from; WILLIAM WOLFSKILL, THE PIONEER
[Read June 23, 1902.]
BY H. D. BARROWS.
I now propose to give some account of William Wolfskill. Mr. Wolfskill was born in Madison county, Kentucky, March 20, 1798, and was reared from the age of eleven to twenty-one, in what is now Howard county, Missouri, but which then was in the heart of the Indian country.
The Indians of that region during the War of 1812 were so bad that the settlers had to carry their fire-arms at the plow and to be unceasingly on their guard, night and day.
After the war, in 1815, William went back to Kentucky to attend school. In 1822, at the age of twenty-four, he started out in the world on his own account to seek his fortune, to penetrate still farther into the far West, and to find “a better country” in which to settle.
With a party under a Captain Becknell, he went to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He spent the summer of 1822, at Santa Fe, and in the fall engaged in trapping beaver. He went down the Rio Grande to El Paso del Norte in January, 1823.
He was accompanied on this trip by a single companion, a New Mexican, who had trapped beaver with him the fall before. They caught what beaver they could as they proceeded down the river. The weather was cold, the ground being covered with snow; and to protect themselves from the cold they built a small brush house.
Within this, with a fire in front, they could lie down and keep warm. One night (the 27th of January, 1823) Mr. Wolfskill waked up and saw that the New Mexican had built a big fire at the door; but he thought nothing of it, and dropped asleep again. But some time after he was aroused to consciousness by receiving a rifle ball in his breast. He jumped up and rushed outside, where he stumbled and fell, and although it was moonlight he saw no one. He had first reached for his rifle, which had been lying beside him, but that was gone, only the shot-pouch remaining.
Supposing that marauding Indians had shot him and killed his companion, who was missing, he thought it was all over with him. At first, he believed himself mortally wounded, which doubtless he would have been had not the ball been retarded by passing through his blankets and also through his right arm and left hand, his arms having been folded across his breast while asleep.
He was able to rise again, and he started back on foot for the nearest Spanish settlement, called Valverde (Green Valley) twenty or twenty-five miles distant, where a small military force was stationed, and where he finally arrived late the next morning, well-nigh exhausted – cold, faint, and weak, from the loss of blood. He went to the Alcalde, who made the matter known to the guard.
Meantime, who should make his appearance but the New Mexican, who reported that he had been attacked by Indians, and that his partner (Mr. Wolfskill) was killed. But he was considerably astonished to learn that Mr. Wolfskill had got in before him.
He was compelled to go back with the soldiers at once (much against his will), and show them where Mr. Wolfskill had been shot. There they found, in the snow, the footprints of the two trappers, and none others.
The New Mexican had told the soldiers that the Indians shot Mr. Wolfskill and had taken the gun, etc., and that he (the New Mexican) had shot several arrows at them. No signs of Indians were discovered, and of the arrows he had been known to have had beforehand, none were found missing.
They took him back to Valverde bound, and kept him confined several days, where he came near being frozen. He finally promised to go, and did go, and show them where the gun was hidden. He then pretended that he had shot Mr. Wolfskill accidentally, not being used to the hair-trigger of the rifle. He got on his knees, and opening his shirt, bared his breast and asked Mr. Wolfskill to take his life, if he had wronged him, etc.
But the evidence was too strong to be evaded, or to be explained, except by his guilt.
He was examined by the Alcalde, who ordered him to be sent off to the Governor of New Mexico, at Santa Fe, for trial. But Mexican fashion – is it not sometimes also an American fashion? – his punishment was delayed, and he was kept going back and forward, under escort, between Valverde and Santa Fe; and at last, as Mr. Wolfskill afterwards learned, he was turned loose – a denouement which in similar cases has been known to happen in the United States.
What motive the New Mexican could have had for thus shooting his companion, Mr. Wolfskill never could imagine, unless possibly it was for the sake of the old rifle, for that was about all Mr. Wolfskill had in the world, except a few old beaver traps; and there existed no enmity between them. They had never had any quarrel, or any cause for quarrel.
But an old Mexican – a good-hearted man, with whom they had once stopped, up the river – had warned Mr. Wolfskill to be on his guard against that man, “for,” said he, “he is a bad man.”
For so little cause, or for no cause at all, other than the instincts of a devilish heart, will some men attempt murder. Mr. Wolfskill was of the opinion that the loss of blood, and his nearly freezing in that long tramp to the settlement, saved his life. The ball did not penetrate his breast-bone, and was soon afterwards extracted. He bore the marks of the wounds on his person to his dying day. In fact, it is a question if they were not the remote origin of the (heart) disease of which he died, although his death occurred many years after those ghastly wounds were received.
If this society could gather the multitudinous and exciting episodes of hair-breadth escapes of each one of the adventurous pioneers who came to this distant land, either overland or by water, the collection would be unique in variety and interest as well as in permanent historical value.