Friday, July 1, 2011

The Lost Wagon Train

By June Hogue

Of the many stories and legends surrounding the Sand Hills at Monahans perhaps the story of the Lost Wagon Train has been one of the most intriguing of all. Told and re-told by old settlers, it is one of the few that can be verified by its known existence and the relics that were recovered from it.

To understand about the Lost Wagon Train you need to know a tiny bit of history about the settlement of West Texas and the problem with the Comanches. The Comanches knew how to live and survive in that arid land and they knew the secrets that lay hidden in those sand hills for instead of a vast waterless wasteland of sand… there is water to be found and edible food that grows there.

Scattered in those sand hills there are occasionally some deep seeps where pools of water may be 12 to 18 feet deep. As kids we used to swim almost year around in those seeps. I was baptized in one of them. However, these seeps are hidden from view and unless you know just where they are you simply cannot see them unless you just happened upon one. Where does the water come from? From the sand itself! You can dig down about 6 inches into the sand at the base of one of those sand hills and water will begin to seep---pure, drinkable water that you can have by cupping your hand and scooping it up to get a drink...therefore we never took water with us when we went hiking in the sand hills.

Early settlers and pioneers did not know this about those sand dunes, nor did the early soldiers or the Buffalo soldiers who fought the Comanches vigorously. But the Comanches knew, and they knew the plants that could provide food for them as they took refuge in those sand hills and simply “disappeared” when being chased by an advancing cavalry unit. They could survive for weeks in that mini-Sahara Land while the mystified army searched in vain for any trace of them. Many legends evolved from the sudden raids and quick disappearances of bands of roaming Comanches who terrorized the west.

The trail from Ft. Worth to El Paso forms almost a straight line due west but you must veer slightly south from Ft. Worth to Pecos---and from there it is due West. I first heard the story of the Lost Wagon Train when I was just a little girl. Though I cannot verify the veracity of all the details, the story is essentially factual and can be proven by the many records of items found at the site and in the archives of Texas history. The story, as it was told to me by many old timers in Monahans, is as follows:

Sometime around 1918, or there about, a wagon train started out from Ft. Worth, TX carrying 3 or 4 families en route to El Paso where they hoped to settle near other relatives who had preceded them. Among those families, as it was reported to me, was the daughter of a relative of the editor of the Ft. Worth Star Telegram. With her she carried a large bolt of blue cloth which her mother was sending to a sister who lived in El Paso. The mother had cut off just enough cloth to make herself a dress and wanted to send the rest of the bolt to her sister in El Paso. However, the wagon train never made it to El Paso.

The Wagon Train simply disappeared in that vast wasteland of mesquite, greasewood, sagebrush and shrub oak that covered the prairies. Numerous searches were organized in hopes of finding some trace of the wagon train but all efforts failed. Then one day, sometime in the 1930’s , a rancher from Monahans, looking for some lost cattle in the edge of the sand hills came across the remains of a wagon train that was almost covered by those shifting sands. He found arrowheads and traces of burned wood indicating that it was probably attacked and burned by the Comanches. There were numerous artifacts that the Indians had left. Among the many items he recovered was an old trunk that still had the contents inside it…including a bolt of blue cloth. He took most of the items in to Monahans to show the good folks there what he had found.

He felt he had uncovered a mystery. What would a wagon train be doing in those sand hills? No sane wagon master would attempt to cross those sand hills—it was a vast desert stretching for hundreds of miles! Curious people began to descend on the scene and to carry off relics they found...old rusty rifles, arrow heads, an occasional part of a wagon—but not for long because soon those shifting sands once again covered the wagon train and, hidden by the dunes, it was not to be seen again for a several years. But the legend of that lost wagon train inspired many searchers through the years who knew that somewhere out there a wagon train lay buried in the sands.

Meanwhile the story of the old wagon train had made its way to Ft. Worth and the finding of a bolt of faded blue cloth excited the family of the now elderly editor of the Ft. Worth Star Telegram. Could it be the lost wagon train from Ft. Worth? The family still had the piece of cloth that had been cut off the bolt of cloth that had sent to El Paso. For sentimental reasons, the lady had never made the dress she intended to make and had kept the cloth in memory of her daughter. The cloth was taken to Monahans to see if by any chance it could have been from the same bolt of cloth. It was a perfect match, even to the cutting lines and thus a bolt of cloth identified the "Lost Wagon Train" and solved a mystery that had spanned a quarter of a century.

It was believed that the wagon train did not veer far enough south to avoid the sand hills and not being forewarned, they bogged down in the sand and were attacked by the Comanches. Another theory advanced was that they were chased by a raiding band of Comanches and tried to escape by going across the sand dunes not realizing that they were headed directly into a desert. There was evidence that the wagon train had been at least partially burned.

Today there are still traces of the old wagon train to be found. But only the sharpest of sand hill explorers have been able to locate its remnants from time to time. The saga of the lost wagon train has been a Monahans legend for almost a century now but soon it, too, will fade into obscurity and be forgotten by the next generations. But sometimes, when the wind blows and the sands are swirling, I think I hear the cries of those lost pioneers echoing over the sand hills as a Comanche Moon rises in the Eastern Sky---and I remember…I remember Monahans---the Monahans I knew, now faded into obscurity and like the legendary Phoenix another rising to take its place.

We moved to Monahans in 1942 and when Freddy heard of the old wagon train he was determined to find it. Having a great sense of direction and after talking to those who had been there, Freddy set out to find it and find it he did. Only a small part was visible but he had nailed his location. As kids, Freddy took us out there several times. It was a long hike from our house...about 7 miles one way so we would set out about dawn and not get home till sundown. Sometimes we made the hike only to find the sands had completely covered it and it was not to be found. At one time when we first moved to Monahans, they had a small museum housing relics found in the area. Many of them were from the old wagon train. Today we are told that no trace of the old wagon train has been seen for many years. We feel we have been fortunate to have witnessed some of West Texas’ history in the making and to be able to report the story before it is forever lost to the generations that follow us.

To learn more about these early settlers and the Buffalo Soldiers, read some of the writings of Elmer Kelton who was one of the most authoritative and best loved sources of information on the history of this area. I knew Elmer Kelton and loved to attend his lectures. His passing was a great loss to the readers and collectors of authoritative works on the history west Texas.

Well, that's my story for the day...a true story that can be verified through early writings in area newspapers and other documents of the time.

Click on June Hogue for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.

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