The Pawnee River has its source in northwest Gray County, Kansas, and flows north into Finney County and east through Hodgeman County before veering northeast to the southeast corner of Ness County. From that point, the stream returns southeast to Hodgeman County and proceeds eastward through Pawnee County to Larned. There, the Pawnee completes its 100-mile journey and empties into the Arkansas River. In the historic period, the Pawnee's confluence with the Arkansas was located near the present US Hwy 56 bridge at the south edge of Larned. Later, the fickle Arkansas changed its course, and today the rivers merge several hundred yards east of the nineteenth-century confluence.
Officially designated the Pawnee River, early settlers in the region called the stream Pawnee Creek to distinguish it from the Arkansas River. The tradition still persists. Spaniards knew the river as Rio de Pananas. Anglos called the stream Vulture Creek in the early 1800s. Later, Pawnee Fork became the common designation. Matt Field wrote, "The place is called by traders Pawnee Fork from its being an abrupt elbow or point of land forming a turn in Pawnee Creek." Field was mistaken about fork. Fork has reference to the Pawnee's tributarial relationship to the Arkansas, not to the configuration of the river channel. Pawnee Fork was the common designation of this stream during Trail days.
There were other names. During the 1852 reconnaissance of the Pawnee Valley, Lieutenant Israel Woodruff labeled the stream as the north branch of the Pawnee river and named it Heth's branch in honor of 2nd Lieutenant Henry Heth then stationed at Fort Atkinson, a little post near present Dodge City. Cheyennes came to call the stream Red Arm Creek fot the Comanche chief of that name who was killed during an attack on a Bent/St. Vrain caravan somewhere along the river in 1847. Rufus Sage wrote that Indians called the river Otter Creek "because of the great number of those animals found upon it."
By whatever name, the stream, its confluence with the Arkansas river, and the crossing at that point combined to make a notable landmark on the Santa Fe Trail. Such repute was derived, in part, from the timber which populated the Pawnee. Contrasted with the nearby Arkansas and its straggly stand of cottonwoods, the Pawnee had an extensive growth of several species. Camping near the confluence on September 1, 1825, George C. Sibley noted the timber as follows, "Elm, Ash, Ekder, Cotton Tree, Willow, and Grape Vines." On the same day, Sibley rode to the top of a ridge overlooking both the Arkansas and Pawnee valleys. He wrote, "I could distinctly trace the course of the Pawnee river for a great distance by the fringe of trees along its banks."
Such timber did not go unnoticed. When Fort Atkinson was suffering through its first winter (1850-1851) with the nearest tree growth twelve miles distant, Captain William Hoffman, the commanding officer, recommended that the post be relocated on the Pawnee River where timber was readily available. That move did not take place; but in 1859, Camp on Pawnee Fork, Fort Larned's predecessor, was established about six miles upstream from the mouth of the Pawnee. Henry Stanley, a correspondent with the Hancock Expedition of 1867 observed "patriarchal trees" near Fort Larned. Lieutenant M. R. Brown, the expedition's engineer, sketched a line of trees on both sides of the river as he documented the expeditions itinerary upstream along the Pawnee.
Other evidence of the timber along this stream is derived from the sawmill constructed by Fort Larned personnel some four miles west of present Rozel in 1861 and the toll bridge built of local timer three miles east of Fort Larned in 1868. Addditional testimony to the Pawnee's tree growth is associated with the march of Colonel Stephen W. Kearny in 1846 at the onset of the Mexican War. Arriving at the Pawnee on July 15, Kearny found 1200 men held up because of high water. On the following day, the resourceful colonel ordered that trees be felled across the river to serve as foot bridges for the soldiers. On the same day, Lieutenant William H. Emory, topographical engineer, ferried his equipment across the swollen Pawnee by way of a raft. 2nd Lieutenant J. W, Albert's watercolor painting of that event shows the Pawnee Crossing to be situated in a well-timbered copse.
Also of note were the high banks of the Pawnee. In 1825, Sibley described the Pawnee near its mouth as "forty yards wide, banks pretty high, bottom sandy." The steep banks made the Pawnee Crossing one of the most treacherous in the entire length of the Santa Fe Trail, as the following two examples illustrate.
On his first trip to Santa Fe in 1844, James Josiah Webb observed, "The second day after, we arrived at Pawnee Fork, and, as the crossing was very difficult, we concluded to turn out, repair the road, and prepare for crossing the next morning. The east bank must be from twenty to thirty feet above the water and very steep -- so much so, that we were compelled to lock both hind wheels, hitch a yoke of good wheelers to the hind axle, and all the men that can be used to advantage to assist in holding back and prevent the wagon from turning over. Even with all these precautions, accidents frequently happen, and the descent is so rapid the teams get doubled up and oxen run over. The next morning we began crossing; and when the wagons were about half across, one of Wethered's wagonsf turned over into the stream. The west bank was steep but not so high as the east one. Yet we had to double teams to get out and make a short and very difficult turn up the stream; so the wagon fell into the deep water, and bottom up. All hands took to the water and in two or three hours succeeded in getting dry goods and wagon to camp on the opposite bank. The next two days were spent in opening the goods, and spreading them on the ground to dry, repacking, and loading up."
Two years later members of the Morman Battalion had a similar experience. Sergeant Daniel Tyler recorded: "On the evening of the 9th we camped on a stream known as Pawnee Fork, the crossing of which was very difficult, and occupied some time. Each wagon had to be let down the bank with ropes, while on the opposite bank from twenty to thirty men with ropes aided the teams in pulling the wagons up. The water was muddy, very much like that of the Missouri river."
The difficulty occasioned by the Pawnee's steep banks was further confounded by its periodic raging floodwaters. Normally the stream ran three to five feet deep; but during the flood season, its deep channel ran full to over flowing. Such was experienced by Colonel Kearny, as noted above, and by a Bent/St. Vrain wagon train detained for a full month in 1844.
Regardless, the Pawnee River crossing was a popular stop as characterized by Matt Field in 1840, "a delightful wood and watering place at an abrupt turning of the Pawnee River." A similar sentiment was expressed by Henrich Mollhausen in 1848; "The wide prairie with its sublime tranquility and its majestic expanse certainly has an appeal to receptive and contemplative minds. But when, after a long trip through the endless grassy meadows, one suddenly finds himself in a region where mighty walnut trees, sycamores, oak trees and willows of many kinds crowd the dark masses of their tops together, decorated with lianas and grapevines-where, in other words, the earth's inexhaustible productive force is revealed in the luscious vegetation, in the knotted trunk as well as in the tender twig-then the enjoyment is doubly great. The smallest wooded strip extends nature's kind greeting to the wonders of the prairie."
As such, the Pawnee River crossing was a well-known campsite on what came to be known as the Wet route of the Santa Fe Trail. Commemorating the crossing are a bronze marker and an interpretative sign placed near the US 56 bridge at Larned by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail. The chapter has also set gravestones at the location to honor Private Robert Easley and Arthur Hughes who died and were buried near the crossing during the Mexican War.
The original Dry Route of the Santa Fe Trail turned off from the Wet Route three and one-half miles southwest of the Pawnee River crossing at a place called Forks in Santa Fe Road (also marked by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter). But with the advent of the Hall-Porter mail station and the subsequent establishment of the Camp on Pawnee Fork some six miles west of the Pawnee River crossing in the ffall of 1859, the Dry Route's eastern terminus was shifted to a location about one mile southwest of Ash Creek crossing.
Departing the regular route of the Santa Fe Trail which ran south the Pawnee River crossing, the new variant of the Dry Route took a southwesterly orientation to strike the Pawnee River three miles east of the mail station and nearby Camp on Pawnee Fork. There it crossed the river and continued up the south bank to the mail station and the little outpost. When Camp on Pawnee Fork, renamed Camp Alert in February 1860, and later renamed Fort Larned and relocated one-fourth mile southwest of the original site as a permanent post in early June 1860, the Dry Route crossing began to experience heavy traffic. The reasons were three. First, by the time of Fort Larned's establishment, most of the American freight plying the Santa Fe Trail was military in nature. Commercial freighters under contract to the army provisioned Fort Larned before proceeding on to other posts southwest. Second, as both the mail station and later the post office were located adjacent to the post, the stagecoaches of a necessity took the Dry Route. Third, because the Dry Route was shorter than the Wet Route, it became the preferred path of the mail companies.
Near the Dry Route crossing situated at the west edge of the present Larned State Hospital campus, a cut-down of huge proportions remains on the north bank of the river. On the south side, a short distance from the crossing, is the site of a trading ranche established by Samuel Parker in 1865. Parker also operated another ranche just west of the Wet Route crossing (also marked by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter). Parker sold the Dry Route ranche and it changed hands several times before being operated by a man known only as Wagginer. Indians raided the ranche in 1867, and Wagginer sold the burned out remains to A. H. Boyd in the following year.
Boyd proved to be a successful entrepreneur, catering both to civilians and soldiers from nearby Fort Larned. A bronze marker placed by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter identifies the ranche site. The crossing site is also memorialized by a bronze marker and an interpretative sign, compliments of the chapter. A DAR Santa Fe Trail marker is also located at the crossing site.
By 1866 another variant of the Dry Route was developed due to the post office being transferred from the mail station to the sutler's store located at the southwest corner of Fort Larned. Beginning at the same point previously discussed, one mile southeast of the Ash Creek crossing, the road ran southwest to the north bank of the Pawnee and followed its course as it curled south around the west side of the post. There, a crossing adjacent to the sutler's store came into use.
In June 1866 the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division, reached Junction City near Fort Riley. At once, the little municipality became the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. Merchandise and mail previously dispatched from the Kansas City area on the original route of the Santa Fe Trail through Council Grove were shipped by rail to Junction City. From there, the freight and post were transported on an established mail route to Walnut Creek and westward on the original route of the Santa Fe Trail to Fort Larned. This route came to be called the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road. In the subsequent summer, the Union Pacific rails reached Fort Harker, and the little post, superseding Junction City as the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, continued to relay merchandise and mail to Fort Larned. In October 1867, rail service was extended to Hays City, and that newly-founded town became the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, dispatching freight wagons and stagecoaches on the 75-mile Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road to Fort Dodge and on to Santa Fe. Thus, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail east of Fort Dodge through Fort Larned ceased, and the Pawnee River crossing at the fort was used only for local traffic. East of Fort Larned National Historic Site one mile is a bronze marker and an interpretaative sign placed by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter which explains the Dry Route variant which crossed the Pawnee River at Fort Larned.
The westward push of the railroad to Hays City and the initiation of the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road led to a fourth Pawnee River crossing. Running southwest from Hays City, the road crossed Big Creek, the Smoky Hill River, Big Timber Creek, and Walnut Creek before reaching the Pawnee River in present Hodgeman County. There a modern bridge spans the stream where Santa Fe-bound freight wagons and stagecoaches once forded. Overland traffic on the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road came to a halt when the railroad extended its tracks to Phil Sheridan, an end-of-the-tracks town in present Logan County. From there, a new road was developed running west to Fort Wallace before turning southwest to strike the so-called Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail at Fort Lyon. Thus, after a brief eight-month tenure, Santa Fe travel stopped on the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road and traffic at this Pawnee River crossing became limited to local citizens and the transport of military personnel and supplies, which continued until the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway reached Dodge City in 1872. At the crossing site, a profound cut-down remains on the north bank of the river. To the south, several faint ruts can yet be detected. The Wet/Dry Routes Chapter has placed a bronze marker at this location to commemorate the crossing.
From the early 1820s through 1868, when the westward expansion of the railroad rung the death knell for the Santa Fe Trail east of Fort Lyon, the four separate crossings of the Pawnee River witnessed multiple tons of freight and mail deliveries numbering in the thousands. Yet, physical evidence is limited to the Drty Route crossing east of Fort Larned and the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road ford in Hodgeman County, slight tribute to the crossings which served the Santa Fe trade for nearly five decades.
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