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Walkara - the Greatest Horse Thief

To Walkara the horse stood all-important to affluence and reputation as a war chief. It had become to him the symbol of a lusting desire; a desire which grew until it possessed him. There could never be enough horses. Jim Bridger, the markets at Santa Fe, every Indian or trapper who walked and had beaver skins to trade, wanted horses—more and more horses. Walkara would get horses, like Smith, Bridger and Wolfskill got horses. And the men in his band would ride— like the white man's armies rode.

He remembered, as a little boy, the first horse he had ever seen. His father had brought it into the Timpanogos village. It had been a strange and wonderful beast. His father had tied it to the tepee so it would not run away. There the barefoot Walkara had admired it, felt of it, and dreamed of the day he too would possess one. But neither his father nor the tribal elders had known much about horses.

But now he had learned—not only how to take care of horses so they would run the fast miles in battle or on the hunting chase, but also from Pegleg and the white beaver-trappers, he had learned of California, the inexhaustible source of the swift and beautiful prizes which every man now desired.

The next few years taught Walkara and his band all the secrets of the sun-scorched deserts of the Southwest; the isolated canyons, defiles, creeks and waterholes so essential to the preservation of man and beast; the Colorado crossings; the canyon passes to the coastal plains of California; and California itself, where Mexican raucheros lived in happy indolence amid soft climate, leagues of land, and endless treasures of horse-flesh. Every mile of the ancient trails to Los Angeles and Santa Fe became clearly and cleanly stored in the alert and receptive mind of Walkara. All the mountain country from the Timpanogos east to Bridger's Fort and north to the tribal lands of the Blackfeet and Shoshones, and all the flat desert west to the California mountain wall would be his, for tribute and for gain.

The Paiutes, the Piedes, the Tonoquints, the Shivwits—all the lesser tribes who made sojourn in this wide land—were his to use according to the dictates of his desires. They were his, because they had no horses. And without horses, any man who chose to do battle was already dead.

Walkara's first raids on the Spaniards were not too successful in point of horses and plunder taken, but they did teach him lessons about the California and New Mexican terrain, and the nature and type of man against whom he must pit wits and skill. The few horses and saddles brought back as booty were distributed among his band of mounted braves, and the best of the loot held out for himself and those of his brothers and half-brothers who rode with him. The Spaniard, as a foe, came under his immediate contempt. They were slow to act, and stupid in all the necessary tricks and skills of following trail to deal their reprisals. But they were white men, and because they were white men, Walkara had no lusting for their blood. But he did lust for their horses. And it was a buoyant thing to know one could take horses without necessarily taking lives.

Another thing Walkara learned was the eagerness by which Spaniards traded horses for Indian women and healthy children—menials to do their work for them. The Navajos already had built up a lucrative slave trade with their traditional enemies in New Mexico. For a woman or a well-built youngster the Navajos would trade one horse. Delivered personally to the traders of Santa Fe these same slaves were instantly exchangeable for Spanish gold, or double the value in horses. The Piedes, the Uinkarets, the Tonaquints and all the walking tribes of the deserts and mountain valleys had women and children for the taking. In three years Walkara became the acknowledged and undisputed lord of the Mexican-Indian traffic in human flesh.

By 1835 Walkara's name was spoken of in fear and whispers by every Indian village in the Rockies. He possessed horses now, plenty of them. He had two hundred weather-and-battle-hardened braves who rode in Spanish saddles, and were armed with the best American guns. Both California and New Mexico had felt the bite of his thievery. He was feared, and he was famous. It was then that Pegleg Smith, and his trapper partner James P. Beckwourth, proposed a joint expedition to Southern California to procure horses, with just division of the increase to go to Walkara and his band. Four other American trappers were to be included in the venture.

While the snows packed deep into the mountain valleys of the Timpanogos, and in Walkara's own adopted valley of his brother, San Pete, the horse-train, loaded heavy with beaver pelts for trade, swung southward on the Spanish Trail toward the summered lands of the Californios. Included as items of trade, and tied to horses, were a number of women and children previously seized from the Paiute villages southwest of the great Lake of Salt. Walkara's own village of squaws, children and older men were winter-camped by the "Little Salt Lake." Beckwourth had prevailed on Smith to make it strictly a trading venture. And Walkara, with some reluctance, had agreed to accept it thus.

It was Pegleg's plan to get their horses out of California by way of San Gorgonio Pass, take them by way of the warm- weather route across Arizona and New Mexico, to the traders of the south and east who supplied the horse markets of Louisiana Territory.

Six weeks later they had disposed of their pelts and slaves in the Pueblo de Los Angeles, and had added some horses and a fair sum of gold to their ledger of gain in the transaction. But the Californios proved cagey traders, and drove hard bargains. Walkara sullenly followed his white friends from rancbo to rancho while they haggled for some share of the riches in horses everywhere about them. At the Pueblo, Walkara bought himself a tall beaver hat, drank firewater with Smith and Beckwourth, and waited moodily for them to garner an herd of horses worthy of the long desert trip southward. After a week, with only fifty horses gained, and most of their gold squandered for whiskey, Walkara decided to put a stop to such useless dawdling away of time. He simply told his brothers Arrapeen and San Pete to fetch the Utes down from the hills, and in the night to run off all the Spanish horses they could get.

When Pegleg and Beckwourth learned of Walkara's defection in favor of expediency they were furious. So were the Spanish rancheros. The six hundred horses Walkara's Indians drove into the foothills went out through Cajon Pass—with a posse of Spaniards in swift pursuit.

Walkara and his friends never managed the original plan to drive the herd to eastern markets. Instead they made hastiest sort of return to Utah, and San Pete's valley. From there Peg- leg took his own horses and squaws north to Bear River, and Walkara and his band remained that spring and summer in their own lodges.

Walkara knew Pegleg and Beckwourth were displeased with the course events had taken on their trip south, and with the part he had played in the upset of their plans. To him it was all a little baffling. They had gotten horses. That was enough. But he saw no more of the white men for three years.

During that time he was fully cognizant, through the Indian grapevine, of their whereabouts. He cared little for the shriveled, dark-skinned Beckwourth, but for the big, roisterous, free-hearted Pegleg he had genuine admiration and affection. First his white friends were with Bridger; next they were at Santa Fe; finally Pegleg had settled on the Bear River with his squaws and his traps. Then in the late summer of 1839, after one of Walkara's slave-trading junkets across the Colorado, both Pegleg and Beckwourth rode into the circle of Walkara's campfire.

After a hefty meal of beaver meat and seed gruel, silently eaten and as silently served by Walkara's squaws, they passed the pipe, and leisurely smoked of Pegleg's fragrant kinnikinnick. Not until Pegleg had offered a tin of trapper's alcohol, and the three men had started their robust draughts at the fiery liquor, did the talk come to point. It was all in Ute, which Pegleg talked fluently, and the tongue in which Walkara always had insisted in using with his white friend. Beckwourth, the mulatto, swarthy as any Indian, nodded emphasis to every discussive point, but added little to the booming vocal churn of the big cripple across the fire.

Once more they would go to California for horses. No pretense this time about trading for them. Walkara and his chaquetones were needed. It had been a poor year for trapping; at least half a dozen white men could easily be persuaded to help, if Walkara deemed their help would be of any value. "This time we'll take horses, and be damned to the Spaniards," growled Pegleg over his turn at the alcohol tin.

To Walkara, if horses were wanted in any quantity, there was only one course of procedure, and Pegleg's direct and honest approach impressed him. The idea was good. He and his men would go. "Let white friends catch beavers," Walkara protested at thought of trapper help. "We know the way without 'em," he said, dramatically flourishing the pipe to include the three men of his circle.

So Pegleg Smith revealed the plan. Jim Beckwourth, whose reputation for trouble and thievery was not so blatantly recorded on Californio memories as was Pegleg's, would precede the expedition by at least thirty days. He would spy out the land, locate every likely horse herd, and lay groundwork for "the damnedest surprise them greasers would ever get." Pegleg argued for inclusion of at least a few white helpers from up Bridger way, because of necessity of disposing of the herds once they got them out of Spanish reach.

In a few days Beckwourth was outfitted, and heading southward along the Spanish Trail. Pegleg went back to Bear River and Bridger's to get his own help and lay plans for trading off the coup. A month later, with four hard-looking and deadly-armed white trappers, and his own Indian wives, Pegleg arrived at Walkara's winter rendezvous at San Pete's valley. He was ready for the grand adventure. Walkara and his braves were ready too. After Pegleg had settled his women with their own brown sisters in Walkara's village, the vicious and eager troop of riders followed southward upon the tracks left earlier by Jim Beckwourth. Walkara, who now at last was moving in the orbit he had dreamed for himself, made certain it was a war party is every sense of the word.

In California they found Beckwourh had done his job well. He had made headquarters at the great Chino rancho, accepting freely of the traditional Californio hospitality. To allay suspicions as to his alien status, and his intent, he had declared his intention of engaging in the then profitable business of hunting sea otter. Had his benefactors any idea of what Jim Beckwourth actually was hunting they would have strung him up to the nearest tree. For Jim, when he met Pegleg and Walkara in Cajon Pass, had mental notations ready for them on every Spanish horse herd from San Luis Obispo to the Santa Ana River. With Walkara to execute the mechanics of the great raid, their strategy proved flawless. Walkara divided his riders into small and maneuverable groups, each group to handle one definite objective, all groups to strike on one specific night. Because of familiarity with the terrain, a dramatic familiarity given them on the previous raid, Cajon Pass was to be the point of convergence, where all the stock stampeded could be funneled out of the mountains onto the great and little known desert which stood between them and the lands of the Utahs. The rendezvous point, and mountainous route of exit, was captained and guarded by Pegleg Smith and his fighting trappers.

For magnitude and sheer audacity there has never been anything comparable to that night's Walkara-Pegleg raid on the rancheros of Southern California. At least five thousand horses were sent thundering through Cajon Pass, of which less than two thousand were recovered by the aroused and fighting Californios. Walkara himself captained the group which made the greatest coup—from Mission San Luis Obispo—a thousand of the finest blooded horses in California. And Walkara took pains to include the silvered and brocaded saddles which went with the animals. The herd in question had been assembled at this point, under guard, "but in the dead of night Wakara cut through the rear of the corral and turned out the much prized herd." Rather than run the gauntlet of aroused Spaniards in and around Los Angeles, the chief and his braves stampeded his prizes through the more northern pass of the Tehachapies, joining Pegleg, the white men, and the remainder of the Indian troop as they brought their horses through the Sierra Madres at Devil's Canyon and Cajon Pass.

They had, in total, gotten out more than three thousand horses, but deathly close behind them rode the Spaniards—this time sworn to a war to the finish with the raiders.

The running battle that followed was vicious and merciless, and the gouging brunt of it was felt by Pegleg and those of Walkara's forces who were engaged in that sector of the raid. Ten years later, during a visit by Horace Bell to Pegleg's Bear River rendezvous, the old trapper still possessed vivid recollection of that bloody fight through Cajon Pass. "They [the horses stolen] cost me very dearly," Pegleg soberly recounted to Bell. "Three of my squaws lost brothers, and one of them a father, on that trip, and I came near going under myself. I lost several other braves, and you can depend on it that I paid for all the horses I drove away. Them Spaniards followed us and fought us in a way that Spaniards were never before known to do."

With Walkara's arrival from the desert side, the fleeing and bloodied trappers and Utes took new heart. Not only were there the hundreds of horses from San Luis Obispo to add to their own grand coup, but Walkara had plans for revenge on the Spaniards who had taken so heavy a toll on the fleeing raiders. One-half of his band Walkara set to furiously driving the great herd of animals as fast and as far into the desert as possible. Remainder of his force, with Pegleg and the trappers, Walkara secreted in the willows about the Mojave water-hole where he was certain the Spanish posse would find it necessary to make their first desert rest stop. It proved a shrewd gamble. The Spaniards, supinely unaware of the trap, dismounted to water their animals, and to catch their own moment's respite from the chase. Signal was given by Walkara. With blood-chilling yips and whoops of the Ute war cry the braves rushed the camp. In an instant the Spaniards' horses took to the desert in full stampede. Spanish guns spoke, and so did those of the attackers; but it was no intention of Walkara to continue or prolong the fight. Instead, he and his men followed the wildly fleeing horses. An hour later they had rounded up the Spanish mounts and had added them to the vast herd already safely out of reach of their former owners. The Spaniards were forced to return to their California ranchos afoot.

From an Indian's point of view Walkara was now rich and successful beyond his most lavish dreams. His troop was mounted in brocaded Spanish saddles, with some of the finest horses on the American continent under them. While Pegleg's and the trappers' allotment of the loot became the trade necessary at Bridger's for high gambling and plenty of liquor, Walkara used his trading margin on Spanish horses to outfit his men with the best American guns and rifles procurable. It was not fitting that a war chief of his standing and talents should have less than the best. His fame had spread. Among the Americans—traders, trappers or mountain-men—he was recognized as an ally and an equal. He conducted no forays against them, and with his men he was ruthless in his insistence that no mischief be tolerated where 'Mericats were concerned. .For the remainder of the year 1840, and the year 1841, the principals of the great raid were separated. Jim Beckwourth quietly drifted to California, and Pegleg Smith took a drove of his horses to Santa Fe, where he spent the year in close company with Kit Carson and others of the American trapper clan. There, as always, where whiskey and gambling were plentiful Pegleg quickly found himself in trouble. ...

adapted from:
Walkara, Hawk of the Mountains.
by Paul Dayton Bailey, 1954, Westernlore Press


Old Spanish Trail

William Wolfskill

Old Spanish Trail: Cajon Pass - Crowder Canyon

Peg-leg Smith

Some of the ranchos in Southern California

Jim Beckwourth

Emigrant Pass - Old Spanish Trail

Kit Carson

Devil's Canyon

Michael White & Rancho Muscupiabe

The Headless Horseman

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