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Sunday, August 11, 2002

Trevails of a desperate wagon train

Jerry Bowen

Udell family, others face a tough call

In the first part of this tale, John Udell and his wife Emily left their Missouri home in 1858 by wagon train for California. They intended to live out their lives with their son Oliver who had settled in Allendale in 1850.

The trip started out with a minimum of trouble, but tensions began to mount at Albuquerque when the decision to take the unimproved Beale Road was made. Leadership of the wagon train had been assumed by one of the more affluent members whose lack of experience on the trail and arrogance angered John Udell, an experienced overland traveler to California.

The wagons left Albuquerque, traveling some 20 miles that first day. The following day they arrived in Laguna pueblo. Laguna still exists today on a side road (which was part of the original Beale Road) about a mile north of I-40 and about 40 miles west of Albuquerque.

The wagons passed through the last of the Mexican communities the next day and travelers camped near what is today known as Grants, New Mexico. Here the road (now New Mexico State Highway 34) turned south and traveled along the edge of the lava beds for about 30 miles before turning to the west again. At this point, the travelers camped near the Ice Caves.

Five days out of Albuquerque, they crossed the Continental Divide. The going became easier and they camped on July 7, 1858 at “Inscription Rock” today known as the Morro Rock National Monument.

John Udell described it as follows: “The Inscription Rock is so named from its having many ancient names inscribed on the face of it; it is also a natural curiosity, rising perpendicularly to the height of 200 feet, on two sides, with smooth, beautiful faces, and towers, and the ruins of an ancient fortress and town on top of it.

“One of our company, who could read and interpret the Spanish language, read one inscription which had been placed there in 1636, by a Spanish general. Many of our company inscribed our names there as the first emigrants on this new route.”

By July 12 the group passed through Zuni village, crossed today’s Arizona-New Mexico border and camped on Navajo Spring (the small community of Navajo, Ariz., on I-40 exists at the same location today) where they stayed for two days to rest.

Although the trail along the Little Colorado River proved reasonably easy, the cattle kept getting themselves mired down in the soft banks, slowing progress. After leaving the Colorado River, the trail became harder to locate and water was becoming scarce.

Saevadra (the guide) and three others, went ahead to explore and returned reporting good road ahead and plenty of water.

The group arrived in Lareau Springs on July 29. It was a beautiful valley at the foot of San Francisco Mountains. John was so impressed that he ended his description with: “... the valley has an area of several thousand acres; it is open and smooth, surrounded with a forest of beautiful pine timber; all it lacks is a settlement of good, civilized, intelligent Christians and a railroad through it.” Today, that valley is Flagstaff.

Once again, the guide was sent out to scout for water while the travelers rested and hunted for food to replenish their dwindling larders.

Saevadra returned late in the evening on July 29 and reported that there was little water for the next 80 miles, and they would have to stay in this area until the rainy season.

Fortunately, several other men decided to search ahead for water. They found a small spring 15 miles west, but the train would have to split up because the spring was too small to accommodate all the people and animals at one time. The first half, headed by Rose, was followed by the second half a day later with Right Baley in charge.

Saevadra’s lack of skill as a guide would become more apparent as the same scenario was repeated again and again as the wagon train made its way toward the Colorado River. Exasperated, the wagon train leaders finally resorted to leaving Saevadra behind and searched for water themselves.

Near today’s Ash Fork, the Beale Road turned slightly northwest (paralleling today’s old Highway 66). Hualapai Indians began harassing the two weakened groups and stealing their cattle. Rose tried to placate the Indians by giving them gifts when the cattle were returned. The Indians used the opportunity to enter the camp to evaluate the strength of the wagon train.

News that the Rose party was being harassed by the Haulapais where Kingman now stands reached the Baley train. The Hualapais’ had stolen seven head of oxen and severely wounded Rose’s brother-in-law while he was delivering messages between the two wagon trains.

Enduring the constant harassment and in difficult terrain, it was an exhausted, fear-ridden train that passed through Sitgreaves Pass and worked its way to the Colorado River.

Baley and some of the young men decided to drive their stock to the Colorado River, where Rose was already camped. On Aug. 29, Baley returned from the river with the news that the Indians were stealing and driving the stock into the river. Several men from the Baley train were sent to assist Rose and retrieve the stock.

Arriving at the river, they began to drive their stock back to camp when 300 or 400 hundred Indians surrounded Rose’s camp and began launching a shower of arrows. The men returned the fire, forcing the Indians to retreat and take shelter, but the attackers succeeded in driving the cattle into the river, and out of reach. It would have been suicidal for 20 men to pursue so many of the enemy to retrieve their stock.

Alpha Brown was killed in the battle and his body was buried at the Colorado River. Thirteen others were wounded, including Brown’s 12-year-old stepdaughter, Sally Fox.

The situation had become desperate with no other recourse but to abandon several wagons and cherished possessions. Battered and tired, they made the decision to try to return nearly 600 miles to Albuquerque with only a limited supply of food.

I’ll conclude the saga of this desperate wagon train of disillusioned emigrants facing starvation and attack in my next column Aug. 25.