Ash Creek Crossing
Ash Ceeek Crossing 1947

     Stream crossings were of major importance on frontier roads, especially the Santa Fe Trail. Possessing the three necessities for overnight stops---water, wood or chips, and grass---they were invariably used as campgrounds. Fortunately, the distance between many of the crossings approximated the fifteen-mile length of a day's travel by wagon. Consequently, at many crossings, trading ranches were established by early entrepreneurs to sell provisions and offer other amenities.

     Beyond the practical aspect of the crossings loomed the human dimension of any society, the need to communicate. At the end of a tiring day, following supper, the animals bedded down, a few rare moments were available for the men to socialize, exchange stories, and perhaps listen to some music. Such activity was magnified if other caravans were encamped at the crossing, especially if they were coming from the opposite direction. In such cases, information could be exchanged as to the condition of the upcoming road, the availability of grass, the threat of Indian attack. Of added interest was news of a national scope which parties from the East might have but was unknown by companies coming from New Mexico, their absence from the States being as much as six months, even longer at times. The Santa Fe Trail in Pawnee, Edwards, Ford, Ellis, Rush, Ness, and Hodgeman counties was represented by six separate routes which crossed four separate streams at ten different locations. Ash Creek was one of those crossings.

     Ash Creek, an insignificant little stream, finds its headwaters in north central Pawnee County, Kansas, and flows southeast a brief 25 miles to the Arkansas River. [1] Camping at this stream on August 30, 1825, George C. Sibley wrote, "This creek is extremely crooked, and well deserves the name we have given it "Crooked Creek." Sibley added, "As far as I could see up it, there is timber." [2] The predominant species, then as now, was the ash, hence the present name of Ash Creek. At about halfway between Pawnee Fork and Pawnee Rock, the Santa Fe Trail crossed Ash Creek. This crossing gained a certain notoriety in 1926 when Stella M. Drumm edited and published the diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin under the title of Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico. To this day, readers of young Susan's diary entry of July 4, 1846, are fascinated by the account of her narrow escape from severe injury when her carriage overturned in the dry creek bed. [3]

     Readers and other travelers in the nineteenth century were also impressed with the crossing, obscure as it was. It is listed almost without exception in every itinerary and table of distances of the Santa Fe Trail. Contemporary diaries, journals, biographies, and military reports are replete with references to the little ford. One might ask why the crossing commanded such notice. The answer may well lie in the following.

     Leaving Walnut Creek some two, miles east of present Great Bend, Kansas, the Trail pushed southwest sixteen and a half miles to Pawnee Rock. [4] This distance approximates the average day's travel by wagon. Thus, many caravans camped near the Rock. However, the campsite, about a mile north of the Arkansas River, was usually devoid of water. In 1859, Captain Randolph Marcy published an itinerary of the road from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe. His Pawnee Rock entry reads as follows, "Teams sometimes camp near here, and drive stock to the Arkansas for water. No wood." [5] Those not willing to suffer the inconvenience pressed on five and a half miles to Ash Creek crossing where the three chief ingredients for camping were present: water, wood, and grass. The Western Journal of Commerce published a "Table of Distances from Kansas City to the Gold Regions of Pike's Peak" in 1858. With each of the stops listed were remarks relative to materials there present. Ash Creek was identified as "275 miles from Kansas City: wood, water, and grass. Buffalo and Antelope abundant for 200 miles." [6]

     The crossing's idyllic setting was the scene of several Indian engagements, the first here cited taking place in the summer of 1847. In that year, Kit Carson had journeyed from California to Washington with dispatches from Stephen W. Kearny to the War Department. Arriving in the capitol, Carson received from President James K. Polk an appointment of lieutenant in the Mounted Riflemen; and immediately, he began a return trip to California, the courier of dispatches for both Kearny and Commodore Robert F. Stockton. Upon reaching Fort Leavenworth, Carson was furnished with an escort of fifty volunteer soldiers and struck off on the Santa Fe Trail to his California destination. On August 1, Carson and the escort encamped at Ash Creek about 300 feet from members of the First Illinois Volunteer Infantry. [7] Carson's account of a Comanche attack on the following day reads as follows.

     "Next morning when the men of this company were leading out their horses to picket them in new grass, they were attacked by a party of Comanches and twenty-six horses and all of their cattle were driven off. The cattle took a turn towards our camp, and I was able to recapture them from the Indians. I lost two horses through the fault of two of my men, who had ropes in their hands and wishing to fire at the Indians, let them go.

     "The other company lost twenty-six horses and would have lost all their cattle if my party had not been there to assist them. They also had three men wounded. They were under the command of Lieutenant Mulony [S. D. Mullowny?]. [8]

     Thirteen years later, a trading ranche was established at the crossing by a man named Orville or William Thompson. What is known about the ranche and its enterprise is limited to contemporary newspaper accounts. As reported by Louise Barry, three Kiowas attacked the ranche on July 9, 1860. Killed were John Cunningham, thought to have been recently discharged from the army, and "a poor German" tentatively identified as Christian Krauss. The Kiowas made an attempt to burn the store, but Thompson was able to withstand the attack until nightfall when he made his escape. As far as is known, Thompson abandoned the ranche and it was never operated again. [9]

     The most grisly episode to occur at Ash Creek Crossing, however, involved the deaths of two soldiers from Company K, Second Colorado Cavalry. On the morning of June 11, 1865, the men were dispatched as couriers from Fort Larned to Fort Riley. That evening their bodies were found. Captain Theodore Conkey, commanding officer of Fort Larned, described the scene.

     "Huestis' body was found lying near the road four miles this side of Ash Creek, scalped, stripped, and otherwise mutilated. Near the crossing of Ash Creek Corporal Hicks body was found in the road stripped, his head, feet, and hands entirely severed, and his body mutilated in a most shocking and barbarous manner. It appears that the Indians laid in wait, concealed in the bed of the creek, and succeeded in killing Corporal Hicks immediately and Huestis, more fortunate for the moment, made his escape and fled for the post, but was overtaken and killed after a chase of four miles." [10]

     Today Ash Creek still meanders through Pawnee County, its banks lined with ash trees; but no evidence of the crossing remains. As late as the middle of the twentieth century, cut downs on both sides of the stream were quite pronounced, and thanks to the photography of Clay Ward, Great Bend, Kansas, images of the crossing have been preserved. A limestone marker with a bronze plaque placed at the crossing site by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail further commemorates the crossing.
Used With Permission of the Author
David Clapsaddle

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