McNEES CROSSING, N.M. — Charles Jordan has seen a lot of living — and enjoyed it.

His eyes are searching, his smile welcoming, the lines just below his eyes a roadmap of possibility. You can almost imagine him joining a caravan of traders on the Santa Fe Trail some 200 years ago.

Standing in a vast prairie of beautiful emptiness, Jordan looked at a 1920s-era monument surrounded by grazing cows that commemorates a long-forgotten historic event, one tied to the events on that trail.

On this spot, July 4, 1831, the first American Independence Day celebration in New Mexico took place. It was conducted by members of a Santa Fe Trail caravan, whose participants were no doubt happy to celebrate not only the anniversary of the nation’s independence, but the view of a nearby mountain range called Rabbit Ears.

Rabbit Ears — which looks nothing like rabbit ears, and was named after a long-dead Native chief killed in battle near the area — meant they were on the right track to their destination: Santa Fe.

As he imagined that July Fourth celebration 190 years ago, Jordan said, “My guess is, there was alcohol and lots of gunshots up in the air.”

But there was a discordant echo in all that noise — one heard a few years before that would waft through decades and even centuries afterward.

The arrival of the Americans into lands that had belonged to Native peoples was not always easy, nor welcomed.


A pillar commemorates the first Independence Day celebration in New Mexico on July 4, 1831. It was conducted by American members of a Santa Fe Trail caravan at McNees Crossing.

Initially planned as a commercial trade route, the trail eventually played a leading role in the 1840s concept of Manifest Destiny — the belief the United States was entitled by God to lay claim to lands from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and beyond.

These traders taking the southern, drier route of the trail would have sought out water, and Corrumpa Creek, a tributary of the Canadian River just a few miles from the Oklahoma border, was one such place.

Water meant life. But it could bring death, too. According to historical accounts, in 1828 two men — Robert McNees and Daniel Monroe (sometimes spelled Munro) — scouted ahead of their caravan and stopped at a crossing in the creek, where they were attacked by members of a Native tribe. McNees was killed that day while Monroe died later, on the trail, from his wounds.

The site, about 20 miles north of Clayton in the farthest northeastern corner of New Mexico, became known as McNees Crossing.

Jordan is a historian of the trail and the director of the Herzstein Memorial Museum in Clayton. A native of Texas, Jordan spent 30 years as a ranger and manager for New Mexico’s state park system.

He’s the sort of guy who can drive you around the Clayton area and, in pointing out various structures in and out of town, tell you what they used to be when they used to be something.

Clayton was not founded until the late 1880s, so it was not a stop for the Santa Fe Trail caravans, he said. But the area is awash in Santa Fe Trail historical riches.

Stepping into the backlands of the plains is almost like stepping back in time.

Besides McNees Crossing and Rabbit Ears — the latter is visible to anyone traveling the nearby highways — there’s the Turkey Creek camp, which still sports the remains of a rock corral built by Santa Fe Trail travelers to hold the oxen and mules drawing their wagons. Jordan estimates it dates to the 1840s.


Rabbit Ears, a pair of mountain peaks, near Clayton before sunset last week. For people traveling the Santa Fe Trail, Rabbit Ears was a welcome sight and meant they were on the right track, nearing their destination: Santa Fe.

Nearby are the remains of a pair of dugouts, one of which likely was used as a temporary mercantile shop where travelers could restock needed supplies.

“It was all for profit,” Jordan said of the Santa Fe Trail, which remained a commercial enterprise until 1880, when the railroad came to Santa Fe and took over transport for commercial goods.

You might be able to make out the faint remains of trail ruts from the wagons that ran this way for some 60 years. But mostly, the area up around McNees Crossing is marked by mountain lion tracks and cow patty piles.

But you can see the stone bottom of the creek bed — easy for wagons to traverse, Jordan said — at the crossing. Jordan’s theory is the doomed McNees and Monroe found the creek, maybe stopped to take a bath (a rarity and luxury along the nearly 900-mile trail) and then took a nap on the creek bank. There, they met their end.

The event was typical of those that pitted the traveling merchants against Native American communities they encountered along the way. When a band of Natives came across the caravan members, the armed merchants opened fire, killing several. Those men had no proof that those they killed had anything to do with the death of McNees and Monroe, historians say.

James Riding In, a recently retired professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University and a member of the Pawnee Nation, said the killing of McNees and Monroe might have been used and even exaggerated to persuade the U.S. government to start providing military escorts for trade caravans — a practice that began in 1829.

He said the fact that American traders fired on a band that may have had nothing to do with the deaths of McNees and Monroe stems from the travelers’ ignorance of the different Native American tribes.


Charles Jordan looks down at a small pool of water at the site of McNees Crossing last week.

“Especially in those early years, most of the conflict and violence was blamed on Pawnees and Comanches,” he said. “And oftentimes those making those claims probably didn’t know the difference between Indians and assumed they all belonged to one of those groups.”

Jordan said it’s difficult for present-day travelers, who can travel by motor vehicles and stop for any convenience they want, to imagine what it was like to trek the Santa Fe Trail on foot while facing the possibility of illness, thirst, starvation and death.

“Think about it,” he said, pointing to the Rabbit Ears Mountains in the distance. “You wake up on one side of a mountain and the wagon master says, ‘Look, if everything goes well we might make it to that mountain over there tomorrow.’ ”

Rabbit Ears was a well-known visual signpost that meant the end of the trail was within reach, he said. Ernestine Franke Huning, who rode the trail with her husband, Franz Huning, in 1863, wrote in her diary of entering the area: “We can see several mountain ranges, called Rabbit Ears and Sierra Grande. We are in the territory of New Mexico now, and the scene is constantly changing: forests, mountains and plains.”

As such, seeing Rabbit Ears provided hope that the trail’s end was near, Jordan said.

“It had to mean something to them,” Jordan said. “Imagine: They were two to three months on the trail, sleeping on the ground, no baths, cooking with buffalo chips.

“I know it would have made me happy.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

(12) comments

Barbara Cleaver

“Manifest Destiny” . What an odious concept to embrace. Colonialism , capitalism, genocide.

Mike Johnson

You can deny colonialism, Manifest Destiny, and capitalism, but those concepts are what have built America into the greatest country in the world, by a large margin. Our country stretches from sea to shining sea because of Manifest Destiny and capitalism , as they are 2 interconnected concepts for greatness. If you are ashamed of America's past, and want to do something about it, you have many choices to make that the vast majority of us do not, good luck to you in your quest, and God speed.....

Mike Johnson

Excellent story, well written and it is so important to know and celebrate this important part of our history as Americans. The hardships and sacrifice so many settlers, businessmen, and explorers made to make NM and America the incredible country it is today should be honored. Manifest Destiny comes alive in this series, than you Mr. Nott!

Carlos Vasquez

Let's remember and respect the fact that there were 100 million Indigenous People thriving on this continent, before the greed and entitled phenomena known as manifest destiny was perpetrated upon these cultures. This was an incredible 'country' well before Europeans came along. As survivors, and as proponents of a very sophisticated world view and cosmology, it stands to reason that Native peoples should like to find a way to balance the present day dynamics in our communities, so that they are able to recover and and thrive in this land that we all must share. Manifest Destiny, is no excuse for what happened then, and it surely will not be continued in the modern era. The "American" way is written upon the statue of Liberty and is also found in the ideology of Native American people: harmony, balance, respect, etc. The longer we celebrate the violence and disrespect of manifest destiny, etc., the further we are from the answer.

Mike Johnson

That 100 million number is not proven nor agreed to by the experts: "Research by some scholars provides population estimates of the pre-contact Americas to be as high as 112 million in 1492, while others estimate the population to have been as low as eight million." But if the Europeans had never arrived, this place would indeed be much different. I like it the way it is now I'm afraid.

kathleen king

Too bad, Mr. Johnson. A great many of us do NOT "like it the way it is now" and think you and your ancestors were a plague. The mere FACT that the 110-115 million population is inconvenient to your thesis does not equate to unproven; your population figures reflect Central America Maya and Aztec CITIES which were larger in population, better built and plumbed than Europe.

Joe Brownrigg

Distractions will not win your argument, Mike.

Joe Brownrigg

It is interesting, mike, that your short description of the inhabitants makes no mention of the original inhabitants...and praises Manifest Destiny, a long-since rejected theocratic view.

Did you know that the federal Constitution was based, almost word for word, on the Iroquois Confederacy? They were a bit more sophisticated than you have imagined!!

Mike Johnson

So Mr. Brownrigg, who were the "original" inhabitants? Were they the Iroquois? Not likely, the original people who came across from Beringia evolved, fought with each other, and seized each others land and women and hunting rights for many, many thousands of years before Europeans arrived. The three great migrations of these people over this long time period makes it a moot point who was "first" or "original", as they were as mixed up genetically as the Europeans were. And what law in any Constitution or Confederacy bestows land rights on the first person to set foot on the land in question?

As for the US Constitution being based "almost word for word, on the Iroquois Confederacy", sorry that is not what Congress or even the Indians themselves claim: "They quote from Senate resolution 331, from the 100th congress in 1988 (with the link to prove it) in which the Senate acknowledges, “the confederation of the original thirteen colonies into one republic was influenced…by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.” Exaggerated much???

Joe Brownrigg

I have read your url, Mike, and it seems to contradict your negation of the indigenous people and their contribution to the establishing of our federal Constitution and our nation. You negate your own testimony!

I doubt it would do any good, but I could post the Iriquois statement and you could compare it with our constitution. I would add that the European contribution to our constitution is based on a concept that we are entering into a contract with each other. It is the COMMUNITY that matters most, not individualism. That concept is now negated, but it should be recognized as a primary principle of our constitution.

Your reliance on the concept of Manifest Destiny is actually an argument for a theocracy, something that I doubt you would openly uphold. Right?

Mike Johnson

Mr. Brownrigg, you do not think that "the US Constitution is almost word for word", and "many democratic principles were influenced by" are different concepts? Sorry, that is vastly different and as you may know, the Constitution is much longer and more detailed than the Iroquois "document", and since it was really mostly verbal anyway, with some wampum belts, well, no comparison except for ideas, not word for word. And some scholars dispute the influence factors too.

I would certainly reject any attack on individualism and support of collectivism in our Constitution, that is not at all valid, individualism, and the reject of any social contract, is the heart of this country and our economic system of capitalism. Government derives its power form the individuals, is a servant of the people, not the primary force in our country, the individual is, read up on it:

And: "Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution talk about or refer to group rights or collective entitlements. The American philosophical spirit is captured in those memorable and moving words:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.

Individual rights precede government; they are not given or bestowed by government. They are unalienable, that is, they belong to each and every individual as a human being, and no political power or authority may claim the legitimacy to abridge or abolish them. Governments have no power or authority other than those assigned to them by the individuals within a political jurisdiction, and its moral legitimacy is only valid and justifiable for as long as those who hold political office use their assigned powers to secure and protect the citizenry’s individual rights, and not violate them."

I think that is pretty clear.

Joe Brownrigg

As usual, you like to throw out distractions, rather than deal with the central issue: your neglect of contributions to our land by some of the native inhabitants. You have not read the Iroquois document. You also refuse to recognize the European (John Locke) philosophy of contractual commitment to the nation. And you fail to see the theocracy you advocate. But enough. We've both said our piece.

Welcome to the discussion.

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