The Santa Fe Trail
1800 Miles in Aggregate

     Most maps of the Santa Fe Trail depict the trade route as a single artery running from Missouri southwest to New Mexico. Such cartography belies the many variants of what Thomas Hart Benton called a highway between nations. There are several points at which an intersection developed, spawning numerous variants of the trail, sometimes operating at different periods, at other times simultaneously. One such place was present Larned, Kansas, where the trail evolved into five separate routes: the Wet Route, three variants of the Dry Route, and the route which ran from Fort Larned to strike the Wet Route near the Coon Creek crossing of the Wet Route.[1]

The Leavenworth Roads
     Perhaps more profound are the roads which ran from Fort Leavenworth. Crossing the Kansas River at three different locations, they proceeded on to merge with the established route of the Santa Fe Trail at three separate junctions.

     The first of the three ran from Fort Leavenworth to Round Grove (later called Lone Elm). The first expedition to use this road was that of Captain William Wickliffe in May 1833. Reaching Round Prairie (another name for Round Grove) on May 23, Wickliffe's Sixth Infantry escort continued on to Council Grove where it rendezvoused with the annual spring caravan from Independence. Two years later at the conclusion of a 1,645-mile expedition to the Rocky Mountains, Colonel Henry Dodge and his First Dragoons passed Round Grove before turning north to trace Wickliffe's course to Grinter's crossing and back to their point of origin at Fort Leavenworth.

     In 1837, the route used by Wickliffe and Dodge was greatly enhanced by the establishment of the Fort Leavenworth-Fort Gibson Military Road. Surveyed by a party under the command of Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, the military road replicated the course followed by Wickliffe for its first 29 miles before veering southeast to follow the border of western Missouri to the site later occupied by New Santa Fe and then southward to Fort Gibson. Such was the route taken by Captain Phillip St. George Cooke and his First Dragoons in their celebrated escort of an American and Mexican caravan in 1843. Leaving the military road south of the Kansas River, Cooke's command continued southward to strike the Santa Fe Trail a little east of Lone Elm on May 30 and thence proceeded on to rendezvous with the traders at Council Grove.

     Subsequently, the road experienced heavy traffic, both troop movements and freight shipments, during the first two years of the Mexican War. The length of the road was calculated by Private Ben Wiley at 50 miles. Brevet Major Henry L. Kendick's measurement by viameter was 44 miles.[2]

     The second road emanating from Fort Leavenworth was first used by Brevet Major Bennet Riley on his return trip from the first military escort on the Santa Fe Trail in 1829. At some point east of 110 Mile Creek (probably about 35 miles), Riley's men left the Santa Fe Trail, marched northeast to the Kansas River, and continued on to what was at that time called Cantonment Leavenworth.[3] a similar route was pursued by Colonel Kearny on his return trip from the Rocky Mountains by way of the Santa Fe Trail in 1845. Departing the Santa Fe Trail near Willow Spring, the troops crossed the Kansas River at Fish's Ferry near present Eudora and pushed on to Fort Leavenworth. In the following year, at the outbreak of the Mexican War, the route used by Kearny saw extensive use by both military and civilian traffic.[4]

     The third road from Leavenworth, established in 1850, ran west from Fort Leavenworth to present Topeka, where it crossed the Kansas River at Papan's Ferry and proceeded on to strike the established route of the Santa Fe Trail at Soldier Creek. Percival G. Lowe put the distance between Fort Leavenworth and the Soldier Creek at 86 miles. The road was heavily utilized in 1851 when Brevet Colonel Edwin V. Sumner and the First Dragoons led a sizable expeditionary force to establish Fort Union in northern New Mexico.[5]

Arkansas-Cimarron Routes
     There were at least two popular routes between the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers, which were used from the mid-1820s onward. Several articles in Wagon Tracks have discussed these better-known routes. One crossed the Arkansas west of present Dodge City (at various points commonly called the Cimarron Crossing and sometimes the Middle Crossing) and angled southwest approximately 60 miles from present Ingalls to what became known as Wagonbed Spring south of present Ulysses. It was also known as the Cimarron Desert, Jornada, or Jornada del Muerto because of the frequent lack of surface water. The other, usually called Upper Crossing, crossed the Arkansas west of present Lakin, proceeded south through Bear Creek Pass about 40 miles to join the other route at Wagonbed Spring. There were occasional variations on these two routes...

The Aubry Route
     Often overlooked is the road from the present Oklahoma panhandle to the Arkansas River reconnoitered by Francis X. Aubry in 1851. Seeking a better route than the dry jornada, Aubry left the regular route of the Santa Fe Trail near Cold Spring in search of a better-watered road to the Arkansas. In the subsequent fall, he made a second such exploration, this time locating "an excellent wagon road, well supplied with water and grass." This route which reached the Arkansas some 110 miles west of Fort Dodge was subsequently used by Aubry and others beyond the date of his untimely death in 1854. Later, it saw increased traffic with the establishment of a mail route between Fort Aubrey established in 1865 and Camp Nichols in the present Oklahoma panhandle.[6]

The Bent's Fort Road
     When the Post Office Department initiated mail delivery between Independence and Santa Fe in 1850, the route taken by the mail wagons was the same as that pursued by the freighters, southwest to the Arkansas River and on to Santa Fe by way of the Cimarron Route. Such was the case with the mail wagons until 1861 when the Missouri Stage Company changed the mail route to the Bent's Fort Road (Mountain Route). Although the change added 87 miles to the route, it allowed for mail deliveries to the post office at Fort Wise established in September 1860 at the site of Bent's New Fort at the Big Timbers near present Lamar, Colorado. A post office was opened at the post in the following month.[7] Until that time, the Bent's Fort Road originated in 1834 had seen limited traffic until the start of the Mexican War when the Army of the West marched up the north bank of the Arkansas River to Bent's Fort.[8] Following the war, freighters did use the road to some extent; and with the gold rush to the Rocky Mountains in 1858-1859 it experienced another surge of travel. However, the Cimarron Route still claimed most of the traffic as it did following the change of the mail route in 1861. Jack Rittenhouse was correct in labeling the Santa Fe Road "A Trail of Commerce and Conquest." However, a third dimension could be added. The Santa Fe Trail was also a trail of communication catering to the postal needs of frontier America.

The Roads from Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division Railheads
     In June 1866 the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division reached Junction City, Kansas. At that point, freight, mail, and passengers formerly transported from the Kansas City area through Council Grove on the established Santa Fe Trail were thence dispatched from Junction City on a former military and stage route to strike the established Santa Fe Trail at Walnut Creek in present Barton County, Kansas. This 120-mile route which became known as the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road was the first of four such roads which emanated from Union Pacific railheads to connect with the Santa Fe Trail at various points.[9]

     By October 1867 the railroad reached Hays City which immediately became the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. Repeating the process at Junction City, freight wagons and stage coaches rumbled down the newly-developed Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road 75 miles to strike the established Santa Fe Trail at Fort Dodge.[10]

     In May 1868 the Union Pacific tracks were extended to a new end-of-the-tracks town in present Logan County, named Phil Sheridan, most often known as Sheridan. From that railhead, a new road of 120 miles was developed running southwest to strike the established Santa Fe Trail at Fort Lyon on the Bent's Fort Road. There the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail remained until 1870 when the Union Pacific constructed its tracks to Kit Carson in Colorado Territory. From the Kit Carson railhead two roads issued: the stage route which ran due south to strike the Bent's Fort Road to Fort Lyon: and the freight road developed by George McBride and Dick Wootton which ran south and then southwest to merge with the Bent's Fort Road at the site previously occupied by King's Ferry near present La Junta. Both roads, the stage and the freight, measured 55 miles.[11]

The Fort Union Road
     While the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division was building across Kansas in an east-west orientation, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was laying tracks southwestwardly across Kansas; and in July 1873 the railroad arrived at the newly established town of Granada in Colorado Territory.[12] From there, tons of freight were dispatched on what was sometimes called the Fort Union Road. The road had its roots in the route explored by Brevet Major John Pope in 1851 between Fort Union and the Arkansas River. Though apparently never used, it was followed by a similar route used as early as 1857, perhaps the same road observed by Major Richard I. Dodge during his survey of a road between Forts Union and Lyon in 1870. The length of the Fort Union Road remains moot, but the route Dodge surveyed from Fort Union to Fort Lyon (60 miles west of Granada) was 199-plus miles.[13]

The Purgatoire Stage Route
     The Bent's Fort Road, which paralleled Timpas Creek southwest of Bent's Fort to Trinidad, was eschewed by Barlow, Sanderson and Company in 1871 in favor of a new route along the Purgatoire River. Departing the established route at the Iron Spring Station, the new route traveled to Bent's Canyon, then southwest to Trinidad. In 1875, the Southern Overland Mail and Express Company lengthened the road by initiating a route out of West Las Animas, past Boggsville, to Vogel Canyon and on to Trinidad. The length of the route from West Las Animas was 103 miles.[14]

     Should all the distances of the above-mentioned roads be totaled, the mileage would be about 900 miles, the same distance of the initial Santa Fe Trail between Franklin, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. This writer finds it remarkable that these above-mentioned roads have received but little notice. The single exception is the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road marked at 25 locations by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail.

     Hopefully, this study will challenge Santa Fe Trail enthusiasts to recognize that the trade route was far more than a single line across the countryside, that it was a constellation of roads, constantly changing to meet the traveling needs of the commercial, postal, and military entities of the nineteenth century. Also, it should be noted, most of these important routes of the Santa Fe Trail network were not included in the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.

     Editor's Note: The Smoky Hill Trail Association is seeking legislation to add the Smoky Hill Trail to the National Trails System and to include all the connecting routes from the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, railheads on the Smoky Hill Route that connected with the main Santa Fe Trail.


  1. David K. Clapsaddle, A Directory of Santa Fe Trail Sites (Larned, KS: Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail, 1999), C-1, E-1, F-1, G-1, H-1.

  2. David K. Clapsaddle, "The Fort Leavenworth-Round Grove/Lone Elm Road: The Army's First Link to the Santa Fe Trail," Wagon Tracks (November 1993): 10-13.

  3. Otis E. Young, The First Military Escort on the Santa Fe Trail, 1829 (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1952), 161, 163.

  4. Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 545-547, 558, 559.

  5. Ibid., 981-982, 1003-1004.

  6. Ibid., 999, 1042-1043; Louise Barry, "Fort Aubrey," Kansas Historical Quarterly, 39 (Summer 1973): 191-198; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), 33, 109.

  7. Ibid., 41, 46.

  8. Barry, Beginning, 276-277. The Bent's Fort Road was later called the Mountain Route.

  9. David K. Clapsaddle, "Conflict and Commerce on the Santa Fe Trail: The Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road, 1860-1867," Kansas History, 16 (Summer 1993): 124-137.

  10. David K. Clapsaddle, "The Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road," Kansas History, 14 (Summer 1991): 100-112.

  11. David K. Clapsaddle, "The Fort Wallace/Kit Carson - Fort Lyon Roads," Wagon Tracks, 8 (February 1994): 11-14.

  12. Taylor, First Mail, 162.

  13. Richard Louden, "The Military Freight Road," Wagon Tracks (May 1993): 7-10.

  14. Taylor, First Mail, 153, 167.
         Used With Permission of the Author
         David Clapsaddle

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