The Dry Route Revisited
Santa Fe Trail

     Much of the material for this article was originally used in "The Dry Route of the Santa Fe Trail," Wagon Tracks, August, 1990 and "The Wet/Dry Routes of the Santa Fe Trail," Kansas History, Summer, 1992. Subsequently, the continued study of the Dry Route has uncovered new information which enhances that published in the two previous articles.

     Southwest of Pawnee Fork crossing at present Larned, Kansas, the Santa Fe Trail was represented by two separate routes, the Wet Route and the Dry Route. The Wet Route, appropriately named, followed the north bank of the Arkansas River.

     The Dry Route, so called for the scarcity of water along its course, forsook the river valley to pursue an upland orientation. While the origins of the Wet Route are well documented, the advent of the Dry Route has, to this date, remained somewhat obscure. The first recorded use of the Dry Route was that of the Glenn-Fowler Party. At the same time William Becknell was following the south bank of the Arkansas River westward in his inaugural journey to Santa Fe in the Fall of 1821, trappers Hugh Glenn and Jacob Fowler pursued the north bank to the present Pueblo, Colorado area. There, Glenn left Fowler to supervise the construction of a stockade and traveled south to Santa Fe where he secured permission to trap in the Rio Grande valley from Mexican authorities. Glenn returned to the Pueblo area where the party trapped that winter and into the Spring of 1822. On the return trip, they retraced their steps along the Arkansas River to a point four days journey east of present Syracuse, Kansas. Fowler's journal entry of June 22, 1822 reads, "We steered a little north of east to cut off a bend of the river." Fowler's reference was to the south bend of the Arkansas River near present Ford, Kansas, the course followed by the Wet Route.[1]

     The second known use of the Dry Route was a similar circumstance to that of the first. Returning to Cantonment Leavenworth in the Fall of 1829 during the celebrated first military escort on the Santa Fe Trail, Bvt. Major Bennet Riley's command reached the Caches on October 17. There, in language strangely reminiscent of Fowler's statement, " ... the battalion left the river to make the cut-off of its great southern bend."[2]

     Another early reference was the 1833 expedition captained by Charles Bent and escorted by troops commanded by Capt. William Wycliffe. Southwest of Pawnee Fork, the traders and troops lost their way but finally reached the lower crossing of the Arkansas on June 6.[3] Lower crossing refers to the Jornada route which forded the Arkansas at the Caches. This lower crossing is not to be confused with an earlier route of the same name which crossed the Arkansas near present Ford, Kansas. That the Bent/Wycliffe expedition became disoriented suggests that by 1833, the Dry Route was not profoundly rutted.

     The eastern terminus of the Dry Route was at a point variously described as being three and a half, four, five, and six miles from Pawnee Fork.[4] Known as Forks in Santa Fe Road, the location was identified by an anonymous writer with Bvt. Maj. Enoch Steen's command in 1852 as being "a ravine [19th century term for creek] three and a half miles beyond Pawnee Fork Crossing.[5] The stream mentioned is in keeping with George Sibley's journal entry of September 1, 1825, "There is no interruption along the River Bottom except one little muddy creek that intervenes about three miles above the crossing of Pawnee Creek."[6]

     The same stream was noted by James Josiah Webb in 1844, "Leaving Pawnee Fork, we took the Coon Creek or dry route, with no water except occasionally at Far Ash Creek (four miles), and twenty-five miles to Big Coon Creek.[7] The stream called Far Ash Creek by Webb was identified by Kate Gregg as Saw Mill Creek.[8] This stream no longer bisects the area occupied by Forks in Santa Fe Road. Presently it empties into the Pawnee River two and a half miles north of that site.

     However, probing in that area by soil conservationists in 1978 revealed a stream bed several feet beneath the surface which ran through the area of Forks in Santa Fe Road.[9]

     Departing the Wet Route, the Dry Route diverged ever so slightly to the southwest. So closely did the Dry Route parallel the Wet Route in its first few miles that Lt. William Emory's topographical engineers mistook it for the Wet Route on July 16, 1846. Discovering their mistake on the following day, they moved south to the Wet Route and continued on in caravan with Col. Stephen W. Kearney's Army of the West.[10]

     Even at Big Coon Creek crossing, twenty-three miles from Forks in Santa Fe Road, the Dry Route was only five miles north of the Wet Route. However, from that point onward, the distance between the two routes developed at a rapid pace. At their widest divergence, the two routes were twenty miles apart.

     Beyond Forks in Santa Fe Road two and a half miles was a location known as Jones Point.[11] James Ross Larkin camped there in 1856 near a pool of muddy water he declared "unfit for use."[12] There also, three years later Kiowas attacked a mail wagon killing the Smith brothers, Michael and Lawrence.[13] At intervals of three, six, and three and a half and seven miles southwest of Jones Point, physical evidence of the road can be found in the form of wagon ruts. One and a half miles from the last ruts is Big Coon Creek.

     Big Coon Creek crossing, three and a half miles west of present Kinsley, Kansas is the only stop mentioned by Josiah Gregg in his 1844 itinerary of the Dry Route. Parenthetically, Gregg's map of the area does not show the Wet Route.[14] Thus, it would appear that the Dry Route from the early 1830's through the mid forties was the road of preference for the Santa Fe traders. This supposition is augmented by Susan Magoffin's observation on August 11, 1846, "All the companies are before us, or rather they have taken a new road along the River."[15] Magoffin's reference to a new road would indicate that by 1846 the Wet Route was a forgotten option. Such might also be the source of Emory's mistake as previously discussed.

     The stream known historically as Big Coon Creek, now called Little Coon Creek, was, according to Josiah Gregg, thirty-three miles from Pawnee Fork. The actual measurement is twenty-six miles. Gregg's mileage from Big Coon Creek to the Caches is, however, accurate, thirty-six miles.[16] Physical evidence of the road between Big Coon Creek and the Caches has been identified as ruts at a location seven, three, seven and twelve miles. The exact route has not been platted, but substantial evidence speaks to the Caches as being the western terminus of the Dry Road in the early years of its tenure: Fowler's 1822 account, Riley's 1829 testimony, the 1833 Bent/Wycliffe expedition, and Josiah Gregg's itinerary. In addition, Gregg's map shows the Dry Route striking the Arkansas near the Caches as does Wislizesnus' 1848 map.[17]

     Contemporary writers referred to the Dry Route as the Cutoff. Such a designation was offered in contrast to the Wet Route which followed the meandering of the Arkansas River around its south bend and northwesterly to the Caches. Consequently, the Dry Route was considered to be substantially shorter than its counterpart. Voohres put that difference at twenty or thirty miles.[18] Whipple said ten or eleven miles.[19] The distance via the Dry Route from Pawnee Fork to the Caches measures sixty and a half miles (Gregg's figure was sixty-nine). The distance by way of the Wet Route from Pawnee Fork to Fort Mann (Fort Mann was within sight of the Caches) was computed by Kendrick to be seventy-four plus miles, say seventy-five to the Caches.[20] The difference then between the Wet Route's distance to the Caches and that of the Dry Route was eleven and a half miles. Whipple was quite accurate.

     At some unknown date, a variant of the Dry Route was developed. At Big Coon Creek, this new road took a thirty mile turn to strike the Arkansas at a point ten miles east of the Caches, one mile east of the location later chosen for the construction of Fort Dodge. It appears that both routes, the one leading to the Caches and the other leading to the point ten miles east of the Caches operated simultaneously for a period of time. Such is obvious by the 1848 date of publication for Wislizenus' map which shows the Dry Route striking the Arkansas at the Caches and the 1847 date of Lt. Emory's map which shows the Dry Route striking the Arkansas at the point ten miles east of the Caches.[21] In 1852, Lt. Whipple wrote, "At ten miles from Fort Atkinson (one half mile from the Caches) the dry route strikes into the valley of the river."[22] In 1859, Capt. Randolph Marcy identified the same location as "Dry Route Comes In" on his table of distances.[23] Later writers were obviously unaware of the road to the Caches. Capt. William J. Lyster, Commanding Officer at Fort Larned in 1877, conducted a study of the Wet and Dry Routes. oblivious to the earlier western terminus of the Dry Route at the Caches, he reported only the junction of the Wet and Dry Routes near Fort Dodge.[24] Pronounced ruts in the area one mile east of the fort bear testimony to heavy traffic in the area.

     With the construction of the mail station on Pawnee Fork by the Hall, Porter Company in September 1859 and the establishment of nearby Camp on Pawnee Fork in the following month,[25] the eastern terminus of the Dry Route was moved from the Forks in the Santa Fe Road location to a site one mile southwest of Ash Creek, one and a half miles north of present Larned, Kansas.[26] From that site, the Dry Route moved southwest to cross Pawnee Fork three miles east of Fort Larned. [27] The Dry Route from its new eastern terminus to this point is traced by wagon ruts at three separate locations, and a huge cutdown remains at the crossing site on the west edge of the present Larned State Hospital grounds.

     On the south side of the Pawnee ,the road passed a trading ranch established by Samuel Parker in 1865[28] and continued westward to the mail station and thence on to the army post renamed Camp Alert in February 1861, Fort Larned in May 1860, and relocated one fourth mile to the southwest in June, 1860. [29]

     From Fort Larned, the Dry Route ran southwest twenty-five miles to Big Coon Creek crossing. En route, the road passed the first of several campsites used by the stage companies, Rock Hollow, nine miles from the post.[30] With the inception of mail service from Independence to Santa Fe in 1850, the mail wagons used the Dry Route in preference to the Wet Route almost exclusively. As Whipple stated, "The Santa Fe mail riders, it is understood, always take this dry route.[31] Ruts still score the landscape at six separate locations between Fort Larned and Big Coon Creek where cutdowns remain on both sides of the stream. There, in November 1853, runaway mules overturned a mail wagon in the creek bed spilling out four passengers including William W.H. Davis, U.S. Attorney for the Territory of New Mexico.[32] One of the campsites used by the stage company, the crossing was also the home of an M. Cotrill Company stage station established in 1863 and an outpost from Fort Larned constructed in 1867. Robert Wright referred to the little post as Fort Coon.[33]

     Beyond Big Coon Creek, the road ran southwest to the point ten miles east of the Caches. In that thirty mile length, nine sets of ruts mark the Dry Route's southwesterly march, and three campsites used by the stage company were located in the same distance: Dinner Station, eight miles from Big Coon Creek; Arroyo Blanco, eight miles further; and Little Coon Creek, four more miles.[34] Little Coon Creek, as it was known historically, is actually a part of the main channel of the historic Coon Creek which now is known as Big Coon Creek. One of the few places where water might be obtained on this stretch of the Dry Route, it was visited by William Carr Lane in 1853. Lane observed, "Stop'd upon Little Coon Creek, now drained dry, by the immense herds of Buffalo, which overspread the country in every direction."[35] Ten miles further southwest the road reached its terminus near Fort Dodge.[36]

     By 1866, another variant of the Dry Route was developed. Beginning at the eastern terminus previously described as being one mile southwest of Ash Creek, the new road moved to the southwest along the north bank of Pawnee Fork. one mile east of Fort Larned, a lateral road ran diagonally for one half mile to cross the river and connect with the Dry Route which previously had been plotted on the south side of the Pawnee. From that point, this new road continued up the north bank of the river, curled around the northwest corner of Fort Larned, crossed the Pawnee, and entered into the post.[37] From Fort Larned, the new road replicated the route to Big Coon Creek and on to the western terminus near Fort Dodge used by the road which followed the south bank of the Pawnee to Fort Larned.[38]

     For nearly five decades, the Dry Route contested the Wet Route for the Santa Fe traffic. Beginning in the early 1830's and continuing until the time of the Mexican War, the Dry Route was the preferred road. But when Col. Stephen W. Kearney directed his troops down the river road, he signaled a new era for the Wet Route. Throughout the duration of the Mexican War and into the 1850's, the Wet Route, 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."[39]

     With the initiation of mail service between independence and Santa Fe in 1850, the dry route experienced a marked increase in traffic; but 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. 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, too, because of the lack of water.[40]

     The next surge of traffic on the Dry Route occurred in the 1858-59 gold rush to the-Rocky Mountains. Gold seekers, hurrying across the plains were piloted by guidebooks which invariably recommended the shorter road. 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.

     The rivalry between the Wet and Dry Routes became academic in the Fall of 1867 with the arrival of the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division at Hays City. From that fledgling city, merchandise, mail, and passengers were dispatched down the newly developed Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road to Fort Dodge and on to other southwest destinations. Consequently, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail east of Fort Dodge ceased, and both the Wet and Dry Routes fell into disuse except for local traffic. [41]
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"