Pawnee Rock, located about one-half mile north of the town of the same name in western Barton County, Kansas, was one of the prominent landmarks along the Santa Fe Trail. Rising sixty feet above the surrounding plains, the dark Dakota sandstone promontory was often noted by writers of the historic period for its topographical features and the extensive view it provided to those on top. Later observers, such as Henry Inman and other writers of his ilk, described in detail the perils of the place with the ever-present Indians lurking in the shadow of the rock to sweep down upon the hopeless traveler. That piece of folklore was properly discredited by Jesse Scott, "Pawnee Rock: 'many an ambush originated here'?" Wagon Tracks, XI (August 1997): 4. However, there has been a paucity of interest in an even more elusive subject, the ranch at Pawnee Rock.
A ranch was not an a typical scene on the western frontier landscape. Any isolated little place of habitation was commonly designated by this term, derived from Spanish word rancho. This name was also applied to those small operations of private enterprise along the Santa Fe Trail, often spelled ranche, which sold provisions and otherwise catered to the needs of travelers to and from New Mexico. Contemporary writers referred to such establishments as trading ranches or road ranches. In some cases they were called stations because of the mail and stage stations which operated either independently or in conjunction with the trading ranches. Common parlance, however, spoke of such places simply as ranches.
Marion Sloan Russell recalled a building at Pawnee Rock in 1856, which she described as a trapper's cabin wherein her brother Will discovered the bodies of two recently slain men. On a return trip to Santa Fe in 1860, Maid Marion observed "the cabin…still untenanted," beyond Russell's account, the presence of a habitation at Pawnee Rock was rarely mentioned. Two reports are presently known, both in the form of sketches.
Lieutenant M. R. Brown, engineer and cartographer with the 1867 Hancock Expedition, included a small square in his sketch of Pawnee Rock, identified as a ranch immediately east of the rock. His notes provide no other information as to the nature of the ranch or whether or not it was inhabited.
The second indication of a ranch at Pawnee Rock is gleaned from an 1867 sketch by Ado Hunnius, a soldier and artist. The location of the stone building in a state of disrepair flanked by a corral constructed of stone was in keeping with the location indicated by Brown's sketch. The crumbled condition of the building in Hunnius's drawing conveys the image of a structure that was not habitable and, apparently, had not been occupied recently.
What then can be concluded concerning the ranch at Pawnee Fork? With all due respect to Mrs. Russell, her account is not helpful. In her advanced age, as she dictated her memoirs some 70 years later, she remembered Pawnee Rock as being east of Walnut Creek. Perhaps her memory of the trapper's cabin at Pawnee Rock was likewise garbled. The most telling aspect of her account is that no mention was made of the habitation at Pawnee Rock during her initial trip to Santa Fe in 1852. Brown's illustration is like wise nonproductive beyond indication the presence of a building near the rock. Hunnius's sketch sheds little light except that, in 1867, the building was uninhabited and evidently had been so for some time.
Was there a ranch at Pawnee Rock? If so, who established it? What was the nature of its operation? What was the date of its origin and of its demise? It is unlikely that the building was that of trappers, no mention can be found of a trading ranch at Pawnee Rock, and there is no record of a mail or stage station at this location. Without further documentation, the presence of a ranch at Pawnee Rock appears specious. But there presumably was a structure erected there sometime during the late 1850s or early 1860s. Exactly who, when, and why remain a mystery. Perhaps, in time, this mystery will be resolved.
Hunnius, Ado, Sketch of Pawnee Rock, in Louis Barry, The Beginning of the West. Topeka: Kansas Historical Society, 1972, 601.
Letters Received, Adjutant General's Office, 1867, Record Group 393, Microcopy 619, roll 562, National Archives.
Used With Permission of the Author:
Santa Fe Trail Research Site
"E-Mail & Home Page"
Larry & Carolyn
St. John, Ks.