The Santa Fe Trail continued into present-day Pawnee County, Kansas, where travelers were required to choose between the “Wet Route,” which provided good grazing and water for large numbers of stock, and the shorter, but water-limited, “Dry Route.” This section ran from just southwest of Pawnee Rock in Ash Creek Crossing to Fort Dodge.
Near Larned, the trail split into three main and separate trails with branches joining them together along the way to Dodge City, Kansas. The “wet route” or River Road crossing was on the south edge of present-day Larned, Kansas. The second, the dry route crossing, was on the west edge of the present Larned State Hospital grounds. The third, apparently later established as a stage line crossing, was approximately ½ mile east of the present site of Fort Larned National Historic Site.
Wet Route in Pawnee County
This route closely follows US Highway 56 along the Arkansas River to the southwest out of Larned, Kansas, to present-day Kinsley, where it follows the Arkansas River to Dodge City, Kansas, and continues to Bent’s Fort, Colorado. From Dodge City, westward, this was referred to as the “Mountain Route.”
The first stop along the West Route was Ash Creek Crossing, about five miles southwest of Pawnee Rock. This was not a difficult crossing, but it developed into a campsite for Trail travelers. Decades later, the farmer who owned the Ash Creek Crossing filled in the crossing for more farm ground in 1947.
After traveling about another six miles, the pioneers came to present-day Larned, Kansas. Here is Sibley’s Camp, where the United States Survey team, led by George Sibley, camped on the Santa Fe Trail Survey Expedition on August 31, 1825. The historic campsite is located at 502 West 2nd Street.
They continued along the north bank of the Arkansas River, where they were required to cross the Pawnee Fork, located near the U.S. Highway 56 bridge crossing of the Pawnee River. Railroad and highway construction have long since destroyed the original site, but its steep banks can still be seen, testifying that it was one of the most difficult crossings on the trail. In the past, the east bank was some 20-30 feet above the water, and while the west bank wasn’t nearly so steep, it still required additional men and teams to help pull the wagons up.
The Wet Route continued to Coon Creek, Crossing about 1 ½ miles west of Garfield, Kansas, located on the north side of U.S. Highway 56, east of Coon Creek Bridge. The crossing could sometimes be difficult and was situated in an area of hostile Indian activity, as evidenced by the battle sites that follow. Wagon ruts are still visible on the north bank of the creek.
Beyond the Coon Creek Bridge, some four miles, was a site referred to as Plain Camp. The site, indicated with a marker, was so-called because it had no distinguishing features. It is located about ½ mile south of the marker.
About 9 ½ miles southwest of Garfield is the site of “Love’s Defeat.” In June 1847, Lieutenant John Love led Company B of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, down the Santa Fe Trail. On June 26th, they were attacked by Comanche Indians. Six soldiers were killed, another six were wounded. The battle’s location has been marked by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail and is situated on the south side of U.S. Highway 56 just beyond the old railroad bed.
The Wet route continued into present-day Edwards County.
Dry Route in Pawnee County
The Original Dry Route branched from the Wet Route about 3.5 miles southwest of Pawnee Fork, Crossing at the southwest corner of Larned, Kansas, on US 56. This route went across a dry ridge to the north of Garfield and Kinsley, Kansas, to another Coon Creek Crossing. It then traveled to the north of present-day Offerle, Kansas, on to present-day Dodge City, Kansas. A later Dry Route began southwest of Pawnee Rock and ran north of present-day Larned to the west edge of the present Larned State Hospital grounds before making its way to Dodge City.
The Dry Route traveled along the north side of Pawnee River, passing the Santa Fe Trail Center today. Located two miles west of Larned on the south side of Kansas Highway 156, this unique museum, library, and educational institution is devoted to interpreting the Santa Fe Trail. It preserves artifacts and manuscripts related to the blending of the major cultures along the Trail and features interpretive exhibits, learning programs, and resource materials. The outdoor portion of the museum includes a sod house, schoolhouse, and dugout.
The trail then continues to the Fort Larned National Historic Site, located on Kansas Highway 156, six miles west of Larned. From 1859 to 1878, Fort Larned was one of the major military installations on the Santa Fe Trail. Nine of the ten original stone buildings remain today, and the tenth was reconstructed in 1988. This is one of the best-preserved frontier military posts in the American West and the entire Santa Fe Trail. One building has been adapted to serve as a museum, interpretive center, and administrative office. A set of Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts is located in a detached area five miles south of the Fort.
The Pawnee Fork Crossing of the Dry Route is located on the west edge of Larned State Hospital grounds. It can still be seen and crossed along a small bridge. This crossing too was sometimes difficult, and a campsite was established here. There was also a mail and stage station was located at this crossing in 1859, which led to the establishment of Fort Larned, first located nearer this crossing than the present military post.
Just west of the crossing was a trading post called Boyd’s Ranch, which was just off the Fort Larned Military Reservation and thus could provide off-post entertainment in the form of liquor, gambling, and prostitutes. The bulk of the trail traffic likely used the dry route crossing where Boyd’s Ranch was located.
The route continued through Pawnee County past the Rock Hollow Campsite, named for a nearby outcropping of sandstone. The trail then continued into Edwards County.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of Kansas, updated April 2021.
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