Hidden History: Building Burlingame bridge was just one of Switzler’s adventures

John Switzler’s namesake creek forms a natural city limits in northeast Burlingame, as shown in the foreground on a historical illustration and satellite photo.

By Wendi Bevitt

The Santa Fe Trail crosses a small drainage known as Switzler’s Creek as the trail enters Burlingame from the east. This crossing has been in existence for traffic since the trail was created, if not in the time before history was written. The small drainage known formerly by the name “Bridge Creek” gained its name from John Switzler, a trader who was present at the birthplace of the Santa Fe Trail, and made the crossing at Switzler Creek possible.

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the trading center of Santa Fe could finally become a target of trade with the American frontier. That same year, William Becknell led an expedition from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe to gather furs, as well as find a viable route to that center of commerce.

The route was already known to Native Americans as a series of trails across their plains from the Missouri River Valley to the southwest. Franklin would be the beginning of Santa Fe Trail traffic for several more years and home to notable traders like Kit Carson, and lesser known ones such as John Switzler.

Switzler and his brothers took part in the Santa Fe trade. His brother Michael ran a boarding house and stable, and supplied the westbound traffic.

John was not only active in the trade between Taos, New Mexico, and Franklin, but also provided mules to the traders making the journey. When traders would head out on an expedition, they would normally travel in groups, each man carrying a good rifle, dependable pistol, four pounds of gun powder, eight pounds of lead, and rations for 20 days.

By 1822, Becknell had secured a route to Santa Fe that was accessible to wagon traffic, making travel easier. Starting in 1825, Becknell mapped the route and Colonel George Sibley was put in charge of an expedition to survey the route and secure safe passage for the travelers through treaties with the Native American tribes. Part of Sibley’s responsibilities required him to make the route easier to travel, and in 1826 he paid John Switzler $200, presumably to build the bridge over Bridge Creek, later known as Switzler Creek.

Switzler’s travels not only took him to the southwest, but in October of 1823, he is noted as traveling with Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick to the North Platte River, a region extending across portions of modern Nebraska to Wyoming, to assist in retrieving a cache of furs that Fitzpatrick had stashed. During that trip, Switzler was “politely” relieved of his coat and ammunition by some Pawnee that they encountered. This trip occurred just months before Fitzpatrick and Jedediah Smith led a group of men and rediscovered the South Pass route across the Rocky Mountains, which had been originally discovered some 10 years prior.

Another of Swtizler’s journeys into the west found him at Fort Bridger in the 1830s in Wyoming, where he lost his favorite butchering knife. The loss worked him into a frenzy of worry, offering $1,000 to the man who would find his knife. This story indicates how lucrative the profits of the fur trade and potential profits from his bridge crossing were for John Switzler. After a number of years, Switzler’s business went under due to providing too much security for others, and he packed up his family and moved from Missouri to Oregon Territory in 1845.

The earliest emigrants arrived in Oregon in the early 1840s, some parties shepherded by Switzler’s friend Thomas Fitzpatrick. Switzler settled on the Columbia River, operating a ferry and later building a bridge across the river to Fort Vancouver.

Switzler died in 1855 in Oregon at the age of 66.

1872 illustration of Burlingame, from Osage County Historical Society; compare to current Google Maps satellite photo. Switzler’s bridge was at the east end of Santa Fe Avenue, as shown in the illustration.

A 1899 plat map shows how Switzler Creek makes the natural northeast boundary of Burlingame.

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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