Trail by Portales Springs first used by Indian hunters

By Ruth White Burns: Special to the CNJ

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of Sunday articles describing the importance of Portales Springs in eastern New Mexico history.

The trail going past Portales Springs, commonly known as “The Portales Road” or the “Fort Sumner Trail,” followed an old Indian trail that crossed the Llano Estacado from Texas to Fort Sumner in New Mexico.

Portales Springs was one of the most important watering holes on this trail. It was not used frequently, as most cattlemen and other travelers preferred to follow the Goodnight-Loving Trail, which originally came into New Mexico south of Carlsbad and traveled up the Pecos River to Fort Sumner, Las Vegas and north.

The Goodnight-Loving Trail was blazed in 1866 by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving when they herded their Texas cattle to Fort Sumner to feed the Indians impounded at Bosque Redondo. Larry McMurtry used parts of their adventures in the creation of the characters of Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call in his novel, “Lonesome Dove.”

Before 1890, the Llano Estacado was just one vast grassy plain, broken by occasional rolling hills and sandhills. No trees, only scrubby bushes and mesquite grew from the Caprock near Amarillo to Fort Sumner. Watering holes were scarce — after Silver Lake near Tahoka, Texas, there was no water until Salt Lake near the present town of Arch. The next water was Portales Springs, followed by Tierra Blanca, now Jack County Lake, then the Tules near Melrose, then Stinking Springs near Taiban, then Fort Sumner on the Pecos River.

The danger of being lost on these vast plains is well-illustrated by the plight of the Buffalo Soldiers, whose tragic march ended at Buffalo Soldier Hill near Causey after the death of many of their company. Had they only realized it, they were within an easy ride of Portales Springs and abundant water. According to Billy Wilson in his book, “The Life of ‘Billy’ Wilson,” even some of the experienced buffalo hunters became lost and had to drink the blood of their horses to avoid death.

The trail was first used by Indians following the buffalo herds on their annual migrations. As the tribes were pushed out of Texas by settlers after the Civil War, the route was used by outlaws and marauding Indian bands who escaped into the deserts of New Mexico after raids in Texas.
The militia used this trail, and detachments from Fort Union near Las Vegas or Fort Bascom near Tucumcari would water at the springs while in pursuit of these renegade bands. They also tracked the despised Comancheros, who traded guns, ammunition and other supplies to the Indians for stolen horses and cattle. These traders rested at the lake on their way between Las Vegas and Texas.

An article in the “Daily New Mexican” of March 3, 1871, speaks of this “illicit and reprehensible traffic”:

“The soldiers appear to be doing good work; they have captured a great many cattle, and have prevented the Comanche leaders from passing; they, the Comanches, have fortified themselves at a place known as the Portalles (sic), have erected works of defense, and otherwise made every preparation to fight.”

In the 1880s, the Portales Road became more widely used. Buster Degraftenreid, prominent old-time cowboy of the Melrose community, describes it thus:

“Now my father moved to New Mexico in 1882 over this new route across the plains to Fort Sumner. I was about 14 years old and in November 1883, I worked for George Causey in his buffalo camp north of Yellow House Canyon (near Littlefield, Texas).”

“George Causey was the last buffalo hunter on the plains. He had a big freight outfit of oxen; freighted from Las Vegas and Fort Worth. He told me he was the first wagons that crossed the plains. He said he had made the trip horseback and knew the way from Yellow House to Silver Lake to Salt Lake to Portales Lake to Tierra Blanca to Big Tules; from Tules to Stinking Spring to Taiban to Fort Sumner up the Pecos to Las Vegas.

“In 1879, after George Causey went from the Yellow House to Fort Sumner with his big bull team, he made such a plain road, people began to cross the plains. George Causey was a fine man in every way and he sure knew the plains. He could and did travel from lake to lake at night more than in daytime, as he said at night there was lots of stars to go by and nothing to mislead you.”

Ruth White Burns is a local historian and granddaughter of Roosevelt County pioneers. She has taken her information for this article from the research of her mother, Rose Powers “Mrs. Eddie” White. Burns may be contacted at:
rwburns11@gmail.com