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Loreta’s Civil War: This kind of life

August 22, 2017

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.

Part 69: Velazquez, now a mother to a baby boy, moves on to Colorado and New Mexico Territory, and the natural beauty takes her breath away.

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With my little baby boy — born during my sojourn in Salt Lake City — in my arms, I started on a long journey through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, hoping but scarcely expecting to find the opportunities which I had failed to find in Utah, Nevada, and California for advancing my pecuniary interests. Apart, however, from profits that might result from it, the journey would be worth making for its own sake, for, from what I had heard of this section of the Western country, great things were to be expected of it in the near future, and the satisfaction of seeing and judging of the nature and extent of its resources would amply repay me for the trouble of making a trip through it.

After leaving Salt Lake City, the first place of importance reached was Denver, Colo., on the Platte River. This I found to be a well built and very thriving town of about eight or ten thousand inhabitants. Among its public institutions were a branch of the United States Mint and several hotels, churches, and banks. Denver was, until the completion of the Pacific Railroad, the chief trading center in this region. Since the completion of the railroad, however, its importance in comparison with other places has in some degree diminished but as the country becomes settled, it may be expected to increase in wealth and population, and it will probably, ere a great many years, be one of the finest cities in the whole West.

Among the new towns which have recently sprung up in Colorado is Pueblo, nearly two hundred miles south of Denver and the terminus of the narrow-gauge railroad which taps the Pacific Railroad at Cheyenne. This town takes its name from the Pueblo Indians, who are much farther advanced in civilization than most of the aborigines and who deserve much credit for their industrious habits and their efforts to prosper.

Trinidad, still farther to the south, is an old Mexican town and is the center of an extensive cattle and sheep raising country. There is a constant war going on in this region on the subject of stock between Americans, Mexicans, and Indians. Cattle thieves, who steal stock from Texas and Mexico, rendezvous near Trinidad, and, as they are not particular whom they plunder so long as they are able to do it with impunity, their presence is anything but agreeable to people who desire to live reasonably peaceable lives and to get along by minding their own business.

Some distance from Trinidad is Stockton’s Ranch, in the midst of a wild, unsettled country, and the only house within a circuit of many miles’ ride. This is a noted headquarters of the desperadoes who infest New Mexico and Lower Colorado. The building is two stories in height, is quite large, and contains a store and drinking saloon. On a mound above the house is a graveyard, in which twenty-one people have been buried. Only three out of this number had died natural deaths, the others having been shot down like dogs for some real or fancied offenses. Stockton has killed several men himself, while many more have fallen by the hands of his confederates.

Stockton was a small man, restless in his movements and with a fierce black eye. He had a wife and a very interesting family for whom I felt much sympathy when I learned what a desperate character he was. His wife, who seemed to be a very nice, clever woman, was much troubled with regard to him. She told me that she was always uneasy about him when he was away from home, and that, at times, even when he was sleeping in his bed, she was harassed with fears lest someone should come and take him for the purpose of shooting him.

While I was at the Ranch, Stockton sent out some of his men to get some cattle at Maxwell’s Ranch, which he claimed as his. His instructions were to take the cattle at all hazards and to capture the men who were supposed to have stolen them, dead or alive. The herders were generally selected for their utter recklessness, and as a rule they cared neither for God nor man but would shoot down anyone who offended them, without pity or remorse. Most of these herders are very young men and are generally athletic and handsome. Some of them, from their appearance and conversation, appear to have been well-reared, and if asked why they have come to the frontiers to lead such a wild life as this, they will frankly say that they are trying to make their fortunes, and that they expect to do it in a couple of years. They are usually disappointed in these expectations, and those who do not give up in disgust and return to civilization fall into the habits of the country and soon become as finished desperadoes as those who have been born and brought up there. Some of them, however, engaged in this kind of life because they really like it and because they feel a certain freedom and unrestraint in roaming about in the open air.

Whenever a freight train, either American or Mexican, passed, Stockton would buckle on his belt of six-shooters, and, with a big negro armed in a similar manner as his bodyguard, step out into the road with a roll of brands in one hand and a pistol in the other and inspect the brands on each head of cattle. Should the brands compare with his, he would take them from the train and let the freighters make out the best way they could. He has many times stopped and broken up freight trains bound for Sante Fe and the interior, to the infinite injury of the merchants who depend upon the freighters for their goods. The traders, however, appear to be powerless before this and other desperadoes, and the government which takes their taxes under the plea of affording them protection ought certainly to do something to prevent them from being at the mercy of men who recognize no laws but their own fierce wills.

On one occasion Stockton, through some of his employees, duped two men from Maxwell’s Ranch, who, he asserted, had stolen cattle from him. When he had them in his power he started off, leaving the impression on the minds of their friends that he intended to take them to Trinidad for the purpose of delivering them up to the sheriff. Instead of doing this, however, he carried them into a side road and there shot them, leaving their bodies to be devoured by the coyotes, or, perhaps, buried by some casual passer-by. For this deed he was arrested and lodged in jail. He was liberated, however, almost immediately, without even the form of a trial, the officers being too much afraid of him and of his confederates to detain him.

The occurrences which I have related will illustrate the kind of life that is led in the cattle-raising country of Colorado, New Mexico, southwestern Kansas, and Texas. I named this place Bandit House and the ford in the stream nearby Dead Man’s Crossing — which are expressive and appropriate, if not poetical.

Beyond Stockton’s is General Maxwell’s Ranch. Maxwell is the wealthiest American in southern Colorado. I believe he got his start in life by marrying a Mexican woman who inherited an extensive Spanish grant. Maxwell has quite a large family, and he bears a better reputation than do most of the old settlers. He is a great gambler and is much interested in horse-racing but is disposed to be kind and hospitable to strangers.

Crossing quite an extensive piece of country, the Dry Cimmaron is reached. Here some enterprising Englishmen, headed by a Mr. Read, have taken up a large tract of land and have established a colony. They have built a very neat little town, and when I passed through there, their affairs seemed to be in a thriving condition. The town is located on a rather high and dry elevation, which takes its name from the scarcity of water in the branch of the Cimmaron River, which runs by it.

Dry Cimmaron was for a time a stopping-place for the stages from the Elizabethtown mines, which connected with the Southern lines. It is on a more direct route for the cattlemen and freighters but, although it has plenty of wood, it is open to objection as a cattle and freight station on account of the insufficiency of the water supply.

The next point of interest is Fort Union, in New Mexico, about sixty miles south of Dry Cimmaron. This fort, which, at a distance, looks like a small city, is built of adobe, or white bricks, and is plastered inside and out with gypsum, which gives it a rather dazzling-white appearance. The garrison consists of five companies of infantry and one of cavalry. Fort Union is the central supply depot for the frontiers and is a very important position. Some distance off, in the mountain, is a steam saw-mill, which supplies all the lumber used in and about the fort. This saw-mill is protected by an armed guard of soldiers. There is also a blacksmith shop, a wagon shop, a carpenter shop, and a post office. Each company has a garden and several cows, and the men seem to take a great deal of pride in keeping everything in the best possible order. This fort and its surroundings do much credit to the officers who planned them and who have succeeded in making such a nice-looking place out of a frontier military post.

From Fort Union to Santa Fe the traveler passes over some rough country. Santa Fe is the oldest city in New Mexico and one of the oldest in the country. It has been, and undoubtedly for a long time will be, an important center of trade between the United States and Mexico. The ground in and about the city is all owned by Mexicans or people of Mexican descent, who refuse to sell on any terms, but who will lease to Americans. The houses are chiefly one- and two-story structures, built of adobe, and covered with tile or thatch. They are cool, pleasant, and comfortable in summer. The hotel, which is kept by an American, but which is owned by a Mexican, who has refused to permit any alterations or improvements to be made, stands on the corner of the plaza, or great public square, which was laid out by the founders of the city. During the war, the Union soldiers insisted on erecting a monument on the plaza to the memory of their fallen comrades. This gave great offense to the old residents, who regarded the structure as an injury to the appearance of their public square but as they were powerless to prevent its erection, they were compelled to submit with the best grace they could. As the monument is not a very elegant-looking affair, it is not surprising that those who were not interested in it could not bring themselves to admire it.

So old a city as Santa Fe, of course, has an interesting history, but a recital of the events which have made it famous is scarcely called for in such a narrative as this. It is, in its peculiar way, a handsome place and has a venerable appearance, which is quite imposing. Santa Fe contains about twenty thousand inhabitants.

It was in the month of November that our little party started down the fertile valley of the Rio Grande from Santa Fe, but the weather was warm and pleasant, the great elevation giving this region a deliciously dry and healthful climate. There were seven of us in all, and for the sake of companionship and mutual protection we engaged a large wagon drawn by six mules.

It was about ten o’clock in the morning when we rolled out of Santa Fe, and our first camping-place was an Indian village, where we found a neat little adobe house, of which we took possession while resting ourselves and preparing our supper. One of the gentlemen made the coffee, while the others employed themselves in cooking the provisions, or in roaming about, looking at, and trying to converse with the Indians, or viewing the scenery. My traveling companions were all pleasant people, and we enjoyed ourselves hugely. Mr. McKnight, the owner of the wagon and mules, was an exceedingly gentlemanly man, and I shall always bear him in kindly remembrance for his attentions to me and to my little boy during this journey.

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