Dressing in mountain-man outfits, trading handcrafts and other goods with one another and testing their rifle-shooting and tomahawk-throwing skills, enthusiasts from a number of states will gather next week outside Raton near the Santa Fe Trail to live as people did — or as close to it as they want to — more than 170 years ago.
While many of the participants of the Santa Fe Trail Rendezvous are usually store owners, lawyers, electricians, office workers, government officials, housewives and representatives of many other modern occupations, one week each year they are fur trappers, buckskinners, seamstresses and other types of mountain men and women.
Every June, a few hundred men, women and children re-create life on the famous trail as it was from about 1825 to 1840. This year’s rendezvous begins Sunday and runs through Saturday.
A special feature of this year’s event will be a buffalo feast scheduled for Wednesday. Organizers plan to skin, butcher and cook a whole buffalo, which is being purchased by rendezvous organizers from the Spahn and Friends ranch east of Raton. The process of preparing the buffalo is expected to begin about 11 a.m., and portions of the estimated 300 pounds of meat will be served throughout the day as it is taken off the buffalo and cooked in a wood smoker being provided by the Colfax County Fair Board. The feast is open to the public free of charge.
Among the participants at this year’s rendezvous will be Montana’s Tom Oar, one of the stars of the History Channel’s Mountain Men reality show. He is coming to enjoy the week with his longtime friend Kyle Bell of Folsom, who is serving as this year’s rendezvous “booshway” — the man in charge.
In addition, a crew from the Outdoor Channel is planning to film some of the action at the rendezvous for potential use on one of that channel’s shows.
Since its inception in 1975, the Santa Fe Trail Rendezvous — held in a canyon on NRA Whittington Center property west of Raton — has drawn participants from throughout the country. The event is sponsored by the Santa Fe Trail Rendezvous Association and the Southeast Colorado Council of Buckskinners.
In much of its history, the rendezvous has averaged about 160 campsites, with multiple people usually occupying each campsite. Drought and the resulting fire danger in recent years caused participation to fall off, but attendance has been growing again the last few years, reaching 96 camps last year after attendance dipped to 55 a year earlier. For those who come, the event is a week of living a part of the history on the Santa Fe Trail that brought pioneers of all sorts through northeast New Mexico as they arrived in the West.
Based on the information he had as of Thursday, Bell said he is hoping for perhaps 150 campsites to be set up next week.
This is one of the few rendezvous throughout the country that is open daily to the public. Admission is free for visitors, who can stroll through the temporary community of white canvas campsites and visit with people dressed much like the early travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.
Throughout the week, participants can often be seen cooking meals over a campfire (although fire restrictions may limit that), gathering equipment for friendly competitions or haggling with one of many traders who offer a variety of goods that recall the historic days on the trail.
From 1825 to 1840, fur trappers in the Rocky Mountains would meet fur traders at a pre-determined time and place. The primary purpose of the gathering was for the mountain men and Native Americans to trade their year’s catch of furs for the supplies needed to live and trap for the next 12 months. Additionally, the trappers would visit with old friends and meet new ones. This “rendezvous” was a time to relax and celebrate. This was also a time when men with big egos made challenges to see who was the best shot, or the best knife thrower, or who had the fastest horse.
The last known original rendezvous was in 1840. The meetings came to a halt after that because of a depleted beaver population and a drop in the demand for beaver fur.
Visitors to next week’s rendezvous can hear the noise and see the smoke as mountain men re-enactors compete in muzzle-loading rifle, pistol and smoothbore (today’s shotgun) matches. There are knife and tomahawk matches that require precision cuts be made by throwing the weapons from a distance.
There are other unique contests, as well, such as those for costumes, cooking, and individual campsites.
Wandering among the individual camps, visitors can watch skilled hands create bead work, or observe a deer hide being tanned, or see the many steps needed to create an arrowhead from a piece of flint.
The rendezvous site is about 10 minutes outside Raton. In south Raton, go west on N.M. 555 for five and a half miles. Watch for the rendezvous signs and turn left through the gate. Follow the gravel road less than two miles to the rendezvous site. This is private property, so visitors are asked to stay on the main gravel road.