Life on the Santa Fe Trail

Wagon Boss by Charles Russell

It wasn’t only the Indians who made life precarious for the travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. The country was literally crawling with rattlesnakes, the onery critters slithering through the grass trying keep from being run over by the big wheels of the Murphy Wagons or trying to keep out of the way of the animals and men. Worse yet was to wake up in the morning to find one of them had crawled into your blankets.

Thirst, caused by long stretches without water was always a problem on the journey. Josiah Gregg described how the desperate, thirst-crazed men in Captain William Becknell’s expedition shot a bison out near the Cimarron and knowing that the animal would have had knowledge of some remote watering place, cut into the beast and an “invigorating draught was procured from its stomach,” which the men drank with “exquisite delight.”

Accidental gunshot wounds were not uncommon. Kit Carson made his first trip west over the Santa Fe Trail and in his autobiography described an amputation from a gunshot wound in a rather primitive fashion. A knife, a saw, and a hot iron to sear the wound were the essential instruments. A bottle of strong whiskey might help (for both the patient and the “surgeon.” It might be added that several assistants were needed to hold the patient down while the operation was in progress.

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