Malachite’s Big Hole
Native Mexicans generally did not directly involve themselves in the fur trade as trappers or hunters, at least not until towards the end of the era. Marcelino Baca was one of the few natives of the colony of New Mexico to become a trapper. During his years in the fur trade he came to be known as “the best trapper and hunter in the mountains and ever first in the fight.” (Ruxton, 1849).
Baca was born in Taos about 1808. He probably learned trapping by accompanying one or more of the companies of American trappers based out of Taos or Santa Fe during the 1820’s. At that time Spanish and later Mexican officials were extremely suspicious of any foreign ventures. Mexican officials harassed in every way possible foreigners (generally meaning United States citizens) including confiscation of trade goods, furs and skins, and imprisonment. Americans could only operate out of Taos and Santa Fe if they took Mexican citizenship and joined the Catholic Church. Marrying a local woman was also helpful. During this period Marcelino Baca probably also spent time working a gold placer mine south of Santa Fe with his father.
Marcelino Baca probably began his trapping career in 1832 or 1833. By 1835 he was a member of Jim Bridger’s American Fur Company brigade trapping around the Upper Missouri River region. He remained with Bridger’s brigade, at least through the winter of 1837-38.
In February of 1837, while Bridger’s brigade was settled into “Winter Quarters” on the Yellowstone River, the men had a close escape from a large party of Blackfoot Indians. Osborne Russell and a small mounted party had gone out one day to hunt buffalo. They were attacked by about 80 Blackfoot from ambush, fortunately getting away with only one lost rifle and a man with a broken arm. Over the next several days the trappers skirmished several times with small numbers of Indians. On February 22, Bridger with a small party went out to reconnoiter. He returned about mid-day with the news that the prairie was alive with Indians. The brigade immediately set to making a breastwork around the encampment. That night there was a brilliant display of aurora borealis in the sky. Nothing happened for the next several days, while the Indians positioned themselves closer to the encampment.
On the 24th of February, Baca was sent out to reconnoiter. In climbing a bluff he was shot in the “heel” by an Indian. In order to escape, Baca made a 50 foot jump down the bluff, and then skidded down a snow-slide the rest of the way to the bottom. About an hour later the main body of Indians appeared on the river ice and approached to within 400 yards of the trapper’s fortified encampment. The chief came forward alone and signed that the Indians would not fight but would return to their village, which they did. There was much speculation amongst the trappers as to why the Indians didn’t attack, especially as they vastly outnumbered the trappers with an estimated 1,100 warriors. The trappers finally decided that the aurora borealis seen a few nights earlier was taken by the Indians to be a bad medicine.
Near the end of 1838, Baca was taken captive by Pawnee Indians with the intent of torturing and killing him. Before the festive event could take place, the chief’s daughter fell in love with Baca and begged her father to spare his life. The girl’s wish was granted and Baca was released. Baca married the girl and together they started a family. The eldest son was born along the South Platte River near the present day location of Denver in 1839. The second son was born at Fort Laramie (Fort William) in 1841. Their only daughter was born at Hardscrabble about 30 miles up the Arkansas River from El Pueblo, (present day Pueblo) in 1846. The daughter would eventually marry the son of Charles Autobees, another Mountain Man. After the birth of their third child, Baca took his family to Taos where he had the children baptized and at the same time had his marriage formalized in the Catholic Church.
In the early 1840’s Baca joined other trappers living and working in the El Pueblo and Hardscrabble areas. While here, he undoubtedly was acquainted with Calvin T. Briggs. Starting in about 1847-48 both Hardscrabble and El Pueblo went into decline, and Baca moved to the Greenhorn River Valley where he took up ranching and farming. He raised cattle, and grew corn, wheat, beans and watermelons, both for his own family and for trade with Indians.
After Indians killed some of Baca’s cattle and destroyed his crops in 1852, Baca relocated several times along the Arkansas River, but continuing with ranching and agriculture. On December 24, 1854, Ute Indians massacred seventeen men then living in the adobe walls at El Pueblo, a fate which Baca and his family would have shared earlier that same day except that when the Indians paid a visit to the ranch, an old man staying with Baca vehemently objected to allowing the Indians entrance. Denied entry, the Indians drove off all of the cattle and horses that were not corralled.
The following month, Ute Indians returned and killed Baca’s brother near El Pueblo. Baca moved his family back to New Mexico (now part of the United States) to the frontier village of Rio Colorado (present day Red River). He lived here until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he enlisted with the New Mexico Volunteers. He was killed during a battle with invading Texians at Valverde, New Mexico on February 21, 1862.
For more information about Marcelino Baca see:
Russell, Osborne. Journal of a Trapper (1834-1843), Edited by Aubrey L Haines, published 1955 by University of Nebraska Press. 191 Pages.
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. 3, edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published 1965 by the Arthur H Clark Company.
Ruxton, George Frederick. Life in the Far West: Edited by LeRoy Hafen, published by University of Oklahoma Press.