September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
On the night of September 17, a frontier trader named Fran¡ois Xavier Aubry rode his staggering horse through a driving rain into Independence, Missouri. The disheveled rider stopped outside a tavern and, being too stiff to dismount, was lifted from his blood-caked saddle. In his bag was a copy of the Santa Fe Republican . Its date was September 12. Incredible as it seemed, Aubry had ridden from Santa Fe to Independence, a journey of 780 miles that normally took a month, in five days and eighteen hours.
Aubry had already achieved nationwide fame as a speedster. His fourteen-day ride from Santa Fe to Independence the previous winter had broken the old record by ten days. In May he had covered the route in less than nine days. This time around he bet a thousand dollars that he could make it in six. Before departing (astride his beloved yellow mare, Dolly, who carried him for the first two hundred miles), he sent fresh mounts ahead to designated points. Aubry rode day and night, strapping himself to his saddle in case he nodded off and eating while in motion. During the ride he broke down six horses, slept a total of three hours, swam numerous rain-swollen streams, and walked twenty miles after a horse had dropped dead beneath him.
The twenty-three-year-old Aubry had good reason to rush. Most Missouri traders made only one Southwestern journey a year, leaving when the grass was tall enough to provide forage and returning in time to avoid the deadly winter weather in the mountains. But with its recent annexation by the United States, New Mexico offered huge profits to dealers in such merchandise as groceries, hardware, lumber, and the ever-popular liquor. By carrying fodder for his animals, braving the cold (sometimes foolhardily), and hurrying back east after selling his goods, Aubry managed to make not one but three trips in 1848. His six-day return ride came after the second.
Aubry rode the Santa Fe Trail for a few more years before shifting his interests to California. In the summer of 1853 he led a party eastward along the thirty-fifth parallel, scouting for a possible transcontinental railroad. During the two-month trip Aubry’s party repeatedly went days without water (“we carried bullets in our mouth to create moisture so we could talk,” one member recalled), was attacked by Indians (the traders’ Colt revolvers made short work of them), and survived for weeks on mule and horse meat.
The most wrenching meal of all came on August 16, when Aubry wrote in his diary: “I have the misfortune to know that it is the flesh of my inestimable mare Dolly , who has so often, by her speed, saved me from death at the hands of the Indians. Being wounded some days ago by the Garrotero [Indians], she gave out, and we are now subsisting on her flesh.” All that hard galloping over the years must have made Dolly quite tough, and to top it all off, he wrote, “we are without salt and pepper, and, in their absence, it requires a stout stomach to digest our fare.”
A year later Aubry met his own death in much more picturesque fashion than poor Dolly. On August 18, 1854, fresh off yet another desert crossing, he was drinking in a Santa Fe saloon when Richard H. Weightman—a soldier, lawyer, politician, and publisher—walked in. Aubry accused Weightman of lying about him in one of his newspapers. Weightman responded by throwing a drink at Aubry, who reached for his gun and accidentally discharged it. Weightman pulled out a bowie knife and mortally stabbed Aubry. (The publisher was acquitted of murder.) When he met his bloody demise, Aubry was not quite thirty years old.