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Securing New Mexico

With the American occupation of New Mexico in 1846, the United States government moved to secure the area by repacifying the Santa Fe Trail. The Comanche had recently become much more aggressive than they had been over the previous decade or so. The Kiowa had also been troublesome, although they had given late assurance that they intended to mend their ways. Further east, the Pawnee presented a constant threat to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. Near Bent's Old Fort, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were at peace with the Americans, but given the obvious instability of relations between the numerous interests in the area in this time of change, the government feared that they might become hostile. The government was concerned that it had become overex-


tended, with a huge new area to control and few troops with which to accomplish this. General Kearny's army had moved on; it had been a ragtag organization in any case. In a few years this unsettled climate would contribute to the demise of Bent's Old Fort, and the removal of this frontier institution would further destabilize the area.

Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the eloquent proponent of both frontier trade and Manifest Destiny, had proposed to Congress in April 1846 that it create an Indian agency to deal with the tribes of the Upper Platte and Arkansas rivers. With the beginning of the war in May, Congress assented. The famous trapper, trader, and guide Thomas Fitzpatrick, who had previously been associated with Bent & St. Vrain Company, was appointed as an Indian agent and was stationed at Bent's Old Fort. His duties here were to begin as soon as he was released from his service with General Kearny.

The crux of the problem, as Fitzpatrick saw it, was that the Indians had nothing to lose and everything to gain with their attacks on the Santa Fe Trail traffic. The Indians, of course, were not new to warfare and raiding; on the contrary, their long history of such activities had produced many social reinforcements for such behavior. In a letter he wrote to his immediate superior in St. Louis just after assuming his post, Fitzpatrick asserted that the Indians would continue their attacks until the United States proved its ability to punish "some of the worst and most troublesome tribes." This had not been done so far. Indian attacks against troops were at least as successful as those against the wagon trains of traders. The traders had to be knowledgeable about defensive measures in order to stay in business. The army, in contrast, seemed to have an endless supply of untrained troops and continued to make the same defensive errors. In a spring letter to his supervisor, Fitzpatrick had this comment about a recent incident on the Santa Fe Trail:

When we see a government train of wagons manned and in charge of 44 men armed and equipped by the United States travelling across the Plains to New Mexico, and allow a band of savages to enter their lines—cut the harnesses off all the mules, and take them away, amounting to 170—kill and wound 3 or 4 men—destroy and burn up some of the wagons, and all this with impunity and without losing a single man, it is hard to foster what may be attempted next.[10]

What most in the area were concerned about was that the situation would further deteriorate. Seeing the successes of the Comanche, the Cheyenne and Arapaho might be inspired to take a share of the booty


that seemed so readily available on the trail. Unless offending Indians groups could be punished, so wrote Fitzpatrick in his first letter to his superior, they would never "invent other means of gaining a livelihood besides plundering and murdering their fellow human beings." If they could be discouraged from such activities, "Such a course would be the first great step to the settlement, and civilization of the wild and roaming tribes."[11]

Fitzpatrick was destined only to experience frustration in this regard. The troops supplied for the pacification of the Indians were for the most part recent immigrants. Many of them were Germans who spoke no English and were terrified of the Indians, who were like no humans they had ever encountered. These troops, incompetent in battle and impulsive in their dealings with the Native Americans, frequently made bad situations worse. A disheartening example of this occurred at Fort Mann, late in 1847. In the absence of Colonel William Gilpin, Captain William Pelzer, an emigrant volunteer, was left in command of the post. Fitzpatrick later reported that Captain Pelzer and his troops had been so fearful of Indians on their march to Fort Mann that "it required some vigilance and constant watching to prevent them from killing or attempting to kill every Indian they met on the road."[12] Unfortunately, after Colonel Gilpin left, a party of sixty-five Pawnee appeared at the fort, and four leaders rode to the gate with a white flag. When they were in the fort, it was discovered that several hundred more Pawnee were across the river. The fearful Captain Pelzer attempted to take the four leaders hostage, but when the Indians realized what was happening, they tried to escape. Orders were given to fire on them and, as a witness reported,

such a scene of confusion as ensued I never before witnessed . . . the men were firing in every direction. Two of the Indians were killed and a great many wounded. Three of the Indians failed to make their escape through the gate, and ran into Capt. Pelzer's quarters—a guard was placed at the door to prevent their escape. One of their number being bolder than the rest, rushed by the guard, passed the gate, and was shot some forty yards from the Fort. The two Indians who remained in Pelzer's quarters, were afterwards unceremoniously shot.[13]

A hearing the next year decided that, though great damage had been done to U.S. Indian relations, Captain Pelzer had acted out of ignorance rather than premeditation. He and four others were permitted to resign. This was done in spite of the fact that the Pawnee had been assured that the guilty would be punished.[14]


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Chapter 8 Victory and Defeat
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