Groundbreaker: Alexander Barclay

HARDSCRABBLE — Once upon a time, there was a young corset maker plying his trade in London, England. One day he must have thought to himself, “There must be more to life than wrestling with whalebones every day to earn just a pittance.” In 1833, at age 23, he finally threw caution to the wind, sold his business for 80 pounds, packed up his possessions and bought a ticket to Canada. Two of his friends had already made the move, purchased government land and were making progress in the New World as independent farmers. His trip to Canada brought every type of misery – a long-delayed departure, a few false starts, storms, illness and then seasickness. The trip endured for two long months. After spending time in quarantine in Quebec, he set sail for Montreal, then traveled by steamer to Toronto. He could not find work, so moved farther west to where his friends had settled north of Lake Huron. He managed to obtain 120 acres of land. While he began to clear his land, he lived with his friends in a log hovel where the only amenity was a door

– no windows, no beds, no chimney. He was just mastering use of his axe to fell the trees on his property when the hovel burned down with his worldly goods inside. Once again, the young man must have thought about there being more to life. He had no home, no job, few clothes, and fewer prospects. When his housemates moved south, he followed them, and in 1836 landed in St. Louis. He found work quickly enough as a bookkeeper for his old English friends’ new business, then as a clerk on a steamboat heading north up the Mississippi River. He was enchanted with what he saw on the voyage. Back in St. Louis he thought about the wildlife and broad vistas of his trip upriver, and consequently accepted a job with a trading company heading into the wilderness on one of its annual forays. His new employer was Bent and St. Vrain Trading Company. Alexander Barclay was 28 years old when he first arrived at Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado. His job was superintendent of stores and bookkeeper. Once again, the trip nearly did him in. He suffered from chills and fever throughout and continued to ail at his new home near the Wah-toe-yar, as he called the Spanish Peaks in the distance. In a letter to his sister back in London, Barclay mentions the menace created by the Native Americans outside the fort walls, notably the Comanche, but also the radical change of learning to live without trees and fresh vegetables. The some 60 fort residents lived on a diet of mainly game brought in by the hunters, but enjoyed the occasional treat of wheat- or corn bread. Nevertheless, he learned to take advantage of the scenery, the changing population, the new experiences. He even made an offer of eight horses for a Cheyenne maiden, only to have her father demand American dollars. Barclay had charge of the fort when the brothers Bent were off in Taos, somewhere on the Santa Fe Trail, or north at Fort St. Vrain overseeing trade negotiations. In his own words, this was from six to nine months a year. In the summer of 1842, Barclay was put in charge of a “heavily laden” pack caravan destined for St. Louis. The route was not overland but rather northward to the Platte River where the goods would be loaded onto rafts or barges to float to the Missouri. Unusually low water prevented the journey, however, and Barclay cached the stores and began a march across the plains. By the time he reached St. Louis that fall, he had decided to leave the company and strike out on his own out in the west. He had several plans in mind. One was to raise buffalo calves to sell. Like his friend Richens “Uncle Dick” Wootton, he aspired to capture the calves, pair them with domestic cows as surrogate mothers, tame them, then drive them to eastern markets for sale to zoos, wild animal collectors or museums. Wootton had met some success with this plan, but Barclay had no such luck. Even the zoos in London were lukewarm to having the ornery and lackluster animals in their collections. Next he seems to have taken up trapping. He was on the upper Arkansas River in 1843-44, worrying about Indians stealing his equipment and hard-earned pelts. He traveled farther west, and north, reveling in his adventures if not his fortune. Even as he returned to Missouri, he was still trying to peddle his buffalo, which he predicted would be totally extinct in “not more than fifty years”. By this time buffalo were harder to find, and beaver nearly impossible. Furthermore, the prices earned for the pelts and hides were little better than half what once was the norm. Trapping as an occupation was a dead end. In 1844 Barclay moved upriver from Bents Fort to go into trading, both with Indians and Anglo settlers. He had abandoned the buffalo selling idea altogether, and settled with a conclave of trappers at a place they called Pueblo since building a post there in 1842. He returned to the life of a trader. Old friends and acquaintances living at or near Pueblo included George S. Simpson, Joseph B. Doyle, both early Huerfano County officials after 1861, Matt Kinkead and Wootton. Barclay was still making the annual journey back to Missouri as well as traveling through the mountains and plains trading. He was familiar with the terrain from Wyoming south to New Mexico. Simpson and Doyle squatted on land which they proposed to farm, and would also open a trading post west of Pueblo at a new settlement named Hardscrabble, formerly the site of a Bent brothers’ outpost on the Arkansas River. Barclay joined them. By the time Barclay settled at Hardscrabble, he had acquired a “wife”. She was Teresita Sandoval Suaso, the common law wife of Matt Kinkead. The couple, along with Teresita’s children still at home, settled in to farm, raise cattle and horses and operate a store. Eventually two of Teresita’s daughters married Simpson and Doyle, making them Barclay’s sons-in-law. The Barclays built irrigation ditches and planted a vegetable garden. They watched the plants sprout, thrive, die. Their cattle and horses fell prey to wolves and Indians. Their corn crop, however, was a banner one that first year. Barclay began a journal in November 1845 noting his business and social activities, the weather, his journeys, hunting forays, visitors and general health, the latter of which continued to vary between okay and awful. In January 1846 he recorded tersely, “Arapahoes threatened to rub me out”. This was during a trip to Laramie. On a normal day at home at Hardscrabble, settlers were much more leery of the local “Euts” who would cheerfully make trades or equally cheerfully steal the horse from under them. Most of April 1846 was spent in plowing and preparing for planting, while May saw radishes, peas, corn, onions, pumpkins and melons planted. On June 1, a “sharp frost” killed them all. May also brought news of the onset of the war with Mexico, and the alert that Hardscrabble might be a target of Mexican soldiers. Continued next week.