Santa Fe Trail


in Lyon County


The Emporia Daily Gazette, June 20, 1930

Excerpt from an article/interview with L. E. Bush

Sixty-five years ago (1865) the chief delight of a small boy (Bush) who lived in northeastern Lyon County was to watch the trains of freight wagons ply their way westward over the Old Santa Fe Trail.  These oxen-drawn wagons proceeded slowly along the Trail, leaving and picking up freight at the settlements.  Santa Fe, N.Mex. was their destination, and Independence, Mo. their starting point.  The railroads had come no farther west.  Trains of freight wagons—long trains, sometimes taking nearly a day to pass, naturally would make an impression on a small boy’s mind.


The Emporia Daily Gazette, June 23, 1949

Excerpt from an article/interview with L. E. Bush

The Santa Fe Trail is not only the ragged ruts of wagon wheels across the Kansas prairie. It is, still more, the deep lines of memory etched in old men’s minds.  Still it is possible to find a few who remember and in backward glances can still see the long lines of wagons struggling westward; can hear the creak of ungreased wheels and catch the scent of sweating oxen. . . .

. . . He (Bush) remembers standing on a grassy knoll in the 1860’s, watching the long lines of freight wagons laboring westward over the old Trail, the ox and mule teams prodded by hard-cussing drivers, hauling freight for 50 cents per hundred (pounds).



In Missouri halfway between Columbia and Kansas City, the town of Franklin was established north of the Missouri River in 1816.  It was soon a bustling frontier town and river port, attracting settlers like Wm. Becknell to the area.  On September 1, 1821 Becknell and his party of horse-traders left from Franklin and crossed the Missouri River at nearby Arrow Rock.  They followed parts of the Osage Trace (an established trail), and set out along what would become known in a few years as the Santa Fe Trail.  Becknell’s venture was profitable, and the first of several trips to the Mexican trading center.

As settlement moved further west and the Santa Fe Trail became more popular, the starting point for the trail also moved westward to places like Lexington, Fort Osage Landing, and Liberty Landing in Missouri.1  Independence, Missouri was founded in 1827, and by 1832 it was the outfitting point for, and eastern terminus of, the Santa Fe Trail.2

The Santa Fe Trail meandered across the Great Plains from its terminus at Independence, Missouri (east side of present-day Kansas City) to its other terminus at Santa Fe, in northern Mexico.  During its use in the 1800’s, it was usually referred to as the Santa Fe Road.  It was in active use by traders, the U.S. Military and pioneers until the railroad reached Santa Fe in 1880.  Initially as it came into more frequent use, treaties were negotiated with native tribes for passage through their territory, and Congress sent out surveyors to mark the trail in 1825, but the survey was not completed until 1827.

After the Mexican War (1846-1848), Santa Fe was in the United States, in the newly-formed state of New Mexico.  The thriving city remained an important place for transactions between Americans and Mexicans for trade goods.

Typically, teams of oxen, mules or horses pulled heavily loaded freight wagons over the Trail.  Oxen were cattle of any breed trained and used as draft animals, to provide the muscle to haul heavy loads.  Most were castrated males which tended to grow to larger size than bulls, but the ox was sometimes a female or a bull.  Mules were bred from a female horse and a male donkey.  They were known for their sure-footedness, strength, and for being stubborn.  Although slow, the plodding oxen were preferred because they were best able to withstand the rigors of such travel, they were less likely to be stolen by Indians, and could be eaten in cases of hardship.  In good travel conditions, a wagon train could only travel ten to fifteen miles a day, at a little more than two miles per hour.  It took four months to make a trip with ox teams.

By the end of 1866 the Union Pacific Railroad had been built from the east, passing through Kansas City, Topeka and Manhattan as far as Junction City.  This was far to the northwest of Lyon County.  In 1866 the long wagon trains that had previously formed at Council Grove in neighboring Morris Co. now formed at Junction City and moved westward over the Smoky Hill route. The Stage Company moved its entire outfit from Council Grove to Junction City.2

As the railroad bypassed sections of the Trail, use of it for long-distance travel was drastically reduced as most of the travelers and freighting business took the rails as far as possible, then used other wagon roads to go south to the Santa Fe Trail and on to New Mexico.

The Trail was still used for local traffic until better roads were built; in Lyon County, the local community of Allen remained there until they moved south to the railroad as it was being built through in 1886.  The Santa Fe Trail was designated a National Historic Trail in 1987.




          When Kansas Territory was opened for white settlement in 1854 (to settle on Indian Reservation land was illegal), the only established wagon road in Breckenridge (Lyon) County was the Santa Fe Trail.  Until 1856 or ’57, with the lack of established landmarks, pioneer settlers would go back to the Trail and follow it when they traveled, to avoid getting lost in the rolling grass-covered hills.

As shown on the 1886 maps of the north end of Lyon Co. below, the Santa Fe Trail is marked as a double dotted line.  As traveled from the west, it came through the Flint Hills from Council Grove in Morris Co. (see notes on county lines below the maps).  As it entered Lyon Co., the Trail meandered north-northeast, with small stream crossings at Bluff Creek, 142, Elm, Chicken and Log Chain creeks.  Travelers then angled NE to the county line and reached the station of Wilmington in the SE corner of Wabaunsee Co.


from west county line


to east line   


  • May 1854 – Kansas Territory opened to white settlement.
  • 1855 – Breckenridge (later Lyon) County established, 24 x 24 miles.
  • 1859 – 3 miles added to south Breckenridge Co., 24 x 27 miles.
  • Jan. 29, 1861 – Kansas achieved statehood.
  • 1869 – 12 miles added to south Breckenridge Co., 24 x 39 miles.
  • Apr. 1861 – U. S. Civil War started.  U.S. Vice-Pres. John C. Breckinridge, for whom the county was named, supported the pro-slavery Confederates.
  • Feb. 1862 – Breckinridge Co. renamed Lyon County.
  • 1863 & ‘64 – Entire west side of Lyon County reduced by two miles to 22 x  39, and that land was added to Morris Co. and Chase Co.  The Rock Creek crossing on the Santa Fe Trail became part of Morris Co.  Final boundary change.


In other notes of local interest, the crossing at One Hundred Forty-Two Mile Creek in Lyon County was 142 miles from the Santa Fe Trail terminus at Independence, Missouri.

Buttermilk Street was a section of the Santa Fe Trail in northeast Lyon County, so named because there were four or five farmsteads established near each other along an unusually straight east-west portion of the Trail.  Travelers could sometimes buy fresh produce from the farmers, including buttermilk.  This  section of the Trail can seen on the map above, just below the words “Waushara P.O.”  Today it lies under a modern gravel road.

Millions of foot falls from humans and animals combined with the wheels of loaded wagons to create the wide channels known as the “ruts” of the Trail in this area.  Except where they came together, for instance at creek crossings, typically several rut tracks lay side-by-side, worn down gradually into the prairie soil.  Over 140 years after the heavy traffic stopped, the ruts still exist at least knee-deep in many places where they have not been paved or plowed.

The name Hard Bottom Ford on the above 1886 map suggests the rarity of finding a creek crossing with solid footing.  Most were deep mud, churned to sticky muck by the foot, hoof and wagon wheel traffic.

Initially called Murder Creek for a robbery/murder that had occurred there in the early days of Trail use, Log Chain Creek was renamed by travelers on the Trail when their heavy wagons got stuck in the muddy crossing.  They used heavy log chains to pull the wagons out, and sometimes the chains broke.  Broken chains were sometimes left lying in the mud for other feet and wagons to trample down into the muck.

A wind wagon was reported to have crossed Lyon County on the Santa Fe Trail in 1861.  It was a novel idea that worked, but never gained much popularity.  Lightweight by necessity, most had a bed about 3 x 8 feet and 6 inches deep, and weighed about 350 pounds.  One or more sails were positioned over the front axle.  The weight of passengers and their possessions had to be carefully considered.  If the breeze blew in the right direction, a wind wagon could roll along at speeds of from 15 to 40 mph.  A hand crank could turn the wheels manually when necessary.




Located north of Admire on the west side of modern-day Hwy 99, the pink granite Trail marker shown here is 1/2 mile north of Road 380.  It reads:  SANTA FE TRAIL         1822  1872           MARKED BY           THE DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE STATE OF KANSAS                 1906


In 1906, the State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) placed stone markers at various points along the Santa Fe Trail to indicate where the Trail had been.  The photo below shows (from left) Harry, Bent, Laffe and Jake Wheat with the Elm Creek crossing marker that was placed at the Trail 4 and 1/4 miles north of the modern-day highway junction of Hwy 56 and Hwy 99.


In the background is the house that served as Elm Creek Station and post office at the time of Baker’s murder.  The house had a fireplace on each end, and one had an entry to a hiding place, where occupants could take refuge if attacked.  When the building was moved some years after Bill Anderson and friends shot at it in 1862, the door with its bullet-holes was replaced and it was given to the Kansas State Historical Society Museum in Topeka, but they no longer have this item in the collection.





The following Lyon County history is excerpted from the book, Allen, Kansas, 1854-1886, 1886-1986 by historian Donald Scheisser, 1986.

In June of 1854, Charles H. Withington became the first settler in what is now Lyon County, when he established his residence at the crossing of 142-Mile Creek on the old Santa Fe Trail, three and one half miles northeast of present Allen. This was little over a month after the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed on May 30, 1854 and Kansas was opened to white settlement.

He soon opened a store, constructed of logs, for trade with the Santa Fe (trail travelers) and (local) Indians.  Many immigrants used Withington’s place as their headquarters while they looked around the area for a place to settle. Withington built a bridge on the Trail over the creek and established a toll on it, so that travelers could pay to cross the bridge or ford the creek north or south of the bridge.

Near 1857 was the time of the great gold rush for Pikes Peak, and “Pikes Peak or Bust” was on hundreds of wagons. In one day more than 500 wagons passed 142 Creek. This rush continued for a hundred days and it was estimated that 50,000 wagons went West.

Travel over the Trail was heavy in the 1860’s.  From May 21 to November 25, 1865, records showed that 4,472 wagons, 5,197 men, 1,267 horses, 6,452 mules, 38,281 oxen, 112 carriages, and 13, 056 tons of freight crossed the toll bridge.  The bridge operated into the late 1860’s and was sold to Lyon County in the 1870’s.  The old wooden bridge was torn down in 1882 and a more modern one replaced it.

The first postmaster in the county was Charles H. Withington, and the Allen post office was established (at his trading post, named for his friend Allen McGee) on February 26, 1855.  Mail was brought in on the Kansas City and Santa Fe mail stage coaches. This post office was discontinued October 28, 1856 and reestablished February 18, 1857.

Allen also was a station on the Westport and Council Grove Stage Company lines, which carried mail as well as passengers.  Early mail coaches carried as many as 11 passengers and a guard.  The fare from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico was $250.  It included meals of hard tack, bacon and coffee with an occasional antelope or buffalo steak. Two weeks were required for the trip. Withington kept fresh horses for the stage when it reached Allen. This venture prospered until the stage line discontinued operation in 1866.

Withington also operated a blacksmith shop and at one time had ten forges at work repairing wagons going through on the Santa Fe Trail.  He also established a grave yard about 1,000 yards northeast of the bridge, located on the south and west side of a hill.  Approximately 150 graves are there, including those of many travelers; none are marked.




Below is an excerpt from the memoirs of T. O. Hill, who came to Lyon County with his parents in 1857 at the age of 17 or 18. Kansas Territory had been opened to White settlement in 1854.  They farmed in the Waushara area, near the Santa Fe Trail in the northeast part of the county.

Northern Lyon County Journal, December 31, 1915

The station house on Elm Creek was of logs. In 1857 it looked as if it had been built for several years.  In ’59 a man by the name of Thompson became agent for the stage company.  Mr. Thompson had a wife and four boys.  A large house was planned and I got the job of hauling the lumber, as not a man among them could drive an ox team.  It was the year of the great rush for Pike’s Peak, and “Pike’s Peak or Bust” was on hundreds of wagons.  One day a part of my duty was to count the wagons going to Pike’s Peak.  They amounted, all told, to five hundred.  This rush continued for a hundred days.  It has been estimated that 50,000 wagons went to the supposed gold mines.


The following articles detail a deadly incident on the Santa Fe Trail.  Such items relied on hearsay, and were reported from the cultural perspective of the white settlers and editor.  For a more balanced view on the Kanza (Kaw) tribespeople and their interaction with the whites, the following reading is recommended:

The Darkest Period:  The Kanza Indians and Their Last Homeland 1846-1873 by Ronald D. Parks, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2014

The Emporia News, May 10, 1862


We regret to learn that a serious disturbance took place on the Santa Fe road, near the residence of A. I. Baker, on Saturday last.  We are furnished with the following particulars of the affair by Mr. Bergen Vanness, who is engaged on the Kaw (Reservation) buildings in course of erection in that neighborhood:

About sixty Kaw Indians were encamped near the residence of a Mr. Hume, on Rock creek, four miles above Baker’s place.  During Mr. H’s absence, some forty of the Indians broke into his house and stole half a barrel of whiskey, on which they became intoxicated.  In this condition they came down the (Santa Fe) road, and went to a small grocery owned by Mr. French.  Here they demanded more whiskey, but Mr. F. refused it, and with the assistance of a son aged about 16, and four of his neighbors, succeeded in driving them out of the grocery, and barring the door.

At this the Indians became enraged, and with an ax and clubs broke the door open and demolished the front window—rushed into the grocery, about 30 strong, rolled out a barrel of whiskey and commenced drinking, filling their jugs and canteens. Mr. French sent his son, who spoke the Kaw language, to drive them away, thinking they would not harm the boy.  They immediately fired on him with their bows and arrows, but he dodged into the house unhurt.  The whites in the house, seeing the Indians were determined upon a fight, began to get into the most secure places in the room, which was open enough to admit arrows and bullets.

The Indians opened fire on the building with their bows and a few shots from guns.  They lodged at least 100 arrows in the room.  At this the whites thought that the matter had become so serious as to compel them to fight in self-defense.  They had about a dozen guns in the house, and Mr. F. seized one and commenced loading, but was so excited that one of his neighbors had to take the gun and finish the job, telling F. to fire while he loaded.  He knocked out a piece of the (log house) chinking, and fired, wounding a squaw.  At the second shot he killed one of the Indians, and the third wounded another.  Mr. French’s neighbors did not seem willing to assist him.  One of the balls from an Indian’s rifle struck his son in the side of the hip, and came out behind inflicting a very bad wound.

At this time the Indians’ intoxication had reached its highest point, and the devils made a rush to the house to murder the whole crowd inside. The whites saw their perilous situation, and made their escape through the back window into a field in the rear of the building, and ran for a deep ravine to hide.  They were followed by a few of the redskins, who seemed determined to have their lives; but a larger number of them were content to rob and plunder the little store.  In the pursuit, another Indian lost his life, it is believed by the gun of Mr. French.  The whites finally made their escape to their neighbor’s (home) without further injury.

While the fight was going on, a Santa Fe (wagon) train came by, and the Indians attempted to stampede their cattle, but did not succeed.  The Mexicans jumped into their wagons and prepared to fight, but escaped without injury, and only shot one Indian.  Two farmers came along, and saved their skins from the Indians’ arrows by lying flat in their wagons and running their horses.

The Indians took everything from the store, including Mr. F.’s groceries, some sixty buffalo robes, and $60 in money.

The affair created great excitement in the whole country around, and measures were instituted to recover the property and bring the Indians to justice.  While we are in favor of teaching the Indians that they cannot commit such depredations on the whites under any circumstances, we also think it would be a good idea to teach the white men that they cannot keep whiskey were Indians can get at it, by force or any other means.  We do not know that Mr. French ever sold whiskey to the Indians; but we venture the assertion that if he had not been engaged in the disreputable business of selling whiskey, the Indians would never have disturbed him.  The better class of people cannot have much sympathy for him, from the very fact that he dealt in the identical “accursed fire” that lead the Indians to do this deed.  The attack by the redskins was one of the legitimate results of whiskey-selling.  The matter has probably been laid before Commissioner Farnsworth, before this.  We hope he will do all in his power to punish the Indians. We should not be sorry to hear of their being compelled, by some means, to leave the section of the country where they are now located.

The Emporia News, May 17, 1862

Monday last, Deputy U.S. Marshal Haskell arrested Mr. French, and took him before J. F. Dodds, U.S. Commissioner, at Council Grove, where he was bound over to appear at the next turn of the U.S. District Court to answer the charge of selling liquor to Indians.  We also learned that since the fight, mentioned last week, the dead bodies of six Indians have been found in the woods near French’s house.



  1. Kathy Weiser at

Sources list compiled by Donald E. Schiesser:

“The Kanzas One Hundred Fifty Years Ago” by Ron Parks, 2008  (available online).

History of the State of Kansas, Andreas/Cutler, 1883   (available online, see below).

History of Council Grove Ks., by John Maloy, March 1887 (1820-1890)

“Old Santa Fe Trail Wound Its Way Through Lyon County,” Emporia Daily Gazette, Aug. 23, 1934. [1 p.]. (Reel: E1306).

Lynch, Mrs. James. “Hardships of Pioneer Days Recalled by Miller Woman.” Emporia Daily Gazette,  Nov. 1, 1934. [1 p.]. (Reel: E1307).

Van Gundy, John C. “Reminiscences of Frontier Life on The Upper Neosho in 1855 and 1856,” Topeka, Ks: College Press, 1925. (K978.1/-L98/Pam.v.1/ no. 2).

“Freighting:  A Big Business on the Santa Fe Trail” by Walker D. Wyman, Nov. 1931 Historical Quarterly, p. 17  (Volunteer: Lynn Nelson).


Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Vol. I, 1912, edited by Frank W. Blackmar, Standard Pub. Co. Chicago   (available online, see below).

T. O. Hill ”Those Stirring Days of Long Ago, Before the War” Northern Lyon Co. Journal, 1916, Allen Kansas.  Hill lived 1 mi. N of the mail sta. on the Trail in Waterloo twp.

Our Land: A History of Lyon County, Kansas, 1976, publ. Emporia State Press.

ON THE INTERNET, as of 2016:    Santa Fe National Historic Trail” U.S. National Park Service          Old newspapers of all states, 1836-1922        KS State Hist. Society, county plat maps               Cyclopedia of Kansas, 1912      1883 History of Kansas by Andreas/Cutler (click on “Online Microfilm for North Lyon County News Papers”)                                 former N. Lyon Co. newspapers



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