Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail
The Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail continued to follow the Arkansas River all the way into Colorado. Though this route, that passed through Gray, Finney, Kearny and Hamilton Counties of Kansas, before moving into Colorado. Though the route was farther than the Cimarron Cutoff, it had continuing access to water and was not as prone to Indian attacks as the shorter route through the southwest corner of Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle.
From Ford County, the trail continued into Gray County along the north side of the Arkansas River. The Middle Crossings of the Arkansas River to the Cimarron River extended from The Caches site, about two miles west of Dodge City, to as far as Charleston, 26 miles farther west. US Highway 50 along the Arkansas River closely follows the trail route and passes by the crossing sites.
Wagons were able to cross the Arkansas River virtually anywhere in this region due to its shallow flows. The Middle Crossings were the scenes of numerous Indian attacks during the Trail era.
The trail passed through the present-day city of Cimarron, Kansas where the trail provided another branch to the shorter Cimarron Route to Santa Fe. Here, was another popular crossing of the Arkansas River, as well as several more on the path to Ingalls, Kansas. A marker designates this crossing in Cimarron Crossing Park about 1/2 mile south of Cimarron, Kansas on K-23.
The Mountain Branch of the trail continued westward following the Arkansas River, near present-day US Highway 50 on to Ingalls, where there was another crossing of the river.
The historic path then made its way into present-day Finney County, Kansas making its way passing by the old townsite of Pierceville about 12 miles east of Garden City. This old townsite was once the headquarters for a ranch that was destroyed by fire during an Indian Raid in 1874.
About 2 ½ miles west of Pierceville was another Point of Rocks landmark. It is situated on the north side of River Road which parallels the Arkansas River and the Santa Fe Railway tracks.
The trail then continued through the present-day towns of Garden City and Holcomb before making its way into Kearny County.
The Mountain branch of the trail followed the north side of the river into Kearny County, snaking its way through the present day site of Deerfield, Kansas. About three miles west of Deerfield on US Highway 50, a set of parallel ruts can still be seen ascending a hill to the east.
During the trail’s active days, the mound was much bigger, once being visible from Lakin. However, over the years, people looking for relics have hastened its erosion, though the view from atop the mound is still impressive today.
Located due south of Indian Mound was once a place called Chouteau’s Island. Though it has long since disappeared due to erosion by the Arkansas River, it was once an important landmark on the trail. It was near here in the spring of 1816 that Auguste P. Chouteau’s hunting party were traveling east with a winter’s catch of furs when they were attacked near the Arkansas River by 200 Pawnee Indians. The men retreated to Chouteau’s Island to resist the attack and beat off the Indians. In the Battle of Chouteau’s Island, the trappers lost one man and three were wounded. Seven of the Indians were killed.
In 1825 increased travel on the Santa Fe Trail brought a government survey and Chouteau’s Island was listed as a turning off place for the trek to the Cimarron River and southward on the Cimarron Branch to Santa Fe. This route was sometimes called the “Aubry Route” since Francis X. Aubry was known to have partially followed it on at least one of his famous rides between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Independence, Missouri. It was a much better-watered route than the one by way of Cimarron Crossing.
It was also here in 1829 that the first military escort on the Trail camped while the trader caravan proceeded to Santa Fe. At that time, the Arkansas River was the international boundary. But, it wasn’t Mexicans the soldiers needed to worry about, rather, they spent the summer fighting off Indians, losing several men and part of their oxen. The return from Santa Fe of the caravan with a Mexican escort was much celebrated.
Beyond Chouteau’s Island, as the wagon trains turned south to go down to the Cimarron River, they skirted the west side of small, very deep lake called Clear Lake. It was about fifty feet in diameter, and, at one time, it was sounded to the depth of 250 feet without finding any bottom. When the wagons passed this point they followed Bear Creek Pass through the sandhills.
Located southeast of Indian Mound on the Bluff Station on the east side of a Sand Creek was the site of Bluff Station. Thought to have been built by Major Bennett Riley’s troops in 1829, it was later used in the mid 19th century by stage companies as a relay station. Remains of the walls of the station were visible as late as 1900.
To the east of Bluff Station was one of the best camping grounds on the Trail. On this wide river bottom lush, green grass grew as high as a horse’s back.
The trail continued on into Hamilton County passing near the present-day towns of Kendall, Syracuse, and Coolidge before making its way into Colorado.
Old Fort Aubrey was once situated about four miles southeast of Syracuse. This fort was established to protect pioneers from Indian raids in 1865. It was only active for nine months and was abandoned. The remains of the fort today consist only of three clusters of dugout depressions.
The Aubry Crossing of the Arkansas River, approximately three miles downstream from the site of Fort Aubry, was used more than the Upper Crossing near Lakin, Kansas, and it rivaled the traffic at the Middle Crossings for about ten years. The route was first “opened in 1850 and became an important path from the Arkansas River to the Oklahoma Panhandle because water supplies were more reliable along this route than along La Jornada portion of the Cimarron route. The importance of this route led to the establishment of two military posts in 1865, Fort Aubry and Camp Nichols in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Though the Aubry Crossing has long since disappeared, wagon ruts can still be seen in the area and a spring still exists near the fort site.
The trail passed out of the county and the state near the present town of Coolidge and ran on up the Arkansas River to where it turned southwest to Santa Fe via Trinidad, Colorado and Raton Pass, New Mexico.