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by Leo E. Oliva

(Overland Despatch, I, April 2008, pp. 3-7)

[Leo E. Oliva, who served as historical consultant to the organizing committee, delivered this keynote address at the Hays conference on October 26, 2007.]

WELCOME to the beginning of a new trail association. Thank you for coming to this Organizational conference of the Smoky Hill Trail Association. I especially thank those who have undertaken the development of this conference and provided the leadership in getting it organized. Donna Malsom, president of the Collyer Community Alliance Association, has been the prime mover, assisted by many good folks along the historic route (including the Quinter Historical Society, Sam Chestnut president). Special thanks is also extended to the Kansas Humanities Council for helping fund this first conference. It is an honor for me to be involved with another KHC-funded program. They perform an outstanding service for Kansas, and we need to give them more recognition.

The Smoky Hill Trail was one of the most important overland trails across Kansas during pioneer days and probably the least known and commemorated today. It is a forgotten historic trail that we need to remember. There are large, active organizations promoting the Oregon-California Trails, Pony Express Trail, Santa Fe Trail, and others (most of which have been added to the National Trails System as National Historic Trails), but for some reason the Smoky Hill Trail has not received the attention it deserves. It is time to correct this shortcoming and bring the Smoky Hill Trail into the national limelight, organize an association to preserve, protect, and promote this important part of our local, state, regional, and national heritage, and make a determined effort to add this trail to the list of designated National Historic Trails (which, literally, requires and act of Congress). We have learned about “Remember the Alamo,” “Remember the Maine,” and others, and there is a movie “Remember the Titans.” Now is the time to REMEMBER THE SMOKY HILL TRAIL. We need to stir up more interest in the history of the Smoky Hill Route and we all need to be inspired to do more with it. I want to provide an overview of the Smoky Hill Trail, then focus a little on the significance of this route and note the need for continued research and sharing of information.

I am not an expert on the history of the Smoky Hill Trail, but I am a longtime student of this and other overland trails. Each person here knows something about the Smoky Hill Trail that I do not know (and that is why we need to have these annual conferences and develop a quarterly publication, to share this information and expand what is known). I want to provide an overview so we all have a starting point of information, the basics for further study. Each of our presenters at this conference will add to this information, laying the foundation for the association which will be organized on Saturday afternoon. Please look over the proposed bylaws and other information before that business meeting so you will be ready to discuss and vote (everyone who is registered for this conference is eligible to vote at this organizational meeting). When the organization is complete, everyone who becomes a member of the Smoky Hill Trail Association will continue to have voting rights and help shape the organization as it develops.

Many of us have an interest in a local place associated with the Smoky Hill Trail, a stage station, military post, scene of a military confrontation, a landmark, or a historic marker. This is important, but we also need a broad view to see how these places and events fit into the larger story of our rich regional and national heritage. The Smoky Hill Trail is an important part of the story of America’s westward expansion. It was one of the major transportation routes across the Great Plains. It was part of the economic development of the West, including the gold rush to present Colorado, freighting and stage business, military protection, Indian resistance, the Indian Wars, removal of the Indians, the railroad that followed the route and replaced it, the slaughter of the bison, and the settlement of western Kansas and eastern Colorado (farms, ranches, and towns). All of these, and others, help us place the Smoky Hill Trail into broader perspective, give it regional and national as well as local significance, and make our purposes in forming a new association more important. Remember the Smoky Hill Trail. Its story needs to be told, its remnants preserved and marked, tourists need to hear about it and come see what remains, and our schools need to include it in the study of state and national history. Remember the Smoky Hill Trail.

I'll begin with an overview of this historic trail that ran from the Missouri Valley to Denver, beginning in 1859 and ending with the arrival of the railroad in Denver in 1871. Each of the speakers at this conference will provide more information, giving us a better understanding of several aspects of the history and significance of this trail.

First, I recommend to you the book, Trails of the Smoky Hill by Wayne C. Lee and Howard C. Raynesford, where you will find the history of the trail, maps prepared by the late Howard Raynesford, and numerous illustrations. This book is the place to start any project on the Smoky Hill, and it will lead you to many other sources. I might add that there is a little information about the route in my books on Fort Harker, Fort Hays, and Fort Wallace. In my opinion, the weakness of Trails of the Smoky Hill is that it does not include extensive research in the military records. Much of the history of this trail is military history, the story of frontier military posts, Indian responses to the invasion of their territory, military expeditions and campaigns (including the ubiquitous Custer who has captured too many imaginations), and violent warfare. Also, the mapping and marking done by Howard Raynesford covers only the portion of Kansas from the Ellsworth area to the Colorado border. There have been some markers placed along the historic route in Colorado, but nothing as complete as what Raynesford did (marking where the trail crossed nearly every road with stone posts with a “BOD” mark). Another major task of the Smoky Hill Trail Association will be to map and mark the entire route(s) from the Missouri Valley to Denver. Mapping and marking are necessary to help local historical societies and other organizations to become more involved in preservation and protection as well as promotion of this historic trail. The Smoky Hill Trail, which became important in 1859 with the gold rush to the Rocky Mountains in western Kansas Territory (now Colorado), ran from Atchison on the Missouri River to the Kansas River Valley and then along the Smoky Hill River into Colorado, crossing several streams in that region to arrive at Denver. It was the shortest route between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountain mining camps, but it was not well marked nor safe from dangers.  Technically, the “Smoky Hill Trail” was used to designate the route from Junction City to Denver (when the Butterfield’s Overland Despatch began in 1865 it ran from Atchison to Denver, but the construction of the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, was completed to Junction City in 1866, and that became the new eastern terminal of the route, which was then truly a Smoky Hill Trail, and as the railroad built westward, the trail was shortened, and when the railroad reached Denver in 1871 the trail as a route of freight wagons, stagecoaches, including mail and passengers, came to an end–but portions of the old trail were used for local transportation and some emigrants continued to follow the route with their wagons and livestock). With a stretch of imagination, we could say the Smoky Hill Trail was incorporated into what became U.S. Highway 40 and, more recently, a good portion of I-70. This just proves that all the overland trails followed natural routes that continue to be used today. For our purposes, and the purposes of the proposed Smoky Hill Trail Association, the entire route and all its variations from the Missouri River to Denver, during the period from 1859-1871, constitute the Smoky Hill Trail. When we seek designation of the route as a National Historic Trail, we want to include everything that was ever considered part of this historic route.

The Smoky Hill River flows (when it has water) some 600 miles from its source in eastern Colorado to its junction with the Republican River at present Junction City, KS, to form the Kansas River, an important tributary of the Missouri River at Kansas City. One could reasonably argue that the river from Junction City to Kansas City should be known as the Smoky Hill (with the Republican as a major tributary), but it didn't happen that way. There is continued debate to the present among geographers as to whether the Missouri or the Mississippi River is the primary river, with many arguing that the Mississippi is a tributary of the Missouri and the river below that junction near St. Louis should be called the Missouri all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The arguments are interesting and thought-provoking, but it’s doubtful that we can bring about such changes (no matter how correct they might be).

A route along the Smoky Hill Valley was known and utilized by various Plains Indian tribes, who followed the water supply and found good hunting among the bison herds and other game that was abundant in the area. All the indigenous people, both prehistoric and historic, deserve more study, especially as they lived along this river and its tributaries, utilized this region for hunting, camping, winter quarters, sacred places, and a safe haven away from the other trails opened much earlier along the Arkansas and Platte valleys. The Smoky Hill River ran through what became favored hunting grounds of several tribes, all of whom resented the intrusions into their prime source of food, shelter, and clothing with the influx of gold seekers in 1859 and after. Indian resistance developed into widespread warfare in the next few years, leading to the defeat of the Plains tribes and placement of them on reservations. The major tribes involved in the region were the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Pawnee, Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache. I am sorry that Serle Chapman, Cheyenne historian who planned to be on our program, is unable to be here because of health problems.

The Smoky Hill River was explored by John C. Fremont in 1844, who was directed to find the headwaters of the Kansas River, and he wrote favorably about it, but the route was not considered of importance until the discovery of gold in the Rockies and thousands of people and the supplies they would need to survive in the mining camps were seeking the fastest route across the Plains. Business owners in several towns along the Missouri River hoped to find a route to Denver that was much shorter than following the Platte or Arkansas trails, and several attempts were made to open new trails (one of which followed the Smoky Hill and, in the end, became the most successful despite a troubled beginning). Two other competitors were the Parallel Road which ran some 20 miles south of the 40th parallel and the Leavenworth-Pikes Peak Express Stageline (started by William H. Russell and John Jones). The Parallel Road was poorly marked, had stretches without good water, and was resisted by Indians. The Leavenworth-Pikes Peak Express line followed along the Kansas and Republican rivers, established stage stations about every 25 miles, faced similar problems, and soon moved to the Platte route. The third, promoted by merchants at Atchison, followed the Kansas and Smoky Hill.

Merchants promoted the Smoky Hill Route, offering, of course, to be the outfitting point for travelers and supply trains going west. At least three guidebooks were published to encourage people to follow the Smoky Hill to the mines, but each was published without any investigation of the route. Those who attempted to follow any of these guidebooks soon discovered there was no trail, except on paper, and some became lost and a few nearly perished. In at least one party several men starved to death and there was some evidence of cannibalism. The so-called Smoky Hill Trail quickly fell into disgrace, and some people began to refer to it as the starvation trail. Clearly, the route needed to be explored and marked if it were to benefit travelers.
To this end, William Green Russell (one of the discoverers of gold in the Rocky Mountains and promoter of the new mining camps) led a survey team of 36 men from Leavenworth to Denver in early 1860 to prepare an accurate map and guide to the route. Russell’s party reported favorably on the availability of water and grass along the way and noted where wood was available. They noted that when firewood was not available travelers could rely on buffalo chips for fuel. Russell did warn that the greatest danger along this route was the presence of Indians who were not receptive to foreigners going through their hunting grounds and killing animals, camping near water holes, and disrupting their life patterns. Despite that warning about Indians, the boosters of the route in towns along the Missouri River called Russell’s report very favorable and made plans to lay out a road, identify good camp sites, and make necessary improvements at stream crossings. They wanted it to be an easy route of travel for wagon trains.

In June 1860 H. T. Green of Leavenworth led a survey party of 29 men over the route, locating good campgrounds and making a few improvements at stream crossings. Green then declared this to be the best and shortest route to the mining camps, being some 100 miles shorter than the Arkansas and Platte routes. He failed to mention the possibility of Indian resistance to those traveling along the Smoky Hill.

The Civil War interrupted plans for developing this road across the Plains, and little was done until the end of that tragic conflict in 1865, when again there was a major push westward by the people of the United States. In 1865 David A. Butterfield, a former Denver business man who resided in Atchison, Kansas, opened a freight and stagecoach business over the Smoky Hill Route. He requested more military protection. Military posts were established to help protect the route from Indians who objected to the invasion of their lands, including Fort Ellsworth which became Harker, 1864, and Forts Hays and Wallace in 1865.

In June 1865 Major General Grenville M. Dodge, commanding the Department of the Missouri at Fort Leavenworth, sent Second Lieutenant Julian R. Fitch of the U.S. Signal Corps to survey the Smoky Hill Trail. Fitch was the officer who accompanied Abraham Lincoln when he visited Kansas Territory in 1859. Fitch led a survey team and construction crew, headed by Isaac E. Eaton, Butterfield’s associate, over this route during June, July, and August, to locate and establish stage stations at intervals of approximately 12 miles west of Junction City. There were settlements between Atchison and Junction City. The survey and construction team was escorted by 250 soldiers.

The survey party saw no Indians, probably because of the troops accompanying them. Fitch noted the absence of Indians and declared, “the advantages of the Smoky Hill route over the Platte and Arkansas must be apparent to everybody.” It was shorter, had more water, timber, buffalo chips, and grass, did not have long stretches of sand to pass through as did the other routes, and had several good places to locate military posts. It was presumed that military protection would be necessary for successful stagecoach operations along the route.

Eaton, who had a stake in this operation, was also impressed with this trail and declared that “the roadbed itself is the best natural one I have ever seen, and I fail to do the Smoky Hill route justice when I say it is 100 per cent superior to either the Platte or Arkansas routes in every respect.” By September 1865 Butterfield’s Overland Despatch (BOD) began operations. There were many stage stations and some 250 mules were distributed along the route to make possible daily stage operations both directions. (See list of stage stations at end of article.)

Stations were still under construction when the first stagecoach left Atchison on September 11, 1865, with Butterfield as a passenger. It arrived in Denver on September 23. Coaches soon left Atchison and Denver each day for the trip. The one-way fare was $175 per person; it included no meals, which had to be purchased along the way, and baggage was limited to 40 pounds. Almost immediately the BOD was beset by Indian opposition. The military posts were quickly involved in efforts to protect travel on the Smoky Hill Trail. A vivid account of travel over this route in the autumn of 1865, including Indian resistance, was provided by Theodore R. Davis, later printed in Harper’s Monthly in 1867. His article should be reprinted in the Smoky Hill Trail Association’s quarterly, Overland Despatch.

Butterfield also operated a freighting business over the trail, which was more important economically than his stage and mail service. The first train sent over this route left Atchison on June 4, 1865, with 150,000 pounds of freight for Denver. On July 15 another train took 17 large steam boilers and 600,000 pounds of supplies. Steamboats on the Missouri River brought freight to Atchison, and the railroad to St. Joseph brought freight that was then transported across the river. On one day in July 1865, 19 carloads of freight arrived, consigned to BOD. In addition there were other freighting companies, military contract freighters, and individuals traveling the Smoky Hill route. Indian resistance mounted quickly to protect and defend their last stronghold on the Central Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado Territory.

Despite the increased presence of the army, the Indians were often effective in attacks on the BOD and other travelers through their lands. There were too few troops and the distances between military posts were too great to protect the BOD. Losses of livestock, equipment, and employees to Indian raiders forced the BOD to consider abandoning the route. In addition, the railroad was building along the same route and would eventually make the BOD obsolete. The BOD was also losing money, so Butterfield sold out to major competitor Ben Holladay, who operated along the Platte River Road, in 1866. Holladay did not abandon the Smoky Hill Trail but ran stage service from the end of track of the railroad to Denver until, plagued by heavy losses to Indians as was his predecessor, he sold his entire operation to Wells Fargo and Company in November 1866. Wells Fargo sold the Smoky Hill operation on February 1, 1867, to the United States Express Company. This company faced the same problems as its predecessors but kept the line in operation for a while. The railroad was receiving more military aid than the stage lines. During that same period the Indian resistance was broken.

We will hear more about the military and Indians in other sessions at this conference. The most important thing that happened was that the first railroad to build across Kansas, the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, later known as the Kansas Pacific, following the route of the Smoky Hill from Junction City westward, eventually replacing the Smoky Hill Trail all the way to Denver in 1870. David Clapsaddle will tell us how this railroad shortened the older Santa Fe Trail, giving us yet another perspective on the importance of the Smoky Hill Route. But during the last half of the decade of the 1860s, the Smoky Hill Trail was one of the most important overland trails across the Plains, and it deserves our attention as part of our rich heritage. So let’s Remember the Smoky Hill Trail.

Why is the Smoky Hill Trail significant?

I hope this is becoming clear but let me recap and summarize (more than local, also regional and national):

1. Major transportation route across the Great Plains (one of several major trails)
2. Gold rush (people and supplies, transportation)
3. BOD and its successors (wonderful stagecoach history here)
4. Indian resistance and Indian wars (removal of Plains tribes)

We will hear more about this tomorrow, but I would like to mention a few things now.

The Smoky Hill Trail suffered more Indian attacks on travelers and stage stations than any other route across the Plains. Likewise, the tribes involved faced more retaliation along the Smoky Hill than on other routes across the Central Plains. Conflicts between Plains Indians and Euro-Americans increased during the years of the Civil War. Innocent people died on both sides. More violence followed. New efforts were made to remove Indians from the overland routes, and the Plains tribes were struggling to survive. Retaliation against the Indians took many forms, including the Sand Creek Massacre in November 1864 and the creation of new military posts along the overland trails. There were efforts made to negotiate removal, and the Treaties of the Little Arkansas were signed in October 1865. There was still some raiding, but 1866 was fairly quiet compared to years before and after. The worst year for raids along the Smoky Hill Trail was 1867.

The ill-conceived Hancock Expedition (led by General Winfield Scott Hancock and including Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer) created a renewal of warfare in western Kansas, following the burning of a large Cheyenne and Sioux village on Pawnee Fork west of Fort Larned. Indian raids followed, known as Hancock's War. A brief summary is provided here. On May 1, 1867, Indians burned Goose Creek Station. They tried to burn Chalk Bluff Station on May 9 but were driven away. Two days later they tried to burn Pond Creek Station and were again driven off. On May 12 Indians stole the livestock at Willow Creek Station. On May 17 they raided Monument Station. During the night of May 26 Indians stole the livestock at Pond Creek. The attacks on the stations along the route continued on through June and July. Raids were made at Smoky
Hill Springs on at least three occasions, Russell Springs (Eaton) was attacked four times, Henshaw Station was hit three times, and Pond Creek was attacked three times. Goose Creek was raided twice, and Blue Mound was raided several times. The raids also included stations in Colorado. Sometimes stage coaches and wagon trains were raided. Escorts had to be provided for stagecoaches. The construction crews of the Union Pacific, Eastern Division, were constantly harassed by raiders. On August 1, 1867, six men of a seven-man railroad work gang were killed east of Fort Hays, and Indians raided Big Creek Station. Additional troops were posted at Forts Hays and Wallace, and there were several serious battles fought near Fort Wallace, including a 3-hour battle on June 26. Hancock’s War was disastrous for both sides.

Custer abandoned his command at Fort Wallace and fled over the Smoky Hill Trail to Fort Riley in July 1867 to find his wife. He was arrested, tried by court-martial, and relieved from duty without pay for one year.

In October 1867 the Medicine Lodge treaties were signed with the Plains tribes, and many of them agreed to go to reservations in present Oklahoma. Some tribal factions, however, refused to go. Thus the Indian War of 1868, also hotly contested on the Smoky Hill Route.

The intense raids of 1868 led General Philip Sheridan to try two new tactics: George Forsyth’s Scouts and the Winter Campaign which led to the Battle of Beecher’s Island in September 1868 and the Winter Campaign (including the attack on Black Kettle’s village on the Washita), 1868-1869. Still the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers fought on, raiding again in 869, but Tall Bull and others were killed at Summit Springs in Colorado in July 1869, bringing an end to the type of warfare that had plagued the route. There were periodic conflicts thereafter, as Indians fled from the reservation, but by the time the railroad replaced the Smoky Hill Trail in 1870, the major Indian resistance and the power of the tribes in the Central Plains had been broken.

5. Military posts and campaigns
6. Railroad that built along the route (first railroad across Kansas), connection with Santa Fe Trail, which is already a National Historic Trail (a connection we need to emphasize)
7. Economic development of region
8. Development of the American West

Why should we organize a trail association?

1. Remember the Smoky Hill Trail (bring recognition it deserves)
2. Encourage research and writing about this route 
3. Preservation and protection of trail remnants and sites
4. Host annual conferences to bring interested people together to study and learn
5. Work with local, regional, and state historical societies to tell the Smoky Hill story (coordinate)
6. Promote tourism along the historic trail 
7. Promote education about the trail in our schools
8. Seek designation as a National Historic Trail

Why seek designation as a National Historic Trail?

1. National Trails System
2. National recognition (very important)
3. National Park Service (survey, reports, plans, maps, support)
4. Preservation (identify sites, certification, assistance)
5. Promotion (brochures, auto tour route, marking remnants and sites)
6. Funds for trail associations (which we will be)
7. Join the Partnership for National Trails System

Put these all together, and we help fulfill our watchword: Remember the Smoky Hill Trail.  As we study and learn about the Smoky Hill Trail, there are research areas that everyone can join (history is easily self-taught, and we are all historians):

Research areas:

Indians and the Smoky Hill Trail
Exploring the Smoky Hill Route
The BOD and its successor stage lines (including stage stations)
Soldiers on the Smoky Hill Trail
Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division
Important sources that need more investigation:
Newspapers: Junction City Union, Denver Rocky Mountain News, and others.
Military records
Travelers accounts
Business records
Indian sources

I’ll close with this admonition: Remember the Smoky Hill Trail. Make this your watchword. Greet your friends with “Remember the Smoky Hill Trail.” Tell the waiter or waitress at the restaurant, tell your postman, tell the next telemarketer who calls, tell everyone who should know, “Remember the Smoky Hill Trail.” Tell your children and grandchildren, print it on a baseball cap, emblazon it on a T-shirt, put it on a refrigerator magnet, print it on a bumper sticker, and sign all your correspondence (e-mail and snail mail) with “Remember the Smoky Hill Trail.” We are gathered here for this purpose, so may the presentations you hear, the places you see, and the association we organize at this conference help us all to Remember the Smoky Hill Trail.

(From Mrs. Frank C. Montgomery, “Fort Wallace and Its Relation to the Frontier,” Kansas Historical Collections, 17 [1928]: 196.)

Because the state was settled from Atchison to Fort Riley, no stations were listed for that portion of the route. Fort Riley was 116 miles from Atchison. * Indicates a home station where meals were available

Fort Riley 116
*Junction City 3
Chapman’s Creek 12
*Abilene 12
Solomon River 10
*Salina 13
Spring Creek 15
*Ellsworth 14
Buffalo Creek 12
*Hick’s Station 15
Fossil Creek 15
Forsythe’s Creek 11
*Big Creek 11
Louisa Springs 12
Bluffton 14
*Downer 13
Castle Rock Creek 9
Grannell Spring 11
Chalk Bluffs 12
*Monument 13
Smoky Hill Spring 11
*Eaton 12
Henshaw Creek 13
*Pond Creek 11
Willow Creek 14
Blue Mound 9
*Cheyenne Wells 12
*Dubois 24
Grady's 11
*Cornell Creek 13
Coon Creek 12
Hogan 11
Hedinger's Lake 9
Big Bend of Sandy 13
*Reed’s Springs 12
Bijou Creek 12
Kiowa Creek 9
* Ruthton 9
Cherry Valley 16
*Denver 14


Later, when Indians were burning stations, several adjustments were made. Forsythe’s Creek was
abandoned and a station was located at the Forks of Big Creek (Fort Fletcher, later Fort Hays). Lookout Station was established west of Big Creek, and Louisa Springs was abandoned in favor of Stormy Hollow several miles farther west. Bluffton gave way to White Rock, three miles west. Willow Creek was abandoned and a new station was opened at Goose Creek, approximately ten miles west of Pond Creek.