"The overland trade between the United States and the northern provinces of Mexico, seems to 'have had no very definite origin; having been rather the result of accident than of any organized plan of commercial establishment."
In the early 1800's Spain was unable to supply Mexicans with essential manufactured goods. Not only did these people have a need for these goods which Americans could provide, but they had valuable products, such as gold, silver, furs, donkeys, and mules, to barter for them. Once enterprising adventurers learned of the promise that this trade held for them, they were willing to gamble their lives and investments against distance, terrain, weather, hostile Indians, and the caprice of Mexican customs officials. Consequently, in 1821 the first trip was made and in years following countless traders headed west.
Convinced that the trade was permanently established and held promising opportunities, Missouri traders asked the United States Government to survey and mark a permanent trail and provide military protection from the Indians. Senators Thomas Hart Benton and David Barton from Missouri took up the cause, and Senator Benton sponsored a bill to authorize a survey. The survey from Fort Osage, Missouri to Taos, New Mexico, was completed in 1826.
For more than two decades after the Mexican War of 1846-48, the Santa Fe Trail held undisputed position as trunk line to the Southwest. It was the road and tie by which civilization and sovereignty filtered into this wild expanse, tamed it, and fused it to the Nation. All that followed the Mexican War on this trail--gold rush, Civil War, Indian warm, stagecoach, emigrant train, and the innumerable oxen-pulling freight wagons--was part of consolidating the conquest of 1846-48.
The railroad came, pushing the eastern terminus of the trail ever westward, until finally in the 1880's the trail ceased to exist. The bearded trader and all the fabulous crew that followed him across desert, mountain, and plain to Spanish Santa Fe faded into legend. The trail's days of adventure and great accomplishment were gone forever.
By October 1859, when Fort Larned, originally known as "Camp on Pawnee Fork" and later as "Camp Alert", was established, mail coaches were plying back and forth between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe on a weekly schedule. On November 11, 1859, the post was officially designated as U.S Mail Station, and escorts were sent with the westbound stages thereafter. These escorts were usually comprised of 10 to 20 infantry soldiers crowded into one or two wagons. In fair weather, it was a 9-day trip from Fort Larned to Fort Union, New Mexico, for the stage and escort, but the soldiers would not complete the round trip until a month later.
When Fort Larned was established at its present location, a mail station was constructed nearby. As the main route of the Santa Fe Trail followed the Arkansas River, to the south there was a alternate road that looped over to Fort Larned and thence back down to the river to join the main trail.
About four miles southwest of Fort Larned is a forty-acre piece of pasture land containing a portion of that segment of the Santa Fe Trail. Because this ground holds well-preserved examples of the original wagon ruts, its former owner Mr. Paul Eikmeier, left the ground in its native state. As the five distinct sets of ruts testify, the plot was heavily traveled by mail coaches, wagon trains, and U.S. troops. This road was the main western avenue to and from the fort.
Today a person can easily see the sharp contrast between this pasture land and the surrounding area. Here the native sod lies untouched by the hand of man, whereas the nearby fields have been tilled, terraced, and planted and the normal plains environment has been almost completely obliterated. But on this small acreage the native grasses--buffalo and blue grama primarily--still thrive as in centuries past. In a warm season, you may see the white flowers of snow-on-the-mountain, the yellow of curlycup gumweed, and the purple of eryngo.
Upon close observation, you may still see some of the old "buffalo wallows". These now appear as round or oval-shaped depressions 6 to 8 feet in diameter. The bison would roll for a dust of mud bath as temporary relief from biting flies. They also provided natural watering holes for birds, animals, and man after sudden prairie thunderstorms had swept across the desolate land.
Today it is difficult to imagine that this vast, rolling grassland stretched like an endless sea in all directions. Over is roamed bison, deer, antelope, bear, and many other smaller animals. It was also the home of the Plains Indian until the coming of the white man whose insatiable appetite for land rapidly brought an end to natural serenity. Only a few small areas like this one remain to show us how the native plains appeared over a century ago when, with whips cracking, harness jingling, and a teamster's yells, these fading wagon ruts were cut through the Kansas Prairie.
Santa Fe Trail Research Site
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Larry & Carolyn
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