Visit the Old West Town of Las Vegas, New Mexico

Las Vegas, New Mexico is an historic old west town that just so happened to be on a very important overland trail and it’s a must stop during your next tour of New Mexico. The old Santa Fe Trail passed directly through town used by traders going between Santa Fe, New Mexico and points in Missouri to the east. The Santa Fe Trail had it’s roots extending all the way back to the 1820’s shortly after Mexico took over rule from Spain.

las vegas new mexico history

Las Vegas, NM

The Santa Fe Trail

Las Vegas New Mexico was a major location long before the railroad arrived. Las Vegas found itself directly on the Santa Fe Trail and was considered the largest town between it and Dodge City Kansas.

The Santa Fe Trail was established as a trade route between the U.S. states to the east and Mexico. Quite a lot of trading went on there during the Santa Fe Trail days. There are several locations in New Mexico today where tourists can still see the wagon ruts dating back to the 1800’s.

The Railroad Reaches Las Vegas, NM

When the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad reached Las Vegas New Mexico much later in 1880, everything changed. During the late 1800’s, the railroads out towns of the old west on the map.  What was at one time a small settlement would become a booming town almost overnight. In some respect, the railroad laying it’s tracks through a town had the same effect as the excitement of the California Gold Rush.

In addition to the building construction, the railroad helped make Las Vegas a cattle rail head. Between the railroad cattle trade, the key geographic location on the Santa Fe Trail and the colorful characters of the old west attracted to this new boom town, it’s probably an understatement to say that Las Vegas New Mexico was one of the New Mexico towns that changed dramatically during all the way from the 1820’s to the twentieth century.

las vegas new mexico historic buildings

Many buildings on the National Register

Today, when you visit Las Vegas, New Mexico, many of the old buildings you see were constructed shortly after the railroad arrived. Today, Las Vegas New Mexico is a treasure trove of nineteenth century structures, the town now has more than nine hundred buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Las Vegas also found it’s place in early Hollywood film making. The legendary Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix shot some of his movies in Las Vegas New Mexico and to this day the town is a popular movie shoot location.

Outlaws and Gamblers of Las Vegas’ Past

A case could be made that Las Vegas was one of the wilder old west towns of New Mexico. Actually, many well known characters passed through the town at one time or another.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

There was the well known incident when sheriff Pat Garrett was transporting the arrested  Billy the Kid to the Santa Fe jail from the Fort Sumner area to the southeast. Las Vegas was a stop on the trip to Santa Fe. The story is that one of the prisoners Pat Garret was transporting along with the Kid had a lot of enemies in Las Vegas. Garrett, his deputies and the prisoners after riding up from Fort Sumner boarded the train in Las Vegas for the 55 mile trip to Santa Fe. To get out of the Las Vegas train station in one piece, the party had to hole up in one of the train cars with shotguns at the ready. The Las Vegas mob was intent on not letting the train depart. There were serious threats made to Garrett and violence looked imminent but the train car wasn’t rushed. Eventually Garrett made his way to Santa Fe safely where Billy the Kid and the others were jailed.

Doc Holliday Moves to Las Vegas

There’s another tale about the well known Doc Holliday and Las Vegas New Mexico. It seems that Doc Holliday relocated to Las Vegas in 1879 and opened up a saloon in the middle of town with a partner. He wasn’t there but a few months when an argument erupted between Holliday and a well known and locally liked gunman. The story is that Holliday invited the gunman to begin shooting whenever he was ready. The gunman did and so did Doc Holliday and the gunman was killed. Holliday left Las Vegas shortly after this shooting to avoid being killed by the gunman’s friends.

See the Trips Into History articles found on the links below…

The Doctors on the Old American Frontier

Fort Union, NM Santa Fe Trail Wagon Ruts

la castenada harvey house

The old Harvey House, Las Castenada

The Notorious Silva Gang

Another noted outlaw from Las Vegas was Vicente Silva. In this case, Silva was a local saloon owner who gathered together a group of Hispanics into what was referred to as the Silva Gang. The gang also had other names such as Society of Bandits, Forty Bandits and Silva’s White Caps.

Their dubious credits included rustling, murder and theft in general. The distinction of the Silva gang was that it’s leader ran a prosperous business in Las Vegas during the day and then at night turned into one of the most feared outlaws in the area. The saloon obviously served as a good front. It also came to be known that Silva had connections with a few local lawmen that aided the gang’s survival. Vicente Silva died in 1893 and that pretty much spelled the end of his gang.

las vegas new mexico amtrak

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief in Las Vegas, NM

Your Visit to Las Vegas, NM

You will find the railroad tracks and train station a short distance away from the town’s plaza. Directly next to the train station is the Castenada which at one time was a large and first class Harvey House Hotel.

Today, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief makes a daily stop from each direction on it’s route between Chicago and Los Angeles. There is van service available from the train station to the Plaza.

The Las Vegas Plaza area is surrounded by many historic buildings including the Plaza Hotel. Six miles outside of town is the old ornate Harvey House Montezumas Castle which today houses the United World College.

For more detailed information on planning your visit to Las Vegas, New Mexico see…

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)

Cowboys , Outlaws and the Dime Novels

Cowboys and Outlaws

To say that literature describes the old west cowboy in different ways is a true understatement. Add television to the mix and the cowboy life is portrayed in an even wider range. Whether the cowboy was written of in the nineteenth or twentieth century makes little difference. There are many story lines attached to the cowboy…some very true and others total fabrication.Was it a romantic life, a hard and dirty job or perhaps something in between.

cattle drive structure

Cattle drive structure

In many ways the same holds true for the portrayal of outlaws. Literature has portrayed the old west outlaw from a romantic Robin Hood type character to a murderous psychopath.

There are questions to be asked. The questions are…who really was the American cowboy and what was the cowboy life really like? What was the difference between outlaws and cowboys? In some cases maybe no differences. In others, total differences. The biographies of these two type individuals often intersect. While there have been inaccurate portrayals written about both, the largest inaccuracies have probably been written about the cowboys. There was a great deal published about the subject during the latter part of the 1800’s and, in a way, literature often helped shape events. In fact, successful western literature in the latter 1800’s was similar to what sells today on bookshelves. The wild west was wild, but perhaps not as wild as often presented to sell books and movie tickets.

western ghost townsWhat Author’s of the Era Wrote

The Dime Novel depicted both outlaws and cowboys as a wild bunch. In Lewis Atherton’s book, The Cattle Kings, the author points out that Mark Twain himself described the cowboy as more gunman than ranch worker.

Roughing It

Twain worked for a time at the Virginia City Enterprise, Nevada Territory’s first newspaper.  Twain wrote glamorizing accounts of the western cowboy. Twains experience in Virginia City gave him the background to write a book, Roughing It, in 1872 which was the real start of his literary career. In his book, Mark Twain makes mention of bad men stalking the streets and moving easily from ranch to mining camp. Twain describes them as wearing long coats, cocked hats and revolvers. He goes on to further describe them as brave and reckless fellows who traveled with their life in their hands and who did their killing most within their own circles. They thought it shameful to die with their boots off.

All of this was Mark Twain’s account of the outlaw of the west. While this account stirs interest among readers, it also omits quite a bit of factual information. Nevertheless, this type of literature sold well. Twain was describing the outlaw, not the cowboy.. Although somewhat similar in appearance to the cowboy, the outlaw or bad man was an entirely different individual.

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Old JA Ranch Bunkhouse

The Big Bonanza

There was a book written by the senior editor of the Virginia City Enterprise, Dan De Quille. The book was encouraged by Mark Twain who urged De Quille to write a factual account of life in the Virginia City mining town. De Quille did publish his book in 1876 titled, The Big Bonanza. De Quille basically agreed with Twain’s account with the exception that he didn’t glamorize the violence. Instead, he denounced it and the men who caused it. It’s not surprising to note that Dan De Quille’s more realistic account didn’t sell as well as did Twain’s book.

According to the book, Cattle Kings, another book, Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest, this one written by a Joseph G. McCoy who is credited with bringing ranchers and cattle buyers together in Abilene Kansas, described the cowboy and his dress in colorful terms.

McCoy wrote that..mounted and drunken, they charged wildly through the streets, shooting up the town as they went, or rode directly through the swinging doors of saloons to demand drinks at pistol point. Literature published by both Mark Twain and Joseph McCoy, attached a code of reckless action by the cowboy in the 1870’s that gave or proposed a style of behavior for new cowboys to emulate. This was a mixing of the cowboy and outlaw culture and I think gives the wrong impression of the cowboy. It has been written however that serious individuals who entered the ranching world in the late 1870’s and 1880’s actually found this much publicized code of conduct either humorous or irritating. Although colorful, it wasn’t necessarily accurate.

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XIT Ranch cowboys

What the Ranchers Had to Say About Cowboys

If you really want to find an accurate account of the cowboys of the old west, there is probably no better source than ranchers of the era. First of all, ranchers were not selling books. They were in the business of raising and selling cattle and anything that would disturb that process was unwelcome. Ranchers employed cowboys and at the same time laid down the rules. In fact, ranchers operated in areas far removed from the courts and oftentimes lawmen. The ranchers were in the position to make the laws and enforce them. Some ranchers were small operators and others large corporate concerns. One of the largest, the XIT in the Texas Panhandle, employed about 150 cowboys during it’s peak years.

Was the Cowboy Armed or Unarmed?

Contrary to many of the Hollywood westerns, many ranchers didn’t carry firearms and had rules against their ranch hands carrying guns. Carrying a six shooter was the exception rather than the rule. One of the reasons mentioned for this was the idea that an armed man sent an unspoken message. An armed man would be much more likely to be involved in some sort of violence than an unarmed one. The sometimes controversial “code of the west” prohibited the shooting of an unarmed individual. Most ranch owners simply felt that a sixshooter could only lead to trouble and especially so when mixed with alcohol. This was something detrimental to running a cattle business and was highly discouraged.

The famed Texas rancher, Charles Goodnight, presents a good example of ranching law and order. In the book, Cattle Kings, Goodnight was said to have ordered his cowboys to keep their differences under control while working his long cattle drives. He stipulated that his outfit would hold an immediate trial and hanging of anyone found guilty of committing murder. This reportedly worked effectively for Goodnight. As far as he was concerned, the cowboy could go settle his differences, but not while working on one of his drives. While working on the ranch itself, Goodnight forbade drinking, gambling and swearing.

The above mentioned book also describes how a ranch manager by the name of John Clay handled differences among his employees. Clay was known to settle differences by persuasion. This usually worked. Clay was said to have carried a firearm only once when unruly cowhands ran off one of his supervisors. Again, firearms on the ranch was an exception.

Teddy Roosevelt, when spending time ranching in the Dakota Territory, wrote of his experience and concluded that people had little to fear about murder in the west as long as they minded their business and stayed out of barrooms. Barrooms of the old west being the natural habitat of outlaw and alcohol. Regarding cowboys, Roosevelt pointed out their rough language but contended that it was little different than when any group of all males got together. There was no mention made of shooting up the town.

The Real Bad Men of the West

While the cowboy certainly was spirited, he was also a very hard worker. Many old west cowboys of the late 1800’s were mere teens. Working cattle drives was difficult work and required good physical conditioning. To understand the physical conditioning required to carry out the cowboy’s job, just visit one of the many rodeos held throughout the country and you can see for yourself what was involved.

When cattle drives ended at rail heads such as Abilene, Kansas and later Dodge City ,Kansas, there was a lot of steam to be let off and the cowboys had their pay. You could say it was a time of planned rowdiness. This type of activity was in stark contrast to the western outlaw who would be more apt to target the cowboy.

Again, the ranching industry was involved with the criminal element as well. The western outlaw or gunslinger really came to the forefront after the American Civil War. This was the era of the James Gang, the Daltons, Sam Bass, Butch Cassidy and others. In the case of the James Gang, much of their violence was attributed to lingering hatred from Civil War days, although that is an arguable point. What is significant is that none of the stories about the above mentioned outlaws had a good ending.

sam bass round rock texas

Outlaw Sam Bass who was shot and killed in Round Rock, TX

The Rustler Outlaw

The biggest bane to the cattle rancher was the rustler. Cattle associations were established to, among other things, deal with rustlers and old west outlaws.

Cattle associations went as far as employing range detectives who many times themselves had prior brushes with the law. Cattle associations themselves were responsible for violence when it came to the rustler, or alleged rustler, such as in the case of the Johnson County War in Wyoming. Rustlers were dealt with severely and quickly and in some cases the ranchers may have hung the wrong person in the rush for justice.

Vigilance Committees

The more you read about the subject of lawlessness in frontier or cattle towns, the more you realize that it was a short lived event. Many old western towns had vigilance committees that dealt with the criminal element their own way. The criminal element the committees were targeting were not drunken cowboys having a good time after trail drives. From vigilance committees came formal law enforcement and often times the two operated simultaneously. It was true that the great majority of murders committed in the old west were between members of the lower element. One reason was that if a rancher or land owner, someone of rank within the community were killed by a gunman, certain retribution was sure to come.

great train robberyWhen one gunman killed another gunman, many in the community were actually glad there was one less outlaw. Stagecoach and train robberies of course did effect law abiding citizens and it took little effort to organize a posse to go in pursuit. In addition to this, if you happened to rob a bank or a train you could be assured to have the Pinkertons on your trail brought in by banking associations.

Outlaws, gunmen, rustlers and others were simply detrimental to business and settlement. The American west was all about business and settlement. It is for this reason that the criminal element was dealt with firmly and swiftly, whether it be by a sheriff, a vigilance committee or the Pinkertons. Sometimes all three working together. To be sure, lawlessness in the frontier town ended more sooner than later.

The dime novels often paint the life of the cowboy and the outlaw with the same broad brush. This is especially true about the carrying and use of firearms. While this portrayal might spice up the mundane, hard working life of the cowboy, there was no similarity between cowboy, outlaw or gunslinger.

The cowboy could be rowdy as Teddy Roosevelt pointed out, but he would be more inclined to be pulling practical jokes and bragging rather than to break the law. Were there bad cowboys? Certainly. Ranchers were quite aware of this. Did some cowboys become outlaws later? Yes. An interesting fact taken from Dodge City Kansas records of 1872 says a lot about the cowboy. It was 1872 that the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad reached Dodge City making it an important cattle drive rail head. During that year there were a total of twenty-five murders that occurred during fights. Out of the total of twenty-five only one involved a cowboy.

See additional Trips Into History and Western Trips Articles on the Links Below…

The Saints Roost Western Museum in Clarendon, TX

See the Famous Goodnight Ranch House in Goodnight, Texas

Visit Historic Round Rock, Texas

Museums and Venues to Add to Your Next Trip Itinerary

The National Ranching Heritage Center – Lubbock, TX

National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum – Oklahoma City, OK

The XIT Museum – Dalhart, TX

King Ranch Museum – Kingsville, TX

Saints Roost Museum – Clarendon, TX

Black American West Museum – Denver, CO

The Rex Allen Museum – Willcox, AZ

Desert Caballeros Western Museum – Wickenburg, AZ

The Western Heritage Museum & Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame – Hobbs, NM

(Article copyright Trips Into History)


The Woman Called Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane is a name that will forever stay in the history of the American West. When anyone now brings up the name Calamity Jane the real question is who exactly was this woman called Calamity Jane? What was she famous for? Why does her name still come up today?

The exploits of Calamity Jane were many and her life paints a vivid picture of surviving in the old west, and surviving as a woman.

calamity jane

martha Jane Canary aka "Calamity Jane"

Great Western Trip Stops

Before going into the colorful and amazing life of this famous frontierswoman, there are several excellent venues to learn more about her and the old west frontier in general.These include the Dakota Discovery Museum located in Mitchell, SD. Lots of interesting information and exhibits about the western frontier and about Calamity Jane. Mitchell id located about 74 miles west of Sioux Falls.

Another interesting stop is the Yellowstone Gateway Museum in Livingston Montana. Here you’ll find good information about Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody and others. Livingston is located about 28 miles east of Bozeman.

If your trip takes you to Deadwood South Dakota you may want to visit the final resting site of both Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery can be reached by bus with tour guides from Main Street in Deadwood. This is a a very old cemetery and offers a good reflection of Deadwood and the Black Hills area history during the very early years.

In Princeton Missouri, the birthplace of Calamity Jane, you can enjoy the Calamity Jane Days Fall Festival which is held each September. Princeton is about 115 miles north/northeast of Kansas City.

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The Black Hills of South Dakota

A Woman Named Martha Jane Canary

Who history knows as Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Canary in 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. In 1865 the family moved west to Virginia City, Montana, a growing gold mining town in the outer reaches of the frontier. Keep in mind that this was some eleven years prior to Custer’s Battle of the Little Bighorn.

To arrive in Montana one had to traverse usually hostile Sioux Indian territory. Not always easy. When you head out on a western road trip today you can take along a travel guide. During the mid 1800’s your only trip adviser were your instincts.

Young Martha’s Trip West

The overland trip took five months and during this time the young Martha Jane learned to hunt for food with the male members of the traveling party. Her mother unfortunately died shortly after their arrival in Montana. The family was on the move once again, this time to Utah.

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Fort Bridger circa 1850's

The tale was that Martha’s father died shortly after their arrival in Utah and she took her siblings back to Wyoming and settled at Fort Bridger. To support her siblings Martha took a variety of jobs, everything from dishwasher, ox team driver, dance hall girl, cook, nurse and waitress. Some stories claim she even became a prostitute. This accusation came from the later years she spent in Deadwood.

Martha gained a reputation as a tough frontier woman wearing men’s clothing, chewing tobacco, drinking like a frontier man and she became an excellent shot with her guns. Her life travels took her from Montana all the way to Arizona and then back north again..

A Cavalry Scout

In 1870 Martha became a scout for George Armstrong Custer in Wyoming and wore a soldiers uniform. Her Arizona travels was with the army in their quest to put the Indians back on their reservations. During the 1870’s Calamity Jane was very much involved with the U.S. Army in several Indian campaigns in the Wyoming and Montana areas. She worked with Generals Terry and Crook around the Powder River area which was the hotbed of Sioux Indian activity.

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Deadwood Dakota Territory, 1876

A Move to Deadwood

After Martha’s involvement with the army ended she moved to Deadwood Dakota Territory, at that time a large mining center in the Black Hills area. Her adventurous life their took another turn, this time as a pony express rider delivering mail between Deadwood and the town of Custer some fifty miles away. Deadwood was also a town that Bill Hickok, Martha’s friend, spent a good deal of time at.

Becoming Calamity Jane

If you’re reading about the exploits of Calamity Jane, at some point you will want to know how she took on that name. The story is that during the Indian Wars Martha came to the rescue of a Captain Egan near Goose Creek, Wyoming (now Sheridan, WY) who was ambushed by Indians and himself shot while losing a good amount of his troops.

Martha heard the gunfire, turned to see Captain Egan shot and reeling in his saddle. She galloped to his aid, took him on her horse before he fell, and rode away with him to the safety of the fort. At that point in the tale, Captain Egan proclaimed her “Calamity Jane“.

Like many old west tales, there was a bit of disagreement as to whether the story was true. Some claimed it was not. Some say she simply was given the name because of her rowdiness and that men had to beware of her so as to avoid a “calamity“. Others of course disagree with that version.

calamity jane and wild bill hickok in deadwood

Wild Bill Hickok

If the tales are true then Martha Jane Canary no doubt was a very talented frontier woman. If she was a scout for the army then she would have to have been an outstanding horseman and shot. She would have to have had tremendous survival instincts.

See the Trips Into History articles on the links below…

A Visit to Fort Apache Historic Park

Robbers Roost and Canyonlands National Park

The Great Western Cattle Trail

An excellent book about the life of Calamity Jane is, Calamity Jane : The Woman and the Legend by James D. McLaird.

Calamity Jane’s Latter Years

We do know that in 1893, Calamity Jane joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as a horseback rider and trick shooter. In later years she settled at a ranch in Montana and tried her luck as an innkeeper. She was married along the way to a Texan and then moved to a ranch in Colorado.

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The Gem Theater in Deadwood, 1878

Martha had a daughter named Jane who ended up with foster parents. She was later reported depressed and had a drinking problem which most felt had it’s origins in her earlier wild life on the frontier and in Deadwood. Eventually she returned to Deadwood and took on cooking and housekeeping duties at the brothel she was earlier connected with.

Calamity Jane died in 1903 at the age of 51 in Deadwood. She is buried next to her friend Wild Bill Hickok in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, SD.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)


Searching For Old Pioneer Wagon Trail Ruts

A fun and educational experience on your western road trip is to view old wagon ruts from the boom days of the Overland Trail and the Santa Fe Trail. Searching for old pioneer wagon ruts through the western U.S. and learning of the history about that era can be a fun vacation experience for the entire family.

Even today, reminders of the pioneer emigration westward are still visible in many sections of these historic routes. Some sections of course are today on private land but a good many are preserved in national and state parks throughout the west.

Two popular sites to view pioneer wagon ruts are Lake Guernsey State Park in Wyoming and Fort Union in northeastern New Mexico.

guernsey state park wyoming

Guernsey State Park Museum, Wyoming

Wyoming’s Lake Guernsey State Park

This site is a must see during your Wyoming vacation. If you’re just traveling through Wyoming, this is one of the finest side trips you can add to your itinerary.

Inside Lake Guernsey State Park is a separate National Historic Landmark named the Oregon Trail Ruts.The best examples of wagon wheel ruts put there by wagon trains, many made by wagons weighing  2,500 pounds, are a few miles to the south of Guernsey in southeastern Wyoming. This area of Wyoming was crossed by the 1841-1869 era Oregon Trail. Today, in several parts of Wyoming, remnants of The Oregon Trail can still be seen. Some of the best examples are the ones located around Guernsey Wyoming.

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Conestoga Wagon

Guernsey Lake State Park also offers numerous exhibits about the Civilian Conservation Corp and buildings from the era. The buildings were constructed of timbers and hand-forged iron by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. The park which contains the Guernsey Reservoir on the North Platte River  was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

The historic Guernsey Lake State Park is located northwest of Guernsey Wyoming about 100 miles north of Cheyenne.

Fort Union National Monument New Mexico

Fort Union National Monument is located between the cities of Raton and Las Vegas New Mexico, a bit closer to Las Vegas and just to the west of Interstate 25. The partial ruins of the adobe structures that were built at this important fort have been saved and restored and are fascinating.

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Santa Fe Trail markings within Fort Union

Fort Union was a crucial western fort for several reasons. The fort was located at a point where two segments of the old Santa Fe Trail intersected. The fort was an important supply base for travelers on the trail and also offered a degree of protection. The railroad would not come through the area until 1879 therefore the Santa Fe Trail was a major trade route. Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was literally a commercial highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Spain was not warm to the idea of settlers from the east traveling to Santa Fe. In fact they regarded the lands south of the Arkansas River as part of their territory and prohibited trade with the Americans to the east. The Mexican government formed after Spain was ousted from North America in the early 1820’s took the opposite approach and encouraged the trade the Santa Fe Trail made possible.

The historic Buffalo Soldiers also had a presence for years at Fort Union. This included the 9th and 10th cavalry units and the 24th and 25th infantry units.


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Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts outside Fort Union National Monument

Fort Union would also be key during the Civil War years when Confederate troops tried unsuccessfully to reach and attack it.

The Confederates made a move to the north and occupied  Old Town Albuquerque for about thirty-nine days. They made an advance northward to the east of Santa Fe in an effort to cut off Union supplies and forces on the Santa Fe Trail. The result was a battle at Glorieta Pass, just about twenty miles east of Santa Fe along what is now Interstate 25. Union forces from Fort Union and Colorado Volunteers defeated the Confederate troops at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

The wagon ruts at Fort Union can be seen within the National Monument itself and are marked. Ruts are also very visible outside the park between it and Interstate 25.

More Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are found on the links below…

Re-Riding the Old Pony Express Trail

The Black Canyon Arizona Stagecoach Route

The National Ranching Heritage Center / A Texas Treasure

wyoming oregon trail wagon ruts

A section of Oregon Trail through Wyoming

More Sites to Add to Your Trip Planner

Additional trail sections where 1800’s pioneer wagon ruts can be viewed include the 350 acre Rock Creek Station Historical Park. The park is about a 123 mile drive southwest of Omaha Nebraska near the town of Fairbury.

Another good site that takes in the Santa Fe Trail is the Cimarron National Grassland. The Cimarron National Grassland is located in Morton County Kansas with a small part in Stevens County. The grassland includes twenty-three miles of the old Santa Fe Trail and wagon train ruts are clearly visible. The Cimarron National Grassland is located about 112 miles southwest of Dodge City Kansas.

Yet another excellent viewing site is just nine miles west of Dodge City Kansas on Highway 50. Here you can view the wagon ruts from a convenient boardwalk.

(Article copyright 2014 Trips Into History. Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts from Trips Into History Collection. Remainder of photos and images in the public domain)


A Great Museum and a Sunken Whale Ship

There is no greater community connection to the old whaling industry than Nantucket Massachusetts. Nantucket’s citizenry as well as it’s merchants were thriving whether the general economy was booming or sluggish. Whale oil was in great demand throughout the world for this was the fuel used to light homes and streets.

whaling in the 1800s

Hunting the sperm whale

Nantucket Whaling Museum

Nantucket has one of the finest museums you’ll find anywhere that portrays the story of the whaling industry… it’s sailors, ships, captains, methods, dangers and economic impact.

The Nantucket Whaling Museum is a must stop for anyone planning a visit to this scenic island. The museum is located at 13 Broad Street and is operated by the Nantucket Historical Association. The museum is dedicated to the history of whaling. This is where you can relive the time when a small town launched wooden ships into the Atlantic Ocean for the start of their long trips around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean.

The Strange and Tragic Tale of the Whale Ship Essex

From all the stories of the great whale ships that called Nantucket home, the tragic tale of the whale ship Essex demonstrates just how dangerous this profession was in the early 1800’s. The sequence of events that befell the Essex and it’s crew is unique to all other whaling stories and was responsible for later novels being written. It’s a hair raising and shocking story of being stranded literally in the middle of nowhere and running out of food.

whale ship essex

The whale ship Essex

A Whaler’s Life

A whaler could depart on a ship from Nantucket Island and literally be away working at sea for a few years. If he had a family they could be without him for possibly years. Whaling was a very unique occupation.

Typically a captain would be hired by the ship’s investors and be responsible for signing up a crew. If he was fortunate the captain might find experienced sailors around Nantucket. If an experienced crew wasn’t available, and there was a shortage, then recruiting green sailors from further inland was necessary.The ship would be provisioned by it’s owners and any pay the captain and crew would receive would be a share of the profits at the end of the voyage. Size of shares were entirely dependent on the rank and function of the crew mate. The largest shares of course went to the investors and then the captain.

The Pacific Sperm Whale

1800’s whalers were especially hunting for the Pacific Sperm whale. They were killed primarily for their excellent oil. This whale oil was used not only in lighting but also in cosmetics, soap and a variety of products.

During the 1800’s the job of killing whales was done from smaller whaleboats launched from the side of the larger whale ship. The whaler crews would use harpoons to grab the mammal. The whale would pull the whale boat by the harpoon’s line and eventually tire at which time the sailors would kill it with lances. The entire endeavor was dangerous. The small whaleboat could be capsized easily and at only a moments notice. Additionally, it was known that sperm whales rather than fleeing underwater after being harpooned might very well turn around and attack the whaleboat.

owen chase essex whaleboat crewman

Owen Chase, First Mate of the Essex crew

The Attack on the Essex

There have been several writings on the attack of the Essex. Probably the most comprehensive account of the attack, aftermath and 1800’s Nantucket whaling life in general is… In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by author Nathaniel Philbrick. Another is, Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex by author Owen Chase. It’s also common knowledge that Herman Melville used the Essex incident as a model for his latter chapters in his book Moby Dick.

The crew of the Essex had been having good luck harpooning sperm whales during November of 1820 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This area was some 2,000 miles off the west coast of South America. On November 20th things changed dramatically. This was over one year since the Essex had departed Nantucket Island in August 1819 and the unthinkable happened.

The Essex was attacked and rammed, not once but twice, by a sperm whale that appeared to come from the area where other female sperm whales had been successfully harpooned and lanced just prior. It was said that this bull sperm whale seemed to have a purpose in it’s attack. It was if this bull whale was enraged by the killing of the female whales and wished to take revenge out on the large mother ship the Essex. The ship that the harpoon crews went back to.

moby dick whale attack

Moby Dick whale attack illustration

Although the Essex was not a new ship it was not a poorly made vessel either. The force required by this bull sperm whale would have had to be tremendous to push over the hull of the 87 foot ship. It was speculated that the whale had to have been nearly as long as the ship. This prolonged attack caused the Essex to go over on her side with her sails in the water. The crew left the floundering vessel using their whaleboats which were few. The Essex had been short two whaleboats due to earlier storms and the evacuation was a crowded one. Twenty crew in all crowded, along with provisions, on the three small whaleboats.

After two nights and after several sailors returned to the Essex to grab hold of as many provisions as they could take onto the small whaleboats they left the sinking vessel. What transpired next over several months pushed men to the breaking point and beyond.

Marooned on a Pacific Island and Eventual Rescue

Because of earlier reports concerning Native cannibalism on some Pacific islands, the Essex crew was particular as to which island chain they would try to reach with their primitive whaleboat sailing vessels. After one month in these small boats, hungry, tossed around and beaten by the harsh sun, they finally reached land. It was a small island and while it did at first supply some needed food, the provisions didn’t last. Another move had to be made.

After some time the survivors set sail from the island (Henderson) on two whaleboats. After a while the two boats separated and went their own way. In February of 1821, some 95 days after the sinking of the Essex, a boat carrying the captain and three other crew members were picked up by another whale ship out of Nantucket just off the west coast of South America. They had survived their ordeal by consuming the remains of other crew members who had died or were executed on the boat. The second boat was never heard from again.

Three men had stayed back on the island and were later rescued. It was also later said that lots had been drawn on the captain’s boat as to who would be sacrificed and who would be the executioner. The entire story shocked Nantucket when word reached there.

In total there were eight survivors of the original crew from Nantucket. Four from the captain’s boat, three rescued later off Henderson Island and another who had deserted the ship when the Essex visited South America prior to the whale attack and sinking.

Links below are to additional Trips Into History articles you may also find interesting…

The Tragic Sinking of the General Slocum off New York

The Loss of the SS Wexford on the Great Lakes

The G.P. Griffith Passenger Steamer Disaster

Visit the Historic Paul Revere House in Boston MA

whaling harpoons

Types of whaling harpoons of the 1800’s

Visiting the Nantucket Whaling Museum

As mentioned above, visiting this museum is a trip back into the days when whaling made Nantucket. A great many ships left Nantucket during the 1800’s hunting the whale. It was how one made a living in Nantucket.

This museum will take you back to that time when an entire town’s economy depended on the whaling industry. Exhibits at the museum include a large amount of nautical items, captain’s journals and a very interesting video and it’s really a not to be missed museum.

I would also highly recommend any of the books mentioned earlier in this article. The story of the Essex tells what can happen when disaster strikes far from civilization and what ordinary people can and will resort to when trying to survive. It’s a shocking and enlightening true story.

Nantucket is a very scenic and historic place to visit and a stop to the Nantucket Whaling Museum is a great addition to any trip there.

(Article copyright 2013 Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)