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Discover Mid-America —July 2005

Trail pioneers left traces of their adventurous spirit

by Ken Weyand

From 1821 to 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was “America’s Highway” to the Southwest. By the time it was replaced by the railroads, the Trail served as a link with Mexico and New Mexico Territory, and hastened the settlement of the American West.


John Mark Lambertson, director/archivist for the National Frontier Trails Center in Independence, MO, examines the museum’s freight wagon. A mural of Santa Fe in Trail days is in the background. (photo by Ken Weyand)

William Becknell is credited with being “the father of the Santa Fe trade.” In 1820, he lived in Franklin, MO, engaged in selling salt. Business was not going well; new markets were needed.

In September 1821, Becknell organized a trading party for Santa Fe, and left Franklin with an ox-drawn caravan and 21 men, following parts of the Osage Trace. By mid-November, Becknell and his party arrived in Santa Fe, where they sold their goods at a huge profit.

The next year, Becknell repeated the trip, with the same result. Other traders followed, returning with hides, blankets, pottery, jewelry, and livestock. The Santa Fe Trail was born.

The “highway” concept seems strange by today’s standards considering the Trail was actually a route made up of several trails, originated by animal herds and Indians, and carved out of mostly uncharted prairies and high plains.

In 1846, the Mexican-American War began, with the Army of the West following the Trail to invade Mexico. When the Treaty of Guadalupe ended the war in 1848, the Trail became a “national road” connecting the United States to the new territories.

By 1880, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad reached Santa Fe, to be connected with the Southern Pacific Railroad a year later. The glory years of the Santa Fe Trail were over.

But history doesn’t go away. Although artifacts of the Trail have disappeared, many traces remain. Stage stations, traders’ homes, and military forts can be seen — from foundations to complete restorations. Graves of scouts, traders, soldiers, and others are marked. Also identified are important landmarks that guided travelers, river crossings that frustrated their progress, and springs that sustained them. Heavy wagons wore deep ruts and swales, many of which can still be seen.

The National Park Service administers the Santa Fe National Historic Trail in partnership with other federal, state and local agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners. The Santa Fe Trail Association, a major partner with the NPS, is dedicated to preserving resources and fostering public awareness and appreciation of the Trail.


The Santa Fe Plaza in Trail Days. (From mural, courtesy National Frontier Trails Center, Independence, MO)

Seeking the ghosts
Franklin, starting point of Becknell’s caravans, no longer exists. In 1826-27, floods so damaged the town that a new settlement, New Franklin, was built farther from the river. An overlook north of the present river channel features historical exhibits.

Arrow Rock, on the west side of the Missouri River (which runs north-to-south at this point), served as a Trail landmark. A ferry began operating in 1811, connecting the Boonslick road to the Osage Trace, which led west to Fort Osage. Arrow Rock Landing, used until 1927, still shows original wagon ruts.

The town was established in 1829. Five years later, the Huston Tavern, now a museum, was built in the center of town for Trail travelers. Santa Fe Spring near Arrow Rock was a gathering spot for wagon trains.

Original ruts can be seen in the Marshall area on Saline County Road 416, about five miles northwest of town.

The Osage Trace features a landmark, the Grand Pass, beginning about three miles west of Malta Bend. A cemetery contains ruts of the trail.

Lexington was a Trail stopover. The Trail entered Lexington on what is now Hwy. 24, then followed Hwy. 224 west along South Street, passing the “Old Town” site, and on to 20th Street, turning left past the Machpelah Cemetery toward the present Hwy. 24 junction. Tabo Creek Crossing was eight miles east. A ferry began operating at the site in 1821.

Blue Mills, at the north end of the Lentz Road in Jackson County, still contains remnants of the 1834 steam-powered gristmill. The Trail ran nearby. The Little Blue Crossing at the mill site was difficult for Trail travelers until a bridge was built in 1837.

Independence saw intense activity between 1827 and 1856. Wagon makers, blacksmiths and other merchants outfitted wagon trains for the Santa Fe Trail, and later the Oregon Trail and California Trail. During the spring when traders met in Independence to get provisions, caravans would encircle the Independence Square as they took on provisions before heading south on Liberty Street.

John Mark Lambertson, director/archivist at the National Frontier Trails Center, said that Independence was founded in 1827, with four roads running in four directions.

“By 1835, there were so many Trail caravans,” Lambertson said, “that a second road was built to the south. It was called the Santa Fe Road.”

Although the Trail began in Franklin to the east, Independence quickly became the eastern terminus. Lambertson said that 26 blacksmith shops would eventually locate in the town.

“In the spring, when caravans were forming, the town became chaotic,” Lambertson said. “Trading parties were camped out all over the area. A trader seeking to join up with his party might have to search through the camps for several days.”

Lambertson said the Santa Fe Trail was unique because it was the first land route for foreign trade. “Before the Trail started, all foreign trade came from Europe and other countries by ship, to ports in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other eastern cities. The Santa Fe Trail opened new markets from Mexico. Over the years, the Trail pumped millions of dollars into the economy of Western Missouri. That was a lot of money in 1800s dollars,” he added.

Trail sites in Independence include the 1827 Jackson County Courthouse at 107 W. Kansas, the 1847 Martin O. Kritzer house at 115 W. Walnut, the 1830 William Ferril-Alonzo F. Henley House at 3940 S. Crysler, the 1834 Lewis-Webb House at 302 W. Mill and the 1831 Noland House at 1024 S. Forest.

The Bingham-Waggoner Estate, built in the 1850s, occupies a 19-acre tract that bordered the Trail on Osage Street.

The National Frontier Trails Center, at 318 W. Pacific, contains exhibits of the Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails. Its library has the nation’s largest public collection of rare books, documents and diaries about the trails. A spring, located just north of the center, was used by travelers to refill their wagon barrels. The owner of the spring, John Overfelt, lived at 305 S. Pleasant.

Other vestiges of the Trail in Independence can be seen at the Independence City Park, near Santa Fe Road and 29th Street. A swale, formed by wagons, can be seen at the creek crossing.

Kansas City had become the Trail’s main eastern terminus by 1857. That status ended with the Civil War and the coming of the railroad.

Sites in the Kansas City area include the Big Blue River Crossing. Original wagon ruts are visible at 27th and Topping Ave.

The restored Archibald Rice farmhouse at 8801 E. 66th St. in the suburb of Raytown was built in 1830. The Trail passed northeast of the house, where travelers often stopped to buy produce.

The Red Bridge Crossing, about 300 yards north of the present Red Bridge, was a difficult ford until the bridge was built in 1859. Minor Park, at 112th and Holmes, contains some of the best-preserved ruts on the Trail.

The Harris House, built by Santa Fe Trail trader John Harris in 1855 at Westport Road and Main Street, was moved to 4000 Baltimore in 1922. The home serves as a museum and headquarters for the Westport Historical Society.

The Ewing-Boone Store, at Westport Road and Pennsylvania, was built in1851 by William and George Ewing, who traded with the Shawnee Indians in Kansas. The store was extensively remodeled in the 1890s.

The William Bent House at 1032 W. 55th Street in Kansas City was built in 1840. Bent built Bent’s Fort in Colorado, and stayed in the house when he was in Kansas City.

The Alexander Majors House, on State Line Road near 85th Street, was built in 1855 by Majors, a leading freighter on the Trail.

Schumaker Park, at 6601 E. 93rd Street, contains a short segment of the Trail route. A picnic area and wayside exhibits are available.


Josiah Gregg’s “Commerce of the Prairies” shows a caravan from Missouri arriving in Santa Fe. (Photo courtesy National Frontier Trails Center)

The Trail in Kansas
Harmon Park, at 7727 Delmar in Prairie Village, contains part of the Trail. Ruts can be seen and an interpretive exhibit.

The Shawnee Methodist Mission at Mission Road in Fairway was relocated in 1839 from Wyandotte County. Trail ruts are visible to the north of three restored buildings. The blacksmith shop of the Mission was used by Trail travelers.

The Grinter House, east of Bonner Springs on Hwy. 32, is near the site of the first ferry to cross the Kansas River in 1830 or 1831. The ferry was used by Fort Leavenworth troops to access the Trail. The house, now restored, was built in the 1850s.

The Mahaffie Farmstead, at the north edge of Olathe, was a stage station on the Trail. Dinners were served in the basement of the limestone house, built in 1865.

The junction of the Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail is about two miles west of Gardner, and indicated by an historical marker. The northern fork was marked in the 1840s with a crude sign: “Road to Oregon.”

East of Baldwin City, travelers can see dramatic parallel ruts in Douglas County Prairie Park. The ruts are among the finest on the Trail, according to the National Park Service. East of the high school is the Palmyra/Santa Fe Well, which served travelers. Historical markers are nearby, and in Trail Park, one mile to the northeast.

Wilmington marks the junction of the Santa Fe Trail and the Military Road from Leavenworth, by way of Topeka. Beginning in 1857, businesses in the town began to catered to Trail travelers,.

Ruins of the McGee-Harris Stage Station can be seen today east of Burlingame. The Trail ran down the main street of Burlingame, and crossed Switzler Creek at the east edge of town. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad first made contact with the Trail at Burlingame.

Dragoon Creek Crossing, three miles northeast, appears much the same today as it did in Trail days. To the west, ruins of the Havana Stage Station, built in 1858, are visible. The gravesite of Pvt. Samuel Hunt, the earliest known gravesite on the Trail, is located just north of Hwy. 31, about a half-mile west of the station site.

The Council Oak that marked the site of safe-passage negotiations with the Osage Indians, survives as a stump on Hwy. 56 in Council Grove. Another oak tree (with a hole in its base) served as a mail cache for Trail travelers until about 1847. A portion of the tree still stands. The Conn/Stone/Pioneer Store on Main Street, built in 1858, was an important trading store on the Trail. The Hays House Restaurant is housed in a building built in 1859 by Seth Hays, a noted Trail trader. Hays’ residence is two blocks to the south. The Last Chance Store, west of the business district, was a famous trading site.

Diamond Spring, southeast of Herington, was a popular campsite on the Trail. Missouri bushwhackers destroyed a stage station at the site during the Civil War.

Six Mile Crossing and Stage Station is six miles from Diamond Spring, on the road to Burdick. Trail ruts can be seen, although the crossing is not visible. Basement walls of the station can be seen.

Lost Spring, west of the town of Lost Springs, was a trading ranch, stage station and campground for Trail travelers. Ruts are visible.

The Cottonwood Creek Crossing, west of Durham, was also the site of a stage station. Wagon ruts can be seen, although all traces of the station are gone.

A cottonwood tree and several ruts mark a crossing of the Little Arkansas River. The site is five miles south of Hwy. 56 on County Road 443 on the McPherson-Rice County line. The remains of Camp Grierson, a military camp to the south, can still be seen.

Cow Creek Crossing, west of Lyons on Hwy. 56, was located just west of the present bridge. Stones for crossing the streambed can be seen during dry periods. To the south is Buffalo Bill Mathewson’s Well, built to serve Trail travelers. Interpretive signs and a shelter mark the site.

The Ralph Hathaway Farm, northwest of Chase, is the site of seven parallel wagon ruts. A commemorative marker designates the site. Gunsight Notch, a ridge worn away by Trail traffic, is two miles west.

Two sites, Allison and Booth’s Fort and (later) the Peacock Ranch Trading Post, were located near the Walnut Creek Crossing, east of Great Bend. Indians burned the post, where foundations can still be seen. Two forts, both named Fort Zarah, were built in the 1860s on Walnut Creek. Foundations of the first fort have been partially excavated.

At Larned, westbound travelers had a choice between two routes. The “wet route” offered good grazing and water. The “dry route” was shorter but water was limited.

One of the most prominent landmarks of the Trail was Pawnee Rock, on the wet route. The site is north of Hwy. 56, near the town of Pawnee Rock. The Ash Creek Crossing was five miles southwest.

The dry route crossing of Pawnee Fork was the site of a mail and stage station in 1859. This led to the establishment of Fort Larned. The Santa Fe Trail Center, two miles west of Larned, features Trail exhibits, archives and artifacts. Four miles west is the Fort Larned National Historic Site, a well-preserved military post.

West of Garfield is Coon Creek Crossing and Battlefield. Wagon ruts are visible.

In the Dodge City area are several Trail sites. The “Black Pool,” east of Ford, looks black because of an underlying shelf of shale. Inscriptions can be seen on a rock ledge above the pool. Fort Dodge, east of Dodge City, built in 1856, contains remodeled buildings. Two other forts, Fort Mann and Fort Atkinson, were built to the west. By 1854, both were abandoned due to supply problems. Trail ruts can be seen nine miles west of Dodge City.

Middle crossings of the Arkansas River near present-day Garden City were numerous due to the shallowness of the river. Indians attacked often in this area.

Indian Mound, five miles south of Lakin, was used as a lookout point by Indians. Today’s travelers enjoy the same view.

After crossing the Arkansas River, westbound travelers found their first water at lower Cimarron Spring, also called Wagon Bed Spring. Many Trail travelers camped here southwest of Ulysses.

The Trail split into two routes in the Lakin area. The Mountain Route (also called the Raton or Bent’s Fort Route) had more water sources, but was about 60 miles longer than the Cimarron Route, which stretched from Ulysses to Clayton, NM, and lacked reliable water.

East of Syracuse are the remains of Fort Aubrey. Nearby is Aubrey Crossing, important due to a spring, which still exists, along with wagon ruts.

Trail sites in Colorado
Old Fort Lyon, west of Bent’s Fort near Lamar, was built in 1860 and relocated in 1867. Only a few foundations remain, along with wagon ruts north of the site. Foundation ruins can also be seen of Bent’s New Fort, near the Prowers-Bent County Line.

Boggsville, a stage stop on the Trail, is south of Las Animas. New Fort Lyon, east of Las Animas, was active between 1867 and 1889. It is now a veterans’ hospital with remodeled buildings.

East of La Junta, Bent’s Old Fort, built in 1833, was an active trading fort until 1849, and vital in opening the West. The Historic Site was reconstructed in 1976.

The Comanche National Grassland between La Junta and Trinidad offers Trail exhibits. A sheltered picnic area and interpretive site is located near Timpas. Iron Spring, west of Timpas, was an important water supply. Ruins of the Timpas Stage Station and wagon ruts are nearby.

Oklahoma Trail sites
Cold Spring, near Boise City, was a key Trail stopover. Nearby Autograph Rock contains names of Trail travelers.

Camp Nichols, near Wheeless, was the only military site on the Oklahoma portion of the Trail. It was founded by Kit Carson and occupied briefly in 1865. Nearby Cedar Spring supplied Camp Nichols with water. Carrizozo Creek’s canyon walls are inscribed with names of an expedition caught there in an 1868 blizzard.

New Mexico sites
Near Clayton is McNees Crossing of Corrumpa Creek. Named for a young trader killed by Indians in 1828, the crossing was used as a campground. Wagon ruts can be seen.

Mount Clayton, near Grenville, was known as Round Mound in Trail days, and was a major landmark.

The Santa Fe Trail Museum, housed in the old (1882) Colfax County Courthouse in Springer, commemorates Trail travelers.

Wagon Mound, a Trail landmark near the town of the same name, resembles a covered wagon pulled by oxen. Other landmarks to the west were called Pilot Knobs.

Fort Union, near Watrous, was established in 1851 to protect the Trail, and was the foremost post on the Trail until 1891. Impressive ruins can be seen on a self-guided path. Many wagon ruts can be seen at the fort, which is now a National Monument. Watrous marks the probable junction of the Mountain and Cimarron routes. A private residence south of town was the Sapello Stage Station.

Las Vegas, now a town of 14,000, began in 1835 as a Trail town. Kearney Gap, south of town, marks the spot where the New Mexico Militia met William Becknell and his Missouri caravan in 1821.

Tecolote, south of Las Vegas, was named for the Tecolote Creek crossing, which was used well into the 20th century. Ruts are still visible. Starvation Peak, or Bernal Hill, southwest of Tecolote, marked the point where the Trail swung to the west and headed for Santa Fe. Bernal Spring, near the hill, served travelers and was the site of a stage station.

The Pecos Pueblo, on Hwy. 63 north of I-25, was the easternmost pueblo visited by Coronado in 1541. It was still inhabited in Trail days. Pecos was a popular campsite on the Trail, and ruts can be seen today. The Pecos National Historic Park includes the site of the Civil War Battle of Glorieta.

In Santa Fe, wagon ruts can still be seen in Amelia White Park, at Old Santa Fe Trail and Camino Corrales. The Plaza, a short distance away, marked the “end of the trail.”

For more details and complete driving directions, visit the National Park Service website: www.nps.gov/safe. For Trail events, visit www.stjohnks.net/santafetrail/sft/calendar.


Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at kweyand@gbronline.com.


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