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Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society

Truman Stacey

"Notable Men and Women of SWLA" is result of work compiled by SLHA member Truman Stacey.

A native of Texas,Truman Stacey served in the U.S. Army in World War II, earned bachelor and master degrees from the University of Detroit, and worked on a number of newspapers before serving as editor-in-chief of the Lake Charles American Press from 1961 to 1982, when he became chief information officer for the Catholic Diocese of Lake Charles. 

Stacey wrote the series of articles here to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. These articles appear in numerous newspapers across the state, including the DeQuincy News, the Cameron Pilot, the Teche News, the Welsh Citizen, the American Press, the Ville Platte News, and the Hammond Star.

He is a past president of Southwest Louisiana Historical Association.

Pierre Vial

The history of Colonial Louisiana is filled with colorful individuals from Henri di Tonti to Jim Bowie, but one of the most important of these adventurers has never gained a niche in its folklore.

Pierre Vial was born in the French province of Lyon at an uncertain time and of uncertain antecedents. There is no record of his arrival in Louisiana, but from remarks he later made it has been deduced that he had been a trapper on the Red and Missouri Rivers before the American Revolution. Other data on his earlier activities are mostly conjecture.

He made his name in history as the man who opened up the Santa Fe Trail.

During his trapping days Vial had gained an intimate knowledge of the native tribes west of the Mississippi and for the most part had been able to travel among them safely. When his travels happened to take him to San Antonio in 1789, it was at the right moment.

After Louisiana was ceded to Spain by France in 1762, the Marquis de Rubi was sent from Mexico City to inspect the new area. In his report on his mission he recommended a series of military forts forming a line from La Bahia in Texas to the Gulf of California on the west. The capital of Texas was also moved from Robeline in present-day Louisiana to San Antonio.

That left Santa Fe as the northern tip of Spanish civilization in the Southwest, and left it isolated except for communications with Chihuahua 600 miles to the south. Communications between Santa Fe and San Antonio would be helpful to both communities.

Thus, Pierre Vial was hired to explore a direct route to Santa Fe. He proposed to make the trip alone, to travel through villages of friendly tribes until he reached the villages of the Comanches.

Vial departed San Antonio on October 5, 1786, with one companion, Cristobal de los Santos, and a pack horse with supplies. The pack horse drowned while crossing a stream and the supplies were lost. Living off the country, they crossed the Colorado and Brazos Rivers, visiting friendly tribes. On the way north Vial became ill, fell from his horse, and was delirious for two days. Still ill, he and de Santos pushed on, riding 150miles to the villages of the Taovayas, where a medicine man healed him. They remained in the villages for two months while he recuperated.

Then the route was across Comanche and Apache country, new to Vial. In a number of villages he faced down threatening Comanches with his bravado and held a pow-wow in villages on the Pease River. The Comanches persuaded him to winter over in their camps.

In the spring he started out, accompanied by six Comanche chiefs and their retinues, crossed the Staked Plains and arrived in Santa Fe on May 26, 1787.

It was a staggering achievement. He had ridden nearly 1,200 miles, much of it through unexplored territory inhabited by tribes he had not visited before: Tonkawas, Wichitas, Apaches and then the Comanches.

A little over a year later, Vial was on the trail again, this time to explore routes from Santa Fe to Louisiana via Natchitoches, which he had visited earlier in his youth.

This time he was accompanied by several young Spaniards and an Indian escort. The party set out on June 24, 1788. Day after day the party rode east, spending some of the nights in Comanche lodges.

On June 25 they reached the Taovaya lodges on the Red River. The travelers rested for several days at this pleasant spot. They were approaching the end of their journey.

On August 12 they spent the night in a Bidai village. On August 20 they rode the last 25 miles to Natchitoches, where they received a royal welcome. They had ridden more than 900 miles from Santa Fe. Because of the friendliness of the Comanches and their escorts’ knowledge of the country, they were able to ride in safety, avoiding patches of badlands.

Vial was not finished, however. His orders were to proceed from Natchitoches to San Antonio to develop the quickest route. After enjoying French hospitality Vial and his party set out for San Antonio on September 18, 1788. Arriving at the village of Nacogdoches the party became ill, probably with malaria (all except Vial, who seems to have escaped this time) and stayed there 53 days until all had recovered. Then they made their way to San Antonio, having spent 37 days actually traveling. They arrived at San Antonio de Bexar on November 18, having covered 533 miles from Natchitoches. The round trip from Santa Fe to Natchitoches and then to San Antonio totaled nearly 1,500 miles.

But Vial was still not finished. Back in Santa Fe, he was ordered to open up a route from Santa Fe to St. Louis, which had by now outstripped Natchitoches as the entrepot on the Mississippi.

Departing Santa Fe on May 21, 1792, he and his party made good time until they reached the Canadian River where they were captured by a party of Kansas Indians, stripped of their clothing and threatened with death. One of the natives, however, recognized Vial and rescued him, hauling him into his lodge and stuffing food down his throat, since those who had eaten with the Indians were considered guests.

The Kansas held them naked for six weeks, but finally relented, clothed them, and set them on their way again, finally arriving at St. Louis on October 3. His route from Santa Fe covered 1,185 miles.

Wintering in St. Louis, Vial and his party set out once more, back to Santa Fe to open another trade route, one that was to become legendary in the history of the Southwest.

This first traverse of the famous trail took from June 14 to November 16, 1793, and proved that St. Louis and Santa Fe were much closer than had been realized either by the Spaniards or the encroaching Yankees.

Vial took up residence in Santa Fe and continued in the employ of Spanish officials as an Indian interpreter. He made a number of other trips to neighboring tribes as a diplomatic envoy of the Spanish crown.

Vial died in Santa Fe in 1814 and was buried there, leaving little or no estate.

He was one of the makers of the history of Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico, and he should be remembered as such.