Francisco Vasquez de Coronado found no fabulous golden cities on his search north from Mexico across the plains of Kansas into the heart of the later to be Road to Santa Fe. He did find, according to Juan Jaramillo who kept a journal of the quest, "a country of fine appearance the like of which I have never seen anywhere in our Spain, in Italy, or in any part of France . . . It is not a hilly country, but has table-lands, plains, and charming rivers with fine waters. It greatly pleased me, and I am of the belief that it will be productive of all sorts of commodities." Across this vast plains of the heartland roamed millions of native bison or buffalo, darkening the prairies as far as the eye could see.
Traveling north-northeast, Coronado, his thirty men, six foot soldiers, some attendants, and Father Juan de Padilla, came to a "large stream" (the Arkansas) on St. Peter's and Paul's day in 1541. After crossing to the north bank of the river the Franciscan missionary, Padilla, and the men celebrated Mass on the highest of the hills and named the river in honor of the two saints.
This natural crossing used by buffalo, Indians, Coronado's expedition, and later wagon trains is in Ford County between the present day Fort Dodge and Ford, Kansas. Since 1944 a crude wooden cross has marked the "highest of the hills" which now are almost a mile north of the meandering river bed.
For more than two centuries Indians continued to roam the plains and hunt the buffalo. A few Spanish and French expeditions found their ways into the heartland, mapping the area and claiming it for their kings. Only bits of southwest history were recorded until 1804 when Baptiste LaLande, a French trader, made a trip with a train of pack mules from Kaskaskia, Illinois to Santa Fe following the most direct route to the Southwest, the north bank of the Arkansas River. Soon after, Zebulon Pike took the same path to survey the United States acquisition, the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1821 William Becknell and a small party left Franklin, Missouri, with a train of mules laden with merchandise to trade with Indians. It was autumn and the Indians had gone south of the Arkansas. Nearing the present site of LaJunta, Colorado, without having done any business, Becknell turned southward toward the headwaters of the Canadian River insearch of Indians. The traders were surprised by a small troop of Mexican soldiers and fully expected to be arrested. But the soldiers told them that Mexico had won its independence from Spain and urged them to take the goods to Santa Fe. A tremendous profit was quickly made with payment in Spanish silver. Becknell returned to Franklin and his report of the venture was so enthusiastic that the next year another trip to Santa Fe was made. News that Santa Fe was open to trade spread like a wild fire arcoss the plains and a caravan trade opened on the now Santa Fe Road that was to continue for more than fifty years. The Santa Fe Road or Road to Santa Fe as it was called was the principal trade route to the Southwest until the coming of the railroad in the 1870's.
Near the present site of Dodge City, Kansas the trail split. The more commonly used branch continued up the north bank of the Arkansas to Bent's Old Fort, between the present towns of Las Animas and LaJunta, Colorado. From this point the trail turned southwest to Trinidad, pulled its way over Raton Pass, and on to Santa Fe.
For those who were willing to risk the dangers and hardships, a shorter route, blazed by Becknell in 1822, crossed the river near Dodge City and struck southwest across the sandhills toward the Cimarron River. Water holes were few and far between across this route. The trail was hard to follow as the caravans had not yet cut tracks in the barren prairie. The caravans would only travel about fifteen to twenty miles a day, the hard working animals pulling their heavy loads had very little water if any for almost three days. Across this part of the trail, this was not the main concern, Indian Attacks took it's place at the top of the list of hardships faced by the wagon trains. In spite of all the hazards, this route was preferred by many traders and travelers because there were no mountains to be crossed and the distance to Santa Fe was somewhat shorter then the Mountain Route. During the Mexican War the trail became the military road of the West and had to be kept open to supply not only the troops but also the newly acquired American citizens of New Mexico.
In 1847, Fort Mann was established a few miles west of present Dodge City, Kansas. Garrisoned by a very small force, Fort Mann, was primarily a way station for repair of wagons and replacement of animals. The fort was simply four log houses connected by a timber frame work, with a diameter of about sixty feet, and walls twenty feet in height. On the northwest was an adobe breastwork for protection from attack and cold winds.
In 1850 Fort Mann was replaced by Fort Atkinson a short distance up river. Because it was built of sod this fort was popularly called Fort Sod or Fort Sodom. Monthly mail and passenger service was established the same year between Independence and Santa Fe. Between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Union in New Mexico, the only other military post was Fort Atkinson. Indian Agent Thomak Fitzpatrick in 1851, described the fort as "a small insignificant military station, beneath the dignity of the United States, and at the mercy and forebearance of the Indians."
By 1855 the Santa Fe trade amounted to five million dollars and in 1862 had increased to forty million dollars worth of goods down the Santa Fe Trail. To subdue the Indians and to make way for white trade and settlement, war on the plains seemed inevitable. The long proposed chain of military posts along the trail would become a reality.
Major General Greenville M. Dodge, commanding officer of the Department of Missouri, directed a fort to be built near the site of old Fort Atkinson. Brigadier General James H. Ford selected a site between the two fordable crossings of the Arkansas river, about ten miles east of old Fort Atkinson. This site would become Fort Dodge. In the spring of 1865 the first troops were sheltered in dugouts in the north river bank. Besides carrying out military assignments the soldiers had to quarry stone and chop timber miles from the camp for construction of the permanent buildings.
Fort Dodge, named for Greenville M. Dodge, was an important supply depot for the southern plains compaigns of the 1860's and 70's. Names familiar in the history of the West were at one time or another associated with Fort Dodge, Sheridan, Sherman, Miles, Hancock, Custer, Little Raven, Dull Knife, and Satanta just to name a few.
There are several routes of the Santa Fe Trail that traverse Ford County, Kansas. The routes are the Original Dry Route, Wet Route, Later Dry Route, Fort Hays Fort Dodge Road, Mountain Route or Bent's Fort Cut-off, Cimarron Cut-off or Desert Route, and Fort Dodge/Camp Supply Road. All of these routes center in on the Dodge City, Kansas area.
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