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Journada Del Muerto (Journey of Death)

One of the men in the Truesdell convoy of wagons developed chilblains with open sores on his feet. Since the only doctor along that stretch of the trail was a veterinarian, all he could do was dress the wounds with horse liniment. This caused him to convulse in excruciating pain. The others began to think that the doctor was a quack, but a few days later the sores healed, and they continued through the worst stretch of the desert.

According to Chauncey Truesdell’s recollections, after pulling out of Santa Fe their trip became dangerous due to hostile Apache’s looking for white people to slaughter. “The Rio Grande was up and out of its banks, and since it was during the worst of Indian times, we were compelled to travel at night to avoid attacks and get to a place of security by morning.” South of Santa Fe, Louisa Truesdell and five- year-old Chauncey became sick after drinking tainted goat’s milk. Both became violently ill but the convoy kept moving to make time, with mother and son in the back of the wagon recovering.

Journada Del Muerto (Journey of Death)
Journada Del Muerto (Journey of Death)

The convoy came to what was known as the Jornada Del Muerto, Spanish for the Journey of Death, and a grueling 90-mile trail through the desert. It was part of a much longer Spanish trail from Santa Fe to Mexico City, and brought the first settlers into New Mexico 22-years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The Journey of Death ran along a high plateau of the Cabello Mountains where the water wasn’t safe for humans or animals. One historian estimated a grave every 500-feet, and it took nerves of steel and plenty of guts to travel across this wide expanse of desert.

Travelers and their animals had to survive on the water they had in the barrels strapped to their wagons. If a man were dying of thirst, he took his chances drinking the water from a shallow stream, but four hours later he would have become violently ill with severe diarrhea, and probably died from dehydration. The guide G.J. hired would have known which creeks had clean water, and made sure all wagon’s water barrels were topped-off before the start of travel each day.

Lt. John Martin had made numerous trips across the Journey of Death, and in 1869 decided to dig a well midway through the harsh desert. He was convinced that if he could punch through volcanic rock, he would find an underground spring. After months of blasting there was no sign of water, and 

everyone including Martin agreed it was time to admit defeat. “Shall we load up the holes we’re putting in and try one more blast?”

They had already gone down 164 feet so Martin told them to go ahead figuring why not, they had nothing to lose. They lit a long fuse, walked over to their wagons for lunch, heard a blast, and thought nothing of it. They were so sure it was another bust they began loading their wagons for the trip back to civilization before checking the hole. One of the men casually walked over to take a look and ran back yelling that it was full of water! Before long, wagon trains stopped at his busy watering hole, and he made a small fortune. Martin charged 25¢ ($10 today) per animal, and with long lines of wagons stopping to water their stock and thirsty travelers his profits multiplied quickly.

After G.J. Truesdell’s convoy came down through the Raton Mountains at the Colorado-New Mexico border some of the heavy machinery shifted, and a few miles north of Martin’s stage stop they snapped an axle. When coming down through the steep mountain pass gravity took its toll: there was too much weight in each wagon. After making a temporary repair, they limped-along at slow speeds until reaching the stage stop, where a blacksmith made repairs. Once G.J. reached Martin’s, he managed to buy additional horses and a smaller wagon so their larger freight wagons could carry less weight.

When they resumed their trip, there were other annoying and dangerous problems, such as microscopic particles of alkali dust and sand blowing through the air. Newspapers frequently attributed poor eyesight to alkali dust that scratched the eyeballs. A horse that had been “alkalied” needed fresh grass and water to cleanse its system before serious digestive problems killed the animal. Too much sun left travelers and their animals dizzy, disoriented, and confused. They had to be careful about unsafe water, and they also had to exercise caution when they left the trail to look for wood or sage brush to start a fire for cooking.

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