Santa Fe Trail Bicentennial

This September is the 200th anniversary of the first organized wagon train down the Santa Fe Trail. The route between Independence, Missouri (and later Westport, Missouri) to Santa Fe, México (New Mexico, today) was a vital economic generator and captured the American imagination then as now. Between 1821 and the 1880s, several other trails—besides the Santa Fe, the Oregon and California Trails—all crisscrossed the county and led many thousands of people to what is now the wider American West. Johnson County’s proximity to the Missouri “jumping off” points meant this rich history played out across its landscape for more than a half century.

This 1874 Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas shows a rough approximation of the old Santa Fe Trail route across the county.
This 1874 Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas shows a rough approximation of the old Santa Fe Trail route across the county. JoCoHistory.

Forging the Westward Trails

Becknell’s expedition in 1821 was certainly not the first group to traverse the ground from the edge of the United States to the edge of México. But what started with a small party leaving Franklin, Missouri late in the summer season rapidly turned into a deluge of people, livestock, trade goods, and coins moving across the state of Kansas. México, newly independent from Spain, had its boundaries near Dodge City, Kansas and westward along the Arkansas River. Santa Fe was located on a major north-south trade route within México (called the Camino Real, or royal road), and the Santa Fe Trail would deeply connect the American economy to that of México for decades. Merchants and traders from the United States drove west into México and their Mexican counterparts drove east to the U.S.

Johnson County was the natural location for the first night on the trail for those who left from Westport. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of travelers crossed its landscape over the dozens of official trails, unofficial trails, cutoffs, and re-routes. With camp names like Lone Elm, Sapling Grove, and Elm Grove, the landscape of wooded creeks and short-grass prairie was a relatively easy entrance to the tougher western landscape. Throughout the pre-Kansas Territory era, seven years as a Territory, the American Civil War, and the prosperous decade that followed, the Santa Fe Trail (and after the 1840s, the California and Oregon Trails) brought economic prosperity to Independence, Westport, and eventually early Kansas City, Missouri. Traders and farmers in Johnson County also prospered from the trails, especially those who rented out grazing lands to the oxen who pulled the wagon trains. But by the 1870s, railroads had largely replaced the westward trails, connecting far-flung places in less time than wagons on rutted roads.

Courtesy of the Kansas City Star, an article from April 1905 announcing DAR’s efforts to commemorate the Santa Fe Trail across Kansas.
Courtesy of the Kansas City Star, an article from April 1905 announcing DAR’s efforts to commemorate the Santa Fe Trail across Kansas.

Commemorating the Journey

In 1902, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) sought to commemorate the incredible bravery, tenacity, and entrepreneurial spirit of those Americans and immigrants who drove west. The Kansas DAR chapter raised enough money for 86 red granite markers to place strategically to identify locations of importance on the Santa Fe Trail across the state. Chapters in Missouri, Colorado, and New Mexico followed suit and marked the trail in their own states, and local chapters of Old Settlers groups often aided in the fundraising or placed their own markers.

This Santa Fe Trail marker on the grounds of the 1893 Johnson County Courthouse was placed by the Old Settler’s group. It was common for local organizations to fundraise and place markers in conjunction with DAR’s efforts.
This Santa Fe Trail marker on the grounds of the 1893 Johnson County Courthouse was placed by the Old Settler’s group. It was common for local organizations to fundraise and place markers in conjunction with DAR’s efforts. JoCoHistory.

DAR placed five markers across Johnson County in 1906. One was located in Overland Park. Another “one and a quarter miles south” of Lenexa. A third was placed on the courthouse grounds in Olathe. A fourth was installed at the Sunflower School, located mid-way between Olathe and Gardner. The last was placed at Lanesfield School, two and a half miles northeast of Edgerton. Over the years, additional markers from various groups have been placed at locations across the county (including two more by DAR: one at Mahaffie Farmstead & Stagecoach Stop and another at Lone Elm campground), and more recently, brown roadside signs help alert motorists to the history with which they are intersecting.

Trail History in Johnson County: Lanesfield Historic Site

The marker erected in 1906 still stands near the Lanesfield Visitor’s Center today. Lanesfield was a short-lived abolitionist town not far from Edgerton and Gardner. Although the town dissolved (literally, moved brick by brick) after the railroad bypassed it in the 1870s, the school remained and its early students recalled seeing wagons rolling west across the nearby landscape.

The 1906 DAR Santa Fe Trail marker at the Lanesfield Historic Site today.
The 1906 DAR Santa Fe Trail marker at the Lanesfield Historic Site today.

If you visit Lanesfield, you can read more about the history of the trails, the school, and the old town on interpretive markers located throughout the site. Nearby, Gardner Junction Park provides information about the point at which the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon and California Trails diverged. The Gardner Museum also relates the early history of the area and the town’s connection to the trail economy. For more information about the DAR Trail markers, see: https://santafetrailcenter.org/dar-markers/

Lanesfield Historic Site is open without charge every second Saturday through the fall. Visit Saturday, September 11 and October 9 between 10am and 4pm. The annual Lanesfield Fall Open House is scheduled for Saturday, October 30 from 11am – 4pm. In connection with the Santa Fe Trail Bicentennial, the Johnson County Museum will offer a program by Dr. Gene Chavez titled “Latinos on the Santa Fe Trail” on October 7 at 6:00pm. To register: https://anc.apm.activecommunities.com/jcprd/activity/search/detail/8756?onlineSiteId=0&from_original_cui=true&locale=en-US

For more information about Johnson County’s Santa Fe Trail history, check out the resources on the JoCoHistory website: https://jocohistory.org/digital/search/searchterm/Santa%20Fe%20Trail

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