My One-Half Mile of Santa Fe Trail
Rice County, Kansas

     That ancient path 700 to 800 miles in length, known as the Santa Fe Trail, may have originated as a game trail. Buffalo, antelope, deer and other animals indigenous to the area may have used parts of this route in their seasonal migrations. Indians used the Trail for many decades, perhaps centuries, in their travels to and from hunting grounds and in visiting other tribes and villages. Early explorers used the Trail. We feel certain that Coronado and his band followed the Santa Fe Trail in 1541 from a point near the present site of Dodge City to Quivira here in Rice County. Captain Pike traveled portions of the Trail in 1806.

     The use of the Trail by traders and westward bound emigrants is well described by Gene and Mary Martin in their booklet Trail Dust, A Quick Picture History of the Santa Fe Trail: "It was through Captain Zebulon Pike's 'Journal of the Western Expedition,' published in 1810, that Americans caught their first hint that trade with the Spanish Southwest might be profitable. The door was opened by the Santa Fe Trail.

     "Over this 800 mile Trail came traders, freighters, soldiers, buffalo hunters, pioneers, and gold seekers. Some found fame and fortune. Others only death on the lonely plains.

     "For over fifty years travel continued over this great dirt highway helping the United States expand westward."

     Hobart E. Stocking, in his book The Road to Santa Fe, says this about the Trail: "There is no other (road) quite like it on North America. In the short span of half a century it was the path of hundreds of thousands of hooves, cloven and uncleft: the motive power of commerce. It was the line of march of an army of aggression. and it was the route clearly marked for the uncounted who sought new life, new fate, new fortune somewhere in the Western reaches of a new nation.

     The earliest trader to head for Santa Fe was probably William Becknell in 1821. During the early part of that period when the Tail was an important artery of commerce the eastern terminus was Franklin, Missouri. A short time later Lexington, Missouri, became the starting point and still later Fort Osage and then Independence. Santa Fe, New Mexico, was thought of as the western terminus, however most traders probably did not stop there but continued southward into Mexico to Chihuahua. During those years of greatest commercial traffic ($5,000,000 worth in 1855), Westport, now a part of Kansas City, Missouri was the eastern terminus. Some of the merchandise from the Southwest arriving at Westport was transferred to barges on the Missouri River and carried down the Missouri and the Mississippi to New Orleans. There it was transferred to ships and carried to eastern U.S. seaports or even to European cities. Merchandise from Europe and eastern United States returned over this same route and found its way to Santa Fe, Chihuahua or other parts of the Southwest.

     According to Gene and Mary Martin, in 1858 "dust never settled along the Santa Fe Trail as emigrants rushed to the 'Pike's Peak or Bust' gold strike, which was then in Western Kansas Territory."

     As railroad constriction proceeded westward the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail also moved westward. By 1868-70 that part of the Trail laying in Rice County was no longer in use, and early settlers were beginning to arrive in central and western Kansas. The last section of the Trail to be used was operated from the eastern terminus of Las Vegas, New Mexico. In 1880 the Santa Fe Railroad reached a point near Santa Fe and the old Trail was closed.

     A part of my half mile of the Santa Fe Trail happens to be one of the best examples of the Trail still in existence. There is a two and one-fourth mile strip of very sandy soil in western Rice County. Hathaway Homestead lies at the eastern edge of that sandy strip. Since the soil is sandy it was easily loosened by the vehicles and the beasts supplying the power. The Kansas wind moved the lose soil out so the ruts tended to become deeper and deeper. At one point there are seven parallel ruts --- the more common number is four. There are more than the usual number of ruts here because of the layer of loose soil became so deep and offered so much rolling resistance to the wagon wheels that from time to time a new track or rut was started. If you wonder how the soil could be loosened so greatly think of these facts as reported by the Martins: In 1866 the largest freighting firm was Majors, Russell, and Waddell, which held a contract to haul supplies to Army forts along the Trail. The firm employed 5,000 men and used 3,500 wagons, 40,000 oxen, 1,000 mules and moved 16,000,000 Pounds (8,000 tons) of freight. If only a part of that traffic crossed this farm it is no wonder the ruts are deep. When the use of the Trail ended the first plant to grow in the ruts was the sunflower. eventually the short grasses, particularly buffalo grass, reclaimed the ruts and in doing so preserved them for us and succeeding generations to view.

     Most of the wagons used were modified Conestogas, huge vehicles capable of hauling at least two tons of merchandise that varied from candles, soap tobacco, cloth, ribbons, washboards, and shoes to hardware, molasses, cider, sugar, whiskey, coffee and cured meats. The loads carried eastward were smaller and lighter and might consist of gold dust, buffalo hides and rugs, furs, wool and Mexican blankets. The favorite draft animals was oxen, four to six hitched to each wagon. Although oxen were slower than horses and mules they were more adept at surviving on the sparse vegetation of the area while pulling heavy loads over difficult terrain. They also cost less to buy.

     In 1846 a regular monthly stagecoach service was established from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe. The fare was $1500, this was a 25 to 30 day trip and the passengers had to sleep in the ground. Coaches carried nine passengers with two seated on top.

     Adding to the hardships of travel on the Trail was the possibility of Indian attack. The Indian resented the invasion of his land that had been given to him by the Great Spirit and he had been mistreated by some of the early explorers and traders. When the Indian decided to retaliate his attack could be very vicious. Such an attack occurred near the east side of the Hathaway Homestead in 1863. This appeared to have been a small wagon train of emigrants. The danger of Indian attack increased when travelers crossed Cow Creek. From that point westward the danger was always present.

     When my grandparent's, John L. and Mary E. Hathaway, arrived here from Lee County, Iowa, in 1878, they discovered signs of the massacre. While breaking sod along the east side of his homestead John L. and his sons turned up several articles: a pistol, a watch, and many pieces of hardware from burned wagons. Unfortunately these choice artifacts did not remain in our possession. It seems John's brother Henry, a Lee County, Iowa, architect and builder, was so intrigued by these articles that he talked his nephews out of them. The only artifacts we have found were broken bits of ironstone china and a few large caliber bullets. In the years that have passed since the massacre all metal articles have either been picked up or have disintegrated. Many people have gone over the area with metal detectors and found nothing.

     Although the initial attack occurred on this farm the conflict appeared to turn into a running battle. The evidence left after the battle indicated there were no survivors. The wagons were burned and the livestock probably driven away by the Indians. This battle was called the Plum Buttes Massacre. Plum Buttes was a landmark along the Trail and although these buttes were almost two miles from the massacre site there was no other geographical name by which to identify the incident.

     The only written account of the massacre that I have ever found is contained in a booklet entitled Rice Co. 1876: "Report says that a train of emigrants was broken up near Plum Buttes in 63 and I learned through William McGee, who lives on section 34, range 10 the south part of Farmer Township, about two miles from the Buttes, that the Trail runs through his section, and since his settlement there in April 1874, he found on that section broken and partly burned wagons, plows, barrels, tubs, boxed and earthenware; and for miles around lay scattered unworn boots and shoes, crisped by prairie fires and the scorching sun, wit other articles --- everything denoting the place to have been the scene of a general massacre, as the row of graves was visible for some years after near this spot."

     During the 106 years my family has occupied this farm we have found no sign of graves mentioned by Major Muscott. Fifteen years elapsed between the time of the massacre and the arrival of my grandparents. Evidence of unmarked graves could easily disappear in 15 years. The legal description (section 34 range 10) is correct for this farm and at that time this was within Farmer Township. Later some township lines were revised and this became part of Pioneer Township. William McGee, mentioned by Major Muscott, was a squatter living on the farm from 1874 to 1878. A squatter was a person who took possession of a parcel of land with no intention of completing the homestead procedure to full ownership. He simply claimed the land temporarily while waiting for someone to come along and offer him cash. When the bargain was completed he moved on, probably to become a squatter on some other locality.

     Two miles west of Hathaway Homestead is Plum Buttes. The Buttes are not within my half-mile of the Trail but they have always been important to me as a community landmark. From many points on this farm one can look westward and see the depression worn by countless travelers as they crossed the low ridge on the horizon. To the north of this and also north of the present township road were the sand dunes known as Plum Buttes. My father who was born on this farm in 1882, told me that the Buttes were still quite prominent when he was a boy. One in particular was quite easily seen when looking westward. Ultimately the Buttes were destroyed by the same force that built them: the Kansas wind.

     In imagining what the huge dunes looked like try also to imagine this entire area completely without trees --- only the mixture of tall and short grasses waving in the prairie wind. Historians tell us that travelers crossing Cow Creek near Buffalo Bill Mathewson's trading post could see Plum Buttes a little more then ten miles away. This was the landmark they headed for and usually made it their noon stop.

     Hobart E. Stocking, in his book The Road to Santa Fe, has this say about Plum Buttes: "Twelve miles west of Cow Creek and the site of Quivira rose Plum Buttes. There were three and in mid-summer the thickets which grew on and about them provided plums for many transients, including coyotes and wolves. They were not buttes in the topographic sense; rather they were usually high sand dunes standing perhaps a hundred feet above the prairie. Long, long ago winds sweeping eastward across the great North Bend of the Arkansas (River) had mobilized the rock debris, moved it from the floodplain and heaped it in dunes out on the prairie. And long ago, their slow migration had been temporarily halted by brush and grass on them, springing up after some mild wet winter and damp spring. They were there when the first wagon passed but soon after the last, by some whim of weather, wind erosion began their reduction."

     I found another reference to Plum Buttes in a little known book Kansas A Cyclopedia of State History, edited by Frank W Blackmar, published in 1912. "A little southwest (writer's note: this should read 'northeast') of the present station of Silica, on the old trail between Atlanta (not Lyons) and Ellinwood was three sand hills known as Plum Buttes. They were about 120 feet higher than the surrounding prairie, but only about 25 feet higher than the sand hills still a prominent feature of that locality, and were once covered with the common sand hill plums. Prof. Bernard B. Smyth, a former resident of that section and the authority for this statement, says that between the years 1865 and 1884 a gradual 'blow out' occurred, which resulted in leveling the buttes and even creating a wide channel or valley in the hills upon which they stood."

     Many interesting books have been written about the Santa Fe Trail and its place in history. Following are some I recommend. At least three of these are available at the Coronado-Quivira Museum in Lyons, Kansas.

     Martin, Gene and Mary, Trail Dust, A Quick Picture History of the Santa Fe Trail. Golden Bell Press, Denver, Colorado 1972

     Jones, Horace. Up From the Sod, Coronado Publishers, Lyons, Kansas 1968.

     Magoffin, Susan Shelby, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. This is the diary of Susan, 1846-47. Probably the first white woman to travel the Trail. Her husband was a trader. They crossed this farm on July 1, 1846 --- 32 years before my grandparents arrived.

     Gregg, Josiah, The Commerce of the Prairies, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. This is a well written account of the formation and daily operation of a wagon train, describes the process of forming the oval of wagons for overnight security and the process of breaking camp each morning.

     Stocking, Hobart E. The Road to Santa Fe. Hastings House, New York, NY 1971. This is an excellent description of the Trail from Franklin Missouri to Santa Fe. Includes many maps and details. This book is no longer in print and is very difficult to find.
Used With Permission of the Author:
Ralph Hathaway

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