Category Archives: travel

Silk Road Dangers Past and Present

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 151-152:

I can’t get last night’s adventures off my mind: have calamitous times finally come?

Crossing over the one-thousand-kilometer mark, the attempted robbery, and the intervention of the army are events that capture perfectly the dangers caravans faced for over two thousand years. Sitting on the second floor of Sivas’s caravansary, now converted into a salon de thé, I muse on the following five plagues that traders and camel drivers so feared: ill health, injuries, natural disasters, thieves, and war. The Silk Road is strewn with tombs. Death hung over the mountains and deserts, striking without warning. Is it any wonder that, when the Polo brothers and young Marco returned after having been gone for twenty-five years, they had been presumed dead and their estate divvied up?

It’s by way of the Silk Road that the plague arrived in Europe, spreading death in stopover towns along the way. Yesterday, I completed the one thousandth kilometer, it’s true, but who’s to say whether I’ll make it to the two thousandth? Aside from my sore feet, I haven’t had any health issues thus far. I’m fit as a fiddle. But there’s still a long way to go. And the conditions in which I’m traveling, sometimes in blatant disregard of basic nutritional or bodily hygiene, by no means guarantee that I’ll arrive in Tehran well rested and raring to go.

Theft was a constant threat on the Silk routes. My adventure yesterday proves that it still is. Gangs would lie in wait for the caravans at narrow passages, ambushing the merchants, steeling their bundles and animals, taking the gold and sometimes the travelers’ lives. The silk, spices, and precious merchandise that paraded by day in and day out right before their eyes aroused envy in the sedentary populations. I too, quite unwittingly, stir up those same desires. In poor villages like Alihacı, I look like a wealthy man from a land of plenty. From that perspective, perhaps it isn’t just a stretch to think that my pack conceals stores of treasure. No one actually did anything, though, until the tractor incident on the road to Alihacı. Although my watch is now tucked away deep in my pocket, it looked a lot like a portable computer, arousing envy. I’ve already been asked several times if I wanted to exchange it for a cheap bazaar timepiece. Two young men suggested I simply give it to them.

Bandits thought twice before attacking thousand-camel caravans, as they were accompanied by a hundred men practically looking for a fight. The lead caravanner also paid several armed men (usually Armenians) to ensure the convoy’s security. Inside the caravansaries—veritable fortresses—security was good. When there was a particularly serious threat, the paşas lent escorts, consisting of dozens of lancers, to accompany the travelers for a certain distance. Revenue from the Silk Road was the local lords’ chief source of income, so they had a vested interest in providing security; otherwise, the caravans would change routes: farewell, then, to all the taxes levied on those transporting precious bundles. Their concern for the merchants’ peace of mind was so great that the authorities of the day invented insurance. If, despite all the precautions, a traveler were robbed, he would submit to the paşa a list of the stolen merchandise and would be reimbursed, either by the paşa himself or by the Sultan. Today, of course, gangs of highwaymen are a thing of the past in Turkey. But alone and unarmed, I’m an easy, tempting target. It wouldn’t take fifty people to steal my “treasures.”

Since ancient times, war has been a permanent way of life on the Silk routes. It’s just as prevalent today, and the entire region of Central Asia is still in this day and age ravaged by local, violent conflicts. While I was preparing my journey, I had to bear this in mind in choosing my itinerary. I had the choice of several ancient routes. I would have liked to begin on the Mediterranean in the ancient city of Antioch and traverse Syria, Iraq, Iran, and then Afghanistan. They are magnificent countries; their peoples and lands are rich in history. But the dangers are all too apparent [in 1999].

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Filed under Central Asia, disease, economics, labor, Middle East, military, nationalism, travel, Turkey, war

Walking Through a Land of Fear

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 124-126:

The muhtar who takes me in, Talat Tekine, is kafka (Caucasian), as is the entire population here. He tells me that their ancestors arrived in 1874. There isn’t a single Turk in the entire village, and the inhabitants only speak Caucasian. But no one knows how to write in that language, since only Turkish is taught in school. The two other Caucasian villages that I later go through give me the same impression: there is a strong and self-sufficient sense of community, like little Anatolian kolkhozes. People are mentioning terrorists again. And although I take these warnings seriously, I can’t help but notice with a little amusement that the “terrorists” are always other people. At Tokat, where I’d been forewarned that they were everywhere, people said that there weren’t any. The imam at Çıftlik said they were somewhere around Kızık. In Kızık, they said I’d find them in the vicinity of Altınoluk and Çırçır. Now that I’m there, they tell me that they’re mostly near Tokat [a formerly Armenian Christian city]. We’ve come full circle. Still, it’s a warning not to be taken lightly. Garrisoned in this backwater village is a detachment of jandarmas, tasked with fighting terrorism, and their presence here is certainly no coincidence.

The first village I have to traverse is called Akören. As I approach, I see a man step out of the first house. He spots me, goes back inside, and comes promptly back out with what, from a distance, looks like a stick. As I pass him by—he’s in a squatting position, ready to jump me—I notice that the stick is a rifle. The man looks at me with hostile, stern eyes. Panic paralyzes me, and, for a moment, I’m afraid that my knees might give out. Despite the fear gripping me, I muster the courage to hail him with a sonorous and affable “hello,” but unfazed and stubborn, he says nothing. I continue on at a pace that’s as neutral and light as possible, as if my inexistence might ward off the volley of lead the scoundrel intended for my backside.

A little farther along, on the village square, two old men who had seen me coming look away as I draw near. The young whippersnapper washing up at the fountain points the road to the next village when I ask him about it, without even turning around. Once again, I’m stricken with fear. A diffuse sense of fear that makes my heart beat faster. I’ve heard about “terrorists” for a long time; perhaps now I’m in their midst? The day before yesterday, Mustafa, Kızık’s mayor, told me, “There are some in Altınoluk.” That’s one of my next destinations. The three men, like the man wielding a “stick” a short while ago, are uneasy. They’re not hostile; they’re simply paralyzed by fear. It’s not the same fear that seized me when I saw the rifle and that, in a flash, drained me of my energy. No, the fear they feel is permanent, it’s something they live with. It dictates their every move. I also noticed that not one of the few vehicles that passed me on the road, cars or tractors, stopped to offer a ride. Fear trumps curiosity. And workers in the fields no longer wave to invite me over for tea, as they often did before Tokat. I’ve entered the land of fear.

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Filed under Caucasus, language, military, nationalism, religion, travel, Turkey

Some Earlier Travelers on the Silk Road

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 104-105:

Often, as I walk along, I commune with those who preceded me on these roads. John of Plano Carpini, for example, sent by the Pope in 1245. He was in such a hurry to reach the court of the Great Khan that he used Mongolian relays, precursors of the famous American Pony Express. The rider would change steeds up to seven times a day. Upon spotting a relay, he rang a bell. A new steed was saddled up, ready to run. The rider would leap from the tired horse, mount the perky new one, and continue on, flat out. It’s thanks to these riders that the Mongolian emperors were continuously kept informed of what was going on at the opposite end of their empire, which stretched from the China Sea to the borders of Western Europe.

And then there is the shadow of another traveler, Guillaume de Rubrouck, messenger of Saint Louis, who occasionally ventured out onto the steppe. Long before Marco Polo, he gave an account of far-off Tartary, whose name alone struck fear in the hearts of the West’s fiercest fighters. But through an injustice the explanation for which History has kept secret, only the name of Marco Polo went on to become famous.

What has changed in these landscapes since these illustrious travelers journeyed past them? The road is now blacktopped, telegraph poles have been erected? I have only to move a few hundred meters away from the bitumen, and the scenery is changeless. These fields, hills, mountains, croplands, houses, and peasant farmers are unchanged. These herdsmen, watching over their lambs and waving when they see me, live no differently from how their ancestors did who, from time immemorial, watched on as solo travelers or long columns of caravans marched by. Saint Paul frequented these hills. It is said that, in the space of ten years, he traveled over thirty thousand kilometers (18,640 miles) throughout the region. Mostly on foot. Were the shepherds to whom he proclaimed the good news any different from these?

But preachers and caravanners were not alone on these roads. Fearsome armies, too, fought one another here, viciously and without warning. This is why the cities are mostly positioned defensively on hilltops. Villages are hidden in the landscape, nearly invisible, blending in with the scenery. The earth used to build houses, dug up from the ground, has kept its original gray and red hues. Only the roofs, once made of straw or heather, and now made of tiles, stand out vividly against the colorless mountain slopes.

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Filed under Central Asia, Italy, migration, military, Netherlands, religion, travel, Turkey

Turkish Traditions of Hospitality

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 50-51:

Huseyin has disappeared to prepare the meal. He comes back to get me, shows me the bathroom, where, to my great delight, I see that I will be able to take a shower, rinsing off two days’ worth of sweat. Dinner with Huseyin, the schoolteacher, and one of the latter’s colleagues who joined in the meantime, is a joyful event. The younger men display great respect for the old man. When they leave, my host, in spite of all my protests, sets me up in his own room. He will sleep on the sofa in the greeting room.

In the morning, after having groomed, I buckle my pack and knock on his door. He has gone out. He is probably over at last night’s teahouse. I go out, slamming the door closed behind me. But he’s not there. I go back and wait a few moments for him. Then I scribble a word of thanks on a piece of paper and slip it under the door along with a banknote, worth five million liras, in payment for my lodging.

Later that afternoon, a Turk explains to me that in so doing I committed a gross error, that Huseyin will be outraged. What I did was contrary to the traditions of Turkish hospitality. In the Islamic world, to welcome a traveler in one’s home and treat him as best as possible is the believer’s duty. To be hospitable (misafirperver), he explains, means that for you, a good Muslim, it is your duty to treat your guest (misafir), the traveler, with the utmost respect. Your house is his, and you must share your food with him. You will reap the rewards of such kindness in the kingdom of Allah. To bar your door to a traveler is the worst crime a believer can commit. Those of us happily living in the world’s wiser regions would do well, I tell myself, to follow their example.

Among the many words (and place names) that Romanians borrowed from the Turks during centuries of Ottoman rule are musafir ‘guest, visitor’, cafea ‘coffee’, pijama ‘pajamas’, mahala ‘slum’, and habar ‘information, idea’ as in the extremely useful phrase habar n-am ‘I have no idea’.

During our Fulbright year in Romania in 1983-84, we hosted the son of a fellow Fulbright couple who took a brief R&R getaway trip to Istanbul and came back raving about the friendliness and hospitality of the Turks they met, much to the chagrin of normally hospitable Romanians, who during that dark era paid a heavy price for friendship with foreigners. They were required to report any extensive interactions with foreigners to the ubiquitous Securitate, and could be fined a month’s salary or more for providing lodgings to foreigners.

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Filed under language, migration, religion, Romania, travel, Turkey

Spaniards Discover Hurricanes

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 65-68:

Unbeknownst to the expeditioners, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, billowing clouds and localized thunderstorms began to clash and combine with each other, and this mass of clouds, rain, and wind started to rotate around a low-pressure center due to the earth’s spinning motion. In the course of two or three weeks the wind must have picked up steadily, until the system developed into a tropical storm and finally a hurricane. And it drifted toward Cuba.

The great majority of the Florida expeditioners had never experienced such a towering, rotating giant, shuffling erratically from place to place and smothering everything in its path. Because hurricanes require tropical heat and high humidity to form, they do not occur anywhere in the Mediterranean or the northeastern Atlantic. Columbus was the first to report one during his second voyage. European residents of Española and Cuba had some encounters with them in the early decades, adopting the Taíno word for them, hurakan, meaning “big wind.”

Cabeza de Vaca could not hide his astonishment:

At this time the sea and the storm began to swell so much that there was no less tempest in the town than at sea, because all the houses and churches blew down, and it was necessary for us to band together in groups of seven or eight men, our arms locked with one another, in order to save ourselves from being carried away by the wind. We were as fearful of being killed by walking under the trees as among the houses, since the storm was so great that even the trees, like the houses, fell. In this great storm and continual danger we walked all night without finding an area or place where we could be safe for even half an hour.

The following day, on Monday, Cabeza de Vaca and about thirty survivors of the expedition who had remained in Trinidad went to the shore to find out what had happened to the ships. There were only a few traces of them at the anchorage: some buoys but nothing more. Search parties moving along the coast found a rowboat atop a tree close to 1 mile away. At a distance of more than 25 miles, they recovered two bodies so bludgeoned that they were impossible to identify. They also found a cape and some blanket rags. All in all, that day the Florida expedition lost two ships, twenty horses, and sixty men to the strange ways of the New World. The God-fearing survivors could only interpret this violent storm as a divine warning, an unmistakable omen.

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Filed under Caribbean, Cuba, migration, North America, Spain, travel

Dead Reckoning and Portolan Charts

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 77-79:

In the sixteenth century, the basic method of ocean navigation was “dead reckoning.” Pilots steered ships from an origination point or “fix” to a new position by estimating the direction and distance traveled. Any point on the globe could be specified by means of only direction and distance. To keep track of direction, navigators used a thirty-two-point magnetic compass. To judge the distance traveled, pilots estimated the speed of the ship by simply looking at the passing bubbles on the sea. During the Age of Discovery this disarmingly simple system was used with accuracy to negotiate even long ocean passages. Dead-reckoning navigation, for instance, enabled Columbus to sail four times from Spain to the Caribbean and back.

Dead-reckoning navigation, in turn, was made possible by a new type of chart known as a portolan. Invented in the thirteenth century, the portolan chart caused a nautical revolution, first in the Mediterranean and later in the Atlantic. Unlike medieval mappaemundi with their fanciful renderings of land masses and distances, portolan charts are incredibly accurate. One can gain a sense of their accuracy by comparing conventional maps of the sixteenth century, which often exaggerate the length of the Mediterranean by nearly twenty degrees (a problem traceable to Ptolemy), with portolan charts, for which the comparable error seldom exceeds one degree.

Intended for real, working seamen, portolan charts include only relevant geographic details like coastlines, islands, rivers, and mountains. But their most visually striking and useful feature is the series of lines bisecting the charts. These lines were the lifeblood of sixteenth-century navigators. Each one represents what pilots called a rutter (derrotero in Spanish) or technically a rhumb line—a path defined by a fixed compass direction. These were the lines that pilots strove to follow as they steered the ships through the oceans. Portolan charts thus gave pilots information about the distance between point A and point B, the precise direction that they needed to follow, and indications about any prominent geographic features along the way; all they needed to know, nothing more and nothing less. Crucially, portolan charts do not depend on latitudes or longitudes. Indeed, virtually no portolan charts contained such measurements prior to 1500. Moreover, they do not require the use of declination tables or any additional conversions or calculations, as these charts were drawn on the basis of the magnetic, rather than the true, north. Simply by maintaining a course with a magnetic compass and keeping track of the distance traveled on a portolan chart, an illiterate pilot—and roughly one out of four pilots in the sixteenth century was still unable to write his own name—could steer an expedition skillfully and safely to its destination.

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Filed under Caribbean, education, Europe, labor, Mediterranean, travel

Crossing the Atlantic in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 59-61:

The Florida expedition left the Spanish coast on June 17, 1527. The novelty of sea travel, the anticipation of life in another continent, and a natural curiosity for the vessels and their occupants would have made the eight- to ten-day journey to the Canary Islands bearable. Fleets headed for the New World normally stopped briefly at Gran Canaria or La Palma to restock with water, wood, live animals, and some other provisions.

An entire month of open-ocean sailing across the Atlantic began when the ships departed the Canaries. By now the passengers would have had a very good idea of the level of endurance needed for the journey. The most aggravating factor was overcrowding. By our modern standards, sixteenth-century ships were appallingly small, measuring around 20 yards in length by 5 yards across by 2.7 yards of depth. All told, there were between 1,615 and 2,153 square feet of habitable space—roughly the surface area of a good-sized apartment. Within the confines of this space, some 100 to 120 human beings commingled day and night for weeks, using the most rudimentary latrines, and with no privacy at all except in the rarest of cases. On average, each person on board had a suffocating 1.8 square yards to himself. The luggage made the limited space more unbearable still. Travelers brought a variety of chests, boxes, and personal effects that inevitably ended up scattered all over the deck, cluttering every nook and cranny. Fights sometimes erupted when someone moved a chest just a few inches, unavoidably encroaching on a neighbor’s area. Voyagers were also forced to share their precious space with numerous animals, some deliberately transported and others uninvited. Chicken coops abounded, and pigs, goats, sheep, cows, and horses were also included in these voyages. From a distance, the decks of some of these vessels must have looked like veritable floating farms. The uninvited guests were surely the worst, however—rats, fleas, and lice roamed freely through the ships and mingled with everyone on board, recognizing no distinctions of social rank.

Overcrowding affected every single facet of life. Food and drink, for instance, were made available in a centralized, regimented fashion to all but the privileged few. Ordinary travelers could expect three square meals consisting mostly of water, wine, and hardtack (unleavened bread), with occasional meat and soup dishes. Unfortunately, the large number of mouths to feed put a premium on expediency rather than quality or flavor. Passengers found many reasons to complain. They noted the murkiness and smelliness of water; wine, even the cheap and watered-down kind, was always far more popular. The hardtack was dependably dry, blackened, rancid, and often bitten by rats and covered with cobwebs. Neither did the passengers have much praise for the salty, leathery, half-cooked meats that only increased the pangs of thirst. Polite eating manners were out of the question. Two, four, or more individuals shared big platters that were placed on the floor since there were no tables. Everyone took food liberally with his or her hands and passed around knives as necessary (conditions were not necessarily much better on land, as spoons and forks were just becoming widely used in Europe, amid some skepticism. Objecting to the use of forks, one German preacher remarked that God “would not have given us fingers had he wanted us to use this instrument.”).

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Filed under Caribbean, disease, food, migration, Spain, travel

Seville as Port City in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 39-41:

IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY SPAIN, ALL NEW WORLD explorations originated in Seville, that marvel of a city-port on the Guadalquivir River. As Spain’s only port licensed to do business with the American colonies, Seville became a protagonist in the history of discovery, the starting and end point of all transatlantic voyages. As one contemporary so aptly put it, “Seville is the common homeland, the endless globe, the mother of orphans, and the cloak of sinners, where everything is a necessity and no one has it.” In the 1520s many sevillanos could still recall the stir caused by Columbus’s triumphant entrance in the spring of 1493. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea had paraded around town followed by ten natives and a few resilient parrots that he had brought from the newly discovered lands. The people of Seville had more recent memories of that cantankerous Portuguese commander, Ferdinand Magellan, who had departed in 1519 with five good ships. Three years later a lone vessel with tattered sails and twenty-one famished survivors pulled up into harbor after having circumnavigated the entire globe.

But far from being a backdrop or a silent witness, Seville was a beehive of activity, its workforce specializing in the procurement, outfitting, and manning of fleets bound for the New World, activities that drew men and women from all over Europe and North Africa. The main action centered on a stretch of beach that joined the left bank of the river to the city. Measuring 800 yards long and 350 yards wide, this area, commonly referred to as El Arenal (the Sandy Beach), functioned much like a surgeon’s operating table. On any given day, one could see dozens of ships crowding each other, all floating perpendicularly to the waterline to make the most of the work space. Many of these vessels were surrounded by swarms of carpenters, caulkers, riggers, stevedores, boatmen, pilots, accountants, royal officials, aspiring passengers, and the many other characters that populated this vibrant maritime community. Since the average lifespan of sixteenth-century ships that plied the transatlantic routes was a mere four years, repair crews were ubiquitous. Caulkers skillfully laid ships on one side by shifting the ballast and taking advantage of low tides to expose parts of the hull. They had a few frantic hours to scrub the bottom and add tarred oakum between the planks before the tide turned again. Loading a vessel required less skill but far more stamina. There were no piers or wharves at El Arenal, so the entire cargo—fifty, seventy, 120, or more tons—had to be taken by smaller boats and lifted up with ropes onto the deck, or carried on the backs of stevedores who staggered from shore to the ships over narrow planks.

It took about ten minutes to walk from El Arenal to the city center, where the imperial and ecclesiastical powers resided and expedition leaders wrestled with the overwhelming logistics of raising armadas. Human rivers flowed between the rowdy port scene and the august downtown through two main streets. The principal thoroughfare, a cobblestone street flanked by high stucco walls and wrought-iron grilles, began in the heart of El Arenal and ended at the steps of the Cathedral of Seville. Shipmasters recruited crew members and volunteers from these steps, and in the cool shade of the surrounding archways. Fittingly, the street was named La Calle de la Mar (“The Street of the Sea”), as it was here that crews bid their last farewells and caught their last glimpses of the city before boarding the ships.

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Travails of U.S. Cavalry Horses

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 189-192:

The horses suffered the most. They were not the tough little ponies that the Villistas rode, but large-boned thoroughbreds or crosses between several breeds. They were big and powerful, but fragile, too. Nearly all of them were classified as “bays,” a stingy army description that failed to capture the many hues of a brown horse. In actuality, they were the color of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves; rich, warm chocolate, coffee, and the watery tannic of tea. Only their eyes were the same, huge dark pools revealing an animal capable of great fear and great courage.

Horses have a grazing animal’s nature; they are self-reliant and content enough to live alone, in the middle of a great plain, with only the wind and crows for company, but happier still with another horse that they can stand parallel to in the buggy months of summer, noses and rumps reversed, the tail of one swatting the flies from the face of the other. They are creatures of habit and thrive on the monotonous turning of day into night, looking forward to a pat of hay for breakfast, a pat of hay for lunch, a pat of hay for dinner, and grass in between. They become cantankerous when their feeding time is altered, startle at loud noises and sudden movement, and are made uneasy by changes in their environment. Yet these were precisely the travails that they would have to endure on the expedition.

Soldiers are expected to stand and fight, but everything in a horse tells it to flee when confronted with danger. Horses are gentle and unaggressive by nature, but their dispositions can turn rebellious in the hands of the wrong rider. Their mouths open willingly for the bit, which sits at the corners of their lips. If this most intimate of spaces is violated, if the reins are jerked or pulled repeatedly, horses can become tough mouthed and nonresponsive, or even worse, clamp the bit between their teeth and run away with their passenger. Their flesh is extremely sensitive—who has not seen a horse shudder under a fly’s weight?—yet ignorant riders think it necessary to pummel them with whips and spurs until the animal retreats into some reptilian corner of its brain and refuses to move at all.

A horse’s back—the beautiful curve that begins at the top of the head, slopes down across a smooth plain, and gently rises into the tail—must be carefully tended. Horses that experience pain and discomfort while being saddled learn to jig and prance and fill their bellies with air so that the girth strap needs to be repeatedly tightened. The long, twisting rivers of muscle covering the leg bones are susceptible to strains and microscopic tears, and an injury in one leg often means the other three have to compensate, with one injury frequently leading to a second. Even more impractical are a horse’s ankles, dainty as a ballerina’s and prone to wind puffs—swollen tissue that subsides only with rest and liniment.

The hooves, which are hard as stone, seem to be perfectly adapted to withstand the enormous impact of walking and trotting and cantering. At their center, though, is a wedge-shaped “frog” prone to drying and bruising. The wrong kind of food can flood the thick horny material with heat and cause permanent damage. Regular trimming and properly fitted shoes are essential. Unfortunately, the animals ridden into Mexico received neither, and their hooves grew long and added to their fatigue and the strain on their legs. The cavalrymen were considerate of their horses and tried to lessen their suffering. They brushed them twice a day and turned them loose to graze whenever possible. (The young Patton was adamant about the need for grazing and wrote scorching memos whenever he saw horses standing on the picket line.) But even the most tender, loving care could not make up for the lack of rolled oats and green alfalfa. The horses chewed up leather bridles, saddlebags, halters, and ropes. The soldiers purchased native corn, but before the grain could be fed to the horses, it had to be dumped onto blankets and the many small pebbles found in the mixture laboriously picked out. Starved though they were, many horses simply stopped eating if their teeth struck a rock. As the flesh melted from their bones, extra blankets were needed under the McClellan saddles to protect their backs. “Great care was taken of the horses’ backs,” remembered Sergeant Converse. “Blankets were folded carefully, saddles packed so the weights were distributed evenly and the men not allowed to lounge in the saddle.”

Many of the horses taken into Mexico were debilitated from the trauma of being boxed up and transported in railroad cars and they suffered from shipping fever and lice. During the campaign, they developed constipation, diarrhea, and life-threatening colic. Some fell to their deaths when they lost their footing on the mountain trails, or were dragged off a cliff by the wagon they were pulling. Many more were killed in the running gunfights, for they were always the largest targets on the battlefield. The majority, though, died of exhaustion and hunger. Quickly, like the little Villista ponies, they gave up their lives. A few were let go on the trail, to fend for themselves, but most were put out of their misery by a merciful bullet to the head. The soldiers grieved their deaths. Poor beasts, they muttered as they passed the huge, ungainly forms, bloated and barrel shaped, a blasphemy of the graceful creatures that they had been in life. With each one lost, Pershing’s challenge became greater. And the fighting had not yet begun.

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Filed under Mexico, military, travel, U.S.

U.S. Army Units in the Villa Expedition

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 175-176:

The initial cavalry regiments tapped for service included the men of George Custer’s fabled Seventh, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth, the horse soldiers of the Eleventh, and the troopers of the Thirteenth. Accompanying these mounted regiments would be the Sixth and Sixteenth infantries and two batteries of the Sixth Field Artillery. The heavy artillery hardly seemed worth the trouble: “To transport one gun required ten animals, which needed shoeing and forage, plus a dozen men to look after the mules as well as assemble and fire the gun,” points out military historian Herbert Molloy Mason. Supporting the combat troops would be a signal corps to establish communication, an ambulance company and field hospital for the wounded, engineers to build roads and bridges, and two wagon companies to haul supplies. (A wagon company consisted of 36 men, 27 wagons, 112 mules, and 6 horses.)

Army quartermasters from around the country worked frantically to locate supplies and ship them to Columbus. A boxcar of Missouri mules was requisitioned from Saint Louis. Twenty-seven new trucks were purchased from the White Motor Company in Cleveland and the T. B. Jeffreys Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Newly broken horses were entrained at Fort Bliss. Strange-looking vehicles that were actually the military’s first tanks were loaded onto railroad cars. Wagon parts, ordnance, radio sets, medical supplies, rations, and forage were also hunted down and shipped to Columbus.

Troops were sent from Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Huachuca, Arizona; and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. At the request of President Wilson, Congress passed emergency legislation to increase the strength of the regular army from 100,000 to 120,000 men. Nearly all the additional men would be assigned to guard duty on the border or the expedition itself. Also dispatched to the border were Captain Benjamin Foulois and the country’s entire air force, which consisted of the First Aero Squadron and its eight Curtiss JN-3s, or Jennies. Flimsy as negligees and notoriously unreliable, the planes were dismantled and shipped by train. Captain Foulois posted ten riflemen at the front of the train and scattered more soldiers armed with rifles and pistols throughout the sleeping cars and the rest of the compartments.

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Filed under labor, Mexico, military, travel, U.S.