Henry Standage, a private in the Mormon Battalion trudging along the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail in 1846 wrote about this part of the country, "We traveled this day across one of the most dreary deserts that ever man saw, suffering much from the intense heat of the sun and for want of water."
There were many campgrounds on the Trail more picturesque than Lower Cimarron Spring (later to be called Wagon Bed Spring), but there was none more vital to the early traders. For those going to Santa Fe, it was the first dependable watering place on the route after the wagon trains and trail travelers crossed the Arkansas River to the north and headed to the south/southwest, a distance from 35 to 90 miles in distance. This mileage would depend on which route of the Cutoff they would take and just where they would cross the Arkansas River. The first crossing of the Arkansas was at the Lower or Mullberry Creek Crossing, northeast of present Ford, Kansas, Middle Crossing at Cimarron, Kansas and one near present Lakin, Kansas.
For most of these miles to Lower Spring, the Santa Fe Trail ran over flat prairie with no landmarks or guideposts. Mirages would often lead travelers astray. It was easy to get lost where everything looked the same in every direction you looked. Another danger along this part of the Santa Fe Trail was Indian attack. No matter what the dangers were, this desert was the route used most by the traders. Why would they use such a dangerous route? It was a simple matter of time, this was the shortest route to Santa Fe. Just a few miles saved would mean a day or two of travel time. During the forty years of commercial freighting on the Trail, most travelers were familiar with and probably thankful for the place called Lower Cimarron Spring.
The Lower Spring was at the northern most loop of the Cimarron River. This location is about 12 miles south of present day Ulysses, Kansas. In the early days, especially before 1834, a compass was helpful to keep you going in the right direction to locate it, as there is no indication of a valley until the seemingly endless flat prairie drops down into the river valley rather abruptly. The prairie north and east of the Spring has never been disturbed by the plow, only by the ever present winds of Southwest Kansas and an occasional flood. In early summer the valley is ablaze with wild flowers, appearing much as it must have to the caravans traveling this way years ago. Standing at the site today it is still possible, with just a little imagination, that only a true trail buff would understand, to look up to the hills to where the flats begin, and hear the whooping and hollering and the cracking of the bull whips over the heads of the oxen of the early day travelers as they were coming and going from this oasis on the Kansas prairie. Even in this day and time you can still get lost, but only in the time and space of your mind.
There is no way of knowing how far back in time the Spring was important to native Americans. Indian burials unearthed by the wind storms of the thirties date back to very early times in Kansas history. Turquoise beads found in the area indicate trade between Plains and Pueblo Indians. It surely must have been a stopping place for some of the Spanish expeditions which came out onto the Kansas plains. Perhaps the early explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado drank from its cooling waters on his return to the pueblos in 1541. Artifacts such as metal horse bridle decorations and broken spur pieces used by the Spanish from about 1500 into the 1700s have been found in the area.
The earliest written description of the Spring is that of Joseph C. Brown, civil engineer with the government survey of 1825/27. In his field notes he wrote, ". . .the spring is at the west edge of a marsh green with bullrushes. The marsh is north of the creek and near it. The spring is constant, but the creek is sometimes dry until you ascend it ten or twelve miles, where it will be found running. . ."
It is admittedly wishful thinking of the present owner of an old pocket compass inscribed with U.S.C.E. found close to the Spring, as being that of Joseph C. Brown, but that are what dreams are made of. Someone owned it so why not Brown. The Corps of Engineers dates back to 1802, so Brown is a long shot possibility.
Josiah Gregg, in Commerce of the Prairies, related several incidents which happened in the valley or at the Spring. He tells of one Indian encounter which had an unpredictable result. Gregg's first caravan over the "dry scrape" was made up largely of green horns who had not traveled the route previously, and they could not find Lower Spring. In addition to being lost, they found a large party of Indians gathering around them, a possible threat to safety. The traders determined to force their way through the main body of Indians, and marched in military ranks right toward the Indians to the beat of a drum and the piping of a fife. This amused the Indian's who, as Gregg said, "seemed more delighted than frightened." They even guided the greenhorns to the Spring, then escorted them onward until the traders gave them gifts to get rid of them.
Some years later, traders told of a big battle at the Spring between the Pawnees and Arapahoes. More than seventy Pawnees were killed, and when the wagon train pulled into the Spring ten days later, the Arapahoes were still there. They insisted that the traders camp with them on the battle ground and help celebrate the victory, with the dead bodies still laying where they had fallen.
Located approximately halfway between Missouri and Santa Fe along the Trail, the campground that developed around the Lower Spring was a clearing house for information between eastbound and westbound caravans, with accounts of weather conditions, politics, and Indian activities being exchanged, Louise Barry's comprehensive volume, The Beginning of the West: Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West, 1540/1854, provides evidence of numerous instances of this exchange of information.
The tragic death of mountain man and explorer Jedediah Smith in 1831 at the hand of the Commanches is a story familiar to most people of the Trail. There is, however, some controversy about the route taken and the place of his death. The story goes that on May 27, while on the Cimarron Route the lack of water had created a critical situation for the caravan. Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick headed south ahead of the caravan in search for the Cimarron. The two men were separated and Jedediah Smith was never seen again. Later, some time after the expedition reached Santa Fe, Smith's fate was learned. Austin Smith purchased his brother's gun and pistol from some Mexicans who had obtained them and the account of Jedediah's death, while bartering with Comanches who had slain him. Austin wrote home to his father, in September:
"Your son Jedediah was killed on the Semerone on the 27th of May on his way to Santa Fe by the Curmanch Indians, his party was in distress for water, and he had gone alone in search of the above river which he found, when he was attacked by fifteen or twenty of them, they succeeded in alarming his animal not daring to fire on him so long as they kept face to face, so soon as his horse turned they fired, and wounded him in the shoulder, he then fired his gun, and killed their head chief, it is supposed they then rushed upon him and dispatched him. . ."
So it can be said that Smith was killed while trying to find Lower Spring after his wagon train was without water for three or four days. It is unfortunate that the Comanches did not realize he was famous; they neglected to mark the spot where they had killed him for the future. Local historians and people who have researched into this all agree that he was killed in the area of Lower Spring. There is just no way to pin point the exact location until some new information is found on the subject. A local Historian, Ed Lewis, came up with this version of the Smith killing and it makes a lot of sense.
No Military post was ever established at Wagon Bed Springs, but hundreds of soldiers refreshed themselves there from the start of the Mexican War in 1846 until the railroads replaced the wagon road. The "La Jornada," as the dry crossing between the Cimarron and the Arkansas rivers became known as, was the shortest road from Fort Leavenworth to the Southwest, and many of the troops and their supplies traveled it. The footsore Mormon Battalion waited at the Spring for much needed supplies, and one specific mention is made that in 1847 six companies of men and 84 wagons camped at the Spring several days waiting for a slower contingent. Army freighters carrying supplies to forts in New Mexico continued passing and camping at the Spring from that time on.
In 1864, the bloodiest year ever for Indian attacks all along the Trail, fifteen men were killed near the Spring within two weeks. General James H. Carleton, commanding the Department of New Mexico, sent troops to several locations that summer, stationing Major Joseph Updegraff and 100 men at the Spring with rations for sixty days. Bushels of lead balls and empty cartridges have been found throughout the valley, some from army weapons and some from the guns of later buffalo hunters such as Billy Dixon and Charley Rath who reportedly headquartered at the Spring.
There are several different versions of how the Spring got its modern name. One says that the soldiers in 1846 put a spare wagonbed into the seeping spring to clarify the water. The second credits a party of travelers in 1847. A third maintains that it was a party of miners on the way to California gold fields in 1849, and the fourth story is that cowboys on the old Hardesty ranch put in the first wagonbed about 1872. So goes the stories handed down through time.
Water in the arid high plains has always been a treasure, and the Spring provided good water as long as it was needed by Trail travelers. More recently, however, the great subterranean "ocean" was tapped to irrigate the naturally flat and fertile fields of Western Kansas, in a short time the Spring went dry. Cattle range around it now as the buffalo did during Trail days.
The importance of the Lower Cimarron or Wagonbed Spring was recognized in 1961 when it was registered as a National Historic Landmark. The Wagon Bed Spring Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail has fenced the site and is attempting to preserve the famous waterhole as it is described in early writings. The bed of a wagon has been installed as it was in Trail times.
This spring was the first water the Santa Fe Trail wagon trains found after crossing the Arkansas River on the Dry Route, called by the Mexicans, "La Jornada" the Dead Man's Journey, or more strictly, the Day's Journey of the Dead Man.
The next major stopping place on the Trail after Wagon Bed Spring was up the Cimarron River about 36 miles. The trail continues on the north bank of the Cimarron River to a place called "Middle Springs and Point of Rocks" on the Cimarron National Grasslands in Morton County, north of Elkhart, Kansas.
After leaving Point of Rocks, the Trail continued west along the north bank of the Cimarron River. Shortly after entering Oklahoma the Santa Fe Trail crosses the Cimarron River at a well kown site called Willow Bar. It takes it's name from the stand of willow trees growing on a sandbar in midstream. The next campsite after the crossing of the Cimarron at Willow Bar is the place called Upper, or Flag Spring. Other campsites farther west and in Oklahoma are Cold Spring and then the site of Fort Nichols. After passing Fort Nichols, the trail continues on for about five miles and enters New Mexico to the place on Corrumpa Creek called McNees Crossing.
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