Council Grove, Kansas – Supplying the Santa Fe Trail


Council Grove, Kansas about 1885

Council Grove, Kansas about 1885

The county seat of Morris County and one of the most historic towns of Kansas, Council Grove is situated on the Neosho River in the eastern part of the county.

The place where Council Grove now stands was mentioned by travelers as early as 1820, and in 1825, a treaty was negotiated with the Osage Indians for a right-of-way for the Santa Fe Trail, a portion of which would later become the main street of Council Grove. The treaty between U.S. commissioners and the Osage Indian chiefs took place in “The Grove,” thereby providing the name of the place.

Long before a town ever developed, many who traveled along the Santa Fe Trail gathered their wagons together here, and moved westward in larger groups, as beyond the “Grove” the trail was often fraught with Indian attacks.

Council Grove, Kansas Post Office Oak

As early as 1825 and continuing for the next two decades, a large oak tree, dubbed “The Post Office Oak,” was utilized by passing caravans to leave messages for incoming travelers. These messages placed in a cache in the base of the tree, held various types of information, such as water, danger, or opportunities on the trail.

In the spring of 1846, the Kanza Indians signed a treaty with the government ceding their reservation land along the Kansas River near Topeka in exchange for a new but smaller reservation located along the upper valley of the Neosho River, in what is now Morris County. In April 1847, the 20 square mile Kanza reservation was established near Council Grove and the Indians were moved.

That same year, Seth M. Hays became the first settler in what would become the settlement of Council Grove. Here, he established a trading post for the purpose of trading with the Indians. He also built the first house – a log cabin on the north side of the old Santa Fe Trail near the west bank of the Neosho River. The cabin served as both a store and a dwelling, which housed Mr. Hays, his adopted daughter, and a freed slave.

In 1848 a man named Mitchell came to Council Grove as a government blacksmith, bringing with him his wife, who was the first white woman in Morris County.

The Kaw Mission still stands in Council Grove today, serving as a museum.

The Kaw Mission still stands in Council Grove today, serving as a museum.

In 1849, the Methodist Episcopal Church began to build the Kaw Mission at Council Grove. It opened in 1850 and Thomas S. Huffaker was its first teacher, a position he held until 1854 when the school was closed. The Kaw Mission would later become the first school for the settlers’ children.

For the next several years a number of other traders found their way to the area and many put up trading establishments along the Santa Fe Trail. The traders did well as for years, as Council Grove was the last point of trade on the trail until travelers reached New Mexico.

From 1849 to 1854 it was a very prosperous period for Council Grove, and the reputation it had acquired as a trading post made it a point well known, at least to all those making a trip across the plains. By 1854 the men doing business in Council Grove were Seth M. Hays, the Choteau brothers, Columbia brothers and Charles H. Withington; and these, with a few employees, and several men in the employ of the Government, constituted the entire settlement, not only of Council Grove but of Morris County.

In October 1854, Governor Andrew Reeder visited Council Grove, with a view to making it the territorial capital, but the land was at that time an Indian possession.

The first hotel in the town was built by M. Gilkey in 1856, on the south side of Main Street, directly opposite the log cabin built by Seth Hays in 1847. The next home was built by Baker and Sewell. The following year, Seth Hays also built the Hays House, which today, is the oldest continuously operating restaurant west of the Mississippi River. The Last Chance Store was built the same year.

In 1858, the Legislature approved the incorporation of the Town Company of Council Grove, with the following men as officers — T.S. Huffaker, Christopher Columbia, Seth Hays and Hiram Northrup. Soon the townsite was surveyed and a settlement “officially” began. The first newspaper, called the Kansas Press was established in 1859 by S.N. Wood.

Wagon Train

Wagon Train

Although from its earliest days, the area had considerable business, the growth of the town itself rather slow. Its business was derived chiefly, if not wholly, from the Indians and from wagon trains traveling over the Santa Fe Trail. In 1860, there were but two stores in town, one operated by Seth Hays and other by Malcolm Conn. At that time, the entire county had only about 770 residents. The terrible drought of 1860 left not only Morris County, but all of Kansas, wasted and desolate, and diminished the population of the county even further.

In 1861, S.N. Wood sold the Kansas Press to A. I. Baker, who changed the name of the newspaper from the to the Council Grove Press. However, Baker ran the paper for only about a month before he suspended publication. In the meantime, the Civil War had erupted and when Colonel S.N. Wood returned to Council Grove, he found that A.I. Baker had been killed by Missouri bushwhackers and he resumed publication of the newspaper. Wood continued to manage the paper until 1865 when he sold it. The following year, it moved to another county.

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