Santa Fe Trail leaves a lasting impression in Kansas

03/20/2011 9:25 AM

03/21/2011 5:09 PM

“There have been many things in my life that I have striven to forget, but not those journeys over the Santa Fe Trail. My life as I look back seems to have been lived best in those days on the trail.” — Marion Russell, born Marion Sloan in 1845, traveled the trail for the first time when she was 7 years old

Steve Schmidt searched for years before finding that piece of land in Marion County with a ribbon of historic highway stretching across it. More than anything, he wanted to own a piece of history along the Santa Fe Trail.

“I had a pilot friend fly me over Marion County in 1994, and from the air you could just trace the trail, mile after mile,” Schmidt said. “It was the most astonishing thing I’d ever seen. I started doing research.”

Finally, in 2000, Schmidt and his wife found 160 acres for sale. A piece of the historic trail — deep ruts still carved into the prairie — cuts diagonally across the property. The couple bought the land and moved from Denver to McPherson.

“It started because I have always liked trains, and that leads you into the development of the western United States — and that made me wonder what came before railroads,” Schmidt said. “And then, I became interested in the western migration, and my interest settled on the Santa Fe Trail. When you can still see the remnants of the trail in this day and age, it is a national treasure that should be preserved.”

This year marks not only the 150th anniversary of Kansas becoming a state but the 190th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail.

For more than 60 years, the 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 one of the earliest used trails in the Old West, and some of the deadliest portions ran through the heart of Kansas.

“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 “Along the Santa Fe Trail.” She would travel the trail from Leavenworth to Santa Fe five times in her life.

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More than 150 historic sites dot the 900-mile Santa Fe Trail.

In places the trail is 50 feet across. In others, the ruts branch off in different directions, looking like a frayed rope.

The Santa Fe was the I-70 of its day.

The military used it during the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and Indian wars.

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 writer from Woodston.

The trail moved America — from the time in 1821 when Mexico won its freedom from Spain and welcomed Missourian William 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.

A typical wagon train included anywhere from 25 to 100 freight wagons.

“They didn’t want to get much larger than that because of the size of the camping sites,” Oliva said. “You didn’t want to get too many in one spot because of overcrowding. You only had so much water and grass.”

June and July were the peak travel season, when the grass was high enough to sustain the livestock. Small herds of additional livestock were driven with each train to replace those that died along the trail.

While the freight wagons carried supplies to sell in Santa Fe, people traveled in smaller covered wagons, buggies, on horseback and by foot, covering 15 to 20 miles a day. The average trip took about eight weeks. It’s estimated to have cost each traveler $40 in supplies to make the trip, one way.

They took a little bit of everything. There were the major food supplies: flour for making biscuits, sugar, salt and coffee.

“Coffee was the mainstay,” Oliva said. “They’d stop in the heat of the day to make coffee.”

They carried beans and salt pork and hoped they had enough to make it into the buffalo range, where they had an easy supply of fresh meat.

“Ours is quite the picture of a hunter’s home today,” Susan Shelby Magoffin wrote of her travels on the trail in “Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico.” “The men, most of them, have been out since sunrise, and mules loaded with the spoils of their several victories, are constantly returning to camp. It is a rich site indeed to look at the fine fat meat stretched out on ropes to dry for our sustenance. .æ.æ. Such soup as we have made of the hump ribs. . . . I never eat its equal in the best hotels of N.Y. and Philadel.”

There were profits to be made, no doubt.

According to “The Road to Santa Fe,” by Hobart E. Stocking, a freight wagon bought in Missouri for $150 could be sold in Santa Fe for $700. A pair of oxen cost $50 to $74; mules, $60 to $85 per team.

“The trains would be spread out, many two to four wagons abreast to help keep the dust down,” Oliva said. “The thing is once you had your equipment together, it was really pretty easy to travel.”

While most wagon trains went without mishap, travelers would carry plenty of ammunition and guns for protection.

“Some of the companies even carried the equipment to make their own bullets,” Oliva said.

Some ran into trouble, like the wagon train near Great Bend in 1853 that came into contact with 500 Cheyenne Indians. Sixty Indians and five settlers were killed in the ensuing conflict.

“There were those few incidents of real trouble, and that’s what everybody remembers,” Oliva said. “It is like today, if there is a tornado in some town like Greensburg, well, that’s all you are going to talk about. Same thing for people who survived Indian attacks or went though a storm.”

And, contrary to Hollywood, Oliva said, there was no “circle the wagons” mentality.

In times of crisis, the travelers formed the wagons into a rectangle or square and put up log chains on the ends to keep livestock from running off.

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A few weeks ago, Steve Schmidt climbed out of an SUV and over the barbed wire fence surrounding his property. He briefly gazed at the 160 acres of grassland he now owns.

It’s prairie that has never been broken.

He intends to keep it that way.

“My heart rate starts beating faster when I think about all that went on here,” Schmidt said as he walked along the ruts. “Anybody who was anybody in the 1800s and that was traveling through the West went right down here.”

Indeed, the trail attracted a virtual who’s who of the 19th century:

Buffalo Bill Cody, Gen. Philip Sheridan and Gen. George Armstrong Custer all traveled the Santa Fe Trail.

Frontiersman Kit Carson in 1826 joined Charles Bent on the trail. When the party stopped at Pawnee Rock, Carson, then a teen, was frightened by the possibility of contact with Indians. He saw movement at night and, thinking it was Indians, shot his own mule.

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. With few landmarks to guide him, Smith’s caravan got off course and became desperately low on water. Smith left in search of water. He was killed by Comanche Indians just as he reached the Cimarron River.

His body was never recovered.

In the mid-1860s, Ed Miller was killed after encountering a group of Cheyenne Indians.

His tombstone is not far from Schmidt’s place in a country cemetery near a small grove of trees.

The trail sometimes posed threats far greater than the clash of cultures.

In the absence of proper sanitation, disease could sometimes flourish.

Malaria, dysentery, diarrhea and pneumonia were the most common; cholera was the most dreaded.

In the summer of 1867, cholera struck the forts along the trail.

At Fort Zarah near Great Bend, Col. H.L. Moore, commander of a battalion, wrote how the epidemic affected his troops within an hour.

“Everybody felt cheerful, hoping that the future had nothing worse in store than a meeting with hostile Indians,” Moore wrote. “By 8 p.m., supper was over, and in another hour the camp became a hospital of screaming hospital patients. Men were seized with cramping of the stomach, bowels, and muscles of the arms and legs. The doctor and his medicines were powerless to resist the disease.”

The New York Times published on July 31, 1867, that 16 cases of cholera had occurred at Fort Larned. The disease was rapidly spreading among troops guarding the railroad construction party at Fort Harker near Ellsworth.

In his book “Fort Dodge, Sentry of the Western Plains,” Oliva describes the following account from Maj. Henry Douglas, the post commander that summer who, along with his wife and sons, was stricken by the disease. At least 20 people died at Fort Dodge from the epidemic, including Douglas’ wife, Issie.

“On Friday the 26 July, the cholera broke out in virulent epidemic form at this Post. It came upon us like a clap of thunder. I was the first and only officer seriously ill with it. . . . I suffered intensely but the kind attentions of friends, medical skill, and above all the constant attention of my darling wife, and a sturdy constitution, I was brought safely through the dangerous stages of the malady , but left me utterly prostrated.”

Over the next few days, Issie Douglas grew tired and ill while her husband lingered between life and death.

“I was again & again dosed with morphine & other poisons, utterly prostrated, helpless & torpid. I did not know that Issie was dangerously sick until about ½ hour before her death.”

Maj. Douglas would later write that the doctors deceived him about his wife’s condition.

A soldier whispered into the major’s ear that his wife was about to die.

“I tried to rise but could not,” he wrote. “I called out. It was useless. .æ.æ. I sank back in a state of semi-insensibility. I know nothing more. They informed me that she died at 10 minutes past 12 on August 1st. . . . I lingered on between life & death, utterly reckless which way the scale turned.”

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Just as Kansas is the center of the United States, so is it the crossroads of the nation.

Long before settlement, Kansas trails were blazed by Native Americans, traders, the military and cattlemen.

In Kansas, the trails brought together the Northeast, South, Southwest and West.

A 1969 study by two Wichita State University professors lists as many as 121 trails in Kansas, with names like Black Dog, Dull Knife’s Raid, Comanche War and Shoofly.

There was the Cherokee, a trail blazed in 1849 by pioneers from Arkansas and Cherokee Indians. And the Chisholm, begun in 1867 by Joseph G. McCoy, an Illinois livestock trader who drove Texas cattle to Kansas cow towns and named the trail for early Wichita trader Jesse Chisholm.

In March 2009, Congress and President Obama authorized the secretary of the interior to study 64 trails — including the Chisholm and Great Western — to determine whether they should be designated national historic trails.

The state already has four National Historic Trails: the Santa Fe, the Lewis and Clark, the Pony Express and the Oregon.

“The wide open spaces of the prairie lend themselves to going in a lot of different directions,” said Jay Price, director of the public history program at Wichita State. “We are not constrained by the geography — such as those that had to go in one narrow path or follow one major river. We can go almost any direction and end up someplace fairly significant.”

Kansas is still the crossroads — U.S. 81 and K-15 follow the Chisholm Trail; U.S. 56, U.S. 54 and U.S. 50 follow the Santa Fe Trail; U.S. 40 and I-70 follow the Smoky Hill Trail to Denver; and portions of U.S. 36 follow the Pony Express route.

Even now, when the light of the sun is just right, the trails of Kansas, particularly the Santa Fe Trail, still beckon across the prairie.

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