Hidalgo County was formed on February 25th, 1919, after annexation from its neighbouring Grant County. This was mainly done to shorten the distance that the people of Lordsburg and towns to the south had to travel to reach Silver City, the county seat.
Hidalgo County is also known colloquially as the Bootheel of New Mexico after its distinctive shape.
When Billy hears the wolves sometime in the early to mid 1930s, he is hearing the last remnants of an all but extinguished species.
Perceived as a threat to domestic livestock, intensive efforts were undertaken at the turn of the 20th century to eradicate the Mexican Grey Wolf. These efforts were ultimately successful, and by the 1950s a wolf which had once ranged the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts from central Mexico to western Texas, southern New Mexico, and central Arizona, had been more or less eliminated from the wild.
In 1976 the Mexican Wolf was declared an endangered subspecies and remains so to this day. Only an estimated 340 Mexican Wolves remain, living in captivity in 49 facilities at the United States and Mexico.
The herd being chased by the wolf pack are not true Antelope, but belong to the family Antilocapra Americana, the only surviving member of the 5 Antilocaprid species which existed when humans entered North America about 13,000 years ago.
The animal is often known colloquially in North America as the Prong Buck, Pronghorn Antelope, or simply Antelope, as it closely resembles the true antelopes of the Old World and fills a similar ecological niche.
The Animas Peaks are the highest section of the Animas mountain range, located in southern Hidalgo County near the border with Mexico.
The Animas Mountains form the southernmost portion of the Continental Divide in the United States, with the northern terminus of the range lying just a few miles west of the town of Animas and the southern point northwest of Cloverdale.
Trees had to survive prairie fires in order to survive on the Great Plains. Cottonwoods did this by typically growing on the edges of rivers and streams and by developing a thick, corky bark upon maturity.
This makes it a significant tree in the formation of modern America, since the sight of cottonwoods meant water, and often survival, for the European pioneers heading West across the great desert plains.
The travois was originally dragged by hand or by dogs, and then later by horses (after the 16th century introduction of horses by the Spanish).
The muskrat is a semi-aquatic rodent found over most of Canada and the United States and a small part of northern Mexico. They mostly inhabit wetlands, areas in or near salt and fresh-water marshlands, rivers, lakes, or ponds.
The animal is named after the yellowish, musky-smelling substance that it excretes (probably as a means of communicating with other muskrats during its breeding season).
New Mexico has a Native American population second in percentage only to that of Alaska.
It is difficult to allocate a specific tribe to McCarthy’s Indian since not much is offered in the way of physical description. He may have come from one of the reservations in which the Native American population had been confined by the encroachment of European settlers upon their ancestral lands. The waters are muddied further, however, by the suggestion that he might be a drifter from further afield.
Although far from a sympathetic character, McCarthy’s Indian represents a dispossessed people, and when Boyd sees his own reflection in the man’s dark eyes (‘As if it were some cognate child to him that had been lost who now stood windowed away in another world…' [p.6]) it also foreshadows the future dispossession of the two Parham boys.
For more information on the Native American tribes of New Mexico click here.
For more on the sad history of the Native American population read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.
The Peloncillo Mountains range from Hidalgo County into Cochise County, Arizona, and into the northwest of the state. The range is sometimes referred to as Little Baldy, a literal translation of the Spanish Peloncillo.
Growing up in Hidalgo County, New Mexico in the 1930s, Billy Parham was in a unique position to see the wolf. He lives in the ancient passageway of the Mexican Wolf at a time when they were all but extinct elsewhere in the Southwest:
'Only in Hidalgo County's Animas, Peloncillo and San Luis mountains did wolves persist into the 1930s - their constantly depleted ranks continually refurbished by new recruits crossing the Mexican border after long-established runways...'
[David E. Brown, The Wolf in the Southwest: The Making of an Endangered Species]
W.C. Echols was a trapper assigned to border patrol in Hidalgo County at the OK Bar Ranch (renamed the SK Bar Ranch in the novel) to hunt any wolves crossing over the border from Mexico via the Animas Mountains from the mid 1920s to 1942.
Echols belonged to an older tradition, using traps rather than the strychnine poisoning favoured by some wolf killers of the period. He was essentially a tracker who read sign left by wolves and placed his traps strategically to outsmart the animals.
McCarthy also draws on accounts of the conservationist Roy T. McBride's 1970 quest for an elusive she-wolf named Las Margaritas, as well as Ernest Thompson Seton's experience hunting the wolf Lobo in the canyons of New Mexico in 1893 for some of the details of the Parham's pursuit of the she-wolf in The Crossing.
That the wolf’s social scent is used to keep the pregnant she-wolf in an area where wolf society has all but been extinguished is one of the bitter ironies of the novel.
A basic scent recipe called for
eight coyote glands (or wolf)
1/4 liver with gall
black coyote or wolf dung (black from eating meat dust)
The glands were ground together and placed in a glass jar in a warm place until well rotted. Then the dung was distilled in water or wolf or coyote urine and added to the rotted glands. Another recipe used more of the wolf's body parts, urine, and drops of asafetida, anise oil, tonquin musk and Canton musk rather than dung.
It was inevitable that the very zeal with which the wolf was hunted would eventually result in the trade quickly becoming obsolete itself. Extermination of the species had been the aim from the beginning. That the wolf survived as long as it did in the face of such relentless persecution may have been due to the not uncommon practice of trappers killing wolf pups but deliberately sparing the mother in order to let her breed again the next year.
After the government put into action specific programs to eliminate the wolf the hunting and killing of wolves became much more methodical and efficient. Between 1915 and the program’s eventual disbandment in 1942, U.S. government hunters killed over 24, 132 wolves.
An insight into typical attitudes of wolf hunters in the early 20th century can be found in A. R. Harding’s 1909 book Wolf and Coyote Trapping, which you can read online here.
The No. 4 1/2 or 'Newhouse Special Wolf Trap' was first produced in 1893 and soon became the trap of choice for most of the Southwest’s wolf trappers. Weighing 5 1/4 pounds with a jaw spread of 8 3/4 inches, it's understandable why Billy mistakes it for a bear trap.
It was named after the 19th century trap manufacturer Sewell Newhouse. In 1849 Newhouse and his family joined the Oneida Community, a group of religious Perfectionists who adhered to a principle they called ‘Bible Communalism’ and advocated eugenics. Under the guidance of Newhouse, the Oneida Community began a successful trapmaking venture in 1852 and became a major trap producer.
As detailed in The Crossing, the preparations involved in setting a trap was a time consuming and laborious task, even before it came time to actually lay the trap outdoors. The trap would first need to be disinfected and then, after it had dried, wax or grease would be rigorously rubbed within the various chains and hinges. Afterwards, the trap would be hung outside so as to avoid infection from household odours.
McCarthy’s use of nautical imagery is not arbitrary. Billy’s father is Ahab on the trail of Moby Dick. Like Melville’s white whale, the wolf represents some metaphysical force whose true nature can never be known, far less contained in a trap. As Don Arnulfo says, comparing the wolf to the copo de nieve (snowflake), that which the wolf represents is lost the moment it is caught:
'El loba es una cosa incognoscible, he said. Lo que se tiene trampa no es mas que dientes y forro. El lobo propio no se puede conocer. Lobo o lo que sabe el lobo. Tan como preguntar lo que saben las piedras. Los arboles. El mundo.
(The wolf is an unknowable thing, he said. That which one has in the trap is no more than teeth and fur. One cannot know the true wolf. Wolf or what the wolf knows. It’s like asking what the stones know. The trees. The world.') [p.45]
The Animas Valley begins in western Hidalgo County and extends for approximately 85 miles southwards into the northwest of the Chihuahuan Desert in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. This long narrow valley is bordered by the Peloncillo Mountains to the west and to the east by a series of mountain ranges which make up the Continental Divide of the Americas.
Small compared to most oak, Blackjack Oak grows on dry, sandy to clay, upland soils and is named for its thick, black bark.
This passage is reminiscent of an incident from Ernest Thompson Seton’s account of hunting the wolf Lobo.
After months of frustration in his pursuit of the wolf, Seton discovered Lobo's weakness: his mate, a white wolf named Blanca. Seton eventually managed to catch Blanca in one of the traps Lobo had so far carefully avoided. When Seton found her, she was howling with Lobo by her side. As Seton and his men approached, Lobo ran to a safe distance and could only watch on helplessly as the hunters killed Blanca by breaking her neck with ropes tied to their horses. According to his accounts, Seton heard the howls of Lobo for days afterwards, which he described as having ‘an unmistakable note of sorrow in it... It was no longer the loud, defiant howl, but a long, plaintive wail.’ Although his heart went out to the grieving wolf, Seton continued his plan to capture Lobo. Seton then set more traps, using Blanca's body to scent them. On January 31, 1894, Lobo was finally caught, with each of his four legs clutched in a trap.
Ironically, Seton would go on to become one of the founding figures of the conservation movement in the U.S. and was largely responsible for the rehabilitation of the wolf’s reputation in America.
You can read the story of Lobo as recorded by Seton in his book Wild Animals I Have Known here.
The story was also turned into a documentary film: The Wolf That Changed America.
The Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) originally entered North America from Eurasia via the Bering Strait land bridge between Alaska and Siberia during the Early Pleistocene. The Mexican Wolf then evolved from a group of Grey Wolves which had claimed territory in the southwestern United States and Mexico.
During the Pleistocene Epoch these wolves would have preyed on early camel relatives such as the Camelop and the pony-sized Hypohippus (‘Low Horse'). By the end of the Pleistocene, both the Camelop and the Hypohippus were extinct (probably after the arrival of human hunters).
Due to the effectiveness of the government program to exterminate the wolf in the nineteen-teens and early 1920s, by 1925 wolves had ceased to present any significant problem to ranchers except for the occasional wolf that crossed into the U.S. from Mexico. In the mid-twenties, PARC (Predator and Rodent Control) agents developed the preventative strategy of patrolling the few remaining habitats in the U.S. and posting their most effective wolfers along the border; men such as W. C. Echols.
There were years when no wolves were killed in New Mexico except for those taken by Echols on the border, indicating both the success of the government’s campaign to eliminate the wolf and Echol’s skills as a wolf-hunter. He killed about four wolves a year until 1933, when the lessening of American livestock interests in Mexico and the country’s discontinuance of its wolf control efforts led to increases in its wolf population and consequently those that crossed into the United States. Between 1933 and 1943, Echols took between 6 and 9 wolves every year except one.
The decimation of the wolf’s historical prey began with the commercial hunting and slaughter of the American Bison (or Buffalo) by European settlers, which drove the animal to near extinction during the 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century, human hunting had also severely reduced deer and elk numbers.
As a result, many wolves were left with no recourse but to attack domestic cattle; a situation which would in turn lead to those attempts to eliminate the Mexican Wolf from the wild.
A stamp mill is a type of mill machine that crushes material by pounding rather than grinding. They were common in gold, silver and copper mining regions in the latter 19th and early 20th century, although most of the larger stamp mill mines were superseded in the second half of the 19th century by more efficient methods.
A typical stamp mill could consumer 12 cords of wood per day, equivalent to about one large-diameter tree per day. Over a period of three years, wood consumption may have been around 1,000 trees, a few hectares of forest.