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Wild Horses On the Santa Fe Trail
One of the many creatures that old-time Santa Fe Trail travelers encountered were wild horses and Watrous was a major stopping point on the Santa Fe Trail. In the days of the trail, Watrous was called La Junta, ‘the join’, because it was where the two rivers, the Mora and the Sapello met. It was also where the two trails, the Cimarron Cut-off branch and the Mountain branch met too. It is not the same La Junta that is in southern Colorado where old Bent’s Fort is situated. Our La Junta was renamed Watrous back in 1879 (when the railway came) after a man named Samuel Watrous who was a very influential man in the area and who ran a big store that catered to many of the trail’s travelers and the soldiers at nearby Fort Union. With the arrival of the railway in Santa Fe in 1880 however, the Santa Fe Trail became obsolete and slowly became a distant memory that faded like the ruts, still faintly visible like ghosts of their former selves, in the open and undulating plains around Watrous. Our horse sanctuary is situated about eight miles east of the town of Watrous and in our way we are trying to bring wild horses back to the plains. If dreams came true, we would buy up a large land reserve where wild horses could run free again along the old Santa Fe Trail ruts. There are many books and diaries written about the Santa Fe Trail with accounts of adventures and mis-adventures, murder and mayhem, extreme weather, wildlife, Indians and the personalities and daily life of wagon train travel. Some are lovingly written by folks who mourned the loss of the trail and looked back on their experiences with real nostalgia. One of my favorite books is called ‘Land of Enchantment’ by Marian Russell. Reading her words always makes me wish I could go back in time and travel the old trail with her. Another book that is worth a read and was, indeed, read by many travelers of the trail, was the one written by Josiah Gregg and is called ‘Commerce of the Prairies’. Back in the days of the trail it was read by pioneers as a ‘how to’ book and guide to life out on the Plains. It is a treasure trove of facts and stories about the trail and its environs. Here are a couple of quotes about the wild horses he encountered and as you can see, even back then, they had a romantic mystique to those lucky folks who witnessed them.
“By far the most noble of these, and therefore the best entitled to precedence in the brief notice I am able to present of the animals of those regions, is the mustang or wild horse of the Prairies. As he is descended from the stock introduced into America by the first Spanish colonists, he has no doubt a partial mixture of Arabian blood.”
Josiah Gregg, speaking of the animals of the Prairies
“The wild horses are generally well-formed, with trim and clean limbs; still their elegance has been much exaggerated by travelers, because they have seen them at large, abandoned to their wild and natural gaiety. Then, it is true, they appear superb indeed; but when caught and tamed, they generally dwindle down to ordinary ponies. Large droves are very frequently seen upon the Prairies, sometimes of hundreds together, gambolling and curvetting within a short distance of the caravans. It is sometimes difficult to keep them from dashing among the loose stock of the traveler, which would be exceedingly dangerous; for, once together, they are hard to separate again, particularly if the number of mustangs is much the greatest. It is a singular fact, that the gentlest wagon-horse (even though quite fagged with travel), once among a drove of mustangs, will often acquire in a few hours all the intractable wildness of his untamed companions.”