A vital land trail receives recognition and a reappraisal of its role in American history and in shaping the future of Kansas
Along the undulating hills, canyons, and creeks of the Kansas prairie, an ancient highway comes to life. Traveled by some full of hope and ambition and by others full of fear and regret, the Santa Fe Trail appears in the form of physical ruts still visible in the landscape and embedded in the legacy of communities and cultures it traversed as it wound its way over a horizon marked by buffalo wallows, tallgrass and wildflowers. This year marks 200 years of the Santa Fe Trail, first opened after Missouri freighting entrepreneur William Becknell established the route as a commerce highway. Beginning in 1821 and for more than six decades after that, the Santa Fe Trail connected the settled territory of Missouri to the settled territory of New Mexico and went on to the gold fields of California. It was—without exaggeration—the I-70 of its day. The Santa Fe Trail was one of the earliest trails for American expansion in the Old West, and some of the deadliest portions ran through the heart of Kansas.
The Legend of the Trail
When people speak of the Santa Fe Trail, they are often evoking its legacy and symbolism as much as the historical route. Stories of the trail are captivating, caught up in the mysteries of Western lore, battles, and the fortunes and misfortunes of travelers.
Buffalo Bill Cody, Gen. Phillip Sheridan and Gen. George Armstrong Custer all traveled the trail. In the spring of 1831, Jedediah Smith, famed mountain man, trapper and explorer, met his demise along the trail as he led a train of wagons and pack mules.
Many of the myths and legends are rooted in the tales and voices of ordinary people.
“Sometimes we were alarmed by the Indians, threatened by the storms, and always it seemed we suffered for want of water,” Marion Russell wrote in her journal, later published in the book Along the Santa Fe Trail. Russell would travel the trail from Leavenworth to Santa Fe five times in her life, one of the thousands who journeyed on it, and one of the fortunate ones who lived through it.
Sister Mary Alphonsa Thompson was one of the travelers who never made it to Santa Fe. The 19-year-old nun died of cholera in western Kansas in July 1867. Before she died, she pleaded with other travelers in her wagon train to not abandon her body on the prairie. But fear of Native Americans and disease compelled her fellow travelers to bury her body quickly and continue their journey on to Santa Fe. Her grave, believed by historians to be in Finney County, is unmarked.
Ed Miller’s grave in McPherson County is clearly marked, but his death may have been the result of a clash of cultures. In July 1864, Miller was on a mission to help a sick woman from Marion and was riding for help. As more and more travelers poured along the trail, Native tribes, including Kiowa, Comanche, Arapahoe and Cheyenne, sought to push back on the invasion by attacking wagon trains and ranches in the area. When Miller’s body was found, it had been scalped, pierced with a spear and shot.
The United States military used this 900-mile trail during the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and Indian Wars. Then, miners used it to travel back and forth to the gold rushes, and families used it to migrate westward, according to Leo Oliva, a Kansas historian and author.
In places, the trail was a narrow 50 feet across; in other locations along the route, it would branch off in different directions, almost like the ends of a frayed rope.
But the trail was defined enough and known well enough to move America—from1821 when Mexico won its freedom from Spain and welcomed Becknell’s small trading party in Santa Fe, to when the last rails were completed and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad reached the Kansas state line in 1882.
“It was the first international trade trail between the United States and Mexico,” Oliva says. “It was the route responsible, in part, for taking three-fifths of Mexico and taking 99 percent of the Indian lands in the Great Plains. It’s part of the national expansion story and the sad part, white supremacy and Christian nationalism. It’s all a part of it.”
And in that sense, the trail is older than 200 years, for much of it is an overlay of routes established long before by Native people and then turned into an instrument against them.
Pauline Sharp is the granddaughter of Chief Lucy Tayiah Eads, first woman chief of the Kanza Indians, from the tribe for whom Kansas is named. She is a citizen of the Kaw Nation and past vice president of the Kaw Nation Cultural Committee. The Kaw Nation faced land reduction and removal several times during the height of the Santa Fe Trail. At one time, the Kaw claimed a territory that covered roughly two-fifths of modern Kansas and parts of Nebraska and Missouri.
Then, an 1825 peace treaty with the federal government reduced the Kanza lands from 20 million acres to 2 million acres just west of Topeka. Another treaty in 1846 reduced the Kanza land to 256,000 acres near Council Grove, where the Kaw Mission is the town’s oldest stone structure and where the people lived from 1848 until their forced removal to Oklahoma in 1873—pushed out by the travels on the roads that they and other Native peoples had once established.
“The Santa Fe Trail used to be an Indian trail, and when so many people began traveling [it], the Kaws took a different route that ran south and parallel to that—to the hunting grounds,” Sharp says. “It eventually stopped with the loss of the buffalo and railroad. The trail was pretty devastating for the Kanza. It was a conduit for disease—smallpox and cholera. It brought trade to the Kanza. But lots of swindling went on. In some ways, it was the end of the Kaws in 19th-century Kansas; it definitely sped things along.”
Sharp brings this perspective to her work as a member of the National Santa Fe Trail 200 committee. She and her husband, Doug, are members of the Santa Fe Trail Association, and Doug manages land in the Flint Hills where the trail traverses near Dunlap in Morris County.
“We’ve been to symposiums, rendezvous, and I’ve learned a lot about the Santa Fe Trail, its history,” Sharp says. “The Kaws were trying to survive. It was not good for them.”
Surveying the route and the landscape it crossed, Sharp says her favorite part of the trail is on the land her husband manages, not far from the Allegawaho Heritage Memorial Park—the sacred land of the Kaws and site of last Kaw Indian village before tribal members were forced from Kansas—near Council Grove.
“To go out there, it’s isolated, and you can just imagine how was it back then,” Sharp said. “The land looks pretty much like it did 200 years ago. There is a hill where some of the ruts are over your head. It’s very impressive. I think of the trade that went on. It was a part of life back then. It’s part of the fabric of our country. People aren’t aware of how the Kaws were treated back then. It’s sad—but it’s also part of our story that needs to be told.”
On the Trail
At the time of the trail’s greatest activity, the Native and Euro-American cultures were mostly in conflict. While travelers feared Native attacks, the clashes and the growing military power of the American settlers often brought about one-sided battles. In 1853, for example, a wagon train near Great Bend came into contact with 500 Cheyenne Indians. Sixty Indians and five settlers were killed in the ensuing conflict.
For most settlers, the trail was not an intrusion into hunting grounds or tribal lands, but a difficult undertaking to get from one location to another.
A typical wagon train included anywhere from 25 to 100 freight wagons. June and July were the peak travel season, when the grass was high enough to sustain the livestock. While freight wagons carried supplies to sell in Santa Fe, people traveled in small covered wagons, buggies, on horseback and by foot, covering 15 to 20 miles a day. The average trip took about 8 weeks.
The travelers took a little bit of everything—flour for making biscuits, sugar, salt and coffee. They carried beans and salt pork and hoped they had enough to make it into buffalo range, where they had an easy supply of fresh meat.
Supplies could be expensive. According to The Road to Santa Fe by Hobart Stocking, a pair of oxen cost $50 to $75; mules $60 to $85 per team, and a freight wagon had to be purchased in Missouri for as much as $150—though if you made it to Santa Fe, it could be sold for as much as $700.
Stocking describes the wagons loaded with “cloth and metal and even bottles. They started out from Missouri with a lot of wine. They drank the wine along the way. The empty bottles in New Mexico were worth more than the wine cost in Missouri because there was a shortage of bottles.”
It is estimated that more than 150 historic sites remain along the route of the historic Santa Fe Trail. As a historian who has been researching and writing about the trail since 1959, Oliva says many of those sites are favorites to share.
“There are lots of spots that still have trail ruts, stream crossings and so on. Half of the trail is in Kansas,” he says. “When I did tours, I would stop some place and I would say ‘This is my favorite place on the trail.’ The next stop, I’d say, ‘This is my favorite place.’ Finally, somebody said, ‘How can you have so many favorite places?’ And I said my favorite place is wherever I happen to be.”