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Learning about life on 200-year-old Santa Fe Trail

Staff writer

Life on the Santa Fe Trail, the historic route that crosses Marion County and this year is celebrating its 200th anniversary, was anything but simple. Diaries kept by travelers on the trail in the mid 1800s offer a stark picture of pioneer life.

Susan Magoffin, an 18-year-old bride, reportedly was the first white woman to cross the trail. Her trip started at Independence in 1847, with a rendezvous at Council Grove, which Magoffin described as the dividing range between the civilized and the barbarous.

“Now we may look out for hostile Indians,” she wrote.

She recorded experiences in present-day Marion County. It was rainy as her wagon train left Diamond Spring, northeast of present-day Burdick in Morris County, and the rain continued all the way to the Cottonwood Crossing in present-day Marion County. This caused numerous delays as wheels got stuck in mud.

Magoffin spent the day at the Lost Spring site, 2.5 miles west of present-day Lost Springs, shut up in a carriage with a buffalo robe rolled around her and rain pouring down.

“I have taken refuge from the rain, which from the time we went to bed last night till this time, 3 p.m., has continued to fall,” she wrote.

The wagons left the next morning with the intent of reaching Cottonwood Crossing before night and without stopping for dinner. But muddy roads impeded progress.

“Our speed averaged not more than one mile per hour,” she wrote. “At 3 p.m., after a travel of six or seven miles, we stopped to noon it on the open prairie without wood, save a little that was saved of our scant supply at the Lost Spring.”

Later on, they passed a wagon train with one wagon stuck in a mud hole, with the wagon’s tongue twisted off, and two others so disabled that they could not be moved.

“Seeing all this made our wagoners ambitious to get on, so they set to work in right good earnest, and after the usual quantity of swearing, whooping, and cracking of whip, they succeeded in passing their wagons,” Magoffin wrote.

They drove to the top of a long hill and camped there with no wood or water. They spent the night with no food and in wet clothes.

The rain started again, so they got going early and arrived at Cottonwood Crossing, near present-day Durham, to eat breakfast. Magoffin described the camp site.

“The camp ground is on a slight rise, and some three or four hundred yards down is a steep bank covered with cottonwoods. Just below rolls a placid little stream resembling the Council Grove. Just at the water’s edge are quantities of gooseberries and raspberry bushes.”

She said they crossed the creek without difficulty and continued down the trail into present-day McPherson County.

Magoffin was pregnant and lost her baby along the way after being thrown from a horse.

Her husband sent her to relatives in San Antonio to recover.

The spring 2021 issue of “Kansas History” magazine published letters sent to his wife by Simon Bolivar Buckner while traveling the Santa Fe Trail in late October and early November, 1851. He was on his way to take a position as post commander at Fort Atkinson, west of present-day Dodge City.

Buckner started out from Fort Leavenworth and hit the Santa Fe Trail somewhere east of Council Grove.

“Council Grove deserves the last half of its name,” he wrote. “It is a grove extending a width of two or three hundred yards along the Neosho for some miles, and for that reason is a favorite stopping place.”

The train did not camp in Marion County, but Buckner described camping spots they stopped at along the way.

At Diamond Spring in Morris County, he found “a spring of delicious water bubbling up from the ground at the base of a very low bluff of the prairie.”

The countryside was becoming more of a plain.

At the Lost Spring, the travelers found a moist creek bed. By digging a hole, they found a good spring. Nine miles farther, the train crossed Mud Creek, “a truly appropriate name,” according to Buckner. Cottonwood Crossing was nine miles farther.

“A small grove of large cottonwood trees is found here, it being almost the only wood on today’s march,” he wrote.

He recorded a little water found in holes another six miles down the trail, the last stop before leaving the county.

“The country today has assumed more than ever the characteristic of the plains,” he wrote. “The undulations are long and gentle, affording occasionally very extensive views over a nearly level country.

“The distance traveled today has been about 40 miles. During the day, I passed several broken down cattle, left behind by the trains which have been met, to meet whatever fate may await them. The numerous skeletons of animals which line the road reveal but too clearly what that fate must be when the cold breath of winter sweeps across the naked plains.”

Steve Schmidt, president of the Cottonwood Crossing chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association, owns land over which the Santa Fe Trail crossed.

French Frank’s Ranch and the aforementioned water holes were located there.

Schmidt plans to take visitors on guided walking tours at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. July 24.

His property can be reached by traveling down Chisholm Trail Rd. to 240th Rd. and 0.1 of a mile west. Visitors will enter at green gates and follow a lane north past containers.

Last modified June 30, 2021

 

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