you're ever in West Texas and encounter a lot of California place
names, you're probably on the old Marcy
Trail, named for soldier and explorer Randolph Marcy. When California
was the place where fortune seekers thought they ought to be, the
Marcy Trail got them there through Texas and into New Mexico. Optimistic
travelers named creeks, hills and anything else they came across in
honor of their destination.
Marcy was a military man, a Massachusetts-born graduate of West Point
and a veteran of the Mexican War where he got his first view of Texas.
Later, he commanded Gen. William G. Belknap's escort on a tour to
select sites for a string of forts along the hostile, rugged and virtually
unexplored region of West Texas. A few years later, he led an expedition
that went looking for the headwaters of the Red River.
History generally credits Marcy with discovering the headwaters, a
task that Stephen Long - who earlier labeled all of the Llano Estacado
a desert - failed to find, mainly because he was on the Canadian
River. Stalwart explorers like Zebulon Pike and Thomas Freeman
found the right river, but not its source. Historian Dan Flores, who
has explored and researched the Caprock Canyonlands extensively, believes
that Marcy got as far as Tule Canyon and called it an expedition.
"Marcy never found the origin of the Red River," Flores wrote in Caprock
Canyonlands. "In fact, Marcy didn't get within 125 miles of the
Red's origin. He didn't even explore the right canyon." Flores makes
the case that Marcy spent three days ascending Tule Canyon until he
came to a place known as Tule Narrows and identified the spring he
found there the origin of the Red River.
The descriptions of the canyon by Marcy and naturalist George Shumard
- especially the place Marcy pegged as the headwaters - are that of
Tule, not Palo Duro. A Marcy lithograph of the site "is a dead ringer
for the wall that towers above the main spring in the Tule Narrows,"
Flores believes that an expedition led by Ernest H. Ruffner and guided
by legendary buffalo hunter and Indian fighter Billy Dixon discovered
the true headwaters a few miles northeast of Canyon in 1876, more
than two decades after Marcy got the credit. Marcy continues to get
the credit in most quarters.
than that, Marcy had a fine expedition. He documented for the first
time large portions of Texas and the Oklahoma Territory, finding,
among other marvels, a massive prairie dog town. He explored both
forks of the Red River and wandered through canyons and prairies where
only natives had tread before. He also filed a report confirming the
existence of Cynthia
Ann Parker, mother of Quanah
Parker, who the Comanche had abducted more than a decade previous.
He also reported seeing her brother, John Parker, around the same
Even if he missed finding the true origins of the Red River, Marcy
otherwise had a fine expedition. The same historians who credit him
with discovering the river's origin generally deem the expedition
"the best organized, best conducted and most successful" venture into
that region up to that time.
Marcy later served the Union in the Civil War under George B. McClellan,
who also served as Marcy's second in command on the expedition and
later served as Marcy's son-in-law. He also found time to survey the
headwaters of the Brazos and Big Wichita Rivers and took General William
T. Sherman on a fact-finding tour of Texas in 1871.
Along with the trail named in his honor, Marcy is best known as the
author of The Prairie Traveler, which he wrote at the behest
of the War Department. The book proved to be an indispensable guidebook
for travelers heading west into unknown territory, the same ones who
named everything they came across for California.
Aside from practical information on how to provision a wagon train,
treat snakebite, avoid Indians, interpret smoke signals and hundreds
of other useful bits of information, the book outlined 34 overland
trails. People heading west in the 19th century didn't leave home
without it, and the book sold well for 40 years, until such time as
people no longer needed wagon trains to go west.