Traces of Santa Fe Trail still exist 8-07

– It was once a county covered in ruts.

Today, however, few traces of the wagon train days remain, tilled over by farm implements, as well as destroyed by cities, roadways and other acts of modern civilization.

But while the wagons and horses have long been silenced, memories of the Santa Fe Trail live on, and several spots across Pawnee and surrounding counties tell a tale of westward expansion.

Lone graves, historical markers and an out-of-commission fort are a few of the points of interest for trail buffs and others wanting to learn a little about Kansas’ past.

“This area, it’s just rich in Santa Fe Trail lore, more than any other place that I know of on the trail,” said David Clapsaddle, a local historian and president of the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail.

The Santa Fe Trail opened for commerce in 1821 when William Becknell traded his pack train of merchandise with Santa Fe residents.

For 60 years, it was a thread in a web of international trade routes.

Wagon trains tore through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Today, however, it is traveled by planes, horses, bicyclists and hikers, said Becca Hiller, curator at Larned’s Santa Fe Trail Center.

“We get a lot of Santa Fe Trail enthusiasts,” she said. “It captures people.”

And there is plenty to see, despite that remains are fading with time. A number of ruts still remain, now just gentle swells covered by grass, Clapsaddle said. “Many you can see from the roadside,” he said.

Other points, from Fort Larned to creek crossings, also show the trail’s history. For instance, Pawnee Rock, just north in Barton County, was a trail landmark.

It stood much taller before settlers and the railroad quarried it for building purposes, Clapsaddle said.

Now a state historic site, the area includes a memorial plaque to Becknell, and a marker honoring the memory of Nehemiah Carson, who died of illness along the trail at this site in 1846.

According to personnel accounts, soldiers wrapped Carson in a blanket and placed him in an excavated hollow at Pawnee Rock.

Clapsaddle’s Santa Fe Trail chapter, as well as the Daughters of the American Revolution, have marked several sites across the region where the trail crossed, where campsites were located, as well as creek crossings.

But while parts of the trail have been farmed and developed, sites like Fort Larned still stand.

With several restored buildings, it survives as one of the best examples of an Indian-era fort along the trail, said Roy Hargadine, a park ranger at the national historic site. “It’s the best preserved frontier fort in the western United States,” he said.

Most of the buildings, including the barracks, commissary and officers quarters are furnished to their original appearance. Other buildings are being restored as well, he said. The fort was used between 1859 and 1879 as an infantry fort.

Soldiers would walk alongside the wagon trains to protect them from attacks.

While attendance has waned in recent years, Hargadine said there are still many folks interested in trail history.

“It’s amazing how many people take vacations to see this,” he said.

The trail closed with the arrival of the railroad, Clapsaddle said. Yet while freight wagons no longer cross the prairie, the trail’s legacy lives on.

“Standing up to your knee in wagon ruts, the power of the place is very pronounced,” Clapsaddle said. “There is a sense of history you don’t get sitting down with the best book in the world. But then, without the best book of the world, it could be any other place in the pasture.”