Fort Leavenworth-Fort Kearny Military Road

Stephen Watts Kearney

Stephen Watts Kearney

In 1848, Colonel Stephen W. Kearney laid out a trail from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to the junction of the Independence Road, and the St. Joe Road west of the Big Blue River. That same year, Fort Kearny, Nebraska was established and this trail became part of the Fort Leavenworth-Fort Kearny Military Road. As the principal U.S. Army base on the Missouri River, Fort Leavenworth was destined to supply a sizable percentage of the traffic headed westward. The road angled northwestward from the fort to a point called Eight Mile House, where the connecting road to Fort RileyKansas, and the Santa Fe Trail broke off.

Just a year later, surveyor and civil engineer, Captain Howard Stansbury was sent out to make an exploration and survey of the Great Salt Lake. In May, Captain Stansbury, along with 18 men, five wagons, and 46 horses and mules, left Fort Leavenworth along the same trail as Colonel Stephen W. Kearney. For some distance, the path followed the Oregon-California Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, by way of the Blue River. Stansbury described the trail as “already broad and well-beaten as any turnpike in our country.”

Near Maryville, the trail crossed the Big Blue River and joined the Oregon Trail, which then followed the Little Blue River as far as possible towards Fort Kearny, Nebraska.

In 1849-1850, Brigham Young led thousands of exiled Mormons across portions of the same trail. Two years later, the old military road was lined with emigrants and gold seekers. It finally became one of the most important stage and freight wagon roads in the country. On April 3, 1860, the Pony Express began to use parts of the old military road. It eventually became one road with many names — The St. Joe to California branch of the Oregon Trail, The Pony Express route, and the Overland Road to California.

©Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated June 2022.

Also See:

Frontier Trails of Kansas

Kansas History

Kansas – The Sunflower State

Santa Fe Trail