Timber on the Santa Fe Trail

     It should be noted that the absence of timber on the Great Plains was largely due to frequent prairie fires.

     As the Santa Fe Trail left the wooded valley of the Missouri River, it crossed over into Indian Territory less than a mile from the town of Westport, Missouri's westernmost outpost. In that area, as though nature had drawn some invisible line, the Trail forsook the woods to enter the mixed-grass prairie which dominated what we know today as eastern Kansas. That sudden change in topography was eloquently expressed by 23-year-old Francis Parkman as he began his journey through the trans-Mississippi west in the spring of 1846. Young Parkman wrote: "EMERGING FROM THE MUD-HOLES of Westport, we pursued our way for some time along the narrow track, in the checkered sunshine and shadow of the woods, till at length, issuing into the broad light, we left behind us the farthest outskirts of the great forest that once spread from the western plains to the shore of the Atlantic. Looking over an intervening belt of bushes, we saw the green, ocean-like expanse of prairie, stretching swell beyond swell to the horizon."[1]

     Josiah Gregg confirmed Parkman's observation. West of Council Grove, deep in the heart of tall-grass country, he wrote of his 1831 trip, "Our route lay through uninterrupted prairie for about forty miles- in fact I may say, for five hundred miles, except the very narrow fringes of timber along the borders of the streams."[2]

     More pronounced than the lesser stands of timber described by Gregg were the dense groves of hardwoods which were strung out at various intervals along the Santa Fe Trail in present Kansas; Council Grove, 118 miles to the west; Cottonwood Grove, 51 miles more; Pit Grove, 84 miles yet westward.

     The chief source for this study is Thomas Lester Bryan's Notes by the Wayside, his journal compiled in the summer of 1847 as he marched from Fort Leavenworth to New Mexico during the Mexican War as a private in the First Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Although a practicing physician at the time of his enlistment in Company C of the regiment, he remained in enlisted rank until he was appointed acting assistant surgeon at Santa Fe in October 1847.[3]

     On July 7, 1847, Bryan's battalion, consisting of Companies B, C, and E, departed Fort Leavenworth and arrived at Lone Elm on the 13th.[4] Lone Elm was originally known as Round Grove, so called for its circular tree growth of some 40 acres. Situated in present Johnson County, Kansas, 15 miles from the Missouri border, the popular campsite was the rendezvous point for troop and freight movements from Fort Leavenworth. Consequently, over the years, the fine stand of timber was consumed for firewood. By the time of Bryan's arrival, the grove was reduced to a single tree.[5] Such gives meaning to Bryan's journal entry of July 13, 1847, "Marched to Lone Elm, encamped, hauled wood from Wolf Creek."[6]

     On the 14th, the battalion set forth on the Santa Fe Trail reaching Bull Creek, 12 miles distant. There, Bryan observed, "Springs in abundance, wood sufficient." Such is in disagreement with Susan Magoffin who had written of Bull Creek in the previous year, "Here we have no wood, there are no trees."[7] Such disparity is not uncommon among period writers. Neither is the disparity as to mileage figures. No attempt was made to reconcile the mileage figures of Bryan with those of other sources.

     Writing of the battalion's next stop on July 15, Bryan noted, "No timber until we encamped at Hickory Grove," 15 miles from Bull Creek.

     Eight miles more was Willow Spring where the battalion rested on July 16. There, he made no mention of timber; and an 1858 table of distances indicated that wood was scarce at that location.[8]

     Marching on eight miles, the battalion encamped at Rock Creek. Bryan made no notice of wood at that site.

     Marching double time, the battalion traveled 15 miles on the 17th to 110 Mile Creek. There, Bryan recorded, "Water and wood in abundance." There, in 1854, Fry P. McGee purchased a farm from some white men married to Shawnee women. McGee brought his family to 110 Mile Creek where they occupied the log buildings built by the previous owners and constructed a toll bridge across the stream, testimony to timber at that location.[9]

     West of 110 Mile Creek, Bryan's battalion marched eight miles on the 19th to a stream he failed to identify by name. There, he wrote, "We came to a creek with narrow skirts of timber on each side." The stream was Bridge Creek, sometimes called Switzler's Creek for the proprietor of the toll bridge built at that location, now the town of Burlingame, Kansas.[10]

     On the 20th, the battalion marched 18 miles to Pool Creek, better known as 142 Mile Creek. There, Bryan wrote, "Pool Creek, water and wood." In 1854, Charles Withington opened a trading establishment at that location, using timber from the creek to construct log buildings and a toll bridge.[11]

     The battalion continued its march west 18 miles to Big John Spring on the 21st. There, Bryan observed, "Prairie still rolling, rocks in great abundance - timbered creeks." The spring was named for Big John Walker, who, at the direction of George C. Sibley, scribed in large letters on a large oak tree during the 1827 resurvey of the Santa Fe Trail, "Big John's Spring."[12]

     Only two and a half miles farther was Council Grove in present Morris County, Kansas, named for the tree growth on the Neosho River where commissioners of the Santa Fe Trail Survey party negotiated with Osage tribal leaders for right of way through their lands on August 9-10, 1825.[13] There, the battalion stayed July 22-24, but Bryan made no mention of the timber which populated the Neosho. Regardless, the record is replete with descriptions of Council Grove in this respect. Perhaps, none is more telling than that of Josiah Gregg. "This point is nearly a hundred and fifty miles from Independence, and consists of a continuous stripe of timber nearly half a mile in width, comprising the richest varieties of trees; such as oak, walnut, ash, elm, hickory, etc., and extending all along the valleys of a small stream known as 'Council Grove creek,' the principal branch of the Neosho river. This stream is bordered by the most fertile bottoms and beautiful upland prairies, well adapted to cultivation: such indeed is the general character of the country from thence to Independence."[14]

     Departing Council Grove on the 25th, the battalion pushed on 18 miles to Diamond Spring where Bryan observed, "timber scarce, all walnut." The spring was named Diamond Spring on June 10, 1825, during the survey of the Santa Fe Trail when George C. Sibley directed Big John Walker to carve on a stooping elm, "Diamond of the Plain."[15]

     Continuing the march on the 26th, Bryan and his companions arrived at Lost Spring, 15 miles to the west. He recorded, "Lost Spring situated on a slough without timber, one tree 3 or 4 ms off is all the timber in sight." Such is reflected by Susan Magoffin who wrote on June 23, 1846, "I believe there is not a tree in sight."[16]

     Pressing on, the battalion reached what Bryan called Cotton Wood Fork on the 27th. Cottonwood Grove was situated on a creek of the same name in present Marion County. Aptly so, according to Bryan who wrote,"The timber on this creek is all cottonwood, hence the name." Matt Field, a one time thespian and would-be poet, was dramatic in his praise of the place. "Between St. Louis and Santa Fe, a distance of some fifteen hundred miles, it may be imagined there are some very beautiful places, and there are, but the loveliest place to be selected in all that long travel is Cotton-Wood Grove, a magnificent oasis about one hundred and fifty or sixty miles beyond Independence."[17]

     Eighteen miles beyond Cottonwood Grove, the battalion reached what Bryan called Turkey Creek, actually Running Turkey Creek. There on July 28, he wrote, "No timber discoverable no water until we reached Turkey Creek rather a slough than a creek. . . encamped here no wood (chips Plenty) nights very cool."

     On the 29th, the battalion marched 24 long miles to the Little Arkansas River. Bryan made no mention of wood there, but later sources indicate the presence of timber on the stream. On August 7, 1858, Augustus Voorhees confided to his diary, "They are building a bridge here. The timber is cotton wood and box elder."[18]

     From the Little Arkansas, the battalion marched 10 miles to Owl Creek. There, Bryan wrote, "No timber, or water, still in sight of Arkansas timber."

     On the 31st, the battalion marched 10 miles to Cow Creek. There, Bryan made no mention of timber, but later reports indicate that indeed timber was present on the stream. The Leavenworth Herald, June 11, 1859, described the trading ranch established in 1858 at Cow Creek by Drs. Asahel and Abijah Beach, stating a toll bridge was under construction, the principal timbers being transported from the Smoky Hill River, 40 miles away. Later in the month, the Herald reported, "On Cow Creek there is not a great deal of timber, but sufficient for fuel and all practical purposes. The principal timber is box-elder, with a good deal of ash, hackberry, and elm."

     By August 2, the battalion had marched to what Bryan designated as the "Bend of the Arkansas." Commonly called the great bend or big bend, it was there that the Santa Fe Trail struck the Arkansas and followed it southwest 273 miles to Bent's Fort. Bryan made no mention of timber there, but at the great bend was Pit Grove described by George C. Sibley as "a large Island thickly timbered with Cotton Wood."[19] Beyond Pit Grove, Sibley wrote,"the River is distinctly marked by those trees as far as we can see."[20] From this point on, the Arkansas was timbered for many miles to the west, albeit by tree growth restricted to the south bank and on the many islands which populated its channel.

     West of Pit Grove a brief six miles was Walnut Creek. There Bryan made no mention of timber as the battalion crossed the creek to camp four miles upstream on August 3. There was timber on Walnut Creek, according to Sibley, "some scattering walnuts and elms."[21] William Salisbury, who stopped at Walnut Creek in May 1859, noted the ranch established there by William Allison and Francis Boothe in 1855. He wrote, "It is a small trading post one house plenty timber water."[22] A later proprietor of the ranch, Charles Rath, constructed a toll bridge over Walnut Creek in 1863.[23]

     The battalion pressed on 12 miles to Pawnee Rock on the 4th. There they did not pause because of the lack of water and wood. Captain Randolph B. Marcy noted in one of his many tables of distances, "Pawnee Rock - Teams sometimes camp near here, and drive their stock to the Arkansas to water; no wood."[24] On the same day the battalion marched six miles farther to Ash Creek. Bryan made no mention of timber there, and Sibley was in agreement. He wrote on August 30, 1825, "The water clear & good in the Creek, but no timber to be seen upon it."[25]

     On the following morning, August 5, the battalion marched six miles to Pawnee Fork, the usual nineteenth-century designation for the Pawnee River. Bryan wrote, "This is a brisk stream with springs on its borders but little timber." He was soundly contradicted in this regard by a number of sources. Arriving at the Pawnee on August 31, 1825, George Sibley made note of the tree growth on the stream, "Timber Elm, Ash, Elder, Cotton Tree, Willow, and Grape Vines."[26] At the onset of the Mexican War in the summer of 1846, Colonel Stephen W. Kearny's Army of the West arrived at the Pawnee to find it flooded. The impatient Colonel Kearny "caused the trees to be felled across the deep, rapid current. This was the labor of day. On these trees the men passed over, carrying with them their sick, arms, accouterments, and baggage."[27] Such is the testimony to the tall trees which populated the Pawnee.

     At this point, the advice of Captain Marcy is appropriate. "From Pawnee Fork to the lower crossing of the Arkansas, a distance of 98 1/2 miles, convenient camping-places can be found along the Arkansas; the most prominent localities are therefore only mentioned. A supply of fuel should be laid in at Pawnee Fork to last till you pass Fort Mann, though it may be obtained, but inconveniently, from the opposite side of the Arkansas. Dry Route branches off at 3 1/2 miles (estimated). This route joins the main one again 10 miles this side of Fort Mann. It is said to be a good one, but deficient in water and without wood."[28]

     Note the information as to the Dry Route which originally ran west-southwest from the Wet Route to a point near the Caches. Bryan's battalion followed the wet or river route which pursued the north bank of the Arkansas until it converged with the Dry Route west of present Dodge City, Kansas. Later, when Captain Marcy described it, the Dry Route rejoined the "main" route east of present Dodge City. Trail routes were an evolving network.

     Bryan's battalion marched 12 miles to Coon Creek on August 6. Bryan noted, "No timber whatever on it."

     On the 8th, Bryan and his companions continued up the Arkansas and west into camp at 2 o'clock. In this area on September 3, 1825, Sibley had observed, "The Arkansas still keeps its width of 400 to 500 yards, and in other respects very much as where we first saw it - with the exception of it being better furnished with timber. Its course can now be traced distinctly for a great distance by the few scattering Cotton Trees (there are no other) that are Scattered along its Banks & upon its little Islands; and this is the case all the way from about 20 miles below the Walnut Creek."[29]

     Proceeding up the Arkansas on the 9th, the battalion marched 12 miles before going into camp. Bryan's journal entry is telling, "From the time we first saw this river no timber has yet appeared on the north side but little on the south."

     Bryan's notes for the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th are collapsed into a single entry where he stated that the battalion averaged about 12 miles a day. The third day's travel would have brought the men to Jackson's Grove about six miles east of where Fort Dodge was established in 1865. Bryan made no mention of the grove, sometimes called an island. It was not an island; rather it was a peninsula on the south bank of the Arkansas covered in a dense growth of cottonwood.

     Bryan's battalion passed Fort Mann on August 13. There, the men went into camp and laid over on the following day in preparation for the laborious crossing of the Arkansas. Fort Mann was in the same general vicinity of the Cashes, so named for storage pits dug by members of the Baird-Chambers party to hide their trade goods in 1823 after spending a miserable winter on an island in the nearby Arkansas. It would appear that the unfortunate travelers, caught in an early blizzard, took refuge on the island where timber provided protection from the elements and fuel for their fires.[30] Regardless, Bryan made no mention of any timber.

     On the following day, August 15, the battalion crossed the Arkansas and proceeded across the treeless Jornada some 60 miles to the Cimarron River.

     So ends Bryan's journey of 40 days and some 400 miles through what Josiah Gregg characterized as "uninterrupted prairie except for the narrow fringes of timber along the borders of the streams." Hopefully, this small study will help the trail enthusiast to see the Santa Fe Trail in present Kansas, not as an artery bisecting a treeless plain, but as the road to Santa Fe along which the nineteenth-century traveler could find the occasional comfort of a dense grove or the more frequent presence of a tree-lined stream where shelter and fuel were there for the taking.


  1. Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849: reprint, Washington, DC: Adventure Classics: National Geographic, 2002), 7.

  2. Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies (1844: reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958), 37.

  3. Thomas B. Hall, Medicine on the Santa Fe Trail (Arrow Rock, MO: Friends of Arrow Rock, 1987), 15-17.

  4. Ibid., 28.

  5. Marc Simmons, Following the Santa Fe Trail: A Guide for Modern Travelers (Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1984), 64-65.

  6. Hall, Medicine, 28: Bryan's following journal entries will be identified in the body of the paper by date with no citations in the notes.

  7. Susan Shelby Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, ed. Stella M. Drumm (1926: reprint: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 7.

  8. Table of Distances, "From Kansas City to the Gold Regions of Pike's Peak," Western Journal of Commerce, Kansas City, MO, November 6, 1858, cited in Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Walnut Creek Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly, 37 (Summer 1971), ff. 136.

  9. Simmons, Following, 79.

  10. Barry, Beginning of the West, 549.

  11. D. E. Schiessen, "History of Allen, Kansas," Our Land - A History of Lyon County, Kansas (Emporia: Emporia State Press, 1976), 40-41.

  12. Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 272.

  13. Ibid., 57-58.

  14. J. Gregg, Commerce, 29.

  15. K. Gregg, Road to Santa Fe, 272.

  16. Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail, 23.

  17. John E. Sunder, ed., Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 82.

  18. Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Little Arkansas Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly, 38 (Autumn 1972): 287-288.

  19. K. Gregg, Road to Santa Fe, 68.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Barry, "Ranch at Walnut Creek," 129.

  23. Ibid., 141.

  24. Randolph B. Marcy, The Prairie Traveler: A Handbook For Overland Expeditions (1859: reprint, Williamstown, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1968), 261.

  25. K. Gregg, Road to Santa Fe, 71.

  26. Ibid., 71.

  27. John Taylor Hughes, Doniphan's Expedition (1847: reprint, College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1997), 29.

  28. Marcy, Prairie Traveler, 261.

  29. K. Gregg, Road to Santa Fe, 74-75.

  30. Barry, Beginning, 109.
         Used With Permission of the Author
         David Clapsaddle

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