Cimarron Cutoff
A 20-Century Misnomer

     On his first and fabled trip to Santa Fe, William Becknell set forth from Franklin, Missouri, on September 1, 1821, with five companions and a string of pack horses laden with trade goods. Reaching Fort Osage, the party pressed on through Missouri and into Indian Territory, arriving at a point on the Arkansas River somewhere east of Walnut Creek. There Becknell's men forded the river and proceeded upstream to present Colorado where they came to "the forks . . . and took the left hand one (the Purgatoire River)" southwest. [1] Following Chacuaco Creek through what became known as Emery Gap into New Mexico, three weeks later they met a party of Spanish (Mexican) soldiers who escorted them to the village of San Miguel de Vado. There, as good fortune would have it, was a French-speaking resident whose language was not lost on Becknell. He agreed to accompany Becknell's party to Santa Fe and act as interpretor.

     Arriving in the capital city on November 16, Becknell, welcomed by Governor Facundo Melgares, subsequently disposed of the trade goods at a substantial profit. After a three-week stay in Santa Fe, he made his way back to San Miguel, picked up a Mr. McLaughlin, one of his original party left in the village, and with two other unnamed Americans resumed his return trip to Missouri.

     On the return trip, Becknell forsook the route taken on the Purgatoire to traverse northeast New Mexico, through the present Oklahoma Panhandle, and into present southwest Kansas to cross the Arkansas, probably in present Ford County. Pressing on, Becknell arrived at Franklin on January 30, 1822. Of particular interest is that the outgoing trip to Santa Fe consumed two and a half months, the return trip only forty-eight days. [2]

     In May 1822, Becknell made a second trip to Santa Fe, this time with three wagons of merchandise and twenty-one men. Leaving Fort Osage, Becknell and party proceeded to a point probably in present Rice County, Kansas, where they forded the Arkansas and continued as they had in the 1821 expedition up the south side of the river. The route of this party has not been determined. Becknell wrote, "We once more left our camp, and after traveling eight days up the Arkansas, struck a southwest course for the Spanish Country." Arriving at San Miguel 22 days later, the party proceeded on to Santa Fe where Becknell sold the trade goods and his wagons. Remarking on the return trip, Becknell wrote, "We took a different course from that pursued on our way out which considerably shortened the route and arrived at Franklin in 48 days." [3]

     Becknell's return route on his second expedition became the precursor for the regular route to Santa Fe, which, leaving the Arkansas ran to the Lower Spring near the Cimarron River, followed that stream to Middle Spring in the present Cimarron National Grassland, and farther southwest near Upper Spring which was located a short distance from the Cimarron River. Such is the genesis of the title for Becknell's trek, the Cimarron Route. Leaving the Cimarron, the route ran to Cold Creek in the Present Oklahoma Panhandle, on to Round Mound and Point of Rocks in New Mexico, thence to San Miguel, Glorieta Pass, and finally Santa Fe.

     The first 50 miles of the route from the Arkansas River was across a semi-arid region known by the Mexicans as Jornada Del Muerto, the journey of death. That leg of the journey brought the traders to Sand Creek, usually dry. Ten miles farther was Lower Spring, a sure source of water even when the nearby Cimarron River was not. [4]

     As to the historic designation of Becknell's route, Matthew Field in 1839 wrote, "We traveled by the Semirone road." Five years later, Josiah Webb wrote, "So when the train left the river by the Cimarron route, we re-crossed the river and started on our trip ahead to Bent's Fort." Second Lieutenant William D. Whipple reported in 1852, "Twenty-five miles beyond Fort Atkinson is the old and main crossing of the Arkansas River to take the Cimarron Route." [5]

     In the twentieth century, the Cimarron Route was designated by a number of writers as the Dry Route, a reference to the jornada which constituted the distance between the Arkansas and Cimarron Rivers. This reference has no roots in the nineteenth century and distracts from the historic Dry Route which ran between Pawnee Fork and two separate points on the Arkansas River one near the Caches, and the other one mile east of Fort Dodge. [6]

     Perhaps more perplexing is the twentieth-century invention, the "Cimarron Cutoff." This designation was not used in the nineteenth century. It has reference to the Cimarron Route being a shortcut to Santa Fe in opposition to the Bent's Fort Road which took a more circuitous route by way of Bent's Fort and Raton Pass. This route came into prominence in 1861 when the Post Office Department eschewed the Cimarron Route in favor of the Bent's Fort Road due, in part, to the establishment of the post office at Fort Wise in September 1860. Subsequently, traffic on the Bent's Fort Road increased substantially when freight caravans were able to negotiate Raton Pass due to the construction of a toll road in 1865 across the previously difficult summit. [7]

     Just when Cimarron Cutoff was included in the Santa Fe Trail lexicon is difficult to determine, but its preference has been contagious. Scholarly historians have made use of the designation: Max Moorhead, New Mexico's Royal Road: Trade and Travel on the Chihuahua Trail; Marc Simmons, Murder on the Santa Fe Trail, Morris Taylor, First Mail West. Such usage extends to popular historians and the general public. Even one of the National Santa Fe Trail Chapters is named the Cimarron Cutoff. Two notable writers have refused to use this terminology: Leo E. Oliva, Soldiers on the Santa Fe Trail: and a more recent author, Stephen Hyslop, Bound for Santa Fe: The Road to New Mexico and the American Conquest, 1806-1848.

     Regardless, those engaged in the Santa Fe trade never regarded the Cimarron Route as a cutoff. From its advent, it was the direct route, and even after the Bent's Fort Road came into use, it remained the most used route of the two. The matter, however, became academic in 1868 when the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, reached Sheridan, Kansas. At that time, freight began to be dispatched from that rail head on a new 120-mile road to Fort Lyon. Consequently, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail east of Fort Lyon ceased and the death knell was rung for the Cimarron Route. [8]

  1. A bronze plaque depicting Becknell's 1821 pack train is embedded on the east face of Pawnee Rock. Becknell never passed Pawnee Rock in 1821 or on his 1822 expedition. In both cases he crossed the Arkansas and proceeded down its south bank, some distance east of Pawnee Rock, Louise Barry, comp., The Beginning of the West (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 97, 105.

  2. Ibid., Larry M. Beachum, William Becknell: Father of the Santa Fe Trade (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1982), 28-32.

  3. Berry, The Beginning of the West, 105.

  4. Marc Simmons (ed.), "Henry Smith Recollections, 1863," On the Santa Fe Trail (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986), 71; W. B. Mapton described Sand Creek in his little book, On the Santa Fe Trail, 1857 (Arrow Rock, Missouri; Friends of Arrow Rock, 1991), 38: "In the forenoon of the second day from the Arkansas, we reached Sand Creek, a tributary of the Cimarron, where we found a pool of stagnant water, not enough for the oxen, but sufficient for the train men to make coffee with."

  5. John E. Sunder (ed.). Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 288; James Josiah Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade 1844-1847), ed. by Ralph P. Bieber (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 58; The Beginning of the West, 356-357.

  6. David K. Clapsaddle, The Dry Route Revisited," Overland Journal, 17 (Summer 1999), 77, 108.

  7. Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West (Albuquerque; University of New Mexico Press, 1971), 77, 108.

  8. David K. Clapsaddle, "The Fort Wallace-Kit Carson-Fort Lyon Roads," Wagon Tracks, 8 (February 1994); 11-14.
    Used With Permission of the Author
    David Clapsaddle




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