Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 4

October, 1941


By Charles J. Smith,
Grand Teton National Park.

U. S. Highway No. 66, the Will Rogers Highway, was surveyed in 1857 from the Rio Grande to the Colorado River, the state line of California. At that time there were wagon trails across the southern portion of the Territory of New Mexico, in what is now Arizona, but for the most part these roads were highways for the savage Apaches. Long stretches were without wood, grass or water, and it was necessary to swing far to the south and back again to reach California. About 75,000 Californians had petitioned the Congress to construct a wagon road directly across country over which supplies, mail and passengers could reach the state by a more direct and less dangerous route. In answer, the Congress in 1856 approariated $50,000 for the survey and construction of a wagon road along the 35th parallel from Fort Defiance, New Mexico, to the Colorado River.

For this important job the War Department chose Lieutenant Edward F. Beale, a man of western experience and a former comrade of Kit Carson, as leader of the expedition. He was no tenderfoot. Throughout the pages of western history his name illuminates the story of pioneer deeds. What first turned the eyes of this Southern lad towards the West is not known, but he was in San Diego in 1846 with the United States Navy, back in the time of strife with Mexico for the possession of California. Lieutenant W. H. Emory, who was with the advance guard of the Army of the West led by General Kearny, advancing from Fort Leavenworth, Missouri, to San Diego in 1846, wrote this dramatic story:

"Dec. 5, 1846. Against all advice General Kearny attacked the Mexican force, some thirty-five miles from San Diego, and our soldiers were in sore straits. Lt. Edward F. Beale with thirty-five marines came into camp with dispatches for Kearny from Stockton at San Diego. Kit Carson was with our command, having been ordered by Kearny to surrender the dispatches he was carrying to Washington to another messenger and return to California as a guide for the Army of the West. This, Carson very reluctantly did, and by so doing deprived himself of the opportunity to visit his family, again reach civilization and reap the reward in Washington for the long dangerous service he had given to his government in the far west.

"Dec. 7, 1846. Today dawned on the most tattered, ill fed detachment ever mustered under U. S. colors. Unless the three volunteers, Lt. Beale, Kit Carson and an Indian servant reach San Diego and Stockton sends help we are finished."

San Diego was reached. The three who volunteered to go for aid, separated in order to increase their chances of getting through. Beale was the second man to stagger into Stockton's quarters. His shoes and canteen had been discarded so that he could move more quietly through three lines of sentries. He had covered 30 miles of cactus-studded desert without foot covering, and arrived suffering from a raging fever. Months later he and Carson with eight soldiers rode horseback to Washington, where Beale delivered dispatches to the Navy Department, and Carson delivered letters to President Polk. For many days Kit thought his companion would die on the long trail, and it was necessary to lift him on and off his horse. But Kit Carson gave Beale the best care possible in the circumstances, killing wild game from which to make broth, and in every way looking after his helpless friend. They reached Washington and Beale went to bed to recover. Carson went to say goodby to his comrade and before he started back for the West expressed the opinion that Beale would never leave his sick room.

Just 10 years later Lieutenant Beale, no longer a Navy man, walked into a corral in San Antonio, Texas, to inspect a number of camels which had been assigned to him for use in survey and construction of a wagon road across the very country over which he and Kit had struggled a decade before. These camels had recently arrived from their home land in Persia and Arabia. There were thirty-three of them, brought over on the U.S.S. Supply, at the order of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. The ship was commanded by Lieutenant D. D. Porter, later an admiral in the United States Navy. The prospective road builder selected twenty-seven of these foreign creatures, and with their native drivers journeyed north to Fort Defiance which was the outpost between hostile Indians and civilization. Here he met his military escort and the adventure was begun. As one reads his diary, faithfully kept throughout the journey, it is easy to detect his strong sense of responsibility and his determination to carve not only a path to the Pacific but also a lasting name for himself.

He knew that Navajo wars ware being periodically waged across the territory through which his route was to lead, and he had a first-hand knowledge of the country. Other more or less official excursions had been made previously. Captain Sitgreaves had left Zuni in 1852, followed the Zuni River to where it emptied into the Little Colorado, and eventually arrived at the Gulf of Lower California. In 1853, Lieutenant J. C. Ives and Lieutenant Whipple, under the direction of the War Department, left Fort Smith, Arkansas, and followed more or less closely the 35th parallel to California. And then Xavier Aubrey worked eastward from California to Zuni, and faintly marked a trail over which the Atlantic and Pacific Railway was built 30 years later. Beale knew all there was to know about these former trips over his assigned pathway. He knew that some of these parties almost perished with thirst or starvation; that the Apaches attacked Aubrey's men and came close to wiping them out.

Let us go back 80 years and travel with Beale over part of this journey through a region filled with hostile Indians who fought Mexicans and Americans on work days, and fought each other on Sundays.

"June 25, 1857. Left San Antonio, Texas, with herd of camel."

"August 12, 1857. Albuquerque. Started my train on, it being necessary to get the men out of town as soon as possible as the Spanish 'fandangos' and other pleasures have rendered them rather troublesome. It was necessary to boot several of them this morning, especially my Turks and Greeks, keepers of the camels. They were as drunk as any Christian in the train. Ta my delight the express arrived last night with my orders and a package from eastern friends."

The Lieutenant divided his box of cakes and other goodies with companions but was too gallant to say that the postage cost him $16. This fact has been gleaned from his private account book which he kept throughout the journey. They went on and spent some time at "a little Indian villages (Covere) and it was pleasant to get back into our big boots and greasy buckskin's once more. They were home to us."

Here was an adventurous bunch of hardy young men setting out on a dangerous trek across the wildest part of the country. They were burdened with a herd of unacclimated camels and handlers. The horses and mules hated the vile smelling beasts. The mule skinners despised the under-estimated Turks and Greeks who had come oversees with their charges. All of them, singly and combined, hated and feared the wild Indians they expected to encounter along the way. And yet, in this Indian village they forgot their cares and entered into the feasting and dancing that did homage to an Indian God.

While they waited in this little valley for the soldiers who were to come from Fort Defiance to meet them, they made seines of gunny sacks and caught plenty of fish in the little stream to feed their party. Beside the lava wall which runs for hundreds of miles through that part of the Southwest, they pastured their animals, wrestled, ran foot races, made sketches of the vicinity, and had a good time in general while their leader fretted at the delay and entered daily notes in his journal. He wrote: "We are all very anxious to be on our way as our real work is to begin. Whatever fortune is before us we are impatient to meet it and have done with all suspense in regard to it. I trust to be in California within sixty days after we get started."

Finally they reached Fort Defiance and were met by the drum and bugle corps, and what was probably more welcome, an ambulance carrying huge blocks of ice and the "cup of cheer." The Lieutenant refers to it as "red eye." While they rested at this frontier post the young officer again indulged in apprehensions: "This morning, everything being in readyness, we take our leave of our kind and hospitable friends and start upon our journey into the wilderness. No one, who has not commanded an expedition of this kind where everything ahead is dim and uncertain and unknown, except the dangers, can imagine the anxiety with which I set out upon this journey. Not only am I responsible for the lives and welfare of my men, but my reputation and the highest wrought expectations of my friends - and the still more highly wrought expectations of my envious enemies - all these dependent upon the next sixty days' good or evil fortune. Today commences it. Let us see what I shall say in this journal, if I live to say anything, on the day of my return."

In this diary, often written by the light of the moon or by the camp fire, he spoke of the climate, the beautiful red sandstone cliffs, the rose and blue sky at sunset, "like the soft drapery of a Southern ballets dance gown"; of the rain and the chilly nights, of the excellent esprit de corps of his men, and the creditable performance of his camels. He even recalled lines from his favorite poets. Once he undertook to chase a bear, and the mule he was riding went out from under him and left the dashing nimrod sitting on a cactus. He was camp-bound for several days following this adventure.

The caravan now headed for Zuni, probably to obtain some of the corn and wheat which had just been harvested by the thrifty and friendly Indians. Lieutenant Beale admired the skill of the Indian women in carrying huge jars of water on their heads, but the sight of the men knitting rather provoked him. "Imagine Hiawatha at such undignified work!" was his terse comment. Here, too, they bought 200 head of sheep to be driven along the way with them and killed when other meat was not available. Altogether the animals in the caravan numbered approximately 400 - horses, mules, sheep and camels - and it was quite a problem to find camping sites with water and grass for this large herd.

"August 30. We spent the morning in arranging a trade with the Indians for corn. The men were all day and until midnight shelling it."

They loaded the corn an the camels, and left the next morning at ll o'clock and "encamped on good grass without water. The high rolling prairie, over which we traveled today has good wood, cedar and pine, and plenty of it everywhere."

On September 1, they arrived at Jacob's Well. Here the camels objected to going down the steep narrow trail to water. Since there was only the one trail, and the cliffs around the waterhole were quite steep, the Arabs did without water until the next camping place was reached the following evening. Here, at Jacob's Lake, wild ducks were killed and roasted, but the large herd of antelope grazing near by was not disturbed.

The next day the party traveled to Navajo Springs, which is the spot where the Territory of Arizona was established in 1863. Lieutenant Beale's diary says they arrived at the Puerco the following day at 8 a.m. but found no water, and at ll o'clock they came to the Rio de la Xara which is now Dead River. Then: "Passing a narrow neck of land toward the Xara and some very rough country toward the east we reached a high table land covered with beautiful grass, where we encamped. No wood. We found on the left of the trail on the table land, a huge petrification, apparently a large tree of probably three feet in diameter." This was in the present Petrified Forest National Monument, September 3, 1857.

Dropping down into the Painted Desert, the next camp was on Lithodendron Creek near the site of the old stage station which is now in ruins. Leading down to the sandy wash in the Painted Desert the deep ruts of the old stage road still scar the hillside. The road was used until 1883 when the railroad took over transportation through northern Arizona. Beale continued down the Lithodendron, or the Carizzo, as it is called, and swinging west crossed the Puerco just above old Horsehead Crossing. There was too much mud for the camels to negotiate so they crossed back again and camped where Holbrook was later founded. The only trouble Beale had with the camels was in mud. Then their ungainly hind feet would skid apart and rupture the awkward beasts. Once the skin was torn the injury was long in healing. You may be sure that he hastened to have the hind feet hobbled together and get them back on dry land when he saw them beginning to slip. On and on they traveled, measuring every mile with an instrument attached to a wagon wheel. They were compelled to make a detour at Canyon Diablo north almost to Leupp. The route led south of the San Francisco peaks through Walnut Canyon, continuing westward "through a wilderness of forest, plain and desert, occupied 48 days, when the Colorado River was reached on October 18th."

Ever the showman, our Pathfinder, as a climax to the trip, entered the Pueblo de Los Angeles riding in state in a buggy drawn by one of his favorite camels.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005