History of the Frontier Trails of Kansas


Army Train on the Santa Fe Trail

Army Train on the Santa Fe Trail

From the time the Kansas Legislature made provisions for “highways,” the state has had quite an elaborate system of roads, most of which ran along section lines.

Prior to the organization of the Kansas Territory, there were a few well-traveled roads, notably the Santa Fe, Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. By order of Colonel Zachary Taylor, in 1837, a commission consisting of Colonel Stephen W. Kearney and Captain Nathan Boone was appointed for the purpose of locating a military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Coffey in eastern Oklahoma. This road as laid out was 286 miles long and among the more important streams crossed were Spring River, Pomme de Terre, Wildcat, Marmaton, Little Osage, Cottonwood Creek, Marais des Cygnes, Blue and Kansas Rivers. Fort Scott was located on this highway at a point about midway between Forts Leavenworth and Coffey.

On May 10, 1849, Captain Howard Stansbury started from Fort Leavenworth and laid out the military road to Fort Kearny, Nebraska, which for some distance followed the California Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, by way of the Blue River. Shortly after the establishment of Fort Riley, a line of communication was established between Fort Leavenworth and that post, which later was extended to Fort Larned.

Leavenworth City grew up around Fort Leavenworth, which had been established years earlier in 1827.

Leavenworth City grew up around Fort Leavenworth, which had been established years earlier in 1827.

The Kansas Legislature of 1855 passed an act prescribing certain regulations concerning territorial roads, and in a number of separate acts provided for no less than 56 territorial roads, prominent among which were the following: Fort Scott to the Missouri line at or near Phillips’ Crossing of the Upper Drywood Creek; from a point opposite St. Joseph, Missouri, to Fort Riley, via Pawnee; from Fort Scott to the Catholic Osage Mission; from Osawkee to Grasshopper Falls; from Leavenworth to M. P. Rively’s store on Salt Creek, via the United States farm; from the Missouri state line through Cofachiqui City, then across the Neosho River and by best route to Fort Atkinson; from the Shawnee Mission Church to Tecumseh; from St. Joseph to Marysville; the Santa Fe Trail between the east line of Kansas and Council Grove; the Santa Fe Road between Fort Atkinson and Bent’s Fort, Colorado; a road from Delaware on the Missouri River to Calhoun on the Kansas River, where it divided, the left fork crossing and terminating at Topeka and the right fork intersecting the military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley.

In 1857, the legislature repealed a portion of the road law of 1855 and provided that roads might be viewed, surveyed, established and returns made at any time within two years from the passage of several acts by which they might be authorized, etc. Thirty-eight territorial roads were provided for by this session, among which was a road from Fort Riley to the Nebraska line; a road from Lecompton to the county seat of Allen County; the military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Laramie, Wyoming and the military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley.

In 1859 the “Parallel Road,” also known as the “Great Central Route” along the 1st standard parallel through western Kansas and the gold regions of the Rocky Mountains, was laid out. This highway to the Cherry Creek diggings in Colorado was 469 miles long, 641 miles to Denver, and boasted an abundance of wood and water all the way. It was laid out by E.D. Boyd, a civil engineer, in anticipation of a heavy travel from the Missouri River to the new “diggings.”

The legislature of 1859 enacted a law providing for the locating and working of highways and for the collection of a road tax, etc. Seven acts relating to roads were passed by this session, one of which declared all military roads within the limits of Kansas as territorial roads. Seventeen new roads were provided for by the other acts.

In 1860 the legislature passed acts of incorporation of the “Denver, Auraria and Colorado Wagon Road Company,” the “Denver City and Beaver Creek Wagon Road and Bridge Company,” and the “Pike’s Peak and South Park Wagon Road Company,” a general law defining the mode of laying out and establishing roads, and an act providing that all section lines in Brown County be declared the center of all public highways. This act was the first legislation providing for roads on section lines in Kansas.

Fort Larned, Kansas Parade Ground

Fort Larned, Kansas Parade Ground

The territorial legislature of 1861 passed an act declaring the military road from Fort Riley to Fort Larned a territorial road, and the session of the first state legislature the same year passed five acts relating to highways and created 45 state roads.

In 1863 the legislature passed two joint resolutions, one of which memorialized Congress to make a military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Scott, alleging that there were no suitable bridges, culverts or other necessary improvements by which to transport such military supplies, and believing that the safety and well being of this branch of the military required this line of communication. The other resolution memorialized Congress to make provisions for bridging and improving the road from Fort Leavenworth via Fort Riley to Fort Larned. The road, at that time, was said to be without bridges, culverts or other necessary improvements and at some seasons of the year entirely impassable for heavy transportation, causing delay, expense, and danger to the military service of the United States.

The legislature in 1864 passed three acts, one of which created 64 state roads, and in 1871 eight laws were passed relating to roads and highways, providing that all section lines of Jefferson, Cloud, McPherson, Davis, Montgomery, Chase, Morris, Mitchell, Wilson, Neosho, Anderson, Shawnee, Dickinson, and Morris counties be public highways, excepting three townships in Jefferson County.

At almost every session of the legislature, from territorial days to 1912, there was some legislation affecting roads and highways, and only in rare instances were any of the original territorial or state roads left, except those that followed section lines.

Santa Fe Trail outside of Baldwin City, Kansas

Santa Fe Trail outside of Baldwin City, Kansas

With the advent of automobiles and motorcycles, a widespread movement was started looking to the improvement of the road system of the country. This movement met with much encouragement, that plans were made to perfect an “ocean to ocean highway” following the line of the old Santa Fe Trail across the state as closely as possible. On December 1, 1911, more than 2,000 delegates from various towns in central Kansas met at Osage City to attend the meeting of the Santa Fe Trail and Pan American Highway Association, to decide upon the route connecting the trail between Osage City and Kansas City. A special train bearing representatives from Topeka, Lawrence, Burlingame and intervening points, all of whom favored the route from Kansas City, by way of Lawrence, Topeka, and Burlingame, were in attendance, while over 1,000 from Olathe, Ottawa, and intermediate points represented those in favor of the route by their towns. A committee composed of one member from each of the interested towns was selected to frame resolutions voicing the sentiment of the convention, their report to the convention being in favor of both routes.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of Kansas, updated May 2018.

About the Article: The majority of this historic text was published in Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Volume I; edited by Frank W. Blackmar, A.M. Ph. D.; Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912. However, the text that appears on this page is not verbatim, as additions, updates, and editing has occurred.

Also See:

Frontier Trails of Kansas

Overland Trails of the Frontier

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