Wood, Water, & Grass
But the Greatest of these is Water

     "The essentials for a camping place are wood, water and grass." Robert Morris Peck, "Rough Riding on the Plains: A Trooper's Story," National Tribune, February 28, 1901.

     In the trans-Mississippi West, travelers camped in the open far removed from even the meager amenities of a frontier settlement or a trading ranch, had to depend upon mother nature for the elements of survival, if not comfort. The elements requisite to any good campsite were three: water, grass, and fuel, wood or buffalo chips. If grass were not abundant, oxen could subsist for a period, but water was a more urgent necessity, both for man and beast.

     Campsites along overland routes were identified in itineraries called tables of distances published for the convenience of travelers. One such table published in 1858, "From Kansas City to the Gold Field Regions of Pikes Peak," listed the distances between stops and the availability of water, grass, and fuel.[1] Though not mentioned in this table, several trading ranches along its route had wells; and at the Little Arkansas River Ranch, the proprietors charged 25 cents for a toll across their bridge and ten gallons of water or 25 cents for ten gallons of water and the use of a ferry.[2]

     However, in most cases, water was provided by streams supplied by run off. In some cases, especially during spring, water could be found in buffalo wallows or an occasional pond. Otherwise, water came from springs, called live water. Such water, fresh and clean, was far preferable to that found in streams often muddied by sudden runoffs, tainted by alkali, and near crossings spoiled by animal waste. In addition, water located in languid pools was more often than not tepid, if not unagreeably warm. In contrast, spring water was cool.

     This study is devoted to springs along the Santa Fe Trail and its auxiliaries. The first length of the Santa Fe Trail replicated the Osage Trace from Franklin, Missouri, to Fort Osage. Running westward from Franklin, the Osage Trace came to the Missouri River where passengers were ferried across the Missouri Ruver to the area of Arrow Rock. Not far from the landing was a spring which has become known as Santa Fe Spring. Local lore claims William Becknell watered there in his 1821 expedition to Santa Fe.[3]

     Beyond that point, the Osage Trace pursued the south bank of the Missouri River to Fort Osage, west of which were several springs identified by Gregory Franzwa. Two springs were located north of present Marshall, one called Indian Spring.[4] Farther west was another spring Roger Slusher place at seven miles east of Lexington on his family's property purchased in 1829-1830. More than a century later, the Slusher Homemaker's Club published A History of Homes which stated that on the property's homestead "a very good and everlasting spring is nearby." The spring was located in Lafayette County on Highway 24 which basically replicates the Osage Trace.[5] West of Lexington about two and a half miles was Simpson's Spring; and in Independence, near the present National Frontier Trails Museum, Franzwa identified the evidence of yet another spring which "left a deep chasm, the route of the waters which once issued from that spring."[6]

     Several tables of distance commence at Independence which superseded Franklin in 1827 as the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. John Bingham's 1848 table which originates four miles north of the city, for all practical purposes, begins at Independence,[7] Not identified by Bingham or any other contemporary source, Cave Spring is situated 10 miles southwest of Independence. Located in the present William M. Klein Park, it was marked by the Missouri Daughters of the American Revolution with one of their familiar red granite monuments and placed on th Register of Historical Places. Regardless, the site has no historic documentation.[8]

     The first spring Bingham did identify was Willow Spring, 65 miles from Independence. En route to Santa Fe during the Mexican War, Thomas Lester Bryant with the First Illinois Volunteers confided to his diary on July 16, 1847, "After marching eight miles, we came to Willow Spring which offers an inexhaustible supply of the finest water."[9]

     Farther west near present Overbrook, Kansas, Marc Simmons identified a spring which he called Santa Fe Spring.[10] Still further west was Big John Spring located two miles east of Council Grove. There, at the direction of George C. Sibley, Big John Walker carved Big John Spring on a nearby oak tree during the resurvey of the Santa Fe Trail in 1827.[11] Eighteen miles more was Diamond Spring. Also during the resurvey, Sibley wrote, "It may be appropriately called, 'The Diamond of the Plains,' and so I had it marked on an overhanging elm."[12]

     Charles Folsom's table of 1842 identified two springs west of Diamond Spring: Prairie Spring, eight miles farther, and Hook's Spring (in prairie), another eight miles.[13]

     Fifteen miles from Diamond Spring was Lost Spring. Sometimes the spring was dry, hence its name. Such was not the case on June 23, 1846, when Susan Magoffin observed, "And this should no longer be called the lost spring for it is running high now."[14]

     West of Lost Spring 15 miles was Cottonwood Creek, a popular stop on the Santa Fe Trail. There in 1859, Calvin Perry Clark wrote in his March 26 diary entry, "Cottonwood Creek cotton wood and water. Spring hundred rods up the creek from the crossing."[15]

     No other spring along the Santa Fe Trail was given notice west of Cottonwood Creek until the Little Arkansas River. There, Charles Post paused in May 1859. He and his companions used the ferry and filled their water kegs "at a spring above one-fourth mile."[16]

     Bingham did not identify any other spring west of the Little Arkansas River until the Santa Fe Trail reached the Cimarron Route. However, east of the Cimarron crossing, five miles west of the Arkansas River's south bend, was a spring located by William Quesenbury in 1850. He wrote, "Passed a large spring some forty yards to the left of the road." He further stated, "A great many names are carved on the rock. We learned from the inscription the ox team company had passed here on the 17th." James Mitchell with the ox team company led by Captain Edmonson did not reference the spring but did mention the rock where members of the company left their names. This is the same location described by Joseph Gleason on May 13, 1860, in abbreviated language: "Waterfall pond, 10 or 12 ft. I cut my name, date, year." Gleason's description is somewhat in keeping with the present appearance of the site. The most significant difference is that Gleason's signature does not remain but carved in the sandstone is a rectangular border containing "Black Pool Dis by E. Post 1843." Other names do remain, some too faint to read. Gregory Franzwa opined that most of the names "are from the post-trail era." At some time, someone scribed the Black Pool inscription to a pronounced depth and stained the characters with a dark material. Resultantly, the inscription is well defined in comparison to the other nearby names.

     What then, must be the truth of Black Pool? The answer might be in another inscription documented some 19 miles west of the Black Pool site. On June 5, 1859, Charles Post confided to his diary, "We concluded to travel until noon as we did not have large enough range for our cattle; Quite cool, pleasant driving. Our road led up on the high land in consequence of the bluffs running down to river, which is rarely the case on the north side of river, but on south side the sand hills for a great portion of the way lead into river. I was riding ahead of train and found a beautiful pool in a basin some thirty feet lower than the top of bluff with an outlet to the river. I have not yet seen anywhere an account of this pool, so I named it Crescent Pool; it is about seventy-five miles from Pawnee Fork. I carved my name and address in the rocks, also the name of the pool; it is a beautiful spot. We encamped at eleven o'clock for day and night at old Fort Atkinson, nothing remains except a bridge with four sides showing the outline of walls which were of sod."

     A comparison of the two sites is instructive: (1) The so-called Black Pool is located about 49 miles from Pawnee Fork. Crescent Pool was about 68 miles from Pawnee Fork. (2) The Black Pool inscription is dated 1843. The Crescent Pool inscription was carved in 1859. (3) The Black Pool inscription speaks to E. Post. The Crescent Pool inscription was the work of Charles Post.

     Who then was E. Post and what is the origin of the Black Pool name? As to the latter, Franzwa speculated that the pool "has a dark coloration due to the underlying strata of black shale." As to the identity of E. Post, one might surmise that someone knowing of the Crescent Pool inscription incised the "Black Pool" signature with a deceitfully similar inscription.[17]

     West of the Crescent Pool location, the Santa Fe Trail crossed the Arkansas to follow the Cimarron Route southwest to Lower Spring, the first of three springs which populated the Cimarron River. Lower Spring, 60 miles from the crossing, became known as Wagon Bed Spring late in the time of the Santa Fe trade when a resourceful traveler sank a wagon bed in the spring's basin to create a reservoir.[18] Middle Spring, 30 miles upstream, appears in Captain Randolph Marcy's 1859 table in a brief notation, "No wood."[19] Upper Spring, 35 miles farther southwest, was described by Josiah Gregg as "a small fountain breaking into a ravine that declines towards the Cimarron some three or four miles to the north."[20] The spring was located a short distance form the Trail; at some unknown time, a thoughtful traveler mounted a flag there so others could find their way to water. Hence, the name, Flag Spring.[21]

     Twenty more miles was Cold Spring in the present Oklahoma panhandle where the Aubry Route began. Captain Marcy was stingy in his description of the setting, "A tree here and there."[22] Beyond Cold Spring 32 miles was Cottonwood Spring which Marcy labeled Cottonwood Creek. Again, his description is brief, "No water."[23] Ninety-five miles distant was Santa Clara Spring, close to Wagon Mound. Once again Marcy was parsimonious with his words, "Wood brought from Rio Ocate."[24] The last spring in Bingham's table was Bernal Spring six miles beyond Tecolote. Josiah Gregg referred to it as Ojo de Bernal Spring.[25] It might have escaped history's notice if the Colorado troops of Colonel John Slough had not camped there on March 25, 1862, short days before engaging a Confederated force at Apache Canyon and Glorieta Pass.[26]

     To the west of the Cimarron Crossing, the Bent's Fort Road (Mountain Route) ran along the north side of the Arkansas River to Bent's Fort. At that point, it turned southwest 40 miles to the Iron Spring Station so named for the metallic taste of the water. P. G. Scott, who stopped at the station in 1870, wrote, "The water had not a very good taste, but it was the best drink I have got since Lawrence (Kansas)."[27]

     From Iron Spring, the road continued southwest to cross Raton Pass, and continued on to merge with the Cimarron Route at the junction of the Mora and Sapello Rivers near present Wltrous, New Mexico. En route, there was a single spring at the southern side of Raton Pass called Willow Spring. There, in 1868, Smith A. Sayers established a forage station for the army.[28]

     Other routes of the Santa Fe Trail were blessed with springs, particularly the Aubry Route pioneered by Francis X. Aubry in 1851. On a second attempt to locate a better road from the present Oklahoma panhandle to the Arkansas River, he pursued a route from Cold Spring to a point about eleven miles west of Chouteau's Island. Near there, adjacent to the Bent's Fort Road where Fort Aubrey was established in 1865, was a substantial spring which came to be called Aubrey Spring.[29]

     At the other end of Aubry's Route is Cold Spring, previously discussed in relation to the Cimarron Route. The present appearance of Cold Spring, green and lush, belies the barren description given by Marcy. Two other springs have been identified on Aubry's Route, Upper Spring, previously discussed, and the water source in present Baca County, Colorado, called Five Mile Water Hole. If this basin on Bear Creek provided a constant flow of water, it was surely fed by a spring, run off water being scarce in that part of the county.[30]

     In pre-territorial Kansas, another road, largely unknown, ran south from Fort Leavenworth to cross the Kansas River at Grinter's Ferry and continued on to strike the established route of the Santa Fe Trail at Round Grove, later called Lone Elm. This road was first used by Captain William Wickliffe's escort in 1833 en route to meet up with the spring caravan from Independence. Four years later, Colonel Henry Dodge, returning from his expedition to the Rocky Mountains, pursued a similar course from a point east of Round Grove to Fort Leavenworth. The routed was enhanced by the establishment of the Fort Leavenworth Military Road in 1837. Replicating the road to Round Grove for the first 29 miles, it veered to the southeast to follow the Kansas/Missouri line southward. The more extensive use of the road to Lone Elm came with the advent of the Mexican War when supply trains and troop movements plied the road in large numbers. One such troop movement was that of the First Illinois Volunteers in 1847. Included in the regiment was Ben Wiley of Company B, a 26-year old private. His diary speaks several times of springs along the road. Leaving Fort Leavenworth, his company marched to the present site of Buffalo Bill Park in Leavenworth. There Wiley recorded, "a good spring with plenty of water." After a 14-mile march, the company camped at Gum Spring. Continuing on, the company crossed Nine Mile Creek and veered southeast eight miles to another campsite named Gum Spring. After being ferried across the Kansas river, the men marched four miles to what Wiley characterized as "one of the finest springs I ever saw."There were, in fact, six or seven springs in the immediate area. Regardless, the location was known as Gum Spring, not Gum Springs. This spring, as well as the other two previously identified as Gum Spring, were so named for a "gum" hollowed from the bole of a gum tree to serve as a water reservoir. Gum was the given designation for such a trough regardless of the tree's specie.[31]

     Other roads emanated from the various railheads of the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, to connect with the established route of the Santa Fe Trail at several points. As such, for brief periods, each became the eastern leg of the Santa Fe Trail. The first was the Fort Riley - Fort Larned Road running 120 southwest from Junction City to Walnut Creek. Barlow and Sanderson established a number of stage stations on this route in 1866, including Well's Ranch on Plum Creek. Lieutenant M. R. Brown, engineer with the 1867 Hancock Expedition, noted that at that location the creek was dry in the summer but that water could be obtained from a nearby spring.[32] This was the only spring noted on the Fort Riley - Fort Larned Road except Sand Spring, three miles west of Abilene as recorded in the Junction City Union, August 4, 1866.

     The Union Pacific Railway pushing westward established other railheads at Fort Harker, Hays, and Phil Sheridan. The Southern Overland Mail and Express Company chose not to establish headquarters at Sheridan, but rather at Pond Creek, about 15 miles to the west, the site of a former Butterfield Overland Despatch station. Six stations were established on the route which ran south from Pond Creek to Fort Lyon on the Bent's Fort Road. Among these stations was Kiowa Springs, named for its nearby water source. The reader may notice springs, plural, as opposed to previously mentioned water sources called spring, singular.[33]

     At the same time the Union Pacific/Kansas Pacific was pursuing an east-west course across Kansas, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was laying tracks in a southwest orientation across the state, reaching the end-of-the-tracks town named Granada in Colorado Territory in 1873.[34] From there, freight was shipped to Fort Union on what became known as the Granada-Fort Union Road or the Military Freight Road. John Metcalf, a freighter, recorded in his 1874 diary the names of two springs, Kiowa and Chico, both located between the Cimarron River and the Rock Crossing of the Canadian.[35] A third water source called Willow Springs was the campsite of Major A. J. Alexander and his 8th Cavalry detachment in August 1874, situated eight miles northeast of present Kiowa, Colorado.[36]

     This study had a threefold purpose: (1) to recognize the importance of springs as a major water source for Santa Fe Trail travelers, (2) to identify the location of the springs, and (3) to establish the designation by which these water sources were known during the historic period. Bingham's table with a single exception referred to springs in the singular. Other tables such as the Dyer-Carleton Table of 1846-1848 never used the plural springs, always spring.[37] The same could be said of Charles Folsom's 1842 table and the table compiled by Josiah Gregg.[38] Randolph Marcy's table and Kendrick's 1849 table followed suit.[39] There are some exceptions, of course, to this generalization, as previously cited.

     One could conclude that in the historic period, spring was the generally accepted designation for this type of water source. Regardless, within the general public and even some writers of note, springs has crept into the nomenclature of frontier references. Especially is this true with regard to towns established adjacent to historic spring sites. The Gum Spring site on the Fort Leavenworth-Lone Elm Road became the location of Gum Springs in early Johnson County. Other examples include the Kansas towns of Willow Springs, Diamond Springs, and Lost Springs. Sadly, even some devotees of the Santa Fe Trail do not make a distinction between the historic designation of spring and the modern invention of springs. Perhaps, this study will help in this respect.


  1. "Table of Distance From Kansas City To The Gold Regions of Pike's Peak," Western Journal of Commerce, Kansas City, MO, November 6, 1858, as published in Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Walnut Creek Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly 37 (Summer 1971): 136ff.

  2. Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Little Arkansas Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly 38 (Autumn 1972): 289.

  3. Gregory M. Franzwa, The Santa Fe Trail Revisited (St. Louis: The Patrice Press, 1989), 11-13.

  4. Ibid, 17.

  5. Letter from Roger Slusher, May 15, 2008.

  6. Franzwa, Santa Fe Trail Revisited, 21, 31.

  7. "Tables of Distances on The Santa Fe Trail (Kansas Section) From Independence, Mo.," John A. Bingham, 1848, as published in Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 814.

  8. Franzwa, Santa Fe Trail Revisited, 33.

  9. Bingham; Thomas B. Hall, Medicine on the Santa Fe Trail (Arrow Rock: Friends of Arrow Rock, 1986), 28.

  10. Marc Simmons, Following the Santa Fe Trail (Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1984), 77.

  11. Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road To Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 185.

  12. Ibid, 272.

  13. Charles J. Folsom, Mexico in 1842 (New York: Wiley and Putnam: Robinson Pratt and Co., 1842), 133-134.

  14. Susan Shelby Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847,ed. By Stella M. Drumm (1926: reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 23.

  15. Calvin Perry Clark, "The Diary & Journal of Calvin Perry Clark," True Diaries (Denver: Denver Public Library, 1962), 5.

  16. Barry, "Ranch at Little Arkansas," 289.

  17. David K. Clapsaddle, "Black Pool: Real or Ruse?," Wagon Tracks 21 (August 2007): 7-9.

  18. William E. Brown, The Santa Fe Trail (St. Louis: The Patrice Press, 1988), 113.

  19. Randolph B. Marcy, "From Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe, by the way of the upper ferry of the Kansas River and the Cimarron," The Prairie Traveler: A Handbook For Overland Expeditions (Williamstown, Massachusetts: Corner House Publishers, 1859), 260-261.

  20. Josiah Gregg, Commerce of The Prairies (1844: reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,1954), 61.

  21. Brown, Santa Fe Trail, 119.

  22. Marcy, Prairie Traveler, 262.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 217.

  26. Leo E. Oliva, Soldiers on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), 133-139.

  27. P. G. Scott, "A Diary of a Freighting Trip From Kit Carson to Trinidad in 1870," The Colorado Magazine 8 (July 1931): 150.

  28. Nancy Robertson, "Letter to Editor." Wagon Tracks 4 (November 1989): 18.

  29. Eugene P. Burr, "A Detailed Study of the Aubry Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail and Fort Aubry," The Emporia State Research Studies 23 (Summer 1974): 21-22.

  30. Ibid, 43.

  31. David K. Clapsaddle,"The Fort Leavenworth-Round Grove/Lone Elm Road: The Army's First Link to the Santa Fe Trail," Wagon Tracks 8 (November 1993): 10-13.

  32. David K. Clapsaddle, "Conflict and Commerce on the Santa Fe Trail: The Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road," Kansas History 16 (Summer 1993): 124-135.

  33. David K. Clapsaddle, "The Fort Wallace/Kit Carson-Fort Lyon Roads," Wagon Tracks 8 (February 1994), 11. Springs is also used to denote the water source cited in note 36.

  34. Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West: Stagecoach Lines on the Santa Fe Trail (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), 162.

  35. Richard Louden, "The Military Freight Road," Wagon Tracks 7 (May 1993): 8.

  36. Ibid, 9.

  37. "Tables of Distances On The Santa Fe Trail (Kansas Section) From Fort Leavenworth," Dyer-Carleton, 1846-1848, Barry, Beginning of the West, 815.

  38. "Tables of Distances On The Santa Fe Trail (Kansas Section) From Independence, MO.," Josiah Gregg, 1844, Barry, Beginning of the West, 814.

  39. "Tables of Distances On The Santa Fe Trail (Kansas Section) From Fort Leavenworth," Kendrick, 1849, Barry, Beginning of the West, 815.
         Used With Permission of the Author
         David Clapsaddle

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