The Middle Spring of the Cimarron River provided one of the vital watering holes along the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail. The Cimarron Route was the only wagon road to New Mexico during the first two decades of the commercial use of the Trail, and it carried a large part of the freight and traffic until the Civil War. Even after the Mountain Route via Bent's Fort was opened, the old route along the Cimarron River remained popular because of its shorter distance and freedom from rough and mountain's of Raton Pass in Colorado. In most years, however, there was less Indian resistance along the Mountain Route.
The major problem for those traveling the Cimarron Route, from the Arkansas River to the Canadian River, was a lack of reliable water sources spaced when the trail traveler need it. The stretch between the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers was often without water for a distance of more than 50 miles, and that section became known as the Cimarron Desert or the Jornada del Muerte. The three famous springs along the Cimarron River, commonly known as the Lower, Middle, and Upper springs, were especially important to all travelers because the river itself was often without water. The Lower Spring was later known as Wagonbed Spring, and the Upper Spring, located south of the Cimarron River, was also called Flag Spring.
George Sibley's journal provided information about all three springs in his account of the official survey of the Santa Fe Trail, 1825 to 1826. Sibley described these watering places and noted how important they were to travelers. Those who missed the springs faced a high element of risk on what later became known as the Cimarron Route. Sibley's description of the Middle Spring and the nearby rocky bluff, known as Point of Rocks, which he visited on October 2 and 3, 1825, seem accurate even in present time:
Sunday 2d October
"Early this Morning, Mr. Brown took an imperfect observation of Orionis. He was ab[ou]t 6 Minutes to late. By calculation he was able however to ascertain with tolerable accuracy the Latitude of this Camp, was he fixes at 37 degrees-10'-7.'' [About 5 miles northwest of Rolla.]
"There was a very slight shower of rain last night. The Morning was fair, calm & Warm. Mercury 52 at Sunrise. At 50 M[inutes]. past 9 we started. The Waggons went out upon the High Prairie. I traveled up the Valley, for the purpose of noticing more particularly the character of this curious Creek [this was the Cimarron River]. First I rode So. 74 W. 6 1/2 M[iles] to a high rocky Bluff Point on the No[rth] side. Then So. 60 W. 3 Miles to the mouth of a brisk, running branch which enters the Creek from the North. I coursed this branch up for ab[ou]t: 3/4 of a Mile to a pretty good Spring, issuing from a high bank on the West Side. This, from the signs near it is a common Camping place of the Indians. I made a signal for the Waggons & party to come to me, & they arrived at the Spring at 50 M[inutes] past 3. The Grass here not very good. The valley up which I rode is about 3/4 of a Mile wide generally; it is probably an Hundred feet below the common level of the Plain. On the North it is bounded by a range of high ridges & Sand Hills, thinly covered with broom grass & Weeds--on the South, generally by Sand Hills & Nobs. The Semerone meanders thro' this valley from side to side and is so extremely crooked in its course that in a distance of 6 1/2 Miles, upon a direct line, I crossed it not less than a dozen times; and in that distance the Stream was completely lost in its dry sandy bed for several intervals of nearly a Mile each. It is curious to see sometimes a brisk running stream, and then presently a long space of perfectly dry loose sand, all in the same bed. This bed or channel bears an average width of about 20 feet, the banks are low. The Surface of the Valley is various--sometimes pretty good soil bearing a luxuriant growth of excellent Grasses of several sorts. Today I noticed particularly several flats of fertile sandy soil of several acres each in extent, covered with a very luxuriant crop of Bull rushes and Grass; the surface of the ground was literally encrusted over and perfectly white with the same substance noticed yesterday a specimen of which I preserved. The Waggons might have traveled up in the Valley today quite well, & would have saved several Miles if they had done So. A Warm day. At 7 Min[utes] past 7--Mr. B[rown] took the following observation of Aquilae Mer[cury] 61--Altitude 122 degrees-38'-20''--Latitude of the Spring Branch 37 degrees-6'-32''. Courses & distances today So. 74 W. 6 1/2 M[iles]--So. 60 W. 3 M[iles]--No. 45 W. 3/4 M[ile]--total 10 1/4 Miles."
Monday 3d October
"The Morning fair & quite cool; but no frost. Mer[cury] 50 at Sunrise; the air was nevertheless sharp. Started at 20 Minutes past 6--traveled on the high bench under the Hill---first So. 60 W. 3/4 Mile to a perpendicular rocky Bluff. Then So. 65 W. 2 1/2 Miles--then So. 75 W. 2 1/2 Miles---then So. 45 W. 1 Mile to the Semerone, where find very good Water and Grass. total distance today 6 3/4 Miles."
"The Horses are evidently drooping and getting tired, and it behooves us to allow them every indulgence that we can for a few days. To this end our daily journies must be shorter for some days, and completed before 12. And we will keep up in the bottom altogether that the Horses may get Water more frequently, the Traveling being nearly if not quite as good as it is on the high Prairie."
"The Waggons were obliged today to travel somewhat circuitously to avoid some Gullies and Sand Nobs; so that they did not get to camp till 10 oClock, Mercury 86 at 1 p. m."
"The Valley not quite so Wide today as yesterday. The meadows better, and Water more frequent in the Creek & better. As we advance up the Semerone, it improves sensibly."
"At 3 M[inutes]. past 7 -- Mr. B[rown]. took an observation of Aquilae Vizt. Mercury 66. Altitude 122 degrees-43'-21''. Latitude 37 degrees-4'-2''."
Joseph C. Brown, surveyor of the team, wrote in his Field Notes:
"Middle Spring is near a half mile from the creek, on the north of it, near a mile below a sort of rock bluff at the point of a hill. Above this middle spring the road is in the creek bottom, which in places is very sandy."
The Middle Spring is located in what is now the northeast quarter of Section 7, Township 34 South, Range 42 West, in Morton County, Kansas, some 9.3 miles north and 2.0 west of the town of Elkhart. It is located .6 mile north of the Cimarron River. The Point of Rocks bluff is 1.0 mile upstream and both features are on the north bank of the Cimarron, with the bluff overhanging the channel and the spring .3 mile north of the river.
Ruts of the Santa Fe Trail are visible across the Cimarron National Grassland. As you are driving across the Grasslands, watch for the many limestone posts out in the open. These are used to mark the route of the Santa Fe Trail across this open country. Middle Spring and the Point of Rocks look much as they did in Trail days, as you can see from the photos on the page. There is also an abundance of wildlife in the area. This is rattlesnake country so caution should be followed when around the rocks in the area. A self guided auto tour of the Grassland is available.
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