The different Missouri River branches of the Santa Fe Trail, whether from old Franklin, Fort Osage, Independence, Westport, or Kansas City, Missouri, came together in Johnson County, Kansas and by one common course, passed out of the county near its southwest corner.
In the beginning, Santa Fe traders traveled across the county and southwest for commerce. In the 1840s, westbound emigrants heading to Oregon and California shared parts of the route through the area. In the spring, the vast emigrant migration to the west and the movement of traders to and from Santa Fe created traffic jams along the roads in Johnson County as freight haulers, wagons filled with passengers and possessions, mules, and oxen jockeyed for a position along the rutted paths.
An early course of the road entered the county and state just nine miles due south of the mouth of the Kansas River and east of the now-extinct village of Glenn.
Though Johnson County is today filled with homes, businesses, people, and several cities collectively known as Shawnee Mission, and urban development has long overtaken the rural landscape, traces of its trail history still endure.
Nine-Mile Point, Prairie Village
While many things have changed in the Kansas City area since the early days of the Santa Fe Trail, the Missouri border remains the same. In 1823, from the center of the mouth of the Kansas River, surveyor Joseph Brown and his crew worked south using 66-foot surveying chains. They marked each mile point by raising a large dirt and rock mound, charting down the Missouri state line.
When the surveyors reached the nine-mile point south of the mouth of the Kansas River, Brown raised a dirt mound as he had on the previous eight-mile points. Then they continued surveying southward to this place that Brown characterized in his field notes as “to a trace leading from Fort Osage toward Santa Fe.”
This citation in Brown’s field notes represents the earliest official government documentation of any location on the Santa Fe Trail. The trace that Brown found here was created by the three wagons of William Becknell’s second trip to Santa Fe in 1822; the first wagons ever taken over the trail. By the 1840s Santa Fe traders abandoned this earliest route of the trail in the Kansas City area, favoring a new route out of Westport that crossed the state line about a mile north of here.
Today, the site is documented with wayside exhibits explaining the history of the first survey of the western boundary of Missouri in 1823 by Joseph Brown and the first federal survey of the new Santa Fe Trail by George Sibley’s party in 1825 along the same set of wagon traces. Weltner Park is located at 77th Street and State Line Road in Prairie Village, Kansas.
Shawnee Methodist Mission, Fairway
The line from Westport passed near the old Shawnee Methodist Mission just west of the present-day State Line Road in what is now Fairway, Kansas. The buildings, which served as a mission and Indian school from 1839 to 1862, also served as the second capitol of Kansas.
The missions were often used as meeting places for travelers beginning their westward journey. In 1843, John C. Fremont, a noted westward explorer, camped near the Methodist mission before heading west. Dr. Marcus Whitman, a missionary physician, stayed at the Methodist mission before joining Fremont’s party.
The remains of three original brick mission buildings are now a Kansas State Historic Site and open as a museum.
Trail ruts are still visible to the north of these buildings. The blacksmith shop of the mission was reportedly used by trail travelers, many of whom mention both the mission and the Shawnee Indians that it served. The mission is located at 3403 West 53rd in Fairway, Kansas.
Harmon Park, Prairie Village
A bit further west is Harmon Park in present-day Prairie Village, Kansas. Situated on the southern branch of the trail from Westport, Missouri it is one of the few confirmed places in Johnson County where physical evidence of the trail can still be seen today. Rounded depressions in the ground, called swales, are visible diagonally across the park. These swales were once sharply defined ruts worn into the ground by thousands of cattle, oxen, and wagons. Slight shifts in the wagon path, as well as years of weathering, smoothed these ruts to their current gently sloping indentations. A partnership of federal and local governments and private citizens created Harmon Park in the early 1990s in order to preserve physical evidence for future generations. The four-acre city park, located at 7727 Delmar in Prairie Village, displays an exhibit that interprets the visible trail ruts.
Boone’s Fork, Merriam
Located approximately six miles from Westport was a site known as Boone’s Fork. In 1845, John C. Fremont, a noted westward explorer, camped here with his party for approximately two weeks to wait out a period of heavy rainfall. Located along what is today known as the Turkey Creek Streamway Trail, it is in the vicinity of I-35 between 74th Street and Shawnee Mission Parkway, in Merriam, Kansas.
Sapling Grove Park, Overland Park
Located on the headwaters of Turkey Creek, Sapling Grove served as a campground for travelers from the earliest days of the Santa Fe Trail in the 1820s. Noted for its excellent spring, this location provided wood, water, and grass — key requirements for a trail caravan on the move.
George Sibley, an Indian agent commissioned to survey the trail in 1825-27, included Sapling Grove on his list of campsites and noted it as having “an excellent fountain spring, a very good place to camp.”
The site served as the rendezvous point for the Bidwell-Bartleson group, the first caravan of families to head west on the trail in 1841. Thousands of emigrants would pass through here during the 1840s and 1850s. John Fremont, guided by mountain man, Thomas Fitzpatrick, came through Sapling Grove in 1843. Overnight travelers camped on the hill where Comanche Elementary School now stands. It is located at 8210 Grant Street in Overland Park, Kansas.
Today we have left the settlements. After a twenty-mile horse-walk, we have reached and made our camp in Sapling Grove. We are a mighty band to meet and contend with a whole village of red-skins. We count thirty-seven, in all, with ninety-five horses and mules. I presume I am [now] out of the United States, and in the territory of our good Uncle Sam. But does his law, or power, still protect me? Shall I say to the redman, “Take care what you do! If you strike me, I will sue you for assault and battery; if you steal my horse, I will send you to the penitentiary.”
— William Anderson, 1834
Flat Rock Creek Park, Lenexa
The Santa Fe Trail forked into two routes as it headed south from Westport, Missouri. Along the routes were campgrounds for trail travelers — to the northeast of the junction was Sapling Grove and to the southwest was a campground called Flat Rock or Indian Creek.
Until the 1860s, these two routes out of Westport saw traffic from Santa Fe traders, Oregon, and California-bound emigrants, mountain men, missionaries, gold seekers, and the frontier military. Even the frontier stagecoach of the early 1860s rumbled through this trail junction heading southwest.
George Sibley, an early surveyor, named the Flat Rock Creek campsite for the large rocks that lined the creek bed. The campsite was later known as Indian Creek. Emigrants could easily cross the creek here because of the low banks and solid limestone bottom.
Like Sapling Grove, Flat Rock Creek was a popular rendezvous point where overland travelers would often meet a day or two out from their starting point to organize their caravans, select officers, train their new oxen and mules, and get their bearings. Those traveling to Oregon and California drafted resolutions and laws to govern the group on the long, tough journey ahead. Flat Rock Creek and Sapling Grove were a short day’s travel from Westport.
The site today is located at the 10-acre Flat Creek Park, 13120 West 103rd Street in Lenexa, Kansas. One large oak tree at the site is estimated to be over 100 years old, indicating it would have been there when the Santa Fe Trail was in use.
“Our party which left Kansas City today, Friday, September 17, 1858, consists of ﬁfty-seven men and one woman. Our traps packed in fourteen wagons hauled by oxen, and one of the party has a mule. We drive to Indian Creek where we make our ﬁrst camp.”
From Lenexa the trails passed over one route southwest through Olathe, where three old sites can still be seen.