Hidden History: Santa Fe Trail charts course for railroads, highways across Kansas – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Santa Fe Trail charts course for railroads, highways across Kansas

An American family travels using a common mode of transportation during Santa Fe Trail times and later, a covered wagon. Photo source unknown.

The Santa Fe Trail cuts across Osage County, entering the northeast corner and exiting northwest of Osage City. Road markers are visible for travelers on local highways, but what was the Santa Fe Trail, and why was it significant for Osage County?

The route of the Santa Fe Trail, as is commonly the case with historic period trails, was comprised of a series of more ancient routes of travel established and widely used by the original inhabitants of the region far back into prehistory. This trail closely followed a series of indigenous roads.

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 and find a viable route to that center of commerce. By 1822, Becknell had secured a route to Santa Fe that was accessible to wagon traffic, making travel easier. In 1824, the road to Santa Fe was declared an official route by an act of Congress. The following year, representatives of the U.S. government and the Kansa and Osage met at Council Grove, Kansas, where the tribes agreed to relinquish claims to large tracts of the Plains to the United States. The tribes also agreed to provide open access and assistance along the Santa Fe Trail to all travelers. Starting in 1825, Becknell mapped the route, and Colonel George Sibley was put in charge of an expedition to survey 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 to build the bridge over Bridge Creek, later known as Switzler Creek, at modern-day Burlingame.

Early traders along the Santa Fe Trail in Osage County were members of the Shawnee tribe. After a treaty designated a reservation in Kansas for the Shawnee, they were moved to lands south of the Kansas River, which included modern-day Osage County. The Shawnee had long had close associations with Euro-American traders in their recent history, which led them to build a way of life located in close proximity to those they traded with. In Kansas, the Santa Fe road corridor became an ideal location for this because it cut through the Shawnee reservation. Tribe members typically settled in family groups spread out along waterways. Prime locations in what would become Osage County were the Switzler Crossing (at Burlingame) and 110 Mile Creek crossing (near Four Corners).

As the United States sought to expand its territory westward, an expedition of Dragoon soldiers set out in 1835 with the directive to make contact with native tribes across the Plains. On their return march from the Rocky Mountains, the Dragoons followed the Santa Fe Trail. When they were somewhere between Council Grove and 110 Mile Creek, the expedition experienced its only loss, the death of 23-year-old Private Samuel Hunt, on Sept. 11, 1835. Colonel Dodge, who was in charge of the troops, directed him to be buried on a high prairie ridge. About 100 years after his death, a modern stone was placed upon the grave in memory of the fallen soldier and can still be seen today west of Burlingame.

Eventually, the old trails gave way to the state’s railroads. On Feb. 11, 1859, the Kansas Territorial Legislature created the Santa Fe Railway. The charter provided that the company be incorporated under the name of the Atchison and Topeka Railway Company. A severe drought in 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War the next year prevented any progress toward actual construction. By early spring 1869 the tracklayers were moving rapidly westward, and in April the first excursion was made over the new line, from Topeka to Wakarusa. On Sept. 18, the sight of the iron horse arrived in Burlingame. The race toward the state’s western border continued to gain speed. In July 1870 the train reached Emporia, and by fall of 1872 was completed to Dodge City. With the insertion of the railroad, the Santa Fe Trail as a connector to the southwest saw less and less use.

To preserve the Santa Fe Trail as an important part of our nation’s history the Daughters of the American Revolution in Kansas began the monumental task of marking the route in Kansas in 1902. Soon chapters of DAR in Missouri, Colorado, and New Mexico followed suit and marked the trail in their respective states. 1902, The Kansas Daughters began securing red granite boulders of varying size for the markers, at a cost of about $16 per boulder. At that time, there were only around 300 DAR members in the entire state, so help from the communities was essential. By 1906, the Daughters had enough money for 86 markers and began to arrange their dedication. Within Osage County, markers were placed on the Trail at Overbrook, the Four Corners area, Scranton, and Burlingame.

With the invention of the automobile, America began to see that she needed roads, good roads – which created a push for the creation of highways, namely a highway that would cross the entire country east to west. For the previous few years, both Kansas and Missouri had worked in a joint effort to make their states’ roads better, and pull their states “out of the mud.” When Good Road Days were declared, businesses were closed and tens of thousands of workers chipped in to improve on the major thoroughfares. Farmers supplied the draft animals for heavy work, and highway builders furnished road construction machines. In 1916, the Burlingame Enterprise declared oiled roads were roads of the future. Some portions of the Old Santa Fe Trail had been oiled the previous year, and the expectation was to continue this work.

It wasn’t until 1929 that Kansas passed an amendment that allowed Kansas to join the other 47 states in building and maintaining a system of cross-state highways. U.S. Highway 56 was originally part of the northern portion of U.S. Highway 50, a road that was split into two routes in the western part of the state until it reached Baldwin Junction (the junction of modern Highway 56 and 59). In 1932, the highway was dirt for much of the route east from Garden City to Baldwin Junction. By the following year, Highway 50N was graveled or hard surfaced between Finney County to Overbrook.

In the early 1950s, a push was made to create a new U.S. Highway 55 between Springer, New Mexico, and Kansas via what was then state Highway 45. This prompted the elimination of the U.S. 50 north-south split, and the route was recreated into modern day U.S. 56. Much of the Kansas portion of U.S. 56, which dissects Osage County, follows the Santa Fe Trail through the state.

As a longtime waypoint on the Santa Fe Trail, railroads, roads and highways, Osage County’s progress has depended largely on the progress of U.S. transportation.

An American family travels using a common mode of transportation during Santa Fe Trail times and later, a covered wagon. Photo source unknown.

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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