Coon Creek Crossing
on the
Santa Fe Trail

     From its headwaters in Ford County, Kansas, Coon Creek pursues a convoluted course to the northeast paralleling the north bank of the Arkansas River through Edwards and Pawnee counties before finding its confluence with the Arkansas River near the little town of Garfield.[1]

     Historically called Coon Creek, sometimes labeled Big Coon Creek, the stream was known by several names in the first half of the nineteenth century. At one time, the stream was designated De Mun's Creek for Jules de Mun, a St, Louis trapper who lost a valuable horse somewhere along its course during his 1815-1817 expedition to the mountains. Jacob Fowler, in 1821, named the stream in his usual orthographical style, Buffalow Crick. George C. Sibley called the stream Clear Creek when he camped with the Santa Fe Trail survey party along its banks in 1825. Four years later, Captain Philip St, George Cooke referred to the stream as Raccoon Creek. Still later, poet Matt Field, perhaps for the sake of meter or perhaps to distinguish the creek from a lesser tributary, wrote of Main Coon Creek. At 11.43 miles from Pawnee Fork, according to Captain Randolph B. Marcy's odometer, the Santa Fe Trail's wet route crossed Coon Creek. Sibley put the distance at eleven miles even. A modern bridge now spans the creek at the crossing site on U. S. Highway 56.[2]

     Little information is extant with respect to the physical features of the crossing. Fowler described the creek at the crossing as a "deep and mudey Crick 100 feet wide." His description is at odds with Sibley's previously-cited name of Clear Creek. Sibley also reported that the crossing site was blessed with plenty of water and good grass. Captain Cooke's description was not so pastoral. He wrote, "Raccoon creek was barren of shrubs; from now on the battalion would have to rely exclusively upon buffalo chips for its cooking fires."[3]

     The crossing was important for several reasons. First, Coon Creek was the last stream to be forded on the wet route by Santa Fe bound travelers before reaching the Cimarron crossing in present Gray County. Additionally, the crossing served as an intersection where a road from Fort Larned merged with the wet route. The road from Fort Larned was developed subsequent to the 1859 establishment of Camp on Pawnee Fork, renamed Fort Larned and relocated a brief distance southwest of its original site in 1860. Concurrent with the establishment of Fort Larned, a new eastern terminus of the dry route was established about one mile and a half southwest of the Ash Creek crossing. Previously, the dry route had branched off from the wet route at Forks in Santa Fe Road three and a half miles southwest of Pawnee Fork crossing. From the new terminus, the dry route ran southwest to cross the Pawnee some three miles east of Fort Larned and then continue up the south bank to the post. Leaving the post, the dry route pressed on in a southwestwardly orientation. At two and a half miles from the post, another road branched off from the dry route traveling south for seven and a half miles where it merged with the wet route near the previously described Coon Creek crossing. Northwest of that crossing a few hundred yards was another crossing on Coon Creek established to accommodate the traffic from Fort Larned. Four cutdowns at that point remain to identify the location of the ford.[4]

     A third Coon Creek crossing was located on the dry route of the Santa Fe Trail three and a half miles west of present Kinsley. The stream there forded was historically known as Big Coon Creek. Presently labeled Little Coon Creek, it is actually a tributary of Coon Creek's main channel. The dry route originally ran southwest from this point to the Caches just west of present Dodge City. At a later date, the dry route pursued a different orientation to a point ten miles east of the Caches, one mile east of the site selected for the establishment of Fort Dodge. As such Big Coon Creek crossing was a junction accommodating both variants of the dry route.[5]

     The crossing was the scene of near disaster in November, 1853, when runaway mules overturned a mail wagon in the creek bed. Four passengers, including William W. H. Davis, Attorney General of New Mexico Territory, escaped serious injury. Davis recalled, "People may talk about seeing stars upon such occasions, but as near as my recollection serves me, I had the pleasure of beholding a score or more of full-sized moons." In 1863, M. Cottrill Company established a stage station at the crossing. The station must have been a harbinger of Indian attacks for in the subsequent year, a Strart Slemmons and Company caravan was raided at the crossing. Half the livestock was driven off and one of the teamsters, Andrew Blanchard, was killed. A year later a government train returning to Fort Riley was attacked. Two Mexican drivers were killed, and a Mexican boy was wounded and scalped but lived to survive the ordeal. Such confrontations led to the establishment of an outpost from Fort Larned at the crossing. Unofficially known as Fort Coon, the little cantonment was garrisoned with a sergeant and ten privates according to Robert Wright who described the post's single building as "sod with a heavy clay roof and port holes all the way around." While no traces of the station or post remain, two cutdowns still scar the south bank of the creek.[6]

     Twenty miles to the southwest of Big Coon Creek, the dry route reached a stream historically known as Little Coon Creek. However, the stream was actually the main channel of Coon Creek. To further confound the issue, the stream was variously called Whitewater Creek, White Creek, and Farther Coon Creek.[7]

     Several noteworthy incidents are documented with regard to the Little Coon Creek crossing. Samuel Owens was reelected captain of a caravan at the crossing in 1844 after another group of traders joined his party somewhere beyond Pawnee Fork. In 1853 William Carr Lane, returning to Missouri following a difficult stint as New Mexico Territory's governor, confided to his diary, "Stop'd upon Little Coon Creek, now drained dry, by the immense herds of Buffalo, which overspread the country, in every direction." In 1867 an eight-wagon train was attacked by Indians at the crossing. Several oxen were driven off and a single horse was killed.[8]

     Far more dramatic was the 1868 engagement which became known as the Battle of Coon Creek. The story of that engagement was told by Robert Wright as follows. Four men had been dispatched from Fort Dodgte with a wagon load of fire wood for Fort Coon in September 1868: Jimmy Goodmen, Jack O'Donald, and two men Wright identified by last name only, Hartman and Toben. Having made the delivery, the wood detail began the return trip to Fort Dodge only to be attacked by a band of unidentified Indians. By good fortune, the detail was found by Robert Wright and trooper Paddy Boyle en route to Fort Larned with dispatches from Fort Dodge's commanding officer. Boyle returned to Fort Dodge for reinforcements. Racing to the post, he was followed to within a mile of the garrison by four warriors. Immediately, he led a squadron of 7th U. S. Cavalry back to the crossing where Wright and the soldiers had pushed the wagon into a buffalo wallow. Thus fortified, they were able to withstand several attacks. The besieged men were astonished to see the relief party arrive in white clothing, but closer inspection revealed that the troopers were clad in their underwear. Upon being awakened, they had not taken time to don their uniforms. About an hour after the relief party reached the crossing, an infantry detachment arrived with wagons and ambulances. Thus medical attention was given to men of the detail, each having suffered wounds. Wright reported that four Indians were killed in the confrontation, but the army suffered only one casualty, Boyle's dappled-grey horse which died from the effects of the race to the post. At Fort Dodge during the time was an Englishmen, Frederick Huxley. Impressed by the heroics displayed, he wrote a ballad extolling the gallantry of the soldiers titled "The Battle of Little Coon Creek." It was sung to the tune of "When Sherman Marched Down to the Sea." Toward the close of his account, Wright introduced Mr. Herron with no antecedent as to his person or further discussion of his identity.[9]

     David Strate's 1960 account offers a somewhat disparate version of the event. Drawing on Wright's rendition, Fort Dodge Medical Records, and other information from the National Archives, he wrote that four enlisted men were dispatched from Fort Dodge to Fort Larned on a mail detail. At Little Coon Creek crossing, the men were attacked by a war party of superior numbers. Most of their animals were killed, and they took refuge behind a barricade contrived from their wagon and dead horses. They were able to withstand several charges, and when darkness came, Coroporal Patrick O'Boyle mounted the last remaining horse and rode to Fort Dodge for help. A relief party was assembled at the post and went immediately to the crossing where they found Privates. James Goodwin, John O'Donnel, and Charles Eaton, all wounded. All four received the Congressional Medal of Honor.[10]

     In a volume which chronicles the Medal of Honor recipients of the Indian Wars, John M. Carroll provides the citation by which Corporal Leander Herron was awarded the Medal of Honor, "While detailed as mail courier from the fort, voluntarily went to the assistance of a party of four enlisted men who were attacked by about fifty Indians at some distance from the fort and remained with them until the party was relieved. Other Remarks; This action was fought on Little Coon Creek, Kansas by mail escorts comprised of detachments of the 3rd U. S. Infantry and 7th U. S. Cavalry under the command of Corporal J. Goodwin. Three enlisted men were wounded. Three Indians were killed and one wounded."[11]

     The mystery of Wright's Mr. Herron is thus solved. However, the obvious inconsistencies of the two accounts related to chronology, characters, and plot remain unresolved. Huxley's composition may well have been the swan song of the Little Coon Creek Crossing. For in the previous year, tracks of the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, reached newly-established Hays City. From that railhead, mail, passengers, and freight previously transported through Fort Larned to Fort Dodge were thence shipped via the newly-developed Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road. The demise of the Little Coon Creek Crossing was simultaneous with that of all the Coon Creek crossings as overland traffic east of Fort Dodge on the Santa Fe Trail ceased.

     A visit to the Little Coon Creek crossing site is instructive. There the pasture land, marked by a myriad of ruts, bears testimony to the countless number of freight wagons and stagecoaches which forded the creek at this point.

     The site of Little Coon Creek crossing as all the other Coon Creek crossings has been marked by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter.

Footnotes

  1. Originally, Coon Creek emptied into the Arkansas River at a point 11 miles southwest of the Pawnee Fork crossing. However, the stream's channel was changed in the early 1960s to divert the creek to a new confluence one and one-half miles downstream from its original mouth.

  2. Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West 1840-1854 (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 92; Eliott Coues, ed., The Journal of Jacob Fowler (Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, Inc., 1965), 26; Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road to Santa Fe; The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1995), 73-74; Otis E. Young, The First Military Escort on the Santa Fe Trail, 1829 (Glendale: The Arthur Clark Company, 1952), John E. Sunder, ed., Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 25-26; Randolph B. Marcy, The Prairie Traveler: a Handbook for Overland Expeditions (Williamstown, Massachusetts: Corner House Publishers, 1968), 261; David K. Clapsaddle, A Directory of Santa Fe Trail Sites (Larned: The Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail, 1999), C-2.

  3. Coues, Journal of Jacob Fowler, 24; Gregg, Road to Santa Fe, 74; Young, First Military Escort, 82.

  4. David K. Clapsaddle, "The Wet and Dry Routes of The Santa Fe Trail," Kansas History, 15 (Summer 1992): 110-118.

  5. David K. Clapsaddle, "The Dry Route Revisited," Overland Journal, 17 (Summer 1999): 5.

  6. W. W. H. Davis, El Gringo, New Mexico and Her People (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 29-30; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West: Stagecoach Lines on the Santa Fe Trail (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), 95; Seymour V. Conner and Jimmy Skaggs, Broadcloth and Britches: The Santa Fe Trade (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1977), 175-176; George A. Root, "Reminiscences of William Darnell," Kansas Historical Collections, 17 (1928): 506-507; Robert M. Wright, Dodge City, The Cowboy Capital and the Great Southwest (Wichita: Wichita Eagle, 1913), 108.

  7. Charles Raber, "Life on the Plains, 1860-1868," Kansas Historical Collections, 16 (1925): 338-339; LeRoy R. Hafen, ed., Pike's Peak Gold Rush Guidebooks of 1859, vol. 9 of the Southwest Historical Series (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1941), 177-341; Barry, Beginning of the West, 526.

  8. Ibid., 526, 1185; Raber, "Life on the Plains," 338.

  9. Wright, Dodge City, 109-120.

  10. David K. Strate, Sentinel to the Cimarron, The Frontier Experience of Fort Dodge, Kansas (Dodge City: Cultural Heritage and Arts Center, 1970), 76-77.

  11. John M. Carroll, The Medal of Honor: its History and Its Recipients for the Indian Wars (Mattituck, NY: J. M. Carroll and Company, 1985), 79-80.
         Used With Permission of the Author
         David Clapsaddle

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