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“Jottings” from the Santa Fe Trail (1850-51)


In the summer of 1850, a wagon train of some 125 Mormons, led by 24-year-old self-styled prophet James Colin Brewster, left Independence (Missouri) for the New Mexico Territory, following the well-established Santa Fe trail. Neville Stuart, a printer of about the same age, had accompanied Brewster from Springfield (Illinois), and sent these sporadic letters to the town's newspaper editor.


Mormon Encampment,
Indian Territory,
20 miles SE of Independence, Missouri

August 3rd, 1850

FIVE feet, ten — in the first half of my third decade — blue cassimeres, blood-red flannel shirt, capacious as interesting young men are wont to wear when Santa Fe-ward bound, and moccasins trimmed with black tape, and green sombrero, pure Spanish, I assure you — would be sorry to have have it mistaken for anything else ; which latter, as you may suppose, is doffed with Parisian grace in honor of our introduction.

My writing apartment, to-day, is most unique. I cannot give you the picture of it better than to say it is a complete submersion in the greenest leaves and the shadows of leaves. Up to the very chin they come — the swaying bough, and far overhead they are interwoven in a wild, umbrageous mass, with never a sunny loop-hole ; whilst before me, as through some vast cathedral window from the shade-embowered hill side, I look over the tree-tops, northward, far away into the blue-chambered heavens.

A rood from this arbor, a red-skin might pass along the woodland path, by which I came hither and not guess the proximity of a red-shirted Benthamite [follower of the reforner Jeremy Bentham, Ed.] ; so perfect is my seclusion.

Fifty yards below, a cool vein pours from a mossy cliff, and goes flashing away among a shower of burnished arrows from the prairied sky ; for what is the unfathomed azure, with never a cloud, but the sublime, illimitable prairie sacred to the tread of angels ?

The entrance here is through a postern of three tall oaks ; in one of which is struck the goodly hatchet with which I wrought the frame work of mv rustic desk . And here am I, seated on a camp stool, scribbling with all the zeal of a martyr to the art of Cadmus [mythical founder of the Greek alphabet, Ed.]. Nor do I remember having ever had apartments more luxurious—certainly not when weary of the pen I looked thro' the grey of a winter night, from my four story window over the sea of city roofs to catch the glimmer of dusky morn.

You are with me now ; so a truce to further preliminaries. Just make yourself at home—amuse yourself as you can, for I have a deal of farewell letters to write and the like, this being Friday, and to-morrow I have arranged to take a trot to the post-office at Westport, a dozen miles off, and to visit the Missionary Stations which are close to the military road leading along the boundary : — and next Monday Capt. Goodale and the Prophet announce it as their intention to launch out upon the plains—and I suppose they will, unless some natural convulsion swallow every trace of the Santa Fe trail.

This, to your apprehension may be a start rather late in the season. But the authorities have decreed it, and a certain old codger, with an outlandish phiz, who is wise in such things, has said it is for the best, and quoted Emory to prove it. — Of course it is not for your humble servant to demur. One thing is certain : We shall avoid the annual freshet which swept down the Rocky Mountain streams this summer in July, instead of June.

Our company embraces somewhere near a hundred and twenty-five — but to tell exactly how many, or how many wagons and tents we number, would require an effort of arithmetic entirely beyond my ability and time during the month of August. Whether our force would be enough to resist the incursions of a body of the Centaur-like Comanches ? is a question entirely out of order, inasmuch as our Mormon friends are Quaker-ish — indeed, the most emphatic non-resistants you ever knew. This seems queer, because every wagon contains, at least, one gun ; and, in one particular family, every unit is provided with a musket, from the patriarch down to the baby. — How it will be in the hour of danger, I cannot divine. If we are to be killed, the fewer of us the better. Individually, I anticipate "putting 'em through." Profession and practice in these Latter Days are frequently so diametric, that it would not be at all surprising if the Mormon in a pinch should emulate the Quaker, who, in an action at sea, observing a half-stifled Britisher clench a rope to keep his head out of water, in a tranquil manner remarked, as he hacked off the poor fellow's sole dependence — "Friend, if thee wants the rope, I'll help thee to it !"

This company is made up mainly of proselytes to the doctrines of Brewster — husbands and fathers, who, at a great sacrifice of time and property, brought their families from their homes in half a dozen contiguous States to this centre point, whence they propose journeying well nigh two thousand miles, to establish an industrial community on the banks of the Colorado of the West. It is an immense and hazardous enterprise. What the result will be is beyond the veil of the inscrutable future. I dare not even guess. That I hope for the best is sufficiently determined by the fact that I have blended my interests with those in whose society I go. And, so far as my slight acquaintance with this sect of the Saints will justify me in giving an opinion, I am free to say there are among them those who are indeed worthy of peaceful homes, and

"Freedom to worship God."


THE sun was flaming high in the meridian upon the day in which our caravan forded the Big Blue and passing three miles beyond, emerged from the wood-skirted boundary of Missouri, and entered upon the prairie upland of the Indian territory.

The heat was burning, but I walked rapidly forward from one billowy swell to the higher mound beyond. At last, I sat down, and a sense of desolation came over me, the memory of which thrills me now. Here and there, a solitary plover skimmed along the grass. No other game — no other living thing was near. In the distance, where the green-lined brooks stretched away dimmer and dimmer, the thin column of smoke marked the abode of the Shawnee. This was the retreat of the remnant of an amalgamated, vice-ruined, and emasculate, but once noble race. Here the sons of the forest, who cannot bend to adopt the customs of their white brethren, stay in wretched hovels, and subsist on a patch of corn and beans, and the two dollars and a half they receive yearly from government — on which last they have a jolly spree. Within smelling distance of our camp-ground is a grocery, where the poor red-skins every day get as drunk as fools.


August 5th, 1850

12 o clock, M. POSITIVELY it makes a man feel fat — it does that ! I mean a dinner of roasted corn does ! If you guess at my meaning now you may set it down as a case of intuitive perception.

Fifteen ears for a man and a boy ( we divided the odd ear ) is not so bad, upon my veracity — and my voracity is unimpeached.

Been to the spring, and having imbibed, feel refreshed. So, if you choose, I will relate how it came all about.

Last two summers, you knew, have been cholera times. Consequently green corn was banished the table, because it contained ozone, or for some other equally valid reason. Have a fine taste for such things — not ate any in two years — too plenty in Illinois to be considered worth eating — met an Indian to-day — mysterious look — bag of corn strapped to his pony — followed him into the grocery — commenced trade and dicker — made a purchase — half an hour after, Lorenzo ( Dow understood ) [humorous allusion to a well-known evangelical preacher, Ed.] came plunging and bobbing along the path to my arbor — Jack , Perry and Swipes at his heels — "Ren" flirted into the bushes — made a brilliant coup d'état — flung an armful of corn, with the concomitants of salt and butter on the grass — tracery of wild vines hid us from the pursuers — fire kindled among the trees which constitute my door posts — blazed merrily — corn snapped — took a seat on Nature's velvet cushion — instance of rural felicity, &c. &c.


Afternoon Session.

I HAVE been living in the style of my fellow-Arabs for well nigh a pair of calendar months. In that time, I have been exposed to nearly every conceivable stress of weather which Suckerdom, Pukedom, and the Territory can afford. — Sunshine, hail-stones, tornadoes, thunder and lightning, I have slept in, walked in, and laughed at, for the last two changes of the moon ; and have not been plagued with a solitary qualm at the stomach, pain in the head, hoarseness, general debility, nervous irritability, hvpertrophied liver .... for other diseases, the names of which I have forgotten, and not had, I beg to refer you to the Patent Medicine Advertising Columns.

Since starting I have had but a single cold ( a slight one ) and that upon the only occasion of my having slept in a house.

Were it not for a lack of time and a most decided disinclination to scribble, it would do me glad to sketch a skeleton map of the road from your town to Independence and enumerate the swamps and blackberry patches between myself and yourselves.

I would like to tell you how we floundered two mortal days in the Dry Bottom up to our eyes in mud.

I would like to tell you what emotions were mine as I stood upon the castellated cliff and looked down, for the last time, upon the Mississippi in its isle-gemmed summer beauty — so dream-like and glorious.

I would like to tell you how we went jogging through Missouri for a hundred miles with never three springs nor wells in all that distance. There it is the natives drink rain-water, and look wise, and say it is unvitiated and, of course, the best, and to prove it, sell their farms below government prices, and G. T. C.

I would like to tell you how strangely I was impressed with the first glimpse of Missouri — the muddy Missouri, with its constant-changing channel, deep and narrow, as, in its tortuous course of weary miles, it goes moaning, and boiling, and madly rolling, and agonizing, and heaving, and plunging onward, like some desolate, damned spirit.


PERMIT me to quote three days from my NoteBook :

"Monday, July 28th— Arose early ; took my seat in a wagon for Independence ; day bright and brilliant ; got in town by night-fall ; Nebraska House too expensive for a flannel shirt ; went to bed on hay in the wagon ; perfectly good natured all the while. Spiritual thermometer 100 °.

Tuesday, 29th— Employed in seeing the sights, reading the newspapers, swilling soda, and astonishing the natives. In the evening made a start for camp, and walked ten miles by 9 o'clk. Brevissimo ! Pretty well , I thank you.

Wednesday, 30th— Went to sleep last night, on the ground, on the north side of the fire ; woke at 12, and found the smoke blowing furiously in my face ; shifted to the N. E. ; at 12 1-2 roused again, wind changed, changed myself ; at 1, more smoke, crawled to another point of the compass, and ditto, for the next three hours, when I stood due north, with a drizzling thunder cloud in the rear — crept into the wagon ; coiled myself on a coffee-bag, and slept profoundly until morning.

At 7, I awoke to a 24 salute from the artillery of the skies ; thunder continued to bang and rattle at a great rate ; the lightnings were literally ploughing the hills around us, as bolt alter bolt came quick, and sharp, and clear, and startling, as some tremendous rifle-shot.

When the storm subsided, we found the lightning had struck the wagon of Mr Wheeling, who joined us yesterday, — the shaft passing through the cover, where the children were huddled, crisping the hair of one boy, and leaving a brand down his back three inches in width ; then making a perforation, like a large bullet hole, through a basket of tightly packed clothing ; running along a razor, which it melted into a shapeless mass ; and, thence, underneath the wagon, killing a dog stone-dead, and leaving no further trace of its course.

In the afternoon , traveled for camp ; bathed in the Blue ; entered camp as the stars began to glisten ; took supper ; hearty as a buck ; hadn't got to bed when it blew a gale, and every tent, but four, after performing a whirligig, went some up and some down.

"O, a Mormon's life's the life for me."


AND now, all before me is the vast, and dreadful, and beautiful wilderness.

[ The End — for the present. ]

LETTER (unnumbered #1)

Turkey Creek, Indian Territory

August 22nd, 1850

It is past eleven at night ; and the moon is rising gorgeously in a sky of the serenest blue. — We are "coreilled" on Turkey creek, two hundred miles beyond the boundary, and seventy beyond the famous stand-point of Council Grove.

To-day we made nineteen miles, from Cotton Wood creek, over a vast plain, with but two or three almost imperceptible elevations. Far as the vision went, the expanse swept out its volume of buffalo grass to the far-off rim of the bending sky. And in this magnificent park we saw the large mountain hare, antelope, and, for the first, two herds of buffalo quietly grazing. Kelly ( who came from the Isle of Man, ) gave chase to the latter. Off he went careering over the prairie, at top speed, striking his ungaffed heels into the smoking flanks of his Rosinante. On went Kelly within stone-throw, and the lordly bison lifted their horns in astonishment, — when, to the astonishment of Kelly, he "remembered" he had left his rifle in the wagon.

As I drew up to the Camp-Ground, this evening, a prairie wolf of the largest class, looked me familiarly in the face, and, without further ceremony, walked off in a dignified manner, "taking his own time for it."

The weather is now indescribably beautiful ; to-day, it was divine. So pure and mountain-like was the air, the shadow of a person, moved along the road, seemed like ink ; and all the while, was blowing a bland but invigorating southern wind. Until ten, the sky had never the speck of a cloud to darken its stainless arch.

The lateness of the hour admonishes me to close. Let me say, in one breath, that I am well, and getting better fast. Our caravan has done very well — though for three days, ( from Black Jack to Switzler's Creek, ) we had neither spring nor running water. To-night, the last we have is pool water, and we shall not find a spring until we reach the Little Arkansas, twenty-eight miles ahead. The season is dry, beyond the memory of the oldest teamster on the route. And report says the buffalo have entirely deserted the Cimarron for the Arkansas — where they were never before so plenty.

The man who will carry this ( a Pennsylvanian and attache of the monthly mail, ) says the military and Apaches have recently had a skirmish some where near Santa Fe — in which seven Indians were killed, and a Lieutenant mortally wounded.

I must omit telling you, now, of a rencontre I had with three villainous Crows, who took a fancy to my red shirt. It was a bit of romance not a little specked with danger.

LETTER (unnumbered #2)

Albuquerque, New Mexico

October 28th, 1850

My Dear Sir : It appears to me to be a very long while since we enjoyed the melancholy pleasure of our last interview. Then, we wandered together in the shady purlieus of Springfield: now, we are separated by many a mile. Blessed be the memory of Cadmus — for to his bequest we owe the art of overcoming space, and communing with each other, though broad plains and mountain barriers intervene.

We arrived here last evening. And now the dark ledges of Sierra Anahuac are frowning in our rear, and Rio Bravo pours its rapid current at our feet—the river on whose song-sacred banks Taylor earned his first bright laurels;

'Rio Bravo—Roncesvalles !
Be ye linked, forevermore !"

How many days we shall remain here is more than I can at present divine. It may be, we shall leave in a week ; or we may stay a month. Perhaps we shall remain here or at Socorro, ( 80 miles South, ) during the whole of the impending winter. What I shall do, in the latter case, to amuse or busy myself, ad interim, is more than l can now say. I may go into the printing office at Santa Fe, if the chance be good ; but I shall, more probably, scribble and run wild.

This is a poor country for mails. With the exception of occasional military expresses, there is no chance of transmitting letters safely through any section of New Mexico. A mail for Independence is made up and opened monthly at Santa Fe — and this is opened nowhere on the route, though from the City of the Holy Faith, for a hundred miles to Mora, several villages are settled along. This is the forlorn hope — the dernier resort ... for letters ; as to newspapers ( God help the abandoned slips of the press !) they rarely find a sanctuary in bags of canvass. I have not seen the apparition of a paper since I came to the Land of the "Greasers." For this good and deficient reason of semi-occasional post office advantages, I write you this first day of our bivouac on Rio Grande del Norte, with the slender shadow of a hope that I can send to Santa Fe in the three days that will elapse until the November mail closes, so that you will hear from me by the middle of December. Should I be disappointed in this, this then antiquated epistle will be on its winding way until January, 1851. In either case, whether a week too early, or a fortnight too late, I avail myself of this Alpha and Omega opportunity of paying the compliments of the season. Wish you a merry Christmas—a happy New Year ! May you have sunny prosperity ; and discretion to pause long enough in the race of life to enjoy it.

Should we stop any time at this point, I shall dash off a dozen pages of Jottings for the Daily. — They will afford you a more true and particular account" of my journeyings in the wilderness," and 'Hair-breadth 'scapes in the imminent, deadly breach!' than could be possibly embraced in the compass of a friendly letter, written with any regard to decent bigness. Therefore, upon that score, I shall desist with the single centenarian Imprimis — "I take my pen in hand to inform you that I am well," &c.

I wrote you from Turkey Creek, ( between Council Grove and the Arkansas, ) but rather suspect the stray missive never reached Missouri. The man who turns a letter out to travel on the Grand Prairie in the hope that it will ever be blessed with a peep at civilization, must have faith not a whit inferior to that required in casting bread upon waters, &c.

You spoke, in the spring, of migrating to California. Think well of it before you train your oxen. Think of the intermediate realities that you must endure, as well as enjoy, ere you attain the glittering goal in the haziness of years. I say this, not because I regret having come here — for I do not. But, whether a soft or hard, I am differently constituted from most folks ; and thunderstorms, and grizzly bears, and arid plains, and forked lightnings, and wild-cats, and rocks, and wolves are as much mere things of common-place to your quondam friend, as were the created waves of Ocean to the Author of Childe Harold [character created by the poet Lord Byron, Ed.].

My regards to the little circle in Springfield, who, I trust, have not forgotten,

Yours Sincerely,

LETTER (unnumbered #3)

Santa Fe, New Mexico

March 2nd, 1851

[...] The town has been, for some days, in what you call a furor. This, to New Mexico — so habituated to the convulsions of war and political revolution — is another era. The last mail brought the commission ; and to-morrow, at noon, the organization of the civil government will commence with the inauguration of Col. Calhoun as Governor of the Territory.

The expedition, from the neighborhood of Los Dunas [Los Lunas?, Ed.], into the Navajo country, of which I informed you in my letter of January, has been more successful than it was then surmised it would be. I was at Los Dunas during the three weeks after the middle of January ; and, in that period, had the pleasure of witnessing the return of the larger number of the expeditionists who came to their homes victorious, bringing with them no inconsiderable cavallada of re-captured animals. More than one, however, who had gone forth with hearts beating with high hope, had found a cold and bloody grave in that land of winter and mountains. [...]

LETTER (unnumbered #4)

Santa Fe, New Mexico

March 6th, 1851

My Dear Sirs ; —The mail-train having delayed going out, up to this period, affords me the opportunity of scribbling a line or so to a friend or so.

The inauguration of Gov. Calhoun, on the 3d inst., came off with more than ordinary eclat. The Military all had their buttons chalked. The Committee of arrangements wore faultless kids. The Marshals had the due allowance of sash and horseflesh. The stage — Governor and Ex-Vicario, Army Chaplain, Interpreter, etc., etc. — all wore a distinguished look. Rev. Reed offered an eloquent, fervent, appropriate prayer. Chief Justice Houghton and His Excellency formed a graceful tableau, at the commission was displayed and the oath administered. The Address — pungent and comprehensive — was read according to the rules of elocution on such occasions. The cheering was enthusiastic ; the firing uproarious ; and the evolutions in the mud — as the procession moved across the Plaza — truly magnificent. Te Deum was chaunted in the Church of the Holy Faith ; congratulations were exchanged ; and the pageant was at an end.

The cordial intermingling of the Mexican and American population, during the inaugural ceremonies, and the festivities which succeeded to an observer, like myself — was really gratifying — indicative as I must regard it, of the advent of a 'better time' for New Mexico. It is generally believed the new incumbent will prove a competent, efficient officer — such an one as the administration of the affairs of the Territory, at this juncture, requires.

The weather here, and in the country of Rio Arriba, has been throughout the whole winter, unusually severe. In the Rio Abajo, however, between Albuquerque, the season has been, since the middle of January, of almost unvarying mildness, and the sky beautifully serene. Thus, while the lower del Norte was embathed in the radiance of sun-shine, the Mesa of Santa Fe, and its towering circumvallation of mountains, were the wild and snow-swept halls where the furious spirit of the storm held their revels. It was only the other day that the snow disappeared from the Grand Plaza of our city, and it still lines the northern edge of some of our streets. This morning, for the first, seemed somewhat spring-like; and, in an early stroll, I became cognizant of the impudent attempt, on the part of a solitary bird, to make music. It is needless to say, the notes were frozen, after the fashion of those in the horn of Munchausen's [fictional German baron, given to unbelievable exaggeration, Ed.] postillion.

L'Envoi —There is a Doctor here — a gentleman well known abroad, and who has attained no little celebrity in his profession — who had the happiness of spending a part of his boyhood in your handsome town of Springfield. Who is he ? Are you mystified ? Quien sabe ! I won't tell !

Stuart's account does not state whether any Brewster's followers settled down. Subsequent letters refer to the Oatman family, most of whom were killed by Indians after they followed the Gila Trail. Brewster seems to have lost his charisma, and faded into relative obscurity.

Source: "Illinois State Journal", Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection
Page created: 10-VI-2016
Last updated: 10-VI-2016