Kansas contains the highest total trail mileage compared to the four other states it passes through. And it was in Kansas that travelers had to choose which of the Trail's two main routes they would take the rest of the way to Santa Fe: the Mountain Route, or the shorter but more hazardous Cimarron Route.
Most of the terrain traversed in Kansas was relatively flat or rolling prairie, but passage through it was not without its hardships. The traders' massive wagons frequently had to struggle across muddy, steeply-cut banks of prairie streams like Cottonwood Creek, or brave the quicksands and flash flooding of rivers like the Arkansas. The Kansas prairie environment also bred weather extremes. Epic thunderstorms, dangerous lightning, droughts, and sudden blizzards could conspire to make for a hazardous passage. On the other hand, magnificent vistas, miles of lush carpets of rippling prairie grass and flowers, and a traveler's first glimpse of magnificent herds of buffalo were awe-inspiring.
U.S. Hwys. 56 and 50 in Kansas follow the Trail through the State. Following are just a few key sites.
During the country's westward expansion, Fort Leavenworth was a forward destination for thousands of soldiers, surveyors, emigrants, American Indians, preachers and settlers who passed through. Established in 1827, it became known as the "Post that opened the West."
The first ferry across the Kansas River was started in this vicinity in 1830 or 1831 by Moses Grinter, and was used by Fort Leavenworth troops to reach the Santa Fe Trail. The two-story brick Grinter house was built by Moses Grinter on the northern bluff above the Kansas River in the late 1850s. Today this house is fully restored as a museum, owned by the state of Kansas, and administered by the Kansas State Historical Society. The site of the ferry can still be viewed from the Grinter house, although its precise location is not known. The Grinter house and ferry sites are east of the city of Bonner Springs on Kansas Highway 32.
Begun in 1830, the Shawnee Methodist Indian Mission was relocated in 1839 to its present site in Johnson County near a branch of the Santa Fe Trail originating in Westport. Operated now as a museum, the remains of three original brick mission buildings are now owned by the state of Kansas, administered by the Kansas State Historical Society. Trail ruts are still visible to the north of these buildings. Located at Mission Road and 53rd Street in Fairway, Kansas, just a few blocks west of State Line Road.
Located on the north edge of the city of Olathe the Mahaffie Farmstead and Stagecoach Stop was situated on the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe Trails. The farmstead was a stage station on the road from Westport, and dinners were served in the basement of the house. Owned and operated by the city of Olathe, the two-story native limestone house was constructed in 1865 and is the only known Santa Fe Trail stage station that is open to the public.
On the main branch of the Santa Fe Trail is the Lone Elm campground 3 miles south of Olathe. There was a spring here (now enclosed in a small well) and excellent grazing for livestock. Originally known as Round Grove or Elm Grove because of a grove of trees, the campground was a major campsite for travelers, who eventually cut down all the trees except one for firewood, resulting in its name "Lone Elm." The last tree was also finally cut down, but the name lived on.
The junction of the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail is approximately 2 miles west of the town of Gardner on US Highway 56, and 0.25 mile to the north. At this point the Santa Fe and Oregon trails separated after following the same route from Independence, Missouri.
A dramatic set of parallel ruts are located in Douglas County Prairie Park, adjacent to Black Jack State Park east of Baldwin City. Known as "Black Jack Ruts," these are among the finest along the entire length of the trail. In addition, the "Narrows" ran from just west of present Black Jack State Park east of Baldwin City to the site of Willow Spring some 9 miles west. Wagon trains had to stay on this ridge to avoid rough terrain and muddy draws.
The Palmyra well is within present-day Baldwin City, Kansas. The community of Palmyra grew along the Santa Fe Trail in the 1850s, and the well provided water for trail travelers and their livestock. Palmyra's presence on the Santa Fe Trail has been commemorated with markers nearby, and the well is identified today as the Santa Fe well. One mile to the northwest is Trail Park, which contains interpretive markers; just beyond the park are stretches of county roads that lie on the trail.
The McGee-Harris stage station is about 1 mile south of U.S. Hwy. 56 on the east bank of 110 Mile Creek and east of Burlingame, Kansas. This stage station was started in the 1850s by Fry McGee, who also erected a toll bridge over 110 Mile Creek. Crumbled building remains are all that are left today of the stage station, residence, and store.
The Switzler Creek crossing is at the eastern edge of the town of Burlingame, Kansas, very near the present-day U.S. Hwy. 56 bridge. A toll bridge was operated here from 1847 to the 1860s, and it was at Burlingame that the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway made its first contact with the Santa Fe Trail in 1869. The trail went down the main street of Burlingame.
The Dragoon Creek crossing, a natural rock crossing point, is 3 miles northwest of Burlingame and north of Kansas Highway 31. This natural crossing still appears as it did in the trail days. The creek itself is reported to have been named after a troop of dragoons who came over the Santa Fe Trail in the 1850s, or possibly for a dragoon, Samuel Hunt, whose grave is located just to the west. This is the earliest known gravesite of a soldier on the Santa Fe Trail.
The Council Oak site is in the eastern part of the town of Council Grove, Kansas, on U.S. Hwy. 56. Under this oak tree it is believed that a treaty was negotiated with the Osage Indian tribe in 1825 for safe passage of Santa Fe Trail traffic through their lands. The tree itself was destroyed by a storm several years ago, but the stump remains under a protective canopy.
The Post Office Oak had a hole in its base that was used as a cache for mail. Letters were placed in the tree by travelers and picked up by those going in the opposite direction for delivery. This "post office" was used by trail travelers from the 1820s to about 1847, when Seth Hays established a trading store at Council Grove. Today only a portion of this tree still stands.
The Neosho River crossing is about where U.S. Hwy. 56 bridges the Neosho River at Council Grove. This was an important river crossing on the Santa Fe Trail. The steep banks and high water sometimes made crossings difficult and prompted other crossings close to the highway bridge.
The Conn Store is in Council Grove on the south side of U.S. Hwy. 56, Main Street, at Neosho Street, in the town's business district. This store was considered to be one of the most important trading stores in Council Grove during the Santa Fe Trail era. The building was erected in 1858, and although altered from its original state, is still in use by a local business.
The Seth Hays house, built in 1866 by Seth Hays, is in Council Grove about two blocks south of Main Street. The house is important because of Hays's prominence in Council Grove and his connection with the Santa Fe traders. Currently operated as a museum, it is one of the few trail homes in the area that has been preserved in nearly original condition.
The Kaw Mission is on the northern edge of the town of Council Grove. Built about 1850 as a school for Kaw Indian children, it became a school for white children when the Indians refused to send their children there. Today the building is operated by the Kansas State Historical Society as a museum, and is one of the oldest buildings still standing in this part of Kansas.
Last Chance Store is west of the Council Grove business district on the north side of U.S. Hwy. 56. This store has become known as the most famous, but not the largest nor the most important, trading store in Council Grove during the trail era. Built in 1857, the privately owned building remains today in a nearly original state.
On your way out of Council Grove do like the trail day pioneers did, stop at the Historic Limestone 1861 Terwilliger Home. It was described in 1863 as the last sign of civilization as wagons were leaving Council Grove. It is a rare treasure and within is a rare Kanza Indian pictograph cut into the original walnut backdoor casing. The authorities know of no other Indian pictograph on a white persons dwelling for a white person. The Terwilliger Home of yesterday is known today as Trail Days Bakery Cafe. Their food is made from scratch and they dress in costume and create a Living history experience for their guests.
The Six Mile Creek crossing and stage station site are on the road that runs south from U.S. Hwy. 56 toward the town of Burdick, Kansas, and just south of the bridge over Six Mile Creek. Six Mile Creek was named because it is 6 miles from Diamond Spring. There are good trail ruts coming into the crossing site from the east, but the actual crossing is no longer visible. The stage station opened about 1863 after the Diamond Spring station was destroyed. The station was in use until 1866 or 1867, when the stage line moved to Junction City, Kansas, because of railroad construction. A ranching operation was headquartered at this site after the station was abandoned, and the station building served as the ranch house until after the turn of the century. Today only the basement walls and some debris from the upper stories can be seen, with some trail ruts nearby.
Ralph's ruts are 4 miles west of Chase, Kansas, on U.S. Hwy. 56, then 0.75 mile north on the Ralph Hathaway farm. The seven parallel trail ruts are some of the finest examples of pristine trail remains any place along the entire route. Visitors to the site have easy access, a turnout for parking, and a DAR marker to point out the location. Extending westerly from here, the ruts continue on intermittently for another 2 miles, where they form the spectacular Gunsight Notch, a ridge worn away by 60 years of commercial and military traffic.
The Plum Buttes were also 4 miles west of Chase, Kansas, 1 mile north on a gravel road, and then 1 mile west. Plum Buttes referred to several very large sand dunes that were covered by plum bushes, These highly visible dunes became landmarks for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, who sought to avoid the soft, sandy, and nearly impassable soils along the Arkansas River. Plum Buttes was a favorite nooning spot on the trail, and because it was the only landmark in the vicinity, it was often used as a reference point to delineate the location of significant events. The last dune, still visible in the 1870s and 1880s, had disappeared because of wind erosion by 1900.
Fort Dodge is about 2.5 miles east of Dodge City on Kansas Hwy. 400. The post was founded in 1865 to help protect a long section of the Santa Fe Trail. The fort site had been previously used as a campsite by trail travelers because the wet and dry routes rejoined at this point. Fort Dodge troops were also charged with the protection of stagecoaches, mail, and railroad construction crews. The fort was removed from service in 1882. Today the former fort serves as the Kansas State Soldiers Home. Several original buildings remain, including the commanding officer's quarters, several officers' quarters, enlisted men's barracks, and the post hospital. Although they have been remodeled, they illustrate army life along the Santa Fe Trail.
The Fort Mann site is about 1 mile west of Dodge City on U.S. Hwy. 50. Fort Mann was established in April 1847 because the Army needed a post midway between Fort Leavenworth and Santa Fe to repair wagons and replace animals. It was a quartermaster repair station with a log stockade for protection, and it was erected under the direction of Daniel P. Mann. Although not a regular military post, Fort Mann was defensible and occasionally occupied by regular troops, such as the Indian Battalion of Missouri Volunteers in 1847-48. it was abandoned in 1848.
The Fort Atkinson site is about 2 miles west of Dodge City and was originally established as Camp Mackay on August 8, 1850, to control Indians and to protect the Santa Fe Trail. On June 25, 1851, a newly built fort was officially designated as Fort Atkinson. Being constructed of sod, it was popularly known as "Fort Sod" or "Fort Sodom," and it was the first fully garrisoned fort to be erected along the Santa Fe Trail. Its mission was to protect the trail from Indian raids. It was not successful. Atkinson was abandoned permanently on October 2, 1854, because of its inadequate buildings and the difficulty and expense of supplying it. Attempts were made to protect this section of the Santa Fe Trail with summer patrols of troops from 1855 to 1859.