ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque’s Lee Black has searched for, helped mark or simply reveled in the experience of walking on frontier trails in more than a dozen states, from North Carolina to California.
For him, it’s a way of not only learning more about his country’s past but also about the history of his own family.
Black believes his ancestors were among those settlers who followed frontiersman Daniel Boone from North Carolina through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky in 1779, and he knows that in 1857 his great-grandfather took his family by ox-drawn wagon on a five-month trek from northern Missouri to an area near what is now Redding, California.
“They went over the Sierras in late October,” Black said of his great-grandfather’s family, noting that was a daring venture in mountains where winter comes early.
You can bet stories such as that will be plentiful during the Oregon-California Trails Association’s annual convention Tuesday through Sunday in Santa Fe.
OCTA, which dates back to 1982, is the oldest and largest organization in this country dedicated to promoting the preservation of historic emigrant trails. It has about 1,300 members in 11 chapters, including the Southern Trails Chapter, which encompasses New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and Southern California.
More than 200 members are expected to attend this week’s convention, the first of OCTA’s 37 national meetings to be held in the Southwest.
“We look forward to showing off some of the great historic attractions the region has to offer,” said Black, convention co-chairman and OCTA’s incoming national president.
Black said OCTA members new to the Southwest will get the opportunity to learn firsthand about trails-related sites such as Taos, home of famed trail guide Kit Carson; Mora County’s Fort Union, where visitors can see wagon-wheel ruts from traffic on the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Santa Fe Trail; and, of course, Santa Fe itself, the western terminus of the Santa Fe Trail.
“And for residents, it’s a terrific opportunity to share our pride in the blended cultures of New Mexico,” he said.
People who are not OCTA members can purchase $30 single-day registrations at the organization’s registration desk at the Hotel Santa Fe. Some of the convention activities, such as tours, are booked up. But there are opportunities to hear more than a few of the 14 speakers lecturing Friday at Hotel Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Farmers Market. For convention details and schedules, go to OCTA-trails.org.
OCTA is a nonprofit organization and Black said the organization’s members are volunteers who work closely with federal agencies such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management to locate and identify the old emigrate trails and assist in preparing signs for the trails.
There are six classifications.
“Class 1 is when you can look at the ground and see this was in fact a well-traveled trail of that period,” Black said. Wagon-wheel ruts are evidence of Class 1 trails.
“Class 6 trails are those in which we see there is a Class 1 trail here and a Class 1 trail over there and there had to be a connecting trail from point A to point B,” he said.
Sometimes, searching for trails today can be as rough and rugged as traveling them in the 19th century.
Black ended up taking his Chevy Suburban to a body shop as a result of a field trip in Idaho in 2016.
“We were following ruts into a canyon, and the walls closed in on us,” Black said. “We got to a place that was so overgrown that we did not think we could get through. We did. But going through that brush was like a 100 kids taking keys and (scratching) down the side of my vehicle. And there was this rock I didn’t see that got hung up underneath and damaged my running board.”
Black, 73, was born in San Francisco but has lived in Albuquerque since 1973. From 1981 to 2007, he was president of the New Mexico Baptist Foundation.
His interest in genealogy got him hooked on trails. He said OCTA’s headquarters in Independence, Missouri, has more than 500 journals, as well as a large library of books about the trails and the people who used them.
Primary starting points for the emigrant trails were Missouri towns such as Independence, St. Joseph, Franklin and Westport, the latter now part of Kansas City.
The northern trails went from Missouri through Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Nevada into California or Oregon.
Southern routes started in Missouri, or in Indianola, Texas, a town on Matagorda Bay. Starting in Missouri travelers went down the Santa Fe Trail, connected with El Camino Real at Santa Fe and followed that to just north of Las Cruces and then on a road west to California. Starting in Indianola, now a ghost town, pilgrims would travel north and west through San Antonio to Las Cruces and then west to California.
Black’s great-grandfather, Robert Black, and his wife, Ann, four children, eight oxen and 500 head of cattle started out from Sullivan County, Missouri, in 1857, and went through St. Joseph, Missouri, on their way to California. No one in the family kept a journal, but Black said he learned some things about their journey from the obituaries of the Black children who made the trip.
“Their biggest concern was fear of stampedes (by the cattle),” he said. “Not only fear of losing the cattle but of the danger to themselves. They stopped at Roop’s Fort (at what is now Susanville, California) to rest the animals and water them before crossing the Sierras.”
Black has been on parts of the trail his great-grandfather and family traveled in 1857. But he said his most memorable trail experience was the time six or seven years ago when he hiked the Cumberland Gap.
“It was the most overwhelming experience,” he said. “There was no one on the trail except me. I was all alone, realizing my ancestors had hiked that pass, that there were once hundreds of buffalo there and imagining what it would have been like seeing that country for the first time back then.”