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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Randolph Marcy got around

by Clay Coppedge
If you're ever in West Texas and encounter a lot of California place names, you're probably on the old Marcy Trail, named for soldier and explorer Randolph Marcy. When California was the place where fortune seekers thought they ought to be, the Marcy Trail got them there through Texas and into New Mexico. Optimistic travelers named creeks, hills and anything else they came across in honor of their destination.

Marcy was a military man, a Massachusetts-born graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War where he got his first view of Texas. Later, he commanded Gen. William G. Belknap's escort on a tour to select sites for a string of forts along the hostile, rugged and virtually unexplored region of West Texas. A few years later, he led an expedition that went looking for the headwaters of the Red River.

History generally credits Marcy with discovering the headwaters, a task that Stephen Long - who earlier labeled all of the Llano Estacado a desert - failed to find, mainly because he was on the Canadian River. Stalwart explorers like Zebulon Pike and Thomas Freeman found the right river, but not its source. Historian Dan Flores, who has explored and researched the Caprock Canyonlands extensively, believes that Marcy got as far as Tule Canyon and called it an expedition.

"Marcy never found the origin of the Red River," Flores wrote in Caprock Canyonlands. "In fact, Marcy didn't get within 125 miles of the Red's origin. He didn't even explore the right canyon." Flores makes the case that Marcy spent three days ascending Tule Canyon until he came to a place known as Tule Narrows and identified the spring he found there the origin of the Red River.

The descriptions of the canyon by Marcy and naturalist George Shumard - especially the place Marcy pegged as the headwaters - are that of Tule, not Palo Duro. A Marcy lithograph of the site "is a dead ringer for the wall that towers above the main spring in the Tule Narrows," Flores writes.

Flores believes that an expedition led by Ernest H. Ruffner and guided by legendary buffalo hunter and Indian fighter Billy Dixon discovered the true headwaters a few miles northeast of Canyon in 1876, more than two decades after Marcy got the credit. Marcy continues to get the credit in most quarters.

Other than that, Marcy had a fine expedition. He documented for the first time large portions of Texas and the Oklahoma Territory, finding, among other marvels, a massive prairie dog town. He explored both forks of the Red River and wandered through canyons and prairies where only natives had tread before. He also filed a report confirming the existence of Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of Quanah Parker, who the Comanche had abducted more than a decade previous. He also reported seeing her brother, John Parker, around the same time.

Even if he missed finding the true origins of the Red River, Marcy otherwise had a fine expedition. The same historians who credit him with discovering the river's origin generally deem the expedition "the best organized, best conducted and most successful" venture into that region up to that time.

Marcy later served the Union in the Civil War under George B. McClellan, who also served as Marcy's second in command on the expedition and later served as Marcy's son-in-law. He also found time to survey the headwaters of the Brazos and Big Wichita Rivers and took General William T. Sherman on a fact-finding tour of Texas in 1871.

Along with the trail named in his honor, Marcy is best known as the author of The Prairie Traveler, which he wrote at the behest of the War Department. The book proved to be an indispensable guidebook for travelers heading west into unknown territory, the same ones who named everything they came across for California.

Aside from practical information on how to provision a wagon train, treat snakebite, avoid Indians, interpret smoke signals and hundreds of other useful bits of information, the book outlined 34 overland trails. People heading west in the 19th century didn't leave home without it, and the book sold well for 40 years, until such time as people no longer needed wagon trains to go west.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 17, 2018 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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  • The Horse George Childress Rode In On 7-16-16
  • What we know about the state dinosaur 7-1-18
  • Philip Nolan and All the Pretty Horses 6-8-18
  • Seven Flags over Texas 5-17-18

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    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Three-Legged Willie Stood Tall 8-4-18
  • The Horse George Childress Rode In On 7-16-16
  • What we know about the state dinosaur 7-1-18
  • Philip Nolan and All the Pretty Horses 6-8-18
  • Seven Flags over Texas 5-17-18

    See more »


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