Just about a mile beyond Agnes City in Lyon County, Kansas, the Santa Fe Trail made its way into present-day Morris County, Kansas.
The trail entered Morris County about seven miles east of Council Grove and in crossing the county, dropped south some six miles.
Seth Hays Barn, Council Grove
About one mile east of Council Grove, north of the Morris County Fairgrounds off of U.S. 56 is an old stone barn that was built by Council Grove founder Seth Hays in 1871. Later, the 76 foot long native stone barn became part of the Morris County Poor Farm which was situated on the site from 1889 to 1945.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the historic barn was in danger of collapse until repairs were made in the 1990s. Gatherings at the Old Stone Barn in June are re-enactments of the Santa Fe Trail rendezvous.
The route then continued into Council Grove once crossing Big John Creek and running close by the Big John Spring, which, at one time, held numerous stones bearing inscriptions, names, and dates. Unfortunately, today, Highway U.S. 56 travels right over this historic site.
The trail then entered Council Grove, the most noted stopping place between the Missouri River and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here, a treaty with the Osage Indians was made on August 10, 1825, for a right of way of the trail across the Plains, and for years it was the last chance to obtain supplies. Council Grove’s Main Street, on both sides of the Neosho River, marks the course of the trail.
One of the busiest places on the Santa Fe Trail, soldiers, freighters, gold seekers, Council Grove to form caravans before crossing the 624 miles of mostly treeless plains. Here, travelers would elect officers for the caravan and establish rules for travel. During the trail’s heydays, Council Grove was a place of early morning racket, dust, and confusion as wagons bound for Santa Fe rattled and jockeyed for position to form a train. Wagonmastersshouted, “Catch up!” to the teamsters — then “Stretch out!” as the wagons began to move.
“The warmest description will scarce convey to the untraveled readers even a faint picture of this very beautiful grove…A crystal stream meanders over its pebbly bottom while the sun blazes upon the surrounding desert we sat…fished, bathed, read, sang, talked of home, and of the strange country we were about to visit, of the wild travel we had yet to encounter.”
— Matt Field, Council Grove, 1839
Council Oak, Council Grove
Located on U.S. Highway 56 (E. Main Street), near N. 4th Street, is the old Council Oak. This old tree received its name from a council that was ostensibly held under this tree on August 10, 1825. This council, which was attended by three U.S. commissioners and the chiefs of the Great and Little Osage Indians, resulted in a treaty that – in return for an $800 payment – gave Americans and Hispanics free passage along the Santa Fe Trail through Osage territory. This meeting was also the namesake of Council Grove, a trailside community that was founded in the late 1840s because of the mile-wide grove of hardwood timber in the area. The treaty not only granted passage through Osage Territory but also authorized that a road would be marked from the western frontier of Missouri to New Mexico. In addition to the $800 payment, the Osage also received ribbons, tobacco, calico, and other good from the U.S. Commissioners.
A storm destroyed the tree itself but the stump remains under a protective canopy. It is located on East Main Street, where an outdoor exhibit can also be found.
Post Office Oak, Council Grove
Also located on East Main Street is the Post Office Oak and Museum. The old Oak tree once served as the unofficial post office for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail from 1825 to 1847. The oak tree that stood here had a hole in its base that Trail travelers used as a cache for mail and messages left to inform others of trail conditions. The tree died in 1990, and only the trunk remains of this 300-year-old bur oak today. The adjacent stone house was built in 1864 as a residence, with a brewery in the basement. It is now a museum operated by the Morris County Historical Society.
Neosho River Crossing, Council Grove
River crossings on the Santa Fe Trail were tricky business. Ornery livestock and soft river bottoms compounded the hazards of easing a 2-3 ton wagon into the water and struggling up the opposite bank. The best crossing had a combination of shallow water, a rock bed, and gentle slopes.
This natural rock bed crossing site was an important river crossing on the Santa Fe Trail and one of the best documented of those along the path. The steep banks and high water sometimes made crossings difficult, but ripples in the stream indicated the presence of a flat, hard rock streambed that would have helped make the crossing easier. During the trail era, the riverbanks sloped more gently to the water’s edge than today.
The site is just north of where U.S. Highway 56 (Main Street) crosses the Neosho River. A Riverwalk Park marks the site where an outdoor exhibit on the east side can be found.
“The creek bank, which is short and steep, made some little detention in the crossing of the wagons, they had to double teams several times. It is amusing to hear the shouting of the wagoners to their animals, whooping and hallowing; the cracking of whips almost deafening.”
— Second Lieutenant William D. Whipple, 1852
Seth Hays Home, Council Grove
Seth M. Hays was a shrewd, colorful, and successful trader, rancher, tavern owner, and publisher. Hays, a grandson of Daniel Boone and cousin of Kit Carson, came to Council Grove in 1847 to trade with the Kanza/Kaw Indians Indians. His businesses became very lucrative. He built this brick home in 1867. It was elaborate for Council Grove at that time. Hays’ black maid (and former slave) “Aunt Sally,” lived in the basement. Hays, though single, adopted a daughter in 1867, and Sally cared for the family until her death in 1872.
Hays witnessed many changes in Council Grove over his 25 years as a community leader: the Kanza/Kaw Indians were relocated to their reservation in this area; the settlement he started grew into a town, and Kansas evolved into a territory, and achieved statehood. Hays lived in this home until he died in 1874.
This is one of just a few trail homes in the area that has been preserved near its original condition. Today, the home is operated as a museum by the Morris County Historical Society. There is a historical marker on the property. It is located on Wood Street near Hall Street (two blocks south of Main Street). Other historic properties that once belonged to Seth Hays are the Historic Barn east of Council Grove and the Hays House Restaurant on Main Street.
Hays House Restaurant, Council Grove
The Hays House Restaurant, located at 112 West Main, was also built by Seth hays. He originally built a log house here, out of which he traded with the Indians, who purchased guns, blankets, flour, and tinware from him.
In 1857, he put up the large building originally called the Frame Store. The store then served citizens a trading post, restaurant, hotel, courthouse, post office, printing office, meeting and social hall, and an early, bawdier form of dinner theater. In October 1858, the first term of court was held in Morris County in Hays’ Frame Store. The jury deliberated upon their verdict under the shade of a tree that stood in the yard.
Business was lively: in a four day period in 1860, the Kaw Indians spent $15,000 here and across the street at the Conn Store. The Santa Fe trade became increasingly lucrative. In 1863, Hays’ former partner, G.M. Simcock, estimated that $40 million in freight was hauled in ox-and mule-drawn wagons through the town. In addition to supplies, the Hays House offered meals and rooms to weary traders on their eight-week trip between New Mexico and Missouri. Early patrons included Jesse James and General George Armstrong Custer.
It was later remodeled as the Hays House Restaurant and today is famous as the oldest continuously operated restaurant west of the Mississippi River. Its interior provides a look at many historical artifacts, including artwork, arrowheads, other American Indian relics, and a notable crystal collection. There is an outdoor exhibit in front of the building.
“Those who have occasion to stop at Council Grove, on the Santa Fe Road, will do well to ‘put up’ with Charles A. Gilkey [Hays’ hotel clerk] … mine host of the Hayes House. [They] … cannot help feeling quite at home.”
— Kansas Press, July 11, 1859
Pioneer/Conn Store, Council Grove
Built in 1858 by local merchant Malcolm Conn, the Conn Store was one of the two most important trading posts in Council Grove during the Santa Fe Trail era. It first catered to the Kanza/Kaw Indians and Santa Fe Trail travelers and later to local settlers. One of the oldest buildings still standing in Council Grove, the Conn Store provided accommodations, meals, and stables for freighters, in addition to retail operations. Rivaling the outfitting firm already run by Seth Hays on the opposite side of the street, business was brisk, so much so that in 1864, Conn sold $24,000 in merchandise in a single month.
The Conn Store has been added on to and remodeled over the years. The outline of the original store is defined by the light-colored stone on the building’s west side. Today, the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is utilized by a local business. It is located at 131 W. Main St. An outdoor exhibit is located across the street.
Simcock House, Council Grove
In 1860, Council Grove merchant Goodson M. Simcock constructed the southwest portion of this 2-story stone house. Simcock was a partner of Seth Hays, providing goods and services for the Kanza Indians and the Santa Fe Trail trade. He was one of the organizers and original stockholders of the Council Grove Town Company, formed in 1857. Upon Hays’ retirement in 1862, Simcock became the business’s sole owner for the next 11 years, retiring in 1873. The “Simcock House” was added on to in 1863 and in the early 1900s. The house on the National Register of Historic Places is located at 206 W. Columbia St. The building is a private residence and is not open to the public.
Kaw Mission State Historic Site, Council Grove
This land was once part of Kaw and Osage Indian homelands. In the early 1800s, the Kaws’ domain extended well beyond the present-day borders of Kansas. In 1846, the federal government forced the Kaw people onto a 20 square-mile reservation surrounding Council Grove. About 1,000 people struggling with disease and starvation lived in three nearby villages. The Kaw lived on the reservation for less than 30 years when, despite an impassioned plea to Congress by Chief Allegawaho in 1873, the U.S. government relocated 600 Kaw Indians to Indian Territory (Oklahoma.)
In 1850, workers from the Shawnee Methodist Mission near Kansas City traveled 110 miles on the Santa Fe Trail to build the Kaw Mission and boarding school for Indian boys. The mission opened in 1851 with funding from the U.S. government. For three years, 30 Kaw boys called this building home and school.
Mission schools were part of the effort to assimilate Native Americans into white culture and toward Christianity. However, the government reported that the operational costs were too high, and the school and mission closed in 1854. It then became a school for white children, becoming the first all-white school in Kansas. Today, the Kaw Mission is one of the oldest buildings still standing in this part of Kansas and is operated by the Kansas State Historical Society as a museum.
Hermit’s Cave, Council Grove
Hermits Cave, located on Belfry St. near Hays St. (2 blocks north of Main Street), was the temporary abode of an Italian religious mystic, Giovanni Maria Augustini. Born in Italy in 1801, this religious mystic came to America and wandered from one Indian tribe to another, teaching the gospel and administering the last sacrament to people on the Santa Fe Trail. Augustini lived in Council Grove here for a brief period in the spring of 1863 and was known as Father Francesco. Later in 1863, at the age of 62, he left Council Grove in the company of a wagon train, walking the 550 miles on the Santa Fe Trail to Las Vegas, New Mexico. He is said to have performed miracle cures there, which attracted large crowds. The Hermit left for southern New Mexico to the Organ Mountains in 1867 and was mysteriously murdered in 1869.
Terwilliger Home, Council Grove
The Terwilliger Home, located on 803 West Main, was built by Abraham and Mary Rawlinson in 1860-61. The stone home was the last house freighters passed going West when leaving Council Grove as late as 1863. From their home on the edge of the frontier, the Rawlinsons witnessed long trains of freight wagons loaded with goods, heading to or from Santa Fe. Today, it is one of the four oldest homes remaining alongside the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas and currently houses a bakery café in the restored part of the house.
Last Chance Store, Council Grove
Perched on the edge of Council Grove, the Last chance Store was built in 1857 by Tom and Lucy Hill, who had come to Council Grove from New England. It was used as a store and residence. Since it was the last place where supplies could be obtained on the Santa Fe Trail, it became known as the “Last Chance Store”. The building also served as a post office for several years. Later, a Government trading post was located here and the building served as a polling place.
Located at the corner of Main Street (Highway 56) and Chatauqua Street, at the west end of the Council Grove business district, it is the oldest commercial building in Council Grove. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The privately-owned building remains near its original state today. There is a historical marker on the property.
The Council Grove Cemetery houses several graves belonging to historic Santa Fe Trail pioneers.
From Council Grove, for several miles, there were two routes, one along the high divide to the north of Elm Creek and the other passing up the creek’s valley. The two roads united about a mile or two southeast of the present town of Wilsey.
Santa Fe Trail Ruts, Morris County
Located about five miles west of Council Grove is a wide swale created by Santa Fe Trail travelers. It is located 0.7 miles south of U.S. Highway 56 and 1400 Road intersection. A sign, “Santa Fe Trail Ruts,” near the fence marks the center of the swale. It is on private property and may be viewed from the road in the spring after the range management burning.
The path then continued to Diamond Spring, where the famous prairie fountain, called “The Diamond of the Plains,” was a favorite stop on the Santa Fe Trail due to its high-quality water. A stage station and small settlement grew up here before the Civil War, but these were destroyed in a raid by Missouri bushwhackers. Diamond Spring continued to be a valuable water source and popular campsite as long as the Trail was active in this vicinity. The spring now rises in a concrete cistern and is piped to a nearby concrete stock tank on private property, though a historical marker designates the site.
Six Mile Creek Crossing & Stage Station
The road continued westward to the Six Mile Creek Crossing and Stage Station. The site near Burdick, Kansas, was just south of the bridge over Six Mile Creek. It was given its name because it was six miles from Diamond Spring. There are good trail ruts coming into the crossing site from the east, but the actual crossing is no longer visible. The stage station was built about 1863 after the Diamond Spring station was destroyed by Missouri Bushwhackers in 1863. It was in use until 1866 and later served as a ranch house until after the turn of the century. The site is inaccessible but a sign and a historic marker sit on South 2800 Road about 3.2 miles northwest of Burdick.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated April 2022.
Kansas Santa Fe Trail Photo Gallery
Santa Fe Trail – Pathway to the Southwest