Marking the Santa Fe Trail
by Carol Jenkner
In 1902 the Daughters of the American Revolution in Kansas undertook an ambitious project - to mark the old Santa Fe Trail across their state. It took them five years to plan, initiate and complete their part of the project. Placement of the ninety-six red granite markers was finished several years afterward as each county worked to complete their part. The entire process was recorded by a newly elected historian and later became a book published in 1915, The Marking of the Santa Fe Trail by Mrs. T. A. Cordry. The slim blue volume can be found hidden in the Kansas history sections of libraries all across the state.
The ultimate goal of these women was to “keep the memory of the old Trail alive, so that our children need never inquire, “Where is it?”” (Mrs. T. A. Cordry, 1915). Less than ten years after the Trail ceased to be used as a freighting road between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico, people were already forgetting about its location across Kansas. Many knew of its existence only through the stories of such famous old soldiers as Colonel Henry Inman, who wrote of battles with Native Americans, the forts and adventures and hardships of those days gone by along the Trail.
The Santa Fe Trail was charted across Missouri, Kansas, the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle and Southwestern Colorado, depending on the route one took, down to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It existed between 1821 and 1880 when it was officially declared closed because railroads made their way across the country to replace it. It was a freight road for hauling trade goods to Mexico where they were exchanged for items that were subsequently brought back to Missouri. The Trail spawned the need for military forts established along the route for the protection of the freighters and settlers from hostile Native Americans, Mexicans and bandits intent on robbing the loaded wagons trains of goods and gold. Settlements sprang up along its length that later grew into towns. The Santa Fe Railroad built tracks along the old road. Today, many of the towns that sit alongside the tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad have streets named Trail, Santa Fe Trail or Santa Fe. They weren’t named for the railroad company but for the old trail itself and they often sit right on top of original sections of the Santa Fe Trail.
Ford County was awarded five of the ninety-six markers to mark significant spots along the trail in the area. ‘Ford Gets Five’ was the headline for the front-page item in The Globe Republican dated April 18, 1907. Instrumental in the decisions made regarding placement of the monuments were Dodge City old timers, Robert Wright, A. J. Anthony, C. M. Beeson and Andy Johnson. According to the newspaper article the markers were originally placed on the southeast corner of the City Hall grounds, on the highest place on Point of Rocks eight miles west of town, one mile east of Fort Dodge, the county road between Ford and Spearville and the final one on the high hill two miles west of the Edwards-Ford County line.
Two of these markers have been moved to other sites to preserve them. The marker that once sat on the old City Hall grounds was at the intersection of Second Avenue and Trail Street and the City Hall stood approximately where Lopp Motors is today. The monument was removed when the streets were widened about 1970 and placed in Wright Park.
The red granite marker that sat high up on Point of Rocks, a prominent landmark along the Trail, was removed when the highway was widened destroying the site. That monument sits on the west side of Dodge City alongside a Kansas Historical Marker.
The remaining three are still in their original locations although the one west of the Edwards-Ford County line is on private property and not so easily located. The newspaper account of the sites gave a particularly interesting description of this location: “…Fort Larned can be seen in the distance, about thirty-five miles. In those days when the country was not so thickly settled, the mirage was not an uncommon occurrence and at these times the old fort could be plainly seen from the hill.”
The article went on to say that the stone “tablets” had arrived about two weeks previously and weighed 1200 to 2000 pounds each. Each was to have a two-foot concrete base and the following engraved inscription, “The Santa Fe Trail 1822 - 1872. Marked by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the State of Kansas, 1908.”
Although these markers dated the Trail 1822 to 1872 the Missouri merchant, William Becknell, made the first survey trip over what would become the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. The era of the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas ended when the Santa Fe Railroad completed its tracks across the state in 1872 but the remainder of the old trail continued in use on to its original location until 1879 when the railroad tracks finally reached Las Vegas, New Mexico. In February 1880 the last of the gap was closed as the railroad finally came to the end of the trail and newspapers in New Mexico proclaimed, “The Santa Fe Trail Passes Into Oblivion.”
How was the route of the Santa Fe Trail originally laid out? It and most other similar westward roads made use of earlier trails found by animals who naturally looked for routes that provided food, shelter and water and that went around natural barriers. Game animals such as deer and buffalo went in search of food, Native Americans followed the game and explorers and settlers followed them all. Today we will not necessarily find those sources of food, water and shelter that our ancestors marked along the trail. In Western Kansas for example the route closely followed the Arkansas River as an easy source of water, but now the river is dry. Large outcrops of stone and groves of trees have either been removed or have died natural deaths due to the passage of time and erosion.
For those who are interested, the markers are there, the stories can be found in books about the Trail and special tours reenacting the trips along the Trail are available. Furthermore, new stone post markers have been erected in recent years at noted points along the Santa Fe Trail. An exhibit showing the locations and explaining the significance of these markers can be found at the Edwards County Historical Museum in Kinsley. A weekend spent looking for the locations of these historic places makes a fun and exciting family adventure. One book on this topic that has maps and detailed descriptions of locations was written by Marc Simmons and titled, Following the Santa Fe Trail.