By Glenda Price
The time: Early June, 1870
The place: Raton Pass, the segment of the Santa Fe Trail that goes over the mountain from Colorado into New Mexico.
The Scene: A group of covered wagons stopped at the bottom of the mountain on the Colorado side. The men are unhitching the teams of horses, mules and oxen while the children look for firewood and the women begin setting up to make coffee and cook supper.
A stocky fellow named Joseph Miller has become the group’s spokesman during the long, arduous journey from St. Louis.
They have survived a flooded river and an Indian attack, but the day-to-day hardships — swarms of mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, stinging nettle, cactus plants — have beaten down this once-optimistic group of people. They see no sign of the “land of milk and honey” they pictured in their minds.
They were told it would not be an easy trek, but the harsh reality still caught most of them off guard. Miller has become increasingly combative. John Carter, the wagon master they hired to guide them, rides up to Miller’s wagon.
Carter: Just ahead is Uncle Dick Wooten’s toll house. Tell your people they need to pay $1.50 per wagon and a nickel a head for their livestock. We’ll head out at dawn.
Miller: That’s robbery! Who does that guy think he is, charging money in the middle of nowhere?
Carter: He cut down trees, built bridges and everything else it took to make it easier to get wagons over the mountain.
Miller: (Arms folded across his chest) I ain’t paying.
Carter: Fine. You can go the old way, but just so you know, expect to make 600 yards in a day, if’n you don’t fall into a ravine. It’s about 20 miles over the mountain.
Miller: Just so YOU know. If any of us lives through this I’m holding you responsible. Our safety and security are doubtful every day — and night — and it’s your fault. When we hired you to guide us, you didn’t REALLY explain the dangers and hard times we’d face. I’m gonna get me a lawyer and sue the pants off you, Mr. Carter.
The above scene is fictional, of course. It never would have happened. In those days Americans thirsted for freedom, and took responsibility for their own actions. Would a mountain man sue the maker of the trap if he messed up and caught his own foot in it? Or how about a cowboy suing Arbuckles because the coffee tasted bitter? (He’d added grounds on top of grounds for a couple of weeks — duh).
Americans who live with the land still believe in personal responsibility. I have not heard of a team roper suing the rope maker when he lost a finger, or a cowboy suing the chute builder when an old cow broke out of it and trampled him.
Still, for many, our “land of the free and home of the brave” is lost under a tsunami of “entitlements” and self-righteous, frivolous litigation.