Last wagons reach New Mexico
It has often been said that the frontier experience lasted longer in New Mexico than anywhere else in the Old West.
Supporting that claim are instances of latter-day pioneers, mainly from Texas and Oklahoma, who traveled by covered wagon into eastern New Mexico seeking homesteads.
One participant in the migration was Elliott S. Barker, born on Christmas Day, 1886, in Moran, Texas. At age 3, he accompanied the extended Barker family who pulled up stakes and in canvas-topped wagons struck out for new homes in the mountains northwest of Las Vegas.
Barker, after a boyhood in the wilderness, eventually became New Mexico State Game Warden (1931-1953), and a renowned conservationist and author.
Another man associated with the last of the covered wagon era was John Sinclair. He came west in the early 1920s, scouting ranch properties for a wealthy Scotch relative.
Landing in Roswell, he discovered a wagon train of Okies camped on the edge of town. They were poverty stricken and headed west hoping to settle. Sinclair nicknamed these forlorn pioneering souls “Tumbleweeds.”
He tagged along with them as far as the Sacramento Mountains, where he abandoned his mission of land hunting and became a novice cowboy on a large ranch. In time, he wrote of his covered wagon and ranching adventures in books and in New Mexico Magazine.
I was acquainted with Barker and Sinclair, both of whom lived into their 90s. Another man of their breed, John W. Bedingfield, I did not know personally, but recently I stumbled upon his gritty memoirs.
The Bedington family of west Texas in 1915 left home in a covered wagon and drifted across the Llano Estacado into New Mexico. John was 2-years old when his father founded a hardscarbble farm in a bleak, isolated country 45 miles southwest of Tucumcari.
As John would tell it, they raised grains and pinto beans, while grazing a few head of cattle through harsh winters. Mr. Bedingfield built a two-room house, which was far better than the primitive adobe dugouts or tiny frame shacks used by the thin scattering of distant neighbors.
Typical of the hardships and perils that assailed the brave folk who risked settling in this unforgiving land was a tragic story that forever lodged itself in the mind of young John.
It involved a budding farmer, his wife, and their newborn infant who lived several miles east of the Bedingfield place.
In January, 1923, the man left for the small town of Taiban east of Fort Sumner to buy supplies. The weather was brisk, sunny with no hint of an approaching blizzard.
Late in the day it struck, fiercely. Snow tumbled thickly from the sky and a howling north wind blew up deep drifts that buried all traces of roads and trails.
In Taiban the farmer became frantic, thinking of his wife and baby alone in their small frame cabin at the mercy of the storm. Yet, there was nothing he could do until the gale blew itself out.
At home, the wife struggled valiantly to ward off the cold and snow that seeped through small cracks. Within a few hours, all the firewood was consumed in the iron stove.
Next, she chopped up the furniture and when that was gone, burned all the clothes, except what she and the baby were wearing.
When nothing else was left, the mother peeled bit by bit all the wallpaper off the wall until the fire sputtered out.
Knowing she couldn’t survive the night without heat, she placed her baby inside her coat, hugging it to her body, and set out for her closest neighbor a mile away.
Three days later, her husband reached home, praying his little family was safe. Seeing the stripped cabin, he went in search and found his wife frozen in a snow drift, with their child still inside her coat.
Now, we tend to have a romantic image of pioneering. Bedingfield’s tale, though, reminds us that on the frontier a potential calamity was always just around the corner.