WITH JACK LOEFFLER
“Many are the stories and songs about this trail
that describe lives both saved and lost during
that period when westward expansion followed
in the wake of Manifest Destiny.”
The Santa Fe Trail extends from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This trail dates from prehistory, but in 1821 it became a major east–west trade route when William Becknell first led his string of pack horses westward bearing bundles of calico, cotton cloth, and other goods that he sold to nuevomexicanos for the equivalent of $6,000 in silver coin. Thus, between 1821 and 1870, before completion of the railroad, the trail lured many a trader to test his mettle by surviving both the elements and encounters with potentially hostile Comanche Indians in order to succeed in commerce. Many are the stories and songs about this trail that describe lives both saved and lost during that period, when westward expansion followed in the wake of Manifest Destiny.
J. Paul Taylor is descended from a long line of traders who led caravans along the Santa Fe Trail. He was born in 1920 and continues to live in his home on the plaza in Mesilla, New Mexico, which will one day become a state historic site. Señor Taylor invited me into his home some years ago to provide me with a sense of his family history, and to spin some fascinating yarns about his ancestors. What follows is a fine story about his great-great-grandfather, told to me on April 21, 2003, before the portrait of his ancestor that hangs on the wall of his home to this day.
“Frank Ortiz is a cousin of mine. And Frank Ortiz has a different version of this. But my version comes from Fabiola [Cabeza de Baca], who grew up with her grandmother, Estefanita, who was the daughter of Manuel Salustiano Delgado, who had gone on a trading expedition to St. Louis and Kansas. And coming back on the trail, he died of cholera. Well, with him was this wonderful Indian servant, whose name was Suzano Leyba. And so, here they were in this vast prairie land, and they had to bury him, because it was the middle of summer. So Suzano Leyba got the lay of the land. They dug a hole and they filled the base with charcoal. They wrapped him in burlap, and they saturated his body with brandy, and then they covered him up, they buried him. So the object was that Suzano Leyba would remember exactly where he was buried, which would have been, I would think, quite a feat. So they went back to Santa Fe, without Manuel.
“When winter set in, his family went back for him with Suzano Leyba. And they disinterred his body. And they unwrapped this burlap. This is the middle of winter. They found this almost perfectly preserved body of Manuel Salustiano Delgado. And so, I tell this story of this man in this picture on this wall. My wife, Mary, has come to call it the story of my pickled great-great-grandfather. My cousin Frank Ortiz said, ‘You’ve ruined my story.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think mine is the authentic one because it came down from the daughter to Fabiola. And I think it is the authentic one.’ My cousin’s story is that they put him in a barrel of brandy and they brought him to Santa Fe in this barrel of brandy. And I say, ‘Frank, mine is the true story. Yours might be more exciting about the great- great-grandfather being brought back in this barrel of brandy. Not only did they pickle him properly, but they could use the brandy later on.’ And so, that’s my version of the story.”
The Old Spanish Trail was an early nineteenth-century trail connecting Santa Fe and other settlements in northern New Mexico to Los Angeles, California. It was comprised of earlier known trails that Santa Fe merchant Antonio Armijo scouted and linked in his 1829–30 round trip from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, which was so commercially successful that Armijo was deemed “commander for the discovery of the route to California.” Thereafter, mule trains laden primarily with woven woolen products headed west, where the goods were traded for horses and mules that were driven back to New Mexico.
The Old Spanish Trail was regarded as perhaps the most arduous trail of all. Señor Pablo Chacón and his son Claudio Chacón recalled a tale of violence and death at the hands of hostile Indians near a spring in the Mohave Desert close to present-day Las Vegas, Nevada, during the time when frontiersman Kit Carson was becoming legendary. Pablo Chacón began:
“I’m eighty-seven years old. I was born in Cebolla, New Mexico. As a child I’d tag along with my grandfather, Epimenio Chacón. He decided to visit an old, old, viejito, an old man that was already blind, right next to our house. We took some time to go visit this viejito, and he told my grandfather Epimenio that his grandfather had been killed in Tulares—Tulares meaning “reeds.” I believe now they call the area Resting Springs, but at that time it used to be Tulares. And my relative Santiago was the head of the caravan coming from California to New Mexico along the Old Spanish Trail, and he was the blacksmith that Armijo had as a rule to shoe horses on the way back and the way in to California.
“He was ahead of the caravan because they wanted to give the animals some resting time and give them a chance to fill up, drink water, and get some grass. He was there resting and taking care of his horses when the Indians approached him and killed him with bows and arrows. Two women and one other man were killed with Santiago. How this happened was that Santiago said that the Indians were to revolt, and he sent a little boy back to meet the caravan that was behind them and to tell them that he thought they were going to revolt. The little boy rode his horse and went back and met with the caravan and told them what was going on up ahead or what they should expect up ahead. So that’s how come the caravan were kind of looking forward to finding Santiago, but they were not expecting to find him dead, but they sure did find him dead.
“As a result I understand that some of the members of the caravan buried Santiago and the women and the other man that was killed at this particular time, and they followed the Indians and recovered some of the horses and mules that Santiago had at the beginning.”
Claudio Chacón continued: “The armies, they were using the trail again because it was an important route. It was the only route between here and California. They were scouting. They were trying to find out as much information as they could about California prior to the war with Mexico. As far as we know . . . [the] mission was to go over there and scout a route out so they could prepare for the war with Mexico. They happened to be coming back, I think it was his second expedition. This was in 1844, in April. The surviving members of the party were coming back on horseback. There were two of them, Fuentes and Hernández, from what I understand. They had escaped on horseback.
“They bumped into General John Fremont, Kit Carson, and that group that was coming back. Kit Carson at that point, when they arrived at the springs, he and a man named Alex Coday from Taos followed the group of Indians that attacked the party and caught up with them many miles later and attacked and were able to recover some of the horses, and apparently killed two Indians. Narrowly escaped getting killed themselves.”
Valle de Allende is a beautiful town in the state of Chihuahua in north central Mexico. It is the oldest town in the region, founded in 1569 by Franciscan monks. They originally named it Valle de San Bartolomé, and it was there that Juan de Oñate rested his caravan of colonists, soldiers, and livestock before they resumed their northern trek into largely uncharted territory known today as New Mexico. San Bartolomé was where the aduana (customs officer), the border guard that had authority to inspect the Oñate expedition, was stationed. And it was from there that Oñate led his stalwarts northward along El Camino Real de Tierra al Dentro, the Royal Road to the Interior.
It took them six months to finally settle near the confluence of the Río Chama and the Río Grande on July 11, 1598. And the journey was formidable. They crossed the Río Grande near present-day El Paso and began to forge their trail near the bank of the river to be sure they had enough water. But seventy-five or so miles to the north, the Río Grande veers to the west, and arroyos and cañones emptying into the river barred the way for the carretas, oxcarts laden with supplies. So after scouting to the north, Oñate settled on trekking across a wide expanse of Chihuahuan Desert where water was sparse. The expedition was separated from the Río Grande by mountains. This expanse of desert has gradually come to be known as the Jornada del Muerto—the Dead Man’s Journey.
On October 11, 2003, my compañero of many adventures, Enrique Lamadrid, and I recorded an interview that Enrique had arranged with Dr. Joe Sánchez, a venerated National Park Service superintendent and Camino Real scholar. Dr. Sánchez told us the following story:
“This may still leave a lingering doubt as to how the Jornada del Muerto gets its name. People have always translated it as ‘the journey of the dead man’ or ‘the dead people.’ But really it should just be translated as ‘the dead man’s journey.’ It is likely that it is named after Bernardo Gruber, primarily because in the documentation, we don’t see [mention of] a Jornada del Muerto, not even in the Itinerario de Juan de Oñate. They just consider it to be a short-cut route with no particular name given to it. After the seventeenth century, the name suddenly becomes visible. And the name suddenly becomes popular as a place name, running through that almost ninety-mile stretch of desertscape between Las Cruces and Socorro, coming around the east back side of the mountains.
“When we consider the origins of it, we should take into account the story of Bernardo Gruber. Gruber is a fascinating account all by himself. Here is a German who somehow migrates into Spanish territory, probably via the old Holy Roman Empire traditions. The fact that Spain once ruled that part of the world, most people think that only Spaniards came to the Americas. But that’s not true. We have Irishmen in particular. In fact, Alejandro O’Reilly is the governor of New Orleans in the seventeenth century.
“Bernardo Gruber, in the seventeenth century, in the 1660s somehow makes his way into the Spanish Empire, comes to the Americas, ends up as a trader in Sonora, where he spends a great deal of his time. No one knows how and why he thought of coming to New Mexico, but in the late 1660s, he ends up in New Mexico.
“Gruber must have been a fascinating individual—Spanish-speaking, into the culture, making friends, probably very diplomatic, obviously [a] successful trader looking for new markets. He ends up in New Mexico over here at Salinas at the pueblo of Quarai. He was there on Christmas day, while Christmas Mass was being said, although he must have been there for several weeks prior to that. But on Christmas day, he enters the church at Quarai. And maybe as a prank, no one knows exactly why he did this, he goes up into the choir loft while Mass is being said. He says that in his homeland there is this spell they can work while Mass is going on, on Christmas day. You have some little papers on which you write ‘ADNA’ with a cross, then repeat the letters again.* And while Mass is going on, if you eat those papers, you can gain immortality. And so he convinces a couple of choir people to do it. And they do. And they chew the papers up, and they swallow them.
“These are Native Americans at Quarai, who have been Hispanicized. And one of them goes out after Mass, and I think he is also a prankster. I think he is in on it. And he picks up an awl used for punching holes into leather, and he holds it up in front of the people at the pueblo, and he strikes down on his leg as hard as he can, and it doesn’t pierce it. And no blood comes out. And people are amazed, like it must be true. And so, Bernardo Gruber probably got a laugh out of this.
“One of the institutions that came up the Camino Real in 1626 was the Holy Office of the Inquisition Chapter of New Mexico. They have a commissary, Father Juan de Paz. And one of the settlers there decides, ‘Well, this just isn’t right. He violated the sanctity of the Mass, by walking up there, working a spell, which we don’t know if it is black magic, or witchcraft, or what the deal is, and we would like to have this investigated.’
“So they make a report to the commissary of the Inquisition, who then orders the arrest of Gruber. And they hold him at Quarai, and they realize that [the pueblo at] Quarai is not strong enough to hold anybody prisoner. And so they move him over to Abo, which is even worse. And they realize that the strongest place we have to hold him is up north at Sandia Pueblo at Ortega’s Hacienda. And so they take him up there to Sandia Pueblo, and there they hold him prisoner.
“The Inquisition of New Mexico did not have the power to hold a trial. But they did have the power to investigate. The investigation takes place. And you would have thought that the investigation would have been quick and simple, but it didn’t happen that way. Over two years pass, and Gruber’s herds that were in the care of people he trusted, are now being spread out, and sold out. They are dying. He is losing his horses. All the stuff that he brought up for trade is now being lost.
*According to other accounts, the papers had “+ABNA+ADNA+” written on them. Some suggest that Gruber was a sorcerer and these letters constituted a magic spell, like “abracadabra.”
And Gruber himself is demanding, ‘Turn me loose to take care of my business. Why are you holding me?’
“Finally he has no choice but to find a way to escape. When Gruber was arrested, he was accompanied by an Apache named Atanacio, and Atanacio is a good Apache, probably from Sonora, and knows his way around. He is a young guy, can handle himself. But he is very loyal to Gruber. For nights on end, Atanacio visits the cell, and passes some food along to Gruber, passes a few items. And they make these plans to have a horse arranged.
“Gruber must have been a fascinating individual— Spanish-speaking, into the culture, making friends,
probably very diplomatic.”
Gruber digs out the cell window because it is mounted in adobe. He loosens the pegs that hold the window. And then, on the appropriate night, which is at midnight on June 20th–21st, they decide to strike for the escape.
“Gruber is held in shackles. He is held in handcuffs as well as leg irons. And in order for him to make his escape, he has to figure out how to get out. So he feigns a sickness in his side, that he has this terrific pain. And he needs to have his shackles removed, and the guard comes in and removes them. And once that is done, then the path is made clear. And then, at midnight, Gruber and Atanacio make their escape. They break out the window. He crawls out, gets on the horse, and they ride southward as fast as they can down the bosque from Sandia Pueblo moving quickly. Sometime around one or two in the morning, they come to the ranch of Tomé. And they meet Tomé’s son, who must have been out carousing. And Tomé’s son, Tomé Domínguez de Mendoza says, ‘What are you guys doing?’ And they said, ‘We just need you to keep quiet about this, and we need to move on.’
“And so they move on. Next day Ortega and his men, with the orders of the Inquisition, have a posse, and they are running down the trail. And they come to Tomé’s place, and they ask Tomé Domínguez de Mendoza for fresh horses and mules to carry on the chase. And he refuses. He says, ‘Not my problem. He was your prisoner, you lost him, and we are not about to do anything for you.’ And so, there is repercussion there.
“But meanwhile, Gruber makes it all the way to Socorro. And Atanacio gets some food there. And they continue the route through today’s Jornada del Muerto. Somewhere in there, at a place called El Alemán, so named obviously after Gruber, something happens. We don’t know what happened. The posse couldn’t find him.
“Meanwhile, Atanacio comes back to Socorro and talks to the missionary there, who arrests Atanacio and holds him, thinking he can hold an Apache. They accuse him of having murdered Bernardo Gruber. But it seems to me logically that Atanacio comes back to spread the fact that Gruber has died in the Jornada of thirst. You would think this story would buy time for the German to make his escape. And Atanacio comes back and says this. But the priest says, ‘Oh, you probably killed him.’ And the Spaniards who are there accuse Atanacio of having killed the German. Probably not true at all.
“They think they are holding this Apache, but somewhere during this time he escapes too, never to be heard of again. Meanwhile, months later, down at a place now called El Alemán, they find the remains of someone. And it had the clothing of Bernardo Gruber still on him. And they declare that Gruber is dead.
“I have gone down to Sonora, and tried to find out if a Gruber ever shows up at the other end, during that same time. If he did, he changed his name. If he did, he wanted nothing more to do with the Inquisition. But when the Inquisition in Mexico City heard of all this, they bring the New Mexico Inquisition to task. And they give them the big reprimand, that you have no authority to try anyone. You have authority to investigate. But once you arrest someone, you cannot hold them in New Mexico, you must bring them down to Mexico City, and we will decide what to do.
“So, it didn’t necessarily lessen the powers of [the] Inquisition in New Mexico, but it certainly set the pattern of what their authority was. So, the Bernardo Gruber story, I think, is quite fascinating. I think that it is one that we could commemorate by holding a Bernardo Gruber Day every June 20th–21st at midnight, and at least serve German chocolate cake, or German beer.”
And thus we proceed down that long dusty trail . . .
Jack Loeffler is an aural historian, sound-collage artist, writer, and environmental activist. He is donating his aural history archive to the New Mexico History Museum.
New Mexico has been his homeland for over fifty years.