History and Mystery on the Santa Fe Trail

“I remember the summer of 18 and 50 so well…” I announced as I played my character Carmen Miranda during a Murder Mystery weekend at Cimarron’s St. James Hotel. The mystery plot, The Last Rendezvous, was billed as a ‘semi-accurate recreation of history that takes place in the late 1800’s when the West was young and the law was a piece of lead.”

One of the branches of the Santa Fe Trail went through Cimarron. The town’s plaza, just behind the St. James Hotel, served as an overnight campground for travelers until 1880 when the railroad was completed and made the trail obsolete.

My friend Jan and I steeped ourselves in history as we followed the route of the Santa Fe Trail from Pecos, NM to Cimarron. Since I didn’t grow up in New Mexico and my children didn’t attend school here, my understanding of New Mexico history was sketchy. However, I first became fascinated with the Santa Fe Trail as a child when one of my cherished books was The Tree in the Trail. Little did I know that one day I would have the opportunity to follow its path.

Our first stop was the Pecos National Historical Park, 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe, where we took a 1.5 mile self-guided trail that wound through the ruins of the once-booming pueblo settlement. We basked in the fall sun as we walked along the ridge behind the Visitor’s Center where we stopped to look at the remnants of the original buildings, which once rivaled Taos Pueblo with its multi-story construction. The cinnamon-colored remains of the adobe church, the Mision de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles de Porciumcula, constructed during Spanish colonization, stood imposingly on the hillside. It was built over the ruins of the original mission church, which was once the largest mission church north of Mexico City.

Mission Church - Pecos NHP

Mission Church – Pecos NHP

The Santa Fe Trail followed the route established by the Pecos Indians to conduct trade with the plains Indians. We learned that by the late 1700’s, most of the residents of the Pecos Pueblo had died as a result of drought, disease or Comanche raids. By time the Santa Fe Trail became established as an important trade route between Missouri and Santa Fe, the few remaining residents of Pecos had moved to live with relatives in Jemez Pueblo.

After a picnic lunch under the portal outside of the Visitor’s Center, we were off to travel the route of the Santa Fe Trail, which roughly follows Interstate 25, to our next stop – Fort Union.
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Established in 1851, shortly after New Mexico became a U.S. territory, Fort Union was built at the junction of the two branches of the Santa Fe Trail to protect travelers along the trail and to serve as a military supply depot. The hospital built at the fort was one of the largest in the Southwest at the time and provided medical services to travelers along the Santa Fe Trail, as well as military personnel and their families.

The Tenth Infantry left the fort in 1891 and within a few years the land reverted to the Mora Land Grant. During a video presentation at the Visitor’s Center, we learned that it was the wife of a former army officer stationed at Fort Union who was the instigator of efforts to preserve what was left of the original buildings. She was horrified when she visited the area during the early part of the last century and discovered that the fort was being dismantled.

The wind whistled as we walked across the open prairie to tour the remains of the fort. We pondered how difficult life must have been for the soldier’s families living in this isolated outpost.

It was amazing to see the wagon ruts still embedded in the prairie soil.

Fort Union NM wagon ruts

Fort Union NM wagon ruts

By evening we were at Cimarron and ready to engage in solving the Last Rendezvous’ mystery. At the historic St. James Hotel we were assigned to the beautifully restored Wyatt Earp suite, located on the second floor – and across the hall from rooms that are not rented out because of their ghostly inhabitants.
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A knock came at the door and an envelope was delivered to each of us with stapled instructions for strategic times throughout the weekend.

At 9 p.m. the mystery participants gathered in the main lodge in costume and met the mystery authors and coordinators, Jeff Jolly and Chris Schueler, as well as the other participants, including the mountain men Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith; the original owner of the St. James Hotel and his wife (played by my friend Jan); Lucien Maxwell, a large land-owner, and his wife; four ladies of the evening; and a few other characters that added spice and suspicion.
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Our itinerary told us that by 11 p.m. “you will be free to retire for the evening, visit the bar, or wander the halls and public rooms of the hotel. Clues are everywhere, but who knows what danger lurks in the shadows.”

After climbing the stairs to go to our room, we discovered the lights in the hall were off…

In addition to participating in living history through our characters, we learned more about Cimarron’s historical development through various presentations. A highlight was our tour of the Waite Phillips’ Mediterranean-styled mansion, Villa Philmonte, on the Philmont Scout Ranch, part of the original Beaubien and Miranda (the husband of my character) Land Grant.

Saturday evening we were treated to Wild West Entertainment in the lobby and “stories of the spirits” of the St. James Hotel.

And the lights were off in the upstairs hall again…

The weekend concluded Sunday morning when we assembled in the dining room where the conclusion was revealed – and we took an oath of secrecy so the fun of future participants won’t be spoiled.

What a treat it was to learn more about New Mexico history and to participate in the 20th anniversary of Jeff and Chris’s murder mystery weekends and the debut of their fifth mystery plot.

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One thought on “History and Mystery on the Santa Fe Trail

  1. Pingback: Zelaexpose.Com » History and Mystery on the Santa Fe Trail

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