Fort Larned/Fort Riley Road
Conflict and Commerce
Santa Fe Trail

     In the preterritorial days of Kansas, military expeditions from Fort Leavenworth to the Southwest struck the Santa Fe Trail at three different points east of Council Grove: the Round Grove campgrounds south of present-day Olathe; Soldier Creek west of present-day Burlingame; and Willow Springs in present-day Douglas County. [1] From each of these locations, the troops proceeded down the established route of the trail through Council Grove and on to the great bend of the Arkansas River at present-day Ellinwood in Barton County. From this point, the troops followed the river to the middle crossing in the present-day Cimarron-Ingalls area. There they either forded the Arkansas and followed the Cimarron cutoff to New Mexico or continued along the north bank of the river on the mountain branch of the trail. However, with the establishment of Fort Riley in 1853, $50,000 was authorized for the construction of a road from Fort Riley to any point on the Arkansas deemed desirable by the secretary of war. [2]

     On July 30, 1855, Lt. Francis T. Bryan, of the topographical engineers, departed Fort Riley with a survey crew and military escort to map out the new road to the Arkansas. Crossing the Solomon and Saline Rivers, Bryan's party turned southwest to cross the Smoky Hill River and continued on to Walnut Creek and Pawnee Fork, tracing the latter to its headwaters before turning south to strike the Arkansas at recently abandoned Fort Atkinson. From Fort Atkinson, Bryan led the expedition up the north bank of the Arkansas to Bent's New Fort. Returning to Fort Riley, Bryan reported that bridges would be required at the Solomon, Saline, and Smoky Hill rivers. [3]

     In the following February a $38,000 contract was awarded to J. O. Sawyer for the construction of bridges at the three sites recommended by Bryan in addition to two small streams between Fort Riley and the Solomon, Sycamore and Armistead's creeks. Work on the bridges was completed by February 1857, and Bryan notified his superiors that the road from Fort Riley to Bent's Fort was "passable for trains of any kind." [4]

     Ironically, the bridges were washed away in June 1858, and the route that Bryan surveyed was never used. [5] However, it did serve as a precursor for the route that Maj. John Sedgwick used in his 1860 expedition against the Kiowas and Comanches. Leaving Fort Riley on May 15, the column crossed Chapman's Creek and proceeded westward up the Smoky Hill valley following ghe trail pursued by the gold seekers in 1859. At both the Solomon and Saline, Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, journalist for the expedition, noted the presence of ferries established by enterprising settlers following the destruction of the military bridges in 1858. On May 18 the expedition passed the little village of Salina and two days later camped on the Smoky Hill River at the site of Bryan's bridge. Lt. Stuart observed: "only foundation is left at rocky bottom ford." [6] On the following day the troops completed an unusually long march of forty-two miles to Walnut Creek. There they rested for a day before continuing southwest on the established route of the Santa Fe Trail to Camp Alert at Pawnee Fork, soon to be renamed Fort Larned. [7]

     With the outbreak of Civil War confrontations in New Mexico, the army continued to use the road from Fort Riley that Major Sedgwick had pioneered. In the fall of 1861 beleaguered troops from Fort Fillmore retreated up the Santa Fe Trail following their humiliating capture and subsequent release by Confederate forces. Leaving the established route at Walnut Creek, they passed through Junction City in late October en route to Fort Leavenworth. In the following summer 130 rebel troops captured in New Mexico were marched along the same route to confinement at Fort Riley. [8] Subsequently, the army made frequent use of the route by transporting supplies and troops from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley and on to New Mexico by way of Fort Larned. Percival Lowe described the first such trip:

     "The mule trains left Riley the tenth of September, 1862, each traveling independently, with instructions to camp on the Smokey at Salina, then a mere station, until I came up. There was a plain road, but little traveled, and this the first government train of any importance to pass over it." [9]

     Such was the origin of what H. L. Jones, deputy U.S. marshal at Salina in 1864, called the Fort Riley and Fort Larned Road. [10]

     Observing the army's use of the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road, the citizenry of Junction City began to promote the route as a successor to that portion of the Santa Fe Trail east of Walnut Creek. To this end the Junction City Union proclaimed, "the route from the Missouri River to Pawnee Fork by way of Junction City and Salina is much shorter than by the Old Santa Fe Road, as has been fully demonstrated," [11] The efforts of the Union did not go unrewarded. By early August a mail contract was awarded to the Kansas Stage Company for weekly deliveries form Junction City to Fort Larned. [12]

     Establishing headquarters in Junction City, the Leavenworth-based company located stations at the infant villages of Abilene and Salina and at the crossings of the Smoky Hill River, Cow Creek, and Walnut Creek. On the Smoky Hill, the station was situated at "a hunting ranch." Henry Tisdale, stage line supervisor, described the proprietors of the ranch as "Two young men [who] lived there by killing buffalo for their pelts and tallow, and by killing wolves for their pelts." [13] Tisdale's reference was to Daniel Page and Joseph Lehman [Lemon] who had established the ranch at the site of Bryan's bridge in 1860. In the same year two other similar enterprises were established nearby, the Farris ranch east on Clear Creek, and P. M. ["Smoky Hill"] Thompson's ranch southeast on Thompson Creek. Suel Walker and the Prater [Prather] brothers, C. L. and J. J., associated with the Farris ranch, were recruited by the stage company to operate the station at Cow Creek. [14]

     In the absence of a military presence on the road, the stage company initiated services without the benefit of escort. Trouble came quickly, not from Indians as expected, but from a group of sixteen Southerners returning from the Colorado Gold fields. On September 17, 1862, the freebooters plundered Salina, stealing twenty-five horses and six mules belonging to the stage company. Continuing down the stage road, they paused at the Farris ranch to steal more horses and several guns. At the PageLehman ranch, the brigands took seventeen stage company mules; and south of the Smoky Hill, they stopped an incoming stage. Holding Jim Hall, the driver, at gun point, they ripped open the mail sacks and scattered the letters to the wind. Unharnessing the mules, they rode away leaving the hapless driver and passengers afoot on the prairie. [15]

     In subsequent weeks the army's use of the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road continued to mount. On September 27, 1862, the Junction City Union reported: "during the past week, eleven hundred head of horses and mules, and about one hundred wagons, have passed through our town, for Government service in the country." The same issue commented on the streets of the city being crowded with wagons loading corn for Fort Larned. Regardless of the army's extensive use of the road, civilian traders continued to use the established route of the Santa Fe Trail running southwest through Council Grove. Consequently, for the next two years, Junction City newspapers interfaced accounts of troop movements and government freight shipments with editorial comments on the advantage of the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road over the established route of the Santa Fe Trail. Quoting J. C. Stedman of Santa Fe on April 25, 1863, the Smoky Hill and Republican stated "that nothing is known in Santa Fe of the superior claims of the Smoky Hill Route, or it would in a short time become the main traveled road." In like fashion, on June 13, 1863, the Union quoted Santa Fe freighter John C. Dunn: "the road [is] the best for freighters between Leav. and Santa Fe by all means; being better supplied with grass, water, and fuel, and nearer by many miles."

     By the fall of 1863 the Junction City newspapers' crusades ceased as rumors began to circulate about impending Indian raids to the west. A militia at Salina, organized on September 12, drilled daily on the streets of the little city under the command of H. L. Jones, dully elected captain; and as the threat of attack continued into the spring of 1864, many setters left the Salina area, and stages ran on an irregular schedule. [16]

     As anticipated, the Indians struck, not at Salina as expected, but at Walnut Creek where the Fort Riley/Fort Dodge Road merged with the main trunk of the Santa Fe Trail. On May 16 ten Cheyenne's came to the trading ranch on the Walnut operated by Charles Rath. Taking Rath's Cheyenne Wife, Making Out Road, formerly married to Kit Carson, they warned Rath of impending attack. On the following day, Rath, Lewis Booth, and postmaster John Dodds watched helplessly from the rooftop of Rath's store as Cheyennes drove away stock belonging to Rath, Dodds, and the stage company. Following the Indians' departure, Rath and his associates retreated to the safety of Fort Larned, and the Cheyennes continued up the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road to Cow Creek Stage station where they killed Suel Walker. Barricaded inside the station, C. L. and J. J. Prater returned the fire, killing two Indians and wounding a third. Fearing the Indians would soon return with reinforcements, the Prater brothers fled the ranch and sped northeast toward Salina. [17]

     At the same time, an unidentified courier carried the news of the attack to the stations and ranches between Walnut Creek and Salina. Hearing of Walker's death, settlers in the Smoky Hill area quickly congregated at the PageLehman ranch where they consulted through the night. Agreeing discretion to be the better part of valor, they packed up their possessions and departed to Salina where they found the citizens of the little village secluded within a makeshift stockade fabricated by a ring of wagons circled around the flag pole. [18]

     On the following day, May 18, H. L. Jones, deputy marshal and militia captain, dispatched a courier to Fort Riley requesting troops; at midnight on May 19, forty-five soldiers arrived at Salina. At dawn, Jones, Lt. Van Antwerp, fifteen soldiers, and a posse of citizens rode west to inspect the damage. Stopping at the Cow Creek station to bury Walker, they found all the ranches and stations between Salina and Walnut Creek sacked and deserted. [19]

     As fear continued to grip the little community, the good citizens of Salina ignored the Sabbath of May 29 to initiate work on a stockade. That night they paused from their work to conduct a prayer meeting, but in the following days, work continued on the split log fortification which measured 100 by 125 feet. The militia drilled by day and stood guard by night. [20]

     On June 4, while the stockade was yet in construction, Jim Hall, the stage driver left afoot by the freebooters in September 1862, came racing into town with a wounded passenger in his coach. According to Hall, fifteen hundred Indians were in pursuit. Runners were sent to outlying areas, and women set to work molding bullets. After some time, Hall confessed that it was all a hoax and that the wounded passenger had accidentally shot himself. Needless to say, Hall's admission was not well received. [21]

     The stockade was completed by June 7, but fear continued to reign. Citizens slept in their clothes ready to flee to the stockade at a moment's notice, and members of the militia took turns standing guard both night an day. [22]

     In the wake of the May 17 raid, troops were sent to three strategic locations on the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road: Salina, the Smoky Hill River, and Walnut Creek. At Salina, Lt. Clark was stationed at the previously built stockade with twenty soldiers from the Seventh Iowa and a like number from the Fifteenth Kansas Cavalry. The men were immediately employed in the construction of a blockhouse built with logs already cut and hewn on two sides found at the abandoned Page-Lehman ranch. The blockhouse was to become the nucleus of an army post named Fort Ellsworth in honor of its first commanding officer. At Walnut Creek, Capt. Oscar F. Dunlap was dispatched with forty-five members of Company H, Fifteenth Kansas. The Walnut Creek post, originally called Camp Dunlap, was renamed Fort Zarah by department commander Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis in honor of his son Maj. Zarah Curtis who had been killed by William C. Quantrill's raiders at Baxter Springs in the previous year. Like its counterpart on the Smoky Hill, Fort Zarah's first permanent building under construction was a blockhouse. [23]

     With the troops in place, a system of escorts was instituted for the stage coaches between the three sites. Members of the Seventh Iowa provided escort from Salina to the Smoky Hill and return; Fort Ellsworth soldiers patrolled to Walnut Creek and return' and Capt. Dunlap's troopers escorted the stages between Forts Zarah and Larned. [24] Regardless of the troopers' presence, a party of Kiowas, Comanches, and Kiowas attacked two caravans within sight of Fort Zarah on July 18 killing ten teamsters, wounding five, and scalping alive two others. [25]

     When news of the attack reached General Curtis at Fort Leavenworth, he proceeded to Fort Riley to organize a four-hundred-man battalion composed of Company L, Eleventh Kansas Cavalry and four militia companies from nearby counties. Riding in the comfort of an ambulance, Gen. Curtis directed the column down the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road reaching Fort Zarah on July 28. [26] There, no Indians were sighted, and the expedition continued on to Fort Larned, reported to be under siege. Kiowas had driven off 172 mules and horses at Larned on July 17; but by the time Curtis arrived, they had long since left the area. Dividing his command into three separate forces, Curtis deployed them to the north, east, and west of Fort Larned; but not a single warrior was encountered during the entire expedition. [27] Henry Booth, Company L's captain, later wrote: "the only attack make was on a plum patch at the mouth of Walnut Creek." Such sentiment, according to Booth, resulted in the expedition being called "Gen. Curtis' Plum Hunt." [28]

     On August 7, Indians struck Fort Ellsworth driving off forty to forty-five horses belonging to Company H, Seventh Iowa Cavalry and five mules, property of the stage company. Captain Booth and twenty Company L troopers, garrisoned at Salina, pursued the raiding party up the Saline River for some forty miles before giving up the chase. [29]

     Following the August 7 raid no depredations occurred along the Fort Riley Road until November 20. On the nineteenth, Captain Booth, by this time reassigned to Fort Riley as Inspector General of the Upper Arkansas, arrived with Lt. A. Helliwell at Fort Zarah to conduct a routine inspection. On the following morning Booth continued the inspection, sending his escort on ahead toward Fort Larned. Two hours later the officers departed Zarah in a light wagon thinking to overtake the escort within a few miles. About five miles west of Zarah, they were confronted by twenty-five to thirty Indians. Turning the wagon eastward, they made a charge back toward Zarah. Engaged in a running battle for two miles, both Helliwell and Booth suffered several arrow wounds. Finally, in an act of desperation, Booth crawled to the back of the wagon and threw out the valises containing dress uniforms intended for wear at Fort Larned. Distracted, the Indians stopped to examine the contents of the baggage, and the officers raced to the sanctuary of Fort Zarah. [30]
Used With Permission of the Author:
David Clapsaddle

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