Bill May: Zeb Wise
December 17, 2006
When I was a kid, it was a real highlight when Dad would sign my name as “agent for shipper” on the railroad cattle-shipping contract, which entitled me to ride (in the caboose) on the cattle train to Denver. In Denver I could take my contract to the office of the railroad agent in the Livestock Exchange Building and pick up a free pass to come home on a passenger coach.
Most of us in this area marketed our cattle in Denver, although there were some who went on to “the river markets” (Omaha, Kansas City or Saint Joseph). Zeb Wise, who ranched on Mill Creek between Craig and Meeker, was one who regularly shipped to Omaha. I got acquainted with Zeb while coming back from Denver on the passenger coach.
What an interesting old-timer Zeb was! The Thornburg Battlefield was on his place. And Zeb could tell Indian stories from the early days that sure would capture attention. And he told stories about his great-great-uncle, Zebulon Pike, for whom Pikes Peak was named.
Old Zeb Pike surely had to have led the most unusual exploring expedition in history.
Pike accidentally wandered into Spanish territory and was captured and taken to Mexico City, where he was kept prisoner for a spell. I reckon he was lucky to have ever made it home at all.
Back in Pike’s time, Spain was opposed to any contact between Mexico and the United States, because Spain was anxious that its New World possessions trade only with the “motherland” – old Spain. But when Mexico threw off the yoke of Spanish Imperialism, it was a whole different story. No longer could Mexico trade with Spain, and they were most anxious to establish trade contacts with the United States.
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In the first year of Mexican Independence (1821), William Becknell took the first trade caravan to Santa Fe and was welcomed with open arms. The route that Becknell took in ’21 crossed Raton Pass, but the following year Becknell sought a more direct route, which was later known as the Dry Cimarron Cutoff and gradually developed into the more heavily used branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Yet there was one great disadvantage to the Cimarron route: There was one torturous stretch of 50 miles on this route without a water hole of any sort.
Because of that difficulty, many preferred the longer “mountain route” over Raton Pass, particularly after “Uncle Dick” Wooten built a fairly decent wagon road – on which he charged toll – through the pass.
I don’t know the exact trail that Becknell might have used on that first Cimarron Cutoff trip.
In a number of places, the main trail took alternate courses separated by a few miles. For great stretches, the road regularly shifted as much as a mile either way, mainly to avoid muddy ruts in wet weather or choking dust in dry – and so travelers could find grass for livestock, since the feed was already used up where traffic had already passed.
When flying over the rangelands in those areas in the springtime, those old trails can be readily discerned by the totally different appearance of the vegetation along the corridors. Wouldn’t Zeb Pike or Uncle Bill or Dan Yoacham be amazed if they could fly over their old trails the way we do today? I don’t know if old Zeb Wise ever did, but he could have; the course of his life formed a link between two eras.