Santa Fe Trail Crossings
on the Arkansas River

     The Arkansas River has its source in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado near Leadville and flows southeast to Pueblo before taking an easterly orientation to the Kansas line and continuing on to a point near Ford, Kansas. There, at the so-called south bend, the river makes an aburpt turn flowing northeast to Ellinwood, Kansas, the site of the celebrated big bend where the stream cuts sharply to the southeast. Passing through Wichita, Kansas, and bypassing Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Little Rock, Arkansas, the river reaches its comfluence with the mighty Mississippi near the village of Arkansas Post, Arkansas.

     This river was known by various names among Indian tribes and European explorers. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's expedition called it Rio San Pedro y San Pablo (Sts. Peter and Paul River) in 1541. Later Spanish explorers knew the river as Rio Grande de San Francisco (Grand River of St. Francis) and Rio de Napestle or Napeste (Napeste River), the latter being a transliteration of an Indian name for the stream. The name for this river today came from French explorers, who gave it the Gallicized name of Riviere des Arkansa (earliest spellings were "Acansa" and "Akansas," then "Arkansa"), for the Siouan-speaking Indians who lived near the river's mouth. "Arkansa" remained the popular spelling through the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-1806.[1]

     American writers Zebulon M. Pike and Jacob Fowler in the early nineteenth century identified the stream as the "Arkansaw," the pronunciation officially maintained by the State of Arkansas and the general choice of people in Colorado and Oklahoma.[2] Many Kansans mispronounce the word "Ar-Kansas." Such a preference may be attributed to James Mead who opined n 1903 that Arkansas "is the Indian word Kansas with the French prefix of ark, a bow."[3] Whatever the designation, portions of the Santa Fe Trail followed the river some 272 miles from the big bend to Bent's Old Fort, with several crossings between those points.

     There may have been an early crossing near the mouth of Walnut Creek, east of present Great Bend. Most Santa Fe Trail crossings were west of the south Bend, where the Trail forded the Arkansas River at several points to traverse a barren, semiarid region to the southwest. Therein lies some confusion. Early writers, such as Joseph Brown, surveyor with the party dispatched by the United States government to survey the road to Santa Fe in 1825, referred to such fords as crossings and the courses taken as routes.[4] At a much later date, writers used crossing in an indiscriminate manner to reference both the fords and the routes. Especially was this true with respect to the upper, middle, and lower crossings, each of which led to a point near Lower Spring (later Wagonbed Spring) on the Cimarron River, 11 miles south of present Ulysses, Kansas.

     The upper crossing as described by Surveyor Brown was located 20 miles east of Chouteau's Island. There, the surveying party forded the Arkansas and continued up the south bank of the river to the island located five miles upstream from present Lakin, Kansas. From that point, the expedition proceeded in a southerly orientation on what Brown called the upper route to the "Semaron (Cimarron) Spring."[5] By the time of the 1829 expedition captained by Charles Bent and accompanied by the first military escort on the Santa Fe Road commanded by Brevet Major Bennet Riley, the crossing had moved upstream two-three miles below Chouteau's Island.[6]

     Downstream from the upper crossing were two well-documented fords which, in time, became known as the middle crossings. The first ford, called the Arkansas crossing, about 25 miles upstream from Fort Atkinson, was the choice of Santa Fe travelers from the 1830s through the early 1850s. As describedf by 2nd Lieutenant William D. Whipple, it was the "old and main crossing of the Arkansas River to take the Cimarron route." The second ford, noted by Randolph Marcy in his 1859 Prairie Traveler, known as the Cimarron Crossing, located eight and a half miles downstream from the first, was used through the balance of the decade and into the 1860s.[7]

     Interestingly, a review of the literature produced only a single source from the nineteenth century which referenced a "middle crossing." Describing his trip to Santa Fe in 1853, W. W. H. Davis recalled, "We passed old Fort Atkinson . . . we encamped . . . at the middle crossing among the sand hills."[8] Regardless, twentieth-century writers repeatedly referred to the middle crossing(s). Perhaps, logic demanded that if there were lower and upper crossings, there must be a middle crossing; or perhaps the paradigm was borrowed from writers of the historic period who chaaracterized the springs along the Cimarron River as upper, middle, and lower.

     Corresponding to the advent of the Cimarron Crossing, Francois X. Aubrey conducted an unsuccessful attempt in the spring of 1851 to pioneer a new road from near Cold Spring in the present Oklahoma panhandle to the Arkansas River. In the following fall, his second attempt resulted in "an excellent wagon road, well supplied with water and grass, and avoiding the Jornada and the Cimarron Trail altogether." The route was well documented by William Allen in 1852. He wrote that his party struck "the river 12 miles above Chouteau's Island and 58 above the point where the Cimarron Road crosses the Arkansas." In 1866, the crossing was reported to be 11 miles above Chouteau's Island, 71 miles above the Cimarron crossing, and five miles above Fort Aubrey, the short-lived army post named in honor of Francois Aubrey.[9]

     The so-called middle crossing fell into disfavor in 1861 with the advent of mail service to Fort Wise in present Colorado and the use of the Bent's Fort road by some government freight contractors during the Civil War.[10] Eschewing the regular route to lower Cimarron spring, the mail coaches and some freight wagons pursued the north bank of the Arkansas to Bent's Old Fort where they forded the river to follow Timpas Creek to the southwest.[11] By 1868, the Union Pacific (changed to Kansas Pacific in 1869) arrived at the little railroad town of Phil Sheridan in Logan County, Kansas. From that point, mail, passengers, and freight were dispatched down a newly developed road through Fort Wallace and on to Fort Lyon near present Las Animas, Colorado. Consequently, overland traffic on the Bent's Fort road east of Fort Lyon essentially ceased while traffic to the west continued to use the ford at Bent's Old Fort. In 1870, the railroad reached Kit Carson, Colorado, from which two roads departed. The first, a stage route, took a southerly orientation to Fort Lyon. The second, a freight road developed by George McBride and Dick Wootton ran due south from Kit Carson before turning southwest to Bent's Old Fort and seven miles farther west to the site of King's Ferry where La Junta, Colorado, was later established. there Messrs. McBride and Wootton constructed a toll bridge under the auspices of the Kit Carson and Fort Union Bridge Company. Regardless of the imposing title of the company, according to P. G. Scott, an 1870 traveler, the bridge was a very common wooden affair."[12]

     The lower crossing was originally situated five miles west of the Caches. Such is at odds with many writers of the twentieth century who have placed the lower crossing at the confluence of Mulberry Creek with the Arkansas River at the western end of the south bend. These writers are well represented by Hobart Stocking who wrote, "Before many wheels marked the Road, traders with merchandise on packhorses sometimes left the Arkansas and the Lower crossing of Mulberry Creek."[13]

     It was at Mulberry Creek that the survey party arrived on September 6, 1825. Of this location, Joseph Brown, the surveyor, wrote, "It would be nearer to cross the river here and ascend Mulberry Creek to its source and then go directly to the lower spring on the Semaron, but on trial of the way travelers have discontinued it as unsafe. It is incommodious of water and timber for fuel, and wants such prominent landmarks as will be a sure guide. On this route has been much suffering; in a dry time 'tis dangerous."[14] George C. Sibley, one of three commissioners appointed to oversee the survey, added, "Mulberry Creek runs from the South West. It is said to be very short, not over 20 Miles, & its head branches interlock with those of the Grand Saline (Branch of Cimarron) which runs parallel with the Arkansas about 30 Miles from it at this point. At least such is the report of two of our Men who have been across there."[15]

     Brown's report suggests that the route along the Mulberry experienced limited traffic, perhaps a single expedition, and that the route was discontinued because of several factors: the lack of water, fuel, and landmarks. Sibley's report mentions two men associated with the survey who had taken the Mulberry Creek route previously. Presumably, those men were members of the expedition referenced by Brown. Who were these men? The most likely candidates are Stephen Cooper and Joel Walker, both members of the survey party and an 1823 trade expedition to Santa Fe.

     Fortunately, both men left a record of that expedition. Unfortunately, both waited until they were well advanced in years before recording their memoirs. At age 81, Walker dictated his recollections to R. R. Thompson. By that time, age had evidently taken its toll on his memory. He reported that the trip was taken in 1822, that it was the first such expedition to Santa Fe, and that his party had followed the Arkansas river to the lower Cimarron spring, all three statements obviously untrue. Regardless, other information in his narrative does confirm that the trip described was the "trial of the way" along Mulberry Creek described by Brown. To wit, Walker recalled that the party left the south bend and "traveled due west a day and a half." Elsewhere, he referred to : (1) the creek in opposition to the river; (2) suffering from the lack of water to the point of drinking buffalo blood; (3) and being disoriented on several occasions.[16] Cooper's autobiography, written at age 91, is consistent with Walker's account, especially with regard to the lack of water and the convoluted route taken to the lower Cimarron spring.[17] Parenthetically, both men desscribed the chance meeting with the party dispatched from Taos to recover trade goods stored on the Arkansas in the previous spring. The party's destination was what became known as "the Caches," so-called for the jug-shaped pits in which the goods had been hidden.

     Interestingly enough, neither Brown or Sibley wrote of the Mulberry Creek location as the lower crossing, nor did Walker of Cooper. However, Brown did locate the the lower crossing about twenty-five miles upstream from the Mulberry's mouth near present Howell, Kansas. He wrote: "'Some turn off at a place known to the Santa Fe travelers by the name of the 'Caches,' near to which is a rocky point of a hill at some distance from the river, composed of cemented pebblesf, and therefore called Gravel Rocks. At about 3 miles southwest from this rock is a place of crossing for those who travel the lower route, or directly to the aforenamed Semaron Spring, but this (though in a less degree) is subject to the same objections as that directly from the south bend."[18]

     Two miles west of the Caches was what Brown called Gravel Rocks, later known as Point of Rocks. Three miles upstream from that location was the ford, which Brown noted as "a place of crossing for those who travel the lower route." Later, the ford was relocated five miles downstream from its original location. There, near the Caches where the Charles Bent caravan camped on July 4, 1829, Brevet Major Riley had intended to ford the Arkansas, but Bent and the traders persuaded him to continue the march westward to the upper crossing.[19] Exactly how long this ford was used to reach lower Cimarron spring subsequent to the 1829 expedition is not known. However, the ford appears to be the one used by the 1833 expedition captained by Charles Bent and escorted by troops under the command of Captain William N. Wickliffe. Taking the dry route between Pawnee Fork and the Caches, the caravan became lost and finally reached the Arkansas on July 6. Pausing to rest, the caravan arrived at the lower crossing on July 10. On the following day, the traders continued on to Santa Fe and the escort returned to Fort Leavenworth.[20] The crossing is clearly marked on Brown's map, also on Brevet Colonel William E, Merrill's map of 1868.[21]

     In summation, there were at least eleven crossings of the Arkansas River on the Santa Fe Trail: the Mulberry Creek crossing which saw limited traffic, perhaps a single expedition;[22] two variants of the lower crossing, the first located five west of the Caches, the second near the Caches; two variants of the so-called middle crossings, the Arkansas and the Cimarron; two variants of the upper crossing, the first located 20 miles east of Chouteau's Island, the second two-three miles below the island; Aubry's crossing at two separate locations; the ford at Bent's Old Fort; and the crossing at present La Junta where McBride and Wootton operated a toll bridge.[23] Undoubledly, there were other points along the Arkansas River where some parties crossed but which were either not recorded or the records have yet to be found.


  1. Clyde Brian Davis, The Arkansas (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1940), 7-8; Bernard DeVoto (ed.), Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953; reprint, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), 6; James Newton Baskett, "Prehistoric Kansas. A Study of the Route of Coronado Between the Rio Grande and the Missouri rivers," Kansas Historical Collections, XII (1911-1912): 228; Alfred Barnaby Thomas (ed.), After Coronado. Spanish Exploration Northeast of New Mexico, 1696-1727 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 18; and Louise Barry (comp.), The Beginning of the West: Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West, 1540-1854 (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 11, 14.

  2. Donald Jackson (ed.), The Journals of Zebulon Pike with Letters and Related Documents, 2 vols. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 1, 336. Elliott Coues (ed.) The Journal of Jacob Fowler Narrating on Adventure From Arkansas Through the Indian Territory, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico To The Rio Grande Del Norte 1821-22 (Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, Inc., 1965), 1.

  3. James R. Mead, "The Wichita Indians in Kansas," Kansas Historical Collections, VIII (1903-1904): 173.

  4. Donald J. Blakeslee, "The Rattlesnake and Walnut Creek Crossings of the Arkansas River," Wagon Tracks, III (Nov. 1988): 4-5; Jesse Scott, Jr., "The Cimarron Crossing," Wagon Tracks, II (Feb. 1988), 8-9; and "Field Notes by Joseph C. Brown, United States Surveying Expedition 1825-1827." Eighteenth Biennial Report, Kansas State Historical Society (1913): 117-125.

  5. Ibid., For more information on this route, see Dorothy Morgan, "Bear Creek Pass and the Santa Fe Trail," Wagon Tracks, XI (Aug. 1997): 1, 15-19.

  6. Otis E. Young, The First Military Escort on the Santa Fe Trail, 1829, From the Journal and Report of Major Bennett Riley and Lieutenant Phillip St. George Cooke (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1952), 85.

  7. Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Cimarron Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly, XXIX (1973): 343-350. Barry identified yet another crossing near the Caches, which she mistakenly labeled as one of the middle crossings.

  8. W. W. H. Davis, El Gringo, New Mexico and Her People (1857; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 33.

  9. Barry, Beginning of the West, 99, 1042-1043, 1089-1090.

  10. Barry, "Ranch at Cimarron Crossing," 348-349.

  11. Morris Taylor, First Mail West: Stagecoach Lines On the Santa Fe Trail (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), 68.

  12. For a complete treatment of the roads from Sheridan and Kit Carson, see David K. Clapsaddle, "The Fort Wallace/Kit Carson-Fort Lyon Roads," Wagon Tracks, VIII (Feb. 1994): 11-14.

  13. Hobart E. Stocking, The Road to Santa Fe (New York: Hastings House, 1971), 134.

  14. "Field Notes by Brown."

  15. Kate L. Gregg (ed.), The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley and Others Pertaining to the Surveying and Marking of a Road from the Missouri Frontier to the Settlements of New Mexico, 1825-1827 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 77. Hobart Stocking inferred that the town of Ford was named for the Mulberry Creek ford, an inaccuracy which continues to be repeated to this day. Stocking, Road to Santa Fe, 133. The town of Ford was named for Colonel James H. Ford, commander of the Second Colorado Cavalry. "Origin of City Names," Kansas Historical Collections, VII (1901-1902): 428.

  16. Joel P. Walker, A Pioneer of Pioneers: Narrative of Adventures Thro' Alabama, Florida, New Mexico, Oregon, California, etc. (Los Angeles: Glen Dawson, 1953), 5-11. The south bend referred to by Walker was a few miles east of Mulberry Creek's mouth.

  17. Justus H. Rogers (ed.), "Autobiography of Stephen Cooper," Colusa County: Its History (Colusa, CA: Colusa Public Library, n. d.), 354-356; "Field Notes by Brown."

  18. Ibid.

  19. Young, First Military Escort, 84. This is the ford Barry mistakenly identified as one of the middle crossings. See note[7].

  20. Louise Barry, Beginning of The West, 233-234. At its advent, the Dry Route merged with the Wet Route at the Caches. At a later date, the Dry Route joined the Wet Route one mile east of the location chosen to establish Fort Dodge. For a full treatment of the Dry Route, see David K. Clapsaddle, "The Dry Route Revisited," Overland Journal, XVIII (Summer 1999): 2-8.

  21. "Field Notes by Brown"; Kansas With Parts of Neighboring States and Territories Map compiled by Bvt. Col.Wm. E. Merrill, RG 77, National Archives Services, Washington D. C., shows the lower crossing located just west of Fort Atkinson one half mile from the Caches.

  22. Even though the Glenn/Fowler trapping party of 1821 did cross the Arkansas at the mouth of the Mulberry Creek, it did not pursue a route to the lower Cimarron spring. Rather it followed the river westward to the mountains. Journal of Jacob Fowler, 29.

  23. Not included in this study are the fords used by William Becknell in his three trips to Santa Fe. For an interesting treatment of these fords, see Donald J. Blakeslee, "The Rattlesnake Creek and Walnut Creek Crossings of the Arkansas." Wagon Tracks, III (Nov. 1988): 4-5.
    Used With Permission of the Author:
    David Clapsaddle

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