By Diane Euston
The Santa Fe Trail is at the very heart of my journey as a historian and writer. As a young child, I didn’t know the significance of a Trail – it was just the name of a street just north of my childhood home.
My amazing parents, Helen and Larry, built their simple ranch home in a subdivision dubbed “New Santa Fe” in 1974. This two-street subdivision with a cul-de-sac was pretty far south back in those days. Just to the north, Verona Hills was being slowly developed by J.C. Nichols, two-lane roads with no stoplights surrounded them, State Line was a two-lane highway and Leawood Drive-In was the biggest landmark within miles.
My playground as a child was the historic New Santa Fe Cemetery just up the street. The few people left old enough to remember the now-defunct town of New Santa Fe would tell me that it was once a stop on the Santa Fe Trail with wagon trains that passed by every single day.
What really captured my attention was what occurred one Saturday afternoon in the 1980s. I can vividly remember hearing the clacking of the horseshoes on the cement and my mother yelling, “Diane! It’s time!”
We scurried up the hill to Santa Fe Trail – the heart of Verona Hills subdivision – to watch a reenactment of a wagon train barrel up the street to the west. The horses, the oxen and the covered wagons brushed past me with an enormous clamor that surprised me. The people in the wagon train pushed forward with whips in hand, encouraging the animals to keep the course on the once well-traveled Trail that now served station wagons and compact cars.
This changed my life. I was fascinated by this old-fashioned scene, and I wanted to know more about the people who walked this land before us. At the heart of this voyage was a pioneer road which carved itself across Jackson County and into the wild west. The Santa Fe Trail was the catalyst to pioneers who stayed here, and its course through towns such as Independence, Westport and New Santa Fe (where I grew up) started well before settlement even began.
The Origin of the Trail
200 years ago, Mexico gained independence from Spain. Prior, Mexico had to buy goods at inflated prices, so their independence opened up trade between Mexico and the United States.
Just north of the Missouri River near current-day Boonville was the town of Franklin on the north bank of the Missouri River. In 1821, William Becknell (c. 1787-1865) took a risk when he organized a mule pack train outfitted with goods to travel all the way to Santa Fe. With four others, Becknell left Franklin in September. It was the first successful trade made with Mexico, and Becknell made a hefty profit.
A year later, Becknell and a group of men repeated the journey. They crossed the Missouri River at Arrow Rock and followed the river on high ground to current-day Lexington before entering Jackson Co. on the far northeast corner. The trail snaked its way southeast through Jackson Co. and entered current-day Leawood, Ks. at 122nd and State Line- the future site of the town of New Santa Fe.
Trade on this route was important for commerce, and with the help of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, Congress passed an act to survey the road from Fort Osage to Santa Fe in 1825. The government hired Maj. George Sibley to be in charge of the expedition. Treaties with Native American tribes ensured that travelers on the Trail would be safe.
In 1827, just one year after Jackson County was founded, Independence, Mo. became the county seat. Within a short amount of time, this town became the hub of the Santa Fe trade.
Founding of Independence
Independence was founded to conduct fur trade on the Missouri River. However, wagon trains passing by from Franklin opened up a new opportunity for the fledgling town.
The journey to Santa Fe took about six months round trip. Gradually the starting point shifted from Franklin to Independence. Travelers could cut down the trip by 100 miles by taking steamboats on the Missouri River, thus avoiding unimproved roads from Franklin.
At first, steamboats would dock at Fort Osage, but by 1834, Blue Mills Landing six miles north of Independence was the preferred jumping off point. There, a group of merchants and traders from Independence opened a gristmill and sawmill. In later years, they also used Wayne City Landing (also referred to as Independence Landing) just northeast of current-day Fairmount Park.
The primary outfitting occurred in Independence where wagons would leave in the Spring when ice had broken up and the steamboats could make it to Blue Mills Landing. Through the 1830s and 1840s, Independence was a thriving community where pioneers stocked their wagons before heading out west and used the land surrounding the town for animals to graze.
The primary Trail route ran southwest through current-day Raytown before hitting one of the biggest obstacles on the route: the Blue River. The Old Blue Ford near current-day Minor Park where the Red Bridge is today was the best option, and thousands of wagon trains took this route. This segment of trail predates Kansas City, Westport and other roads and acted as the exclusive route on the Santa Fe Trail.
Another road, although not originally used for the Santa Fe trade, was constructed from Independence to the current-day site of Westport in 1827 and was used to reach the reservations in Kansas Territory and lead fur trappers out west.
Westport Landing and Westport
John McCoy acquired some land in 1832 on the intersection of the fur trading route to the mountains that extended to Independence 18 miles to the northeast. He named this settlement “West Port” and established a trading post.
At the time, goods for his store had to be retrieved from the Blue Mills Landing, and it would take three days round trip. He spotted a natural rock landing near Chouteau’s trading post in current-day downtown Kansas City. McCoy took a gamble and asked the steamer named John Hancock to dock there to unload his goods. He had to cut a trail out of the dense woods to reach this spot, but it was well worth the effort.
This rock ledge became known as Westport Landing and was only four miles to his platted town.
By 1834, trade in Westport grew with the arrival of Native Americans. The government annually paid in silver, and these annuities along with the furs and pelts traded made up the bulk of the business in Westport. That year, a main road was built from Chouteau’s trading post to Westport that then led south, connecting to the Santa Fe Trail at the site of New Santa Fe (122nd and State Line). This road, now known as Wornall, is the longest stretch of the Santa Fe Trail remaining in Kansas City.
These roads had various routes. When taking the Santa Fe Trail south through Westport down current-day Wornall Rd., travelers could veer off into Indian Territory at approximately 43rd and State Line and past the Shawnee Indian Mission two miles away (opened in 1839). This road wasn’t improved, but it did connect to the main route of the Santa Fe Trail near present-day Gardner, Ks.
Westport Wins Against Independence
By the early 1840s, Santa Fe freighters continued to use the original route that started at Blue Mills Landng and traveled 18 miles to New Santa Fe. But farms had taken over the land around it. Fences cut the Trail into segments. Freighters used Westport in the winter as their home, because surrounding prairies, which were perfect for animals, were not hindered by fencing. William R. Bernard (1823-1906), a successful trader at Westport, wrote, “The prairies south of the town and beyond the present Wornall (61st and Wornall) and Ward farms (55th and Ward Parkway) were covered in tents and wagons, and appeared like the camp of a great army.”
In 1844, a major flood changed the trajectory of the Santa Fe Trail. This, along with the Mexican-American War, was a blessing in disguise for McCoy and others who took a gamble in Westport. A sandbar from the floods inconveniently blocked steamboats from docking at Blue Mills, so travelers had to look for an alternate route.
Bent and St. Vrain, traders based out of Westport, landed goods at Westport Landng (the foot of where Grand Ave. is today) and are said to be “the first cargo of goods that ever went from this point in a train to Santa Fe. Others followed their example.” Their goods from Westport Landing took 63 wagons drawn by six yokes of oxen. Each freight wagon was said to weigh 6,000 pounds.
Westport Landing and the town of Westport four miles south became the preferred route of the Santa Fe Trail. One historian wrote, “Its close proximity to the unoccupied lands of the Shawnee Indians, where Mexican caravans could feed, made Westport the scene of an active trade with the towns of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Santa Fe, bringing wealth and business to its inhabitants.”
In 1846, the levee near the steamboat landing in between Main St. and Grand Ave. saw various businesses and outfitting posts built. William R. Bernard, one of the most successful merchants, arrived in 1848 and opened a business in Westport and a warehouse on the riverfront with A.G. Boone. He wrote, “Westport was a market for the whole country, and droves of horses, mules, and oxen were brought there from every part of the state and from many states for sale, and were disposed of. This entire outfitting business was cash trade, and money was plentiful.”
The town sprouted out of nowhere while its host at the riverfront showed much promise as a town of its own. In 1849, the California Gold Rush greatly benefitted the fledgling settlement as wagon trains branched off in Kansas Territory from a common trail – the Santa Fe Trail – in Jackson Co. It is said that 40,000 wagons crossed the plains and half of them passed through Westport. By 1850, Westport was rivaling Independence as the chief outfitting location. Three years later, Westport overtook the Santa Fe trade with the firm Kearney and Bernard outfitting 600 wagons. By 1855, they had outfitted 1,217 wagons that year.
New Santa Fe
As early as 1821, major trail routes all intersected at New Santa Fe. Today’s Wornall Rd. from Westport ended at the town, and the route from Independence via-Blue River.
Stories written indicate that the first log cabin, serving as a tavern, was built in what would become New Santa Fe in 1833. This location was originally called Blue Camp 20 because it was 20 miles from Independence and near the Blue River. It, like later rendezvous points on the trail, became a popular campground for wagon trains that left Independence. Hildreth Spring, just opposite New Santa Fe in current-day Leawood, Ks. offered easy access to water.
Incorporated in 1851, New Santa Fe was the last stop for pioneers heading west and stood on the western boundary of the United States. Founder of New Santa Fe, Dabney Lipscomb, settled on his farm (now Verona Hills subdivision) in the 1840s.
The town at its height boasted a blacksmith shop, a stonecutter, a mercantile business, an outfitting store, a hotel, a carriage maker, a school, a doctor and a dentist. It was said that by 1860, the population of the town was over 500.
As farms began to overtake the land surrounding the Trail, the route changed drastically. Farmers didn’t want their crops trampled by wagon trains, so they erected fences and changed the Santa Fe Trail’s diagonal path. Evidence of this can be seen as today’s Santa Fe Trail winds from Holmes Rd. near St. Thomas More and around Avila University. This zig-zag pattern wasn’t original to the trail but was altered when land was sold. That interesting path has remained unchanged since at least the 1860s.
Tracking the Trails Today
Without the three trails heading west, it is unlikely that Kansas City would have developed as rapidly as it did. In 1830, the future site of the city was, according to founder McCoy, “clothed with a dense primeval forest – the still, quiet solitude interrupted only by the barking squirrel, the howl of the wolf, the distant baying of the hunter’s dog, or the sharp report of his unerring rifle.” Inspired by the Santa Fe Trail, the pioneers cleared the land and created possibilities that took great imagination and endless determination.
In 1846, the population of Kansas City was only 700. By 1860, the town had grown to over 4,000.
Although it remains difficult to trace much of the Santa Fe Trail today, carefully placed brown signs along our city’s roads mark this Trail of commerce. I haven’t been lucky enough to see another wagon train reenactment following the old route of the Santa Fe Trail since I was a little girl, but if I close my eyes and just imagine what once was, I can still hear the excitement and the clanking hooves as they climbed the hill up and into the great unknown.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.