Landmark volcano helped a Missouri man avoid prison

August 9, 1916

On this day a New Mexico landmark that helped an aspiring politician stay out of jail became a national monument.  

Capulin Volcano, rising more than 8,000 from the featureless desert floor, was a “North Star” to soldiers and settlers, drovers on the Goodnight-Loving Trail and indigenous hunters literally thousands of years earlier.

Early photograph of Capulin

In 1821, William Becknell, a would-be Missouri politician, was desperate to find a profitable supply route to the Southwest. Deep in debt after borrowing money to finance an unsuccessful bid for the Missouri Legislature, he’d already gone to jail in 1821 for insolvency.   A  kind-hearted judge, however, gave Becknell (left) one year to pay off the $1,200 campaign bill.  It would amount to more than $26,000 today, a hefty sum for a former soldier.   

 Advertising an unlikely business venture in the Missouri Intelligencer, he said he intended to go West to trade “for horses and mules and catch wild animals of every description.” He returned to Missouri four months later with saddle bags full of silver and his map for the Santa Fe Trail.  After two more highly profitable trips, Becknell paid off his debts and won election to the Missouri Legislature, serving two terms.

A string of small forts had been built along the trail by 1848 following America’s war with Mexico.  The remote outposts were there to protect travelers from the threat of attack by hostile tribes but the Army faced increasing problems supplying them.  Enter two daring cattlemen, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving.  The pair forged a way through lawless and  hostile terrain from Texas to Fort Sumner, opening the historic Goodnight-Loving Trail.  Cattle not sold at the fort were driven north past Capulin to Colorado, fueling a growing industry that grossed millions over the next decade.

Early Fort Sumner, New Mexico

While he may have been the first to actually chart Capulin’s location, Becknell was by no means the first to use it as a guidepost.  Native Americans had been passing by for more than 10,000 years.  Cowhand and ex-slave, George McJunkin, helped prove the case in 1908.   After a flash flood on the Crowfoot Ranch, the experienced tracker McJunkin spied a pile of bones that just didn’t look an ordinary buffalo.  

 In 1918 McJunkin and the Crowfoot owner’s son  excavated a lance point and a few bones from the site and sent them off to a Denver museum.   It took another decade before archeologist Jesse Figgens from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to arrive.  Discovering a fluted arrow point embedded between the ribs of this long-extinct bison, he conclusively proved humans had roamed there much earlier than previously thought.  Today the area known as the  Folsom site is one of the most significant archeological  finds in the nation.

Self-taught archeologist and expert tracker, George McJunkin

Capulin had already been withdrawn from settlement when McJunkin and Figgens conclusively verified its importance.   Finally President Woodrow Wilson set it aside as a national monument.  It’s a singular opportunity for visitors to actually enter the heart of an extinct volcano along a trail that leads to the bottom of the crater and the valcano’s vent.  A second trail around the rim provides a spectacular view of the  historic Santa Fe Trail and portions of four states; New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado.  While the site is open all year, the monument is mostly a summer attraction.  According to the National Park Service, approximately 15,000 visitors take advantage of the unique experience each July. 

Capulin Volcano National Monument is located 34 miles east of Raton, New Mexico.  While in a remote location, it enjoys a reasonably busy summer tourist season and is quiet retreat from October to March.  It’s open all year, weather permitting, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.    The Volcano Road to the crater rim is about two miles and towed vehicles are prohibited.  

Roads to the rim can be closed at the discretion of park staff for safety reasons and access is permitted only from 8:30 to 5 when National Park staff members are on duty.  Lower hiking trails and the visitor center area are open until 7 every evening. Current road conditions are available by calling  (575) 278-2201, ext. 302.  Pets are welcome but must be leashed at all times.  Visitors are required to have a recreational use pass when entering the monument which is $7 per vehicle.  For more information go to Volcano National Monument or call (575) 278-2201.  

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.