The Road Not Taken
Attempts to Truncate the Santa Fe Trail

     During the first three decades of the Santa Fe Trail, the traders rarely deviated from the established route which departed western Missouri to traverse the prairies of Indian territory before reaching the big bend of the Arkansas River, 270 miles from Independence. From that point the Trail followed the north bank of the river in a southwesterly orientation to its south bend near present Ford, Kansas, before turning northwest to the Arkansas crossing. There it forded the river to pursue a southwest course across the dry Jornada to the present Oklahoma panhandle and on to Santa Fe.

     The convoluted route along the Arkansas between the big bend and the Arkansas crossing consumed 122 miles, a distance that could well be shortened if the trail were to take a more direct route to the southwest. But little thought was given to truncating the traditional route, perhaps because of the availability of water along the Arkansas, perhaps because the route had been used from the earliest days of southwest exploration beginning with Zebulon Pike and continuing with William Becknell and the steady stream of Missourians who followed in his wake. [1]

     However, in the 1850s, three different trailblazers attempted to pioneer a shorter, more direct route than was afforded by the meandering Arkansas. The first of the three was Francois X. Aubry, a 27-year-old French Canadian who had entered the Santa Fe Trade in 1847. Following an ill-fated attempt to find a route from near Cold Spring in the present Oklahoma panhandle to some point on the Arkansas above the Arkansas crossing in the spring of 1851, he successfully charted such a course the following fall. Described as "an excellent wagon road, well supplied with water and grass, and avoiding the Jornada and Cimarron trail altogether," the new route was estimated to save fifty miles of travel as compared to the established route. Thus was born what came to be called the Aubry crossing, the Aubry route, or the Aubry cutoff.

     Not content with the distance saved by his new road, Aubry began to pursue a new notion. In April 1852 he departed Santa Fe with a number of passengers, including William S. Allen, former Secretary of New Mexico Territory. Arriving at Cold Creek, Aubry directed his wagons up the new road to the Arkansas twelve miles above Chouteau's Island. From that point, he led the retinue downstream to a point twenty-five miles above the Arkansas crossing. There, he veered northeast and, after changing course several times, followed Walnut Creek to the big bend of the Arkansas. Allen, in Footnotes of the expedition, concluded that the route north of the Arkansas along the Walnut to the big bend measured 101 miles, this in comparison to the regular route along the Arkansas which totaled 153, a difference of 52 miles. Subsequently Aubry, as did others, made repeated use of his new road from the Arkansas to Cold Creek; but for whatever reason, no further travel was made on the Walnut Creek route. [2]

     Also in 1852 a second cutoff to the Arkansas was explored in a rather serendipitous manner. Early in June Lieutenant Israel C. Woodruff, topographical engineers, was dispatched from Fort Leavenworth to make a reconnaissance of "a portion of the Kansas River; of Walnut Creek; of Pawnee Fork; and other streams lying between the Smoky Hill Fork of the Kansas and Arkansas Rivers." His mission was to locate suitable sites for the establishment of military posts. On June 7, after three or four days, Woodruff and his party arrived at St. Mary's Mission. Subsequently crossing the Kansas, he proceeded to the mouth of Clarke Creek and followed its course south to strike the Santa Fe Trail east of Lost Spring. Further exploration brought the party to Pawnee Fork, and thence southwest to Buckner and Sawlog creeks, streams which he identified respectively as the north, middle, and south branches of the Pawnee. Concluding his expedition at Fort Atkinson (just west of present Dodge City), he recommended that (1) the mouth of Clarke Creek be the site for the proposed army post which was to be established in 1853 as Camp Centre, later Fort Riley, and (2) that a Santa Fe route along Pawnee Fork and Buckner Creek be developed to intersect with the Aubry cutoff someplace between the Arkansas and Cold Spring. Neither recommendation was honored. The site eventually selected for Camp Centre was upstream from the mouth of Clarke Creek at the confluence of the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers; and the road along the Pawnee and Buckner never materialized. [3]

     A third cutoff to the Arkansas was explored in 1855. Following the advent of Camp Centre/Fort Riley in 1853, the army began to consider a more direct route from the new post to New Mexico than was afforded by way of the Arkansas River. In 1855 $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.

     On July 30, 1855, Lieutenant 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 continue 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.

     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 bridging 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." He also recommended that a large caravan be dispatched over the road to mark its course for future travelers and that a pioneer party of 20 men be sent a day in advance of the next train to prepare cutdowns at those streams not bridged. However, no wagons were sent to test the road, no pioneer party was dispatched to prepare the cutdowns, and the bridges built in 1856-1857 were destroyed by floodwaters in 1858. In short, the road surveyed by Lieutenant Bryan was never used. [4]

     All three attempts to lessen the distance of the Santa Fe Trail occasioned by the winding course of the Arkansas River in the 1850s were not well received by those using the Trail. It was not until 1867 that such a notion met reality. In October of that year the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, reached Hays City. At once the little municipality became the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, dispatching freight wagons and stagecoaches down the 75-mile length of a newly developed road to Fort Dodge on the north bank of the Arkansas River and, from there, on to Santa Fe. This road, which came to be called the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road, was foretold by Major Geneneral Winfield Scott Hancock following his ill-fated campaign in which he traversed the plains of west central Kansas in the spring of 1867. Writing to his replacement as commander of the Department of the Missouri, Major General Phillip H. Sheridan, he opined: "My impression is that the real route of travel for emigrants hereafter will be from Fort Hays or Harker (most probably from Hays) directly across to some point a little west of Dodge, crossing Walnut creek and branches of Pawnee Fork, where the country affords excellent grass, good running water, plenty of wood, good roads--wood, water, and grass at convenient intervals." [5]

     "Walnut Creek and branches of Pawnee Fork" was strangely reminiscent of the routes prescribed by Aubry, Woodruff, and Bryan. After a duration of 12 years and the intervention of the railroad, a cutoff to the Arkansas had come to pass.

     1. One paramount exception was the Dry Route which left the Wet Route just west of Pawnee Fork to follow a highland course to the Caches. This route produced a savings of 11.5 miles in comparison to the route along the Arkansas. See David K. Clapsaddle, "The Dry Route Revisited," Wagon Tracks, 14 (November 1999): 8-11. See Louise Barry, "Table of Distances of the Santa Fe Trail ('Kansas' Section) From Independence, Mo.," The Beginning of the West: Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West, 1540-1854 (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 814. This itinerary by Josiah Gregg, published in 1844, identifies the ford where the traders crossed the Arkansas to initiate the crossing of the Jornada as the "Ford of Arkansas." Other contemporary writers listed the ford as "Crossing of Arkansas."

     2. The material related to the Aubry explorations was taken from Donald Chaput, Francois X. Aubry: Trader, Trailmaker and Voyageur in the Southwest, 1846-1856 (Glendale, CA; the Arthur H. Clark Company, 1975), 20-111; Leo E. Oliva. "The Aubry Route of the Santa Fe Trail," Kansas Quarterly, 5 (Spring 1973): 18-29.

     3. The material used for the Woodruff explorations was taken from Barry, Beginning of the West, 1103-1104, 1106, 1121, 1122, 1131, 1132; Records of the Office of Chief Engineers, National Archives.

     4. The material used for the Bryan exploration was taken from David K. Clapsaddle, "Conflict and Commerce on The Santa Fe Trail; The Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road, 1860-1874," Kansas History, 16 (Summer 1993): 124-126.

     5. The material for the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road was taken from David K. Clapsaddle, "The Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road " Kansas History, 14 (Summer 1991): 101-102.
Used With Permission of the Author:
David Clapsaddle

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