Coronado set out with his entourage from Compostela, a town some hundred and fifty miles south of the later-day Mexican resort city of Mazatlan, his purpose was twofold: to find wealth in the fabled "Seven Cities of Cibola" and to impress his religion on the aborigines. To hasten the former and to add a powerful persuasion to the latter he was accompanied by a magnificent military array of foot and horse, as well as a multitude of friendly Indians. According to the records which have been preserved 559 horses were listed as being part of his parade of officers and lancemen, while upwards of a thousand horses and mules were catalogued as beasts of burden. Although Coronado captured the seven Zuni pueblos of New Mexico in midsummer of that year, he found no fabled wealth. Hoping that other cities whose wealth had been mistakenly attributed to these might lie ahead, he plodded eastward across the Rio Grande and then northward into the plains of Kansas only to be disappointed again.

For the next half-century New Mexico and Arizona simmered in the desert sun, undisturbed by conquistadores. A few priests eager to save the souls of red-skinned pagans disappeared forever in the desolate country, and at least five feeble expeditions ventured unsuc cessfully northward, but it was not until 1598 that Don Juan de Onate established a permanent Spanish foothold in what would be the southwestern United States.

Onate was very different from the earlier conquistadores. Unlike Cortez, Cabeza de Vaca and Coronado he was not Spanish-born, nor did he need to look to Spain to finance his projects. A true Mexican "senor," or lord, his wife was a granddaughter of Cortez, and his father had founded the prosperous city of Guadalajara. Inheriting great wealth Don Juan de Onate also inherited his people's spirit of conquest, as well as the persistent idea that perhaps the real "Seven Cities of Cibola" did stand somewhere in the unexplored north.

So it was that this Mexican grandee and 400 soldiers, 130 of them with their families, set off from Zacatecas for the 700-mile march across roadless deserts to the Rio Grande (at El Paso). The column drove 7,000 head of livestock. Horses, mules and burros served as mounts and pack animals. In addition baggage was transported on eighty-three crude two-wheeled carts called carretas.

In all probability Juan de Onate left his carretas near the future site of El Paso, for the way ahead along the river was rough and he traveled another 300 miles into the heart of the pueblo country before settling at two adjoining Indian villages, which would be pointed out to tourists 350 years later as the quaint and devout mission of San Juan. From here Onate made expeditions east and west seeking the "Seven Cities" but all to no avail. The date and manner of his death remain a mystery. His immigrants soon moved to the site of another Indian pueblo which became known as Santa Fe, capital for other Spanish settlers who followed.

The Spaniards brought many things to these Indians besides Christianity. Among them was the wheel and the know-how for building carretas so important to later generations of Pueblo Indians. The carreta was a simple vehicle, not too difficult to make. At rest it resem bled a woodpile and in motion it sounded much like a pig caught by the ear. Sometimes lubricants were used to eliminate the howling of the wooden axles, but, in the main, the nerve-shattering sound would precede the vehicle, serving as both a warning and identification. The carreta rolled on rimless wheels made from a slice cut from an oak log, through which an eight-inch hole for the axle was chiseled at a reasonable approximation of the center. Sometimes the wheels were made of sections crisscrossed in a rather helter-skelter fashion and secured by pegs. The crate or box that formed the body was usually held together by pegs and thongs.

The design doubtless came from the Old World, and its appearance in the American West can be traced back to at least the 1600's. The California pioneer, John Bidwell, in his reminiscences of the days before the gold rush, wrote, "I have seen the families of the wealthiest people go long distances in such carts." By this he meant thirty miles in one day. However, the backs of sturdy horses and tough burros and mules continued to provide the mainstay of travel and transportation in the West with the establishment of the presidio, or garrison, and mission and rancho life.

The routes over which most traffic moved were called caminos reales, which could be interpreted literally as royal roads but which were actually nothing more than crude bridle trails. One such casually defined path, El Camino Real in California, later called U. S. Highway 101, formed links in the chain of Spanish coastal missions and garrisons. Over this historic trail traveled the padres and rancheros, traders, adventurers, soldiers and officials most of whose names are forgotten. Remembered would be Father Junipero Serra and Captain Gaspar de Portola, who were the founders of Alta California in 1769, and Father Eusebio Kino, the "Padre on Horseback."

Another royal road, the Chihuahua-Santa Fe Trail, emerged as an important trader's route as did the so-called Old Spanish Trail which connected Santa Fe with California. Civilization moved along these trails, although the trickle was not yet a torrent. That would come later when the covered wagon and the iron horse found their way westward. Nevertheless, whether on horseback, by burro or mule or riding shank's mare, men were marching toward the Pacific and the race for the West was on.

Jay Monaghan, (Editor). The Book of the American West . Simon & Schuster. 1963.


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