End of the Trail
Rail-Roads, Commission Houses
Independent Freighters

     In 1819 the steamboat Independence arrived at the tiny town of Franklin, perched precariously on the north bank of the muddy Missouri River, 200 miles upstream from St. Louis. The Independence was a precursor of many other steamboats carrying merchandise to Franklin which, in 1821, became the eastern terminus of what we now call the Santa Fe Trail. In that year, William Becknell and five companions set forth on his first and fabled expedition to Santa Fe, a distance of 900-plus miles. For the next 58 years, that distance was progressively truncated as the eastern terminus of the Trail was moved farther to the west. Best stated in the axiom, the older the Trail was the shorter it became.

     By 1827 the terminus was relocated at the newly-established city of Independence where two nearby river ports served the Santa Fe trade. Seven years later, the steamboat John Hancock tied up to a rocky ledge at present Kansas City, Missouri, where it unloaded a shipment of goods for John McCoy's new store at West Port, four miles to the south. This port, known as Westport Landing, in time, replicated Independence as the terminus of the Trail. But with the outbreak of the border wars in the early days of Union/Confederate conflict, the terminus was moved around the bend of the river to Fort Leavenworth where the final river port for the Trail was established.

     In June 1866 the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division, arrived at Junction City just west of Fort Riley. The town became at once the first of several prairie ports which dispensed freight and mail from the various railheads to connect with the Santa Fe Trail. From Junction City, freight wagons and stage coaches traversed a route previously used by the Kansas Stage Company to deliver mails on a weekly basis to Fort Larned. Leaving Junction City, the road replicated the route of the Butterfield Overland Dispatch westward along the north bank of the Smoky Hill River to Salina and on to Fort Ellsworth. There, it crossed the river and continued on to strike the original route of the Santa Fe Trail at Walnut Creek. At that point, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail ceased east of Walnut Creek. This road, covering 120 miles, became known as the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road.

     In the summer of 1867, Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division tracks reached Fort Harker which had in the past several months changed its name from Fort Ellsworth and its location to one mile north of its original site in the river bottom. Thus, Fort Harker became the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, dispossessing Junction City of that honor.

     By this time, the huge freighting firms had lost their grip on government contracts and small independent freighters, mainly Mexicans, began to contract with businesses known as commission houses to deliver freight, both civilian and military, from the railhead to points southwest, and, in turn, to transport freight back to the railheads. Chief among these commission houses were Otero, Sellar and Company and Chick, Browne and Company. Both set up operations in the town of Ellsworth, situated just west of Fort Harker and adjacent to the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road.

     Miguel Otero's son, also Miguel, described Ellsworth in the summer of 1867 as "a tough little hole . . . almost wholly a town of tents and small rough frame buildings, but it was as busy a place as could be imagined. There were at least a hundred business houses in town, many of them conducting business in tents." The exceptions were the large warehouses constructed by the various commission houses, also known as forwarding firms.

     Fort Harker's hold on the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail was short lived. By October 1867 trains were running on a regular schedule to the newly-established town of Hays City, and immediately the little municipality near Fort Hays assumed the title of the Santa Fe Trail's eastern terminus. In early November freight wagons and stage coaches began to run southwest from Hays City to Fort Dodge, a distance of 75 miles, on what became known as the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road, where it merged with the established route of the Santa Fe Trail. There, and then, a significant length of the Santa Fe Trail fell into disuse as overland traffic east of Fort Dodge ceased.

     In the meantime, the prudent commission houses had disassembled their warehouses, loaded them on flat cars, and transported them to Hays City where they were hastily reassembled to receive the incoming and outgoing freight. Young Otero described the scene at Hays City, "Hundreds of freighting outfits have come to Hays City with the arrival of the railroad, and soon the surrounding country looked like a large tent city, except covered wagons took the place of tents. He continued, "During those busy days, firms remained open both day and night. This was necessary, since it usually took all day to load a large outfit, and often then, there were many odds and ends to attend to."

     Those busy days in Hays City came to a close in June 1868 when the railroad arrived at the little town of Phil Sheridan twelve miles east of Fort Wallace. The end-of-the-tracks town located on the edge of a ravine became at once the home of the ever present commission houses where their warehouses were quickly reassembled and business was continued within a matter of days. From Sheridan, as it was most often known, freight was shipped on a new 120-mile road through Fort Wallace and on to Fort Lyon located on the so-called Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail. From that time forward, overland traffic east of Fort Lyon to Fort Dodge ceased.

     Sheridan took on the appearance of its predecessors, Ellsworth and Hays City. Young Mr. Otero characterized the town as follows, "In many ways, Sheridan was like Hays City. It had much the same Main Street, much of the same saloons and dance halls, and houses of prostitution."During this period, the laying of tracks ceased because of financial troubles. Consequently, the railhead remained at Sheridan until 1869. The railroad company, reorganized and renamed the Kansas Pacific Railway, pushed westward to Kit Carson in Colorado Territory in 1870. Kit Carson, according to the younger Otero, "was different from other towns in which we had lived, being somewhat more civilized. . . . .Kit Carson," he said, "presented a main street that was comparatively clean and decent."

     Two roads departed from Kit Carson. Running due south to Fort Lyon was the mail route, a distance of 55 miles. The freight road developed by George McBride and Dick Wootton ran south before turning southwest to Bent's Fort, also a distance of 55 miles.

     There is a paucity of evidence with regard to the freight road. However, we are treated to a fleeting glimpse of the road by way of a diary written by P. G. Scott in 1870. Scott, born in1841 in Scotland, migrated with his family to Canada at the age of thirteen. There he attended school and prepared for a teaching career. However, his health broke and his doctor advised him to go "west" in search of a better climate for his lung problem. Arriving at Kit Carson by rail on August 17, he found lodging that night in the commission house of Webster, Musick and Cuniffe. Hotels were available, but Scott declared that, by sleeping in the commission house, he saved $1.00.

     On the following day he arranged for passage to Trinidad for $10.00 with Dolore Pathea's caravan. Pathea is one of the few freighters which transported freight to and from the railheads who can be identified. Another was Manuel Otero, young Miguel's uncle. Miguel's mention of his uncle is instructive, "(he) sent in his large freighting outfit consisting of many mule teams which carried wool and pelts to the railroad, took back merchandise and other consigned freight belonging to his neighbors on the Rio Grande." Wool was the major commodity transported from New Mexico. Morris Taylor reported, "In one week in July, 1874, 182,863 pounds of wool was shipped from West Las Animas, and the average weekly shipments of hides were given at 87,000 pounds."

     Scott's commentary is helpful as he described Pathea's caravan of 106 oxen hauling merchandise to Fort Union. Especially telling is the observation of the sandy terrain which at times required 22 oxen to pull a single wagon. Mexican oxen were typically smaller than American steers. Thomas Burns, a settler in Kansas Territory, described them as "small Mexican cattle, many of them black or black-and-tan in color and they all have short horns."

     However, much of his diary relates to complaints about his health and the manner in which the Sabbath was ignored. Upon reaching Trinidad, Scott, unable to perform strenuous labor, sought some light work from a Mr. Rice. Rice, not being able to accommodate Scott, referred him to a Mr. Sayers. Those of us from Kansas might like to know more about Rice. The Rev. Elijah Rice was formerly on the faculty at the University of Kansas and later President of Baker University. He, like Scott, had come to Trinidad for the sake of his health. In 1869 he established the Methodist Episcopal Church in Trinidad and subsequently opened the city's first public school, the Rice Institute. Sayers was Smith A. Sayers who operated the forage station at Willow Spring on the New Mexico side of Raton Pass. Scott did find employment there, but not to his liking. Soon he returned to Trinidad and later moved to Las Animas, Colorado Territory. (Editor's Note: Dr. Clapsaddle is editing a more detailed version of Scott's diary to appear in the next issue of Wagon Tracks.)

     In 1873 the Kansas Pacific built a spur line from Kit Carson to West Las Animas, Colorado, just west of Fort Lyon, and the freight road pioneered by McBride and Wootton fell into disuse. At the time the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division reached Junction City, the distance from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe by way of the Cimarron Route was 821 miles. In 1873, when the spur line reached Las Animas, the distance to Santa Fe from that prairie port was 320 miles, a reduction of 501 miles.

     In the meantime, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was laying tracks across Kansas and into Colorado at Granada, the first of several prairie ports on that line. The commission houses abandoned Kit Carson, moved to Granada, and continued in business within a matter of days. Kit Carson was lift stripped of its former glory with only one whiskey shop, a single restaurant, and the post office. At Granada, Otero, Sellar and Company and their business rivals created a lively trade dispatching freight down the Military Freight Road and the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail.

     In the same year the Northern Pacific Railroad failed, and the Panic of 1873 ensued. Moneyed interests were loath to make further investments in western railroads, and construction on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was stopped at Granada. However, in 1874, Mennonites from Russia migrating to central Kansas saved the day. These hardworking farmers brought with them millions of dollars in bank drafts which were soon put into circulation with the purchase of railroad lands. In addition, the railroad gained large dividends for shipping charges as the Mennonites purchased great amounts of machinery and animals transported to Kansas on the railroad.

     Made solvent by the Mennonites, the railroad resumed construction west from Granada; and in the spring of 1875 Bent County, Colorado, let bonds to aid in the construction of the rails to Las Animas. Consequently, in December 1875, the tracks arrived at La Junta, Colorado, the second of seven prairie ports in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Beyond La Junta, the tracks reached Trinidad in 1876; Otero in 1879; Las Vegas, also in 1879; and finally the little junction south of Santa Fe called Gallinas (later Lamy) in 1880. In that year, freighters transported the last load of freight from Lamy 15 miles to Santa Fe. So came to an end, after a 59-year duration, the Road to Santa Fe. That tenure far exceeds any other of the historic eras related to the trans-Mississippi West: the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Morman Trail, the fur trade, the gold rushes, the Pony Express, and the cattle trails-all are a second best to the nearly six decades of the Santa Fe Trail. And 128 years from that date of 1880, if I could borrow the line from Dr. Marc Simmons, perhaps also his enunciation, "The Santa Fe Trail Lives On!"


     Barry, Louise, comp., The Beginning of the West 1540-1854. Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972.

     Clapsaddle, David K., "Conflict and Commerce on the Santa Fe Trail: The Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road, 1860-1867," Kansas History, 16 (Summer 1992).

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

     Otero, Miguel, My Life on the Frontier, 1846-1882 (New York: Press of the Pioneers, 1935).

     Scott, P. G., "A Diary of a Freighting Trip from Kit Carson to Trinidad in 1870." The Colorado Magazine, 8 (July 1931).

     Taylor, Morris F., First Mail West, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.
     Used With Permission of the Author
     David Clapsaddle

Back to Research Articles




Santa Fe Trail Research Site

Santa Fe Trail Research Site
"E-Mail & Home Page"
Larry & Carolyn
St. John, Ks.
© "Forever"