Thursday, December 16, 2021

Pieces of the Santa Fe Trail - Label Block - Trails End

In the words of Marion Sloan Russell...

Santa Fe, NM 1867
soon after their wedding

In the fall of 1871 Richard sold the trading post and we made preparations to leave Tecolote.  Our half-formed plan was to locate in the San Luis Valley in
ColoradoRichard had sent herds of cattle there to fatten, and he knew that it was rich and fertile.  We hoped to file on 160 acres under the Homestead Act.  We knew that both the grass and water were plentiful in the San Luis Valley and Richard knew of a little creek where our cattle would stay fat and sleek through the long winters.

We decided to take on the first trip one freight wagon and team, and two saddle horses.  After we located, Mr. Russell would send for the rest of things.  The George Storz family were planning to follow us wherever we might settle.  So we left Tecolote in September; left to seek those green fields that always lie at the far away end of the rainbow.

Richard had insisted that I take the two children and go by stage to Uncle Dick Wooten's tollgate on the Raton Pass.  He thought it would not tire me so much as riding in the heavily loaded freight wagon.  I was to wait a few days before starting.  The morning he finished packing and stood by the wagon saying Good-Bye, Katie Elmira, our little sun-bonnet baby, came and insisted that she was going with him.  I can see her yet, standing there in the bright, morning sunshine tying her sun-bonnet under her dimpled chin.  When I shook my head at her she looked at me with round, reproachful eyes.  "Daddy cannot go alone.  I won't let him," she stated.  They drove away together, her little sunbonnet bobbing up and down at his elbow.  'Tis the little things of life I remember so well.

As I turned back into my dismantled home a great nostalgic longing took hold of me.  It was as if, for a moment, I was permitted a glimpse into the future, and knew how my heart would stay ever in the arid hills of New Mexico.  Often I have heard old-timers laughing about the heat and the dust of the desert.  I have heard them say jokingly that Hell would seem cool after living in Santa Fe.  I had heard them say that the burning sands of the desert had sucked old-timers so dry that they could not pray.  I had laughed with them; but now I was leaving my desert for the green hills far away.  I was leaving the land I had come to as a child sitting on the high spring seat of a covered wagon; sitting there by my mother.  I was soon to learn that all the fair, green reaches of the whole wide earth could never be so dear to me as the tortured beauty of my desert.

It was with sorrow in my heart that I climbed one morning aboard the Overland Stage.  My baby's head lay heavy on my arm.  My heart was heavy within me.  I left the land of the tinted hills, where lakes of purple haze filled the shallow, arid basins.  Here among these red hills, I had watched the hump-backed bison give place to the Texas long-horn.  Here I had come to see the pinto pony take the place of the burro and the wild mustang.  I left the land I loved with its ranches, convents, churches, priests, bandits and gamblers.  I left the land of enchantment.

I shall never forget that stage ride across the wastes.  Once we came to a place where the carcasses of so many dead mules lay by the roadside that I was led to ask about them.  The driver explained that the previous spring a strange epidemic attacked the mules and burros all over the West.  The place we had just passed was where a mule-driven freight train had been left stranded; every mule in the wagon train had died there.

As we drew near Uncle Dick Wootten's toll gate I began to think of Richard and Katie, my sun-bonnet baby.  My heart reproached me for disloyalty, reproached me for looking backward so sadly.  When I climbed down from the stage, I stood looking for the freight wagon.  Surely it camped near the toll gate.  Then I heard Katie Elmira's piping voice.  She had been sent up the trail to meet me.  She held out her wee arms for the baby.  Richard was camped beyond the bend in the trail.  All day she had kept watch for me.

At Trinidad, in Colorado, we drove our freight wagon under some tall cottonwoods and made camp for the night.  A red bridge spanned the shining river we had forded so long ago.  Next morning we ran into an old friend on the street - a man we had known in Santa Fe.  He was Judge William Bransford, close associate of Kit Carson and Lucien Maxwell.  He was Justice of the Peace in little Trinidad.  He had been a wagon master in the old days, hauling supplies from Kansas City to the stores of Ben and St. Vrain both at Taos and Santa Fe.

Judge Bransford followed us to our camp that September evening and we talked long of the old days.  It was nice to meet an old friend so unexpectedly, just as we were planning to leave old friends behind us.  He tried that evening to get Richard to go no farther, but to stay and start a store in Trinidad.  But by this time Richard was determined to become a cattle rancher; the dream of this life was to be a dream no longer.

We broke camp early next morning and were two miles out on the north road when the sun came up.  We halted then at a little house by the roadside to inquire the road to the San Luis Valley.  The friendly little woman who answered my husband's inquiry by directing us onward, tried to discourage us at the same time.  She told us she and her husband had just moved away from the San Luis Valley.  They had not enjoyed living there, she said.  She did not think we would find it at all pleasant.  She talked of cold winters, isolation and bad roads.

I have often wondered since what our lives would have been had we not stopped that morning to inquire about the road that lay ahead.  The destiny that rules our lives seems to love to manifest itself in trivial things.  Had we gone on into the San Luis Valley, would we have been happy?  Had we not stopped at that house by the wayside would Richard have been spared to me?  Would he have lived out his life in a normal manner and not have fallen before an assassins' bullet?  But destiny came to us in the guise of a friendly little woman in a clean faded gingham who leaned against the wheel of our wagon.  "Go to the St. John's Valley," said the woman.  "It surely is a second Eden.  It lies thirty-eight miles up the River Purgatoire.  There you will find feed and water for your cattle.  There you will be happy."  So it was that Destiny sent us searching for happiness along the River Purgatoire.

But Jordan is a hard road to travel, and evening found us only half way to Eden.  Evening found us discouraged.  The too-narrow valley we had followed all the way from Trinidad, was rimmed on either side by rocky, barren hills.  The Purgatoire wound back and forth across the narrow valley and our heavy wagon lurched and tumbled.

Mid-afternoon on the second day of our travel, we saw the great Stone Wall rising from the blue mists at its feet.  Behind it, with all its towers and turrets, rose the white-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The Sangre de Cristo, meaning Blood of Christ mountains, we thought were well named, for their snowy tops were stained blood-red by the setting sun.

Gradually, as we climbed, the valley widened until we came out onto a natural meadow interspersed with tall pines.  The mighty wall before us grew higher and higher.  This strange freak of nature, the great stone wall, runs through the entire states of Colorado and Wyoming, and is one of the wonders of the Rocky Mountain region.  Its precipitous walls are as smooth as if made by the hand of man.  When we came to the base of the wonder, the road turned and ran parallel with it.  Suddenly we came to a gap in the towering wall and drove through a natural gateway.  God, it seemed, had decided to let us into the Garden.

The Great Stone Wall 
Photo from the Aultman Collection
We camped than night in the loveliest spot I had ever seen.  A small natural meadow between the great wall and the tall Sangre de  Cristos.  We unrolled our camp bed on the fragrant pine needles and slept that night under the stars.  How well do I remember how the moon and the river sang together.  It was witchery to lie under the star-spangled sky and to hear the little mountain river go singing by on its way to the ocean.  I heard our hobbled horses grazing.  I heard my sun-bonnet baby murmur in her sleep in the wagon.  The cold, wet dew fell on my face and on the heavy mass of my hair.  I tried as I lay there to let this new, strange beauty of the earth sink into my soul.  I did not know then that the moon I saw rise above the dark stone wall, would rise always behind that same wall.  I would know no more moonlight on the desert.

The morning was startlingly cold and the children and I huddled over the breakfast fire Richard built for us.  After the cooking was over we laid log after log on the fire.  When the day grew warmer we went house hunting, or at least looked for a place to build our cabin.  We found a level place by a clear, cold spring.  Water meant so much to us.  "Here is the place," said Richard, "here is where we will build our new home."

Richard renamed the valley that morning, "Stonewall Valley."  Stonewall Valley it has been called ever since.  The soil was rich and fertile, the grass thick and abundant.  There were deer and fish to be had for the taking.  Wild plum and choke cherries grew along the little river.  There was a high range of mountains to protect us from the cold winds of winter.

I like to remember Richard as he was that morning, the light of new dreams in his eyes.  I like to remember how he walked barehead under the pines.  A new domain he planned for us that morning, a domain to be built by his own hands.  Some times I have wondered why, when one asks so little of life, that little is so often denied - just a little moon, a little silver spoon, a little copper kettle.  We had mountain trout for breakfast and while we ate them two deer came down from the timbered slope and watched us.

The next morning we returned to Trinidad for supplies.  It was downhill all the way and the horses stepped out blithely. 

In 1888, we received a notice from the Maxwell Land Grant Company to abandon the domain we had so laboriously wrested from the wilderness.  Twenty-four hours the company gave us to get off our land and out of the valley.  Twenty-four hours were given us to appear at a hearing in Denver, over 200 miles away.  There were no automobiles then, and we were 35 miles from the railroad.

Many accounts of the Maxwell land steal have been written; it is not my task to write another...

In writing a biography the relative value of days and years must be taken into consideration.  There are days that count in time and space as years; and years that count but a single day.  From the day they brought Richard home to me, shot by a Maxwell deputy, until that morning five days later when we laid him to rest, there was pressed a full lifetime of suffering.

Richard was shot while carrying a flag of truce and attempting to negotiate with the deputies who barricaded themselves in the Coe Hotel.  The five days that he lay suffering lie open on my heart today.  To write of them is not to tear open an old wound for the wound has never healed. ... It seemed at first that the bullet that ended Richard's life had surely ended my own; but there were little stockings that needed mending.  Little lunch pails to fill.  I carried on.

When I was 89 (in 1934) I made a pilgrimage into the land of yesteryear.  I traveled the Santa Fe Trail once more, hoping that I might find there one golden moment spilled from the hand of time.  They let me go to the ruins of Camp Nickols.  A little dent in the grass marked the place of my nice dugout.  A field of corn waved over the trail.  With my feet I sought and found the wheel-ruts in the grass where the old wagon trains had gone creaking past on the long-long trail - the old, old trail to Santa Fe.  Purple thistle flourished where once had waved the buffalo grass.

At Fort Union I found  crumbling walls and tottering chimneys.  Here and there a tottering adobe wall where once a mighty howitzer had stood.  Great rooms stood roofless, their whitewashed walls open to the sky.  Wild gourd vines grew inside the officers' quarters.  Rabbits scurried before my questing feet.  The little guard house alone stood intact, mute witness of the punishment inflicted there.  The Starts and Stripes was gone.  Among a heap of rubble I found the ruins of the little chapel where I had stood - a demure, little bride in a velvet cape - and heard a preacher say "That which God hath joined together let no man put asunder."  I found the ruins of my little home where Colonel Carson once had stood beneath a hanging lamp.  I heard or seemed to hear again his kindly voice, "Little Maid Marion, you cannot go.  I promised your mother to take good care of you."  The wind moaned among the crumbling ruins and brought with it the sound of marching feet.  I saw with eyes that love to look backward, a wagon train coming along the old trail.  I saw a child in a blue pinafore.  It was little Maid Marion on the seat of an old covered wagon.  

Santa Fe had grown larger.  Roses mingled with red peppers on old adobe walls.  The old wooden gateway through which had flowed the commerce of a nation was gone.  Central Plaza was so neat and clean I did not recognize it.  A woman in red slacks sat under a great umbrella.  Once I had seen Captain Aubry sit in that very spot reading a big newspaper.  Old memories drifted about me like dead leaves in an autumn wind.  I went to the chapel and knelt at the self-same altar where my little head had bowed in prayer more than 80 years before.  Did Father Lamy's tender hand touch my head in blessing?  Did Mother Magdalena's soft, black robes rustle by me in the stillness?

So small were the ruins of Tecolote - my "Little Owl" - that it seemed the red hills were trying to bury the little watering place on the Santa Fe Trail.  The stone house was in ruins.  Fallen rafters lay aslant windows where once red geraniums had bloomed.  An old wooden bed, decrepit and broken lay among the fallen rafters.  It was a bedstead that had been made on a turning lathe, a bed that had once boasted a valance white as snow.

Nothing was left of Fort Marcy.  Even the adobe walls had fallen.  it was strange to stand there that evening where I had played more than 80 years before.  Was it imagination, or did I hear voices?  The half-remembered voices of children.  Were they playing "steal-the-dead-man's-bones" or was it the sound of wind sighing down over the mesa?

Strange to look back when you are old and feeble over the trail you know as a child!

My heart has returned to the land the old trail ran through, so long ago.  Old paths that wind through the malpais beckon to me.  I want to feel the desert sun shine hot on my hands, my face and my breasts.  The inner chamber of my heart is open wide, its pearls of memory just inside.  My thoughts move slowly now like motes behind a faded window blind.  I stand listening for the sound of wheels that never come; stand waiting for the clasp of arms long crumbled into dust.  The old trail, the long trail over which once flowed the commerce of a nation, lives there like a lovely, oft repeated dream.

And so, our journey with Marion on the Santa Fe Trail comes to an end.  Marion Sloan Russell, who died on Christmas Day, 1936, from injuries suffered in an automobile accident, lies buried next to her gallant soldier.  She herself had helped select the site in 1876 for this diminutive burying ground in what she described as the wildest and most beautiful place around.  

One final block is offered... The label block offers a place to record your name and any other info you may want to include.  Follow the link to payhip to get your pattern.

When you have your quilt top assembled come back and link up for the Santa Fe Trail Quilt Parade!  There will be a random drawing for a Cotton Cuts Mini Pop, Mini Modern Maker or Petite Pop.  (Sadly, the winner must have a US address)  Your parade entry can be made through December 31.  

I have heard from many of you that you enjoyed the journey just as much as I have.  For this I am very pleased!

Leave a comment and let me know what your favorite block was...

I'd love to hear from you!

Life is a journey... I hope that you are enjoying it!

Merry Quiltmas!


Linking with:

Put Your Foot Down at For the Love of Geese
Needle & Thread Thursday at My Quilt Infatuation
Can I Get A Whoop Whoop at Confessions of a Fabric Addict
Off The Wall Friday with Nina Marie
Brag About Your Beauties at From Bolt to Beauty
Peacock Party at Wendy’s Quilts and More
Friday Foto Fun at Powered by Quilting
Finished or Not Friday at Alycia Quilts
Scrap Happy Saturday at Super Scrappy
BOMS Away at Katie Mae Quilts
Patchwork & Quilts at The Quilting Patch
Oh Scrap! at Quilting is More Fun Than Housework
Sunday Stash at QuiltPaintCreate


  1. I want to see the san juan mountains and thought we'd get to travel when we moved to CO but covid is too frightening for me, allergic to the vax. If everyone had gotten it who could, I'd be safer but people make no sense to me now. Not doing something to help the whole country. I so enjoyed your story

  2. Hi there! I’m so looking forward to stitching this up! Thank you so much for this wonderful so long that has less may beyond measure especially this year.

  3. Wonderful story. I will miss it. Thank you.

  4. I have really enjoyed the story so much, Melva! Thanks for sharing it and the blocks.

  5. Thank you so much for the story telling, Melva! I love it! :)

  6. Oh wow on the ending, now I have to make it my goal to read the whole book in 2022. I had goosebumps! Is the cemetery located near Trinidad? Was Richard the first one buried there?
    I loved every block, but I think my favorite might be Kit in the Corner, but I also love the New Mexican Star, and I want to make the Tecolote because it looks beautiful.
    I'm so glad I joined this SAL, thanks to Wendy, and I look forward to more with you as your time allows. This one was so meaningful to me because I love the state of New Mexico and its history, and now I want to visit Trinidad!

  7. Wow, wonderful! I'm sorry I missed this one, now I HAVE TO read back. Ever since I embarked on working with CW reproduction fabrics, the story of pioneer journeys has run right along side everything I've read about the period. This account was totally fascinating and speaks to how in contrast to us thinking of the past as "a simpler time" it was in fact as challenging as our own days. I look forward to looking at this for the start of 2022.

  8. Well done on this quilt along, with great stories! Beautiful blocks, and this last one is a great idea to finish the QAL!
    Thank you for sharing, and linking up today ;)

  9. What a journey! your quilt is amazing!!

  10. What a moving end to a wonderful life history. Thank you so much for sharing the excerpts and creating the quilt along. Hoping to put the finishing touches to my quilt before the year ends.