The Wet/Dry Routes
of the
Santa Fe Trail

     "Between Pawnee Fork and Fort Atkinson there are, for about three-fourths of the distance, two routes---one known as the river route, the other as the dry route…The fork of the road is in a ravine, three and a half miles beyond Pawnee fork crossing…At ten miles form Fort Atkinson the dry route strikes into the valley of the river. By our computation, this route, which is near fifty miles long, saves in distance about ten or eleven miles---but the river route is certainly preferable, as it affords good grazing and an abundance of water."
"Lt. William H. Whipple, 1852"

     Leaving Pawnee Rock and crossing Ash Creek, the Santa Fe Trail continued six miles to Pawnee Fork at present-day Larned in Pawnee County, Kansas. [1] From Pawnee Fork, the trail pursued the north bank of the Arkansas River to its south bend near present-day Ford. From the south bend, the trail followed the river west-ward to the middle crossing and beyond.

     In the early years of the Santa Fe Trail, the road along the north bank of the Arkansas was used by a variety of travelers. During the fall of 1821, trappers Hugh Glenn and Jacob Fowler Pursued this route to the present site of Dodge City and westward to the Rocky Mountains. [2] In subsequent years, Missouri merchants followed the same course: the Copper party, 1822; and the LeGrand-Marmaduke party, 1824. [3] In 1825, the Sibley Survey Commission plotted the road to Santa Fe Along the north bank of the river; and through 1828, at least five additional caravans traversed the route along the Arkansas. [4] In 1829, Bvt. Maj. Bennett Riley used this road to conduct the first army escort on the Santa Fe Trail. [5]

     In 1833, a caravan captained by Charles Bent and escorted by Capt. William Wycliffe's Command departed the river valley near Pawnee Fork crossing to pursue an upland course to the Arkansas. [6] From that date forward, traffic on the Santa Fe Trail alternated between the established road along the river and the road across the upland pioneered by Wycliffe. In time, these roads became known as the wet and the dry routes.

     If Josiah Gregg is to be believed, the dry route was the road of preference for the majority of the merchants through the 1830's and into the next decade. Gregg, who made four trips to Santa Fe between 1831 and 1840, carefully detailed an itinerary of the trail published in his classic 1844 Commerce of the Prairies. His itinerary did not identify any campsites along the wet route, but it did list Coon Creek, thirty-three miles form Pawnee Fork, as the only stop between the Pawnee and the Arkansas. In fact, James Webb, a well-known trader and contemporary of Gregg, referred to the dry route as the Coon Creek route. Moreover, Gregg's map of the trail depicts only the dry route, with no indication of the wet route. [7]

     In July 1846, the Magoffin trading party camped with Col. Stephen Watts Kearny and the Army of the West at Pawnee Fork crossing. The Magoffins, along with other civilians and twenty government wagons, were allowed to proceed unescorted on the dry route. However, Kearny directed the main body of civilians and soldiers to take the river road. Kearny's choice signaled a new era for the wet route. [8] Throughout the duration of the Mexican War and into the 1850s, the wet route, also called the river route, the water road, and the lower road, became the preferred route for troop detachments and supply wagons with their multitude of animals. As Lt. William Whipple Wrote in 1852, "the river route is certainly preferable, as it affords good grazing and an abundance of water." [9]

     With the initiation of mail service between Independence and Santa Fe in 1850, the dry route experienced a marked increase in traffic. Lieutenant Whipple noted, "The Santa Fe mail riders, it is understood, always took this dry route."[10]

     By the mid-1850s, most of the traffic on the Santa Fe Trail was monopolized by the huge freighting companies. Like the Army, they continued to use the wet route almost exclusively. Such is apparent in H. B. Mollhausen's 1858 observation:

     "By the way, there is a road across the upland known as the "Dry Road." It is even shorter than the road down the river which has been called the "Water Road," but the "Dry Road" is always avoided by the oxen caravans, and usually by the mule caravans, to because of the lack of water." [11]

     The next surge of traffic on the dry route occurred in the 1858-1859 gold rush to he Rocky Mountains. Gold seeders, hurrying across the prairie were piloted by guidebooks printed for that purpose. One such gold seeder was Augustus Voorhees. His June 15, 1858, diary entry reflects his hasty march over the dry route:

     "Remained in camp untill [sic] five o'clock, then drove all night. Got to Coon creek thirty miles at five o'clock in the morning; found no water the whole distance. We took the cutt [sic] off, which is to the north of the river road which turns to the left four or five miles west of the Pawnee Fork, which road is necessary to travel in the dry season, as there is no water on the cut off until we strike the river sixty-five miles. The river road is twenty or thirty miles longer. We found plenty of water on Coon creek but it soon goes dry." [12]

     In the 1860s, traffic was divided between the two roads, the wet route receiving the preponderant share of the freight caravans and the dry route monopolizing the stage runs.

     Preceding the establishment of the mail station in September 1859 some six miles west of present-day Larned, the trail divided at Fords in Santa Fe Road described by Lt. Randolph Marcy as three and a half miles beyond Pawnee Fork crossing. [13] Subsequent to the construction of the mail station and nearby Camp on Pawnee Fork [renamed Camp Alert and later Fort Larned], the trail split at a point about one and a half miles southwest of Ash Creek Crossing, northeast of present-day Larned. [14]

     Running parallel to each other at a distance of up to ten miles, the wet and dry routes merged at a point ten miles east of Fort Atkinson, later described as being one mile east of Fort Dodge. [15] From this junction, the Santa Fe Trail continued westward as a single road.

     Proceeding southwest of Ash Creek through present-day Larned, the wet route followed present-day Trail Street to Pawnee Fork. Two blocks west of Second and Trail streets is an old quarry site used by precentury Larnedites. This is the location identified by Commissioner George Sibley during the 1825 survey of the Santa Fe Trail. Sibley'' September 1 diary entry reads:

     "The morning cloudy and cool. Mercury 68 at 8 o'Clock. The Pawnee River is here about 40 yards wide, banks pretty high, bottom sandy, Water at present Muddy. Timber Elm, Ash, Elder, Cotton Tree, Willow, and Grape Vines. Yesterday I turned off from the direct course and struck the Arkansas at the mouth of this River, and then coursed it up about a mile to the fording place near which we are now encamped, which is just at the foot of a high rocky Hill. The path leading up from the mouth to the ford passed between the Pawnee and some Cliffs of Soft Rock, upon the smooth faces of which are cut the names of many Persons, who have at different times passed this way to and from New Mexico. Some Indian marks are also to be seen on these Rocks." [16]

     Quarrying has greatly reduced the cliffs of soft rock to which Sibley referred, and the names there inscribed have long since disappeared. However, the location maintains much of its historical integrity with the high rocky hill, as Sibley described rising sharply from Second Street two full city blocks before leveling off on Fourth Street.

     A few blocks southeast of the quarry site, the wet route reached Pawnee Fork crossing, now spanned by the U. S. Highway 56 bridge and the Santa Fe railroad trestle. James Webb recalled his first crossing of the Pawnee in 1844:

     "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 form 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 the Wethered's wagons 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 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." [17]

     Railroad and highway construction has destroyed all evidence of the crossing, but the banks of the Pawnee still remain precariously high and steep.

     Proceeding southwest past Forks in Santa Fe Road, the wet route reached a small hill nine miles beyond Pawnee Fork on present-day Highway 56. This rise was described by Sibley in his September 1, 1825, diary entry:

     "Apprehending more Rain and fearing to be detained here by high water, we set to work cutting down the Banks, and preparing the ford for the Waggons [sic] to cross. We got all safe over without any accident or much difficulty by 11 o"CLK. and then proceeded South West through a flat bottom about half a mile from the River. I rode upon the Ridge, form the top of which, I could distinctly trace the course of the Pawnee River for a great distance by the fringe of Trees along its banks. Its general course as far as I could see is from So[uth] W[est] to NO[rht] E[ast]. It runs nearly parallel with the Arkansas at an average distance of about Six miles apart, gradually diverging." [18]

     While modern measurement exceeds Sibley's estimate of six miles to the high ridge, this hill is undoubtedly the ridge that the commissioner noted as it is the only elevation along the Arkansas for many miles.

     Continuing to the southwest past present-day Garfield, the wet route reached Coon Creek, sometimes called Raccoon Creek. [19] Captain Marcy's odometer measured the distance at 11.43 miles form Pawnee Fork. The Highway 56 bridge that spans the little stream at this point was constructed at the original site of Coon Creek crossing. [20]

     Beyond Coon Creek Crossing was Plain Camp, the first of three campsites on the wet route listed in Charles Folsom's 1842 itinerary as fifteen miles for Pawnee Fork. Conjecture is that this location was so named because it had no landmark to distinguish it from other like places along the Arkansas. [21]

     Less than two miles upstream, Lt. John Love and his First Dragoons camped on July 25, 1847. With Love's forces were several traders, two government trains, and an army paymaster. On the following morning, three hundred Comanches attacked, killing five dragoons and driving off 130 oxen. Subsequently, this battle site became known as Love's Defeat. [22]

     Five miles west of Plain Camp, Coon Creek runs close to the Arkansas River adjacent to the course followed by the wet route. In fact, the wet route was known as the lower Coon Creek route. Here, on June 17, 1848, Lt. William B. Royall camped with his seventy-one raw recruits, Lt. Phillip Stremmel's artillery detachment, two government trains, an army paymaster, and a beef herd of 425 animals. On the following morning some seven hundred Comanches and Apaches attacked the camp. However, Royall's recruits, assisted by Stremmel's artillery, were able to withstand the attack without the loss of a single man. [23] Royall stated that the battle occurred five miles from Love's Defeat. However, he failed to designate in which direction, east or west. While some testimony suggests that the confrontation took place at the mouth of Coon Creek about five miles east of the battle, the evidence appears to favor the location five miles west. [24]

     Such evidence is derived for the marches made by Royall's troops following the battle. On the day of the confrontation, Royall moved his entourage ten miles upstream, and two days later was able to reach Fort Mann on the evening of June 20. From the battle site to Fort Mann, the distance was fifty-three miles. [25] Allowing for the first day march of ten miles, the troops marched forty-three miles in the two succeeding days, a difficult feat with such a large party. As difficult as the march was, it would have been next to impossible should the battle have taken place at the mouth of Coon Creek, thus adding ten miles to the trip.

     Departing the battle site, the wet route passed to the east of present-day Kinsley about a half mile. Here remains the first of six sets of ruts found within the next ten miles. Beyond the last set of ruts was Little Pond, the second campsite identified in Folsom's 1842 itinerary as twenty-one miles from Plain Camp. [26] Here in the early morning hours of July 10, 1848, Capt. Gabriel de Korponay's command of seventy-one men engaged five to six hundred Comanches in a running battle of fifteen miles. On the previous evening de Korponay's troops had camped upstream a few miles. As darkness fell, de Korponay spotted a campfire some distance to the northeast. Assuming the fire to be that of and Indian war party, the captain reinforced the guard and braced for battle. In the absence of attack, de Korponay ordered reveille sounded at 2:30 am and quietly marched his men toward the enemy. By 3:30 am, de Korponay was informed that the camp was not occupied by Comanches but by a scouting party from Colonel Gilpin's command. In an attempt to alert the scouting party to the presence of his troops, the captain ordered the ordinance march sounded. The result was unexpected. In de Korponay's own words, "In an instant the camp arose in confusion. The opposite bank was covered with Indians." In the ensuing confrontation, the Indians fired their carbines from the cover of timber and underbrush on the south side of the river. Ordering up an artillery piece, de Korponay returned the fire with grapeshot, ineffective at that distance. Subsequent six-pound balls found their mark, the first two killing three Indians. Frightened and confused by the artillery, the Indians. Fled their camp leaving behind their breakfast cooking on the fires. De Korponay later wrote that his "men partook sumptuously and in consequence the place and fight was named by them, Gabriel's Barbecue." [27]

     The historical integrity of this area has been compromised by flood waters of the Arkansas especially during 1965. Prior to that time, an Indian camp was discovered on the south side of the river in 1942 following a series of dust storms which uncovered fire pits and left exposed numerous artifacts, both of Indian and Anglo origin. In more recent years, the terrain has been further altered by irrigation and agriculture. On the north side of the river, a little pond, as the campsite's name suggests, is supplied by a windmill. This natural pond was dammed in 1940 to create a permanent water source for livestock. [28]

     Departing Little Pond, the wet route proceeded to the south bend of the Arkansas. In this ten-and-a-half-mile stretch are two lengths of ruts at intervals of one and three and a half miles. Two and half miles west of the south bend, the wet route left the river bottom and swung northwest in a seven-mile arc to avoid the sandy terrain along the north bank of the Arkansas. In so doing, the trail passed a spring flowing from a sandstone formation. No nineteenth-century reference can be found to this water source, but ruts in its immediate area indicate it was well known during the historic period. The following inscription is carved into the sandstone at the spring: "Black Pool Dis by E. Post 1843." Whether or not the inscription is authentic remains moot. Ironically, however, Charles C. Post recalled carving his name and address in the rocks at a pool he named Crescent Pool on July 5, 1859. Post identified this location as seventy-five miles west of Pawnee Fork in the Fort Atkinson area. [29] A mile and a half to the northwest of Black Pool, ruts of dramatic proportions traverse a full half mile of virgin sod.

     Proceeding along the bluff overlooking the river valley, the wet route continued northwest for two miles. At this point, the lower crossing used in the 1822-1825 period departed the wet route about one mile to the south where it forded the Arkansas at the mouth of Mulberry Creek.[30]

     One and a half miles west of the lower crossing's departure point, the wet route is marked by a number of well-defined ruts. Just beyond this location, the wet route turned southwest two miles to Small Drain, the third campsite identified in the Folsom itinerary. Here, Col. Jacob Snively reunited his forces with those of Eli Chandler following there humiliation surrender to Capt. Phillip St. George Cooke in June 1843. [31]

     Back in the river bottom, the wet route marched two miles upstream to Jackson's Island, also known as Jackson's Grove and Ferguson's Grove. This well-known spot on the wet route was located in a huge stand of trees extending about a fourth mile along the south bank of the Arkansas. It was here that Captain Cooke confronted Colonel Snively and his Texas freebooters who had come north with the intentions of robbing Mexican caravans along the Santa Fe Trail. From Jackson's Island, the wet route continued to its merger with the dry route, a distance of 5.1 miles according to Captain Marcy. 32]

     The dry route, appropriately named, was known for the lack of water along its course. As William B. Parsons wrote in 1859, "The cut off can be taken anytime before the first of July, after that, it would be dangerous, because of the scarcity of water." James Webb indicated the sometimes presence of water at Coon Creek adding that occasionally water could be found at Far Ash Creek four miles from Pawnee Fork. Otherwise, the only source of water, as noted by Calvin Clark, was "out of holes make by buffaloes this last year by the aid of recent rains." [33]

     The pre-1859 dry route was also called the bluff road, the ridge road, and the upper road. Such designations were in reference to the eighteen-mile stretch of the road that followed a pronounced ridge from a point nine miles southwest of Pawnee Fork to Coon Creek, three and a half miles west of present-day Kinsley. From the ridge overlooking the Arkansas River, travelers could observe the progress of caravans pursuing the wet route. One such sighting was recorded by F. X. Aubry. Returning from Santa Fe in 1850, he paused along the ridge road to catch a glimpse of wagons in the valley below. Aubry's June 27 journal entry succinctly reads, "saw on the lower road six trains of wagons." [34]

     Such sightings were made possible by the close proximity of the dry route [ridge road] to the wet route. At Forks in Santa Fe Road, the dry route slowly diverged to the southwest. So slight was the divergence that at Cook Creek, twenty-seven and a half miles form Forks in Santa Fe Road, the dry route was only four miles removed from the wet route. Because of the short distance between the two roads, Lt. William Emory's topographical engineer mistakenly took the upper road as they departed Pawnee Fork on July 16, 1846. Discovering the mistake on the following day, they make their way to the wet route and continued on in caravan with Kearny's Army of the West. [35]

     Writers in the pre-1859 period, referring to the dry route as the cutoff and the straight route, conjectured that the dry route was several miles shorter than the wet route. Such was the conclusion of Lt. William Whipple who stated that the dry route saved about ten or eleven miles. Other writers were more generous. Voorhees said twenty or thirty miles. [36] Modern measurement indicates the difference between the two routes to be six miles.

     Forks in Santa Fe Road, the pre-1859 eastern terminus of the dry route, was located at a point variously described as three and a half, four, five, and six miles southwest of Pawnee Fork crossing. [37] Whipple described this location as being located in a ravine, the slough identified by Webb as Far Ash Creek. Johnston added that the Forks was situated at "the first point of woods west of Pawnee Fork." [38] All such landmarks have long since disappeared, the historical integrity of the area having been destroyed by road construction and farming activity.

     About two and a half miles from Forks in Santa Fe Road was a location known as Jones Point. Here in 1856, James Ross Larkin camped near a pool of muddy water he declared "unfit for use." Three years later, an event of far greater proportion occurred at the same site in conjunction with a mail party conducted by Michael Smith. On September 24, 1859, Smith's party, escorted by Lt. Elmer Otis and thirty troopers, arrived at Pawnee Fork. After pasturing the mules, the mail party resumed travel, unescorted, on the dry route. A few miles out, fifteen Kiowas rode out of a ravine demanding sugar and crackers. Upon complying with the Kiowas demands, Smith and his brother Lawrence were shot. A third mail company employee, William Cole, though wounded, escaped through tall grass. The next morning Cole made his way back to the Pawnee where he found Otis and his men still in camp. Returning to the scene of the attack with Cole, Otis and his men buried the Smith brothers and recovered the mail. [39]

     Three miles beyond the site of the Smith brothers deaths, ruts can be observed marking the dry route's ascent of the high ridge surmounted by George Sibley in 1825. From this point, only one mile from the wet route, the dry route's southwestwardly trek to Coon Creek is plotted by ruts at intervals of six and three and a half miles.

     The only stop of note on the pre-1859 dry route, Coon Creek, was the scene of near disaster in November 1853 when runaway mules overturned a wagon in the creek bed spilling out four passengers, among whom was the U. S. attorney for the territory of New Mexico, William W. H. Davis. Of special interest is the notation Davis made concerning the water casks filled at the Pawnee. [40] Such was the testimony to the lack of water along the length of the dry route. Remaining at the crossing are cutdowns, one on the north side of the creek and two of pronounced proportion on the south.

     Beyond Coon Creek, ruts at eight locations in a twenty-mile span trace the dry route to Little Coon Creek, Here, Samuel Owens, elected captain of a caravan at Council Grove in August 1844, was reelected captain after his caravan was joined by another group of traders someplace en route beyond Pawnee Fork. [41] In 1853, Little Coon Creek caught the attention of William Carr Lane. Returning from a disappointing year as governor of the territory of New Mexico, Carr observed that the tributary had been drained by the immense herds of buffalo in the area. [42]

     Ten miles from Little Coon Creek, ruts of the dry route appear for the last time as they approach the western terminus of the wet and dry routes one mile east of the present-day Kansas Soldiers Home, formerly Fort Dodge. While ample evidence establishes this location as the major western terminus of the wet and dry routes, other information indicates that prior to 1859, the dry route, at times, bypassed this terminus to end on the Arkansas in the Fort Mann area. Such a route is indicated in Dr. F. A. Wisligenus' 1848 map. Yet another western terminus of the pre-1859 dry route was located at the south bend of the Arkansas in Lt. William H. Emory's map of 1847. [43]
Used With Permission of the Author:
David Clapsaddle

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