Recently my husband and I read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry for the very first time. Westerns aren’t usually our thing – so we were skeptical. However, as it turned out – we both LOVED the book. After reading Lonesome Dove (and all the companion books) we hightailed it over to the video store and found the CD which contained the entire mini-series (remember that?!) and spent one lazy afternoon watching the series. I was reminded that often when we read books and watch movies of that time period – the people are so mischaracterized that we lose sight of the fact that these were real people, real places and real experiences – they were our family.
In re-reading through some of our Atwood family materials, I came across a letter that was written by Thomas Atwood to his son Russell Columbus Atwood on 12 May, 1882. Thomas was apparently on a cattle drive somewhere near Roswell, New Mexico. In 1882 Roswell was part of Lincoln County, New Mexico. (It is now part of Chavez County.) Lincoln County is what western legends are made of – Billy the Kid roamed the hills and the Lincoln County War took place there (four years prior to the writing of Thomas’ letter). My husband and I traveled to Lincoln County while in New Mexico a few years back. We were without a doubt transported back to a time and place that can only now be found in books and movies.
I will below share some excerpts (as they were written) of the letter with you, and I think you will agree, they are a fascinating glimpse into the “cowboy” days of old:
Dear son, I take the present opertunity of writing you a few lines to let you know that we are well and hope that these few lines may reach you in dew time and find you all well. I have no knews of much interest to write to you.
We traveled up to Colorado City* aming to cross the plaines by the ritaway long the rail-road but got stuck bad account of the sand on that rout that we turned our cos to yello horse canyon,** then to Fort Sumner on the pecos and now we are 80 miles down the river but off from the river west of it some 10 miles, in the best country that I have saw, there is 4 streams here that runs in to the pecos. the land is tolerable good and lyse wise for erigating. timber is scare but enough for to burn. We are in sight of the White Mountains*** but we are 80 miels from Fort Stanton, the Capatain Mountains**** is in sight where the white oak minds is in here near, for account of the mines there, there is a great many sheep going from here to Texas. We met about 2000, hit tis supposed that there will bee one hundred thousen drove from hear this season. they are worth from $1.75 to $2. per head.
* Colorado City is the county seat of Mitchell County, Texas. Located in west Texas – it’s 2000 population was only 9,698. I can only imagine how desolate it was in 1882! The county was named for Asa and Eli Mitchell, two early settlers and soldiers of the Texas Revolution.
** If Thomas means “Yellow House Canyon,” then this is near Lubbock, Texas – which is on the great plains of Texas as he mentions in his letter. The Battle of Yellow House Canyon was a battle between a tribe of Comanches and Apaches and a group of bison hunters that occurred in March of 1877, near present-day Lubbock. It was the final battle of the Buffalo Hunters War, and was the last major fight between whites and native Americans on the High Plains of Texas.
*** These are the Sierra Blanca mountains – located in Lincoln and Otero Counties of south central New Mexico.
****The small town of Capitan, on the southwestern side of the mountain range, is the location of Smoky Bear Historical Park, which memorializes the famous bear that was rescued from the Capitan Gap Fire in the Capitan Mountains.
The letter continues:
hear stock is hiar here then tha are there in Texas, horses is worth from $75 to $100-25, cattle is worth about $15 per head. beef is worth from 7 to 8 cens per pound, bacon 18 cents per pound. Corn is worth from 3 to 5 cents per pound. Dink* saw dick mais in this little town yesterday, wee looked for him up here at camp tonight. he is working for Chisam** about 5 miles below here. wee have traveled in company with 3 men from Colorado City crost the ____ and are with them yet but tahr are going down into thee Warlon Mountain Country looking for stock to ranch and wee shall seprate hear, the principle man in the crowd waws a man by the name of Holaway. Wee saw plenty of buffalows, wee had plenty to eat. Holaway kil 2 of them, bob, that was with us shot 4 times at them but killed nothin.
*”Dink” is Thomas Atwood’s son Joseph Ashford Atwood.
**This is probably Jesse Chisholm – a man who built several trading posts in what is now western Oklahoma and for whom the famous Chisholm Cattle Trail was named.
And so – Thomas closes his letter – “son, I’ll have to close for the want of spase. remain your father as ever. Thomas Atwood to R. C. Atwood”
And this is the last that we ever hear of Thomas Atwood. We know from his tombstone that he died that same year at the age of 58 – some family say that he died in May – the very month that the letter was written. Did he have an accident and die on the trail? Did he return to Round Rock and fall ill? These questions may never be answered.
According to a written history left by one of his grandsons, Thomas died on the Carrington Ranch – minutes from our home (present day Bohls Place in Pflugerville, Texas). Thomas is laid to rest in the Round Rock Cemetery. Somehow, it feels as if my husband and his ggg-grandfather Atwood are inexplicably connected. This historical cemetery and the legendary Chisholm Trail are within minutes of my husband’s business and our home. In fact, his business is situated on a street named Chisholm Trial – just up the road from the “round rock” where the cowboys drove their cattle through Brushy Creek. You can still see the wagon ruts in the creek bed and sometimes when you close your eyes and let your mind wander you can still see the dust and the dirt and you can hear the cattle calling, the jingle of the spurs and the songs of the cowboys.