Given the pride we Americans often take in our reputation and ability as hustlers, it seems a pity, almost a historical injustice, that there are not statues in our parks, calendar portraits in barbershops, even grade-school pageants commemorating the life of F. X. Aubry. In his day—more than a century and a quarter ago—Aubry, a wispy, hyperactive young man, was generally acclaimed as the greatest of all hustlers, the hardest of hard chargers. Though now relegated to historical footnotes, his accomplishments were such as to give him a solid claim to these titles.
Before he was 30, Aubry had hustled himself into and out of several fortunes as a caravan master in the Santa Fe trade—a uniquely dangerous, competitive and romantic endeavor. He had also become something of a national role model for fast-talking, fast-thinking entrepreneurs. In 1848 he performed a series of athletic feats that made him a national hero on the order of a Crockett, Lindbergh or Ruth. During that year, Aubry rode a lot of horses and mules farther, harder and faster than anyone ever had or has since. He set some amazing land-speed records that may never be equaled and, even more dramatically, he expanded the known limits of what flesh and blood could endure and true grit could accomplish.
Aubry was born in 1824 on a hard-scrabble farm in Quebec and emigrated to St. Louis when he was 18 for traditional Horatio Alger reasons. Along with an iron constitution, he was well endowed with chutzpah. In 1846 he talked his employers—he was a clerk in a dry-goods store—into lending him enough money to equip two wagons for the Santa Fe trade, then the most promising get-rich-quick game on the frontier.
It had flourished because Mexican authorities were unable to establish regular supply lines to their northern provinces in western Texas and New Mexico. Santa Feans were desperate for European-style commodities: textiles, metal work, all manner of trinkets and tools. Missouri traders, operating mostly out of Independence, had begun in the 1820s to drive 2½-ton freight wagons across the 800 miles of wilderness to Santa Fe. Depending upon the political conditions of the moment, they often had to smuggle and/or bribe their way into the mountain city, but these were small concerns when balanced against the fact that goods purchased in Missouri could be turned over in Mexico for a 100% profit.
The catch—and the reason not everyone in Missouri was a trader—was getting the wagons to the market. There was no road and there were a lot of un-bridged rivers, mudholes, deserts, mountains, blizzards, sandstorms and quicksand. The trip to Santa Fe involved running a gauntlet of hostile Apaches, Comanches, Pawnees and, occasionally, Cheyenne and Sioux as well. The Indians, like the Missouri traders, were materialists. They wanted not only the goods in the wagons but also the horses, mules, guns, powder and scalps of the wagoneers. Violent skirmishes were prevalent; brutality and treachery were common to both sides. On one trip from Missouri one of Aubry's teamsters was walking a few paces ahead of his lead span when an Indian leaped out of the brush, pumped an arrow into the man, scalped him and disappeared before the other Missourians could even draw on him. There were few years during the Santa Fe trade when a hundred or so men, red and white, were not rubbed out while seeking their fortunes.
On his first venture, in late spring, Aubry attached his two wagons to a larger train and reached Santa Fe with only the ordinary extraordinary difficulties. He sold out quickly and was back in St. Louis by early fall, having turned a profit of several thousand dollars. That winter, while trading in Wisconsin, he gave much thought to the Santa Fe trade. The demand for American goods was all but unlimited, and the more of it a man could freight into Mexico, the richer he would be. However, making up larger caravans was not a practical solution because wagons, teams and teamsters were in scarce supply in Missouri. The answer, Aubry concluded, was speed—to get a wagon back and forth to Santa Fe much more often than heretofore.
Investing $6,000 in wagons and goods, Aubry left Independence in April of 1847, got to Santa Fe and was sold out by July. Then he hustled back to Missouri sprinting the last 300 miles to Independence alone, on horseback, in an unheard-of four days. He refitted and returned to Santa Fe with another wagon train by the first of November. That "Little Aubry," as he was mockingly called, had made two trading trips in a single season was big news, widely reported in the frontier press. Among other things, Aubry was a born publicity hound. It was his practice upon arriving in a settlement, no matter how dry or saddlesore he might be, to head for the local newspaper office where he fed grateful editors all the colorful Wild-West stories they might want.
Aubry was not content, however, to lounge away the winter in Santa Fe counting his money. He announced that he was going back to Missouri, traveling in midwinter—justifiably regarded as the suicide season—and that he intended to make the ride in an unprecedented 18 days. His reputation was already such that the proposal was taken seriously. Analyzing the project, the Santa Fe Republican commented in its Nov. 27, 1847 edition that if anyone could do such a thing, Aubry would, "as he is one of nature's most persevering children."
Aubry found four other frontiersmen willing to risk the trip, and they set off in snow on Dec. 22, driving a ramada of racing mules ahead of them as remounts. The other men dropped out after several hundred miles but Aubry "persevered." He lost 10 mules when ambushed by a band of Mexican marauders, was delayed half a day in a blizzard and spent most of another hiding from an Indian war party. After riding three horses to death he arrived in Independence, 800 miles from Santa Fe, in only 15 days. The previous record, set in 1846 by Norris Colburn, was 24 days. Aubry had cut a full nine days from it, and inspired an immediate and sensational national news story. Even the august New York Weekly Tribune devoted a front-page story to the exploits of Aubry, whom creative feature writers were beginning to call the "Skimmer of the Plains."
Pausing only to accommodate the press and encourage investors, the Skimmer organized another train and left from Independence in March, a month earlier than anyone had ever set out with wagons. He arrived in Santa Fe in April, made a handsome profit as the first trader into town and then let fly another challenge—that he would ride back to Missouri in 10 days. This was too big a brag for the mountaineers, fur trappers and traders of Santa Fe to accept passively. Betting began. Aubry would only say that a good many "10s and 20s" turned up against him, but local rumor had it that there was $10,000 in "up money" against the Skimmer. He covered and started off on May 19. The weather was better than it had been on the winter ride, but everything else was much worse. Two hundred miles out of Santa Fe he was bushwhacked, robbed and held for ransom by the Comanches. He escaped the same night and walked 40 miles to Fort Mann where he bought a remount. Thereafter he rode 72 hours without leaving the saddle except to change horses, three of which died underneath him. He made it to Independence in eight days and 10 hours. The Daily Missouri Republican described the ride as "unexampled." A few weeks later Aubry was back in Santa Fe with another caravan of trade goods. Through the press he made it known that his return to Missouri would break all his previous riding records. Again money turned up against him, but not so much as before because, as the faithful Santa Fe Republican was to remark, "This gentleman travels with a rapidity almost super-natural." Also, it was known that for the ultimate record-setting attempt, the Skimmer had made special preparations; on the way out from Missouri he had stashed fresh mounts at military posts along the trail.