The Santa Fe Trail in Oklahoma

Fort Washita east barracks

Fort Washita east barracks

The land now comprising the Oklahoma panhandle became part of the Republic of Texas in 1836, as a result of the defeat of Santa Anna’s army at the battle of San Jacinto and Texas independence from Mexico. In 1842 Fort Washita was established on the Washita River about 15 miles north of the Red (Canadian) River – the Texas border. President James Polk signed a proclamation on December 29, 1845, making Texas a state. It was not until the Compromise of 1850 that Texas relinquished the Oklahoma panhandle to the United States, and Texas’s present boundaries were set. Due to the late acquisition of the Panhandle by the United States, it was not a part of any state or territory.

Increasing numbers of white settlers entered Indian Territory after the Civil War. Many of them worked on railroads, in mining, in the cattle trade, and as agricultural tenants on Indian lands. White ownership of land in what became Oklahoma was not permitted until 1889. At this time, white settlement was limited to the “Unassigned Lands” in the central portion of the future state. White settlers in significant numbers did not arrive in central and western portions of Indian Territory or in the panhandle (known as No Man’s Land) until the last decade of the nineteenth century. The Organic Act of May 2, 1890, created Oklahoma Territory from the Unassigned Lands, the area west of the Five Civilized Tribes that was not assigned to any tribe, and from No Man’s Land. Additional lands were added as Indian lands were surveyed and made available under the 1887 Dawes Act and the Curtis Act of 1898, which broke up reservations, gave the individual title to up to 160 acres for each Indian, then allowed remaining “surplus” lands to be sold to non-Indians. The Oklahoma land rushes between 1889 and 1905 opened surplus Indian land from the old Indian Territory to the east and unorganized land in Oklahoma Territory to homesteaders, disposing of millions of acres. The Oklahoma Enabling Act, signed June 16, 1906, allowed for the formation of the new state of Oklahoma, though the question of what to include within the new state was debated. There was strong support, especially among the Five Civilized Tribes, for two separate states – Oklahoma (a non-Indian state) and Sequoyah (an Indian state).  However, on November 16, 1907, during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory were joined and Oklahoma became the 46th state, subsequently dissolving Indian Territory.

The Civil War and the Santa Fe Trail in Oklahoma

Civil War in Oklahoma

Civil War in Oklahoma

During the Civil War, Union forces withdrew into Kansas Territory, leaving Indian Territory to the Confederacy. Some factions within the Five Tribes, led by John Ross of the Cherokee and Opothle Yahoa of the Creek, argued for neutrality during the war. With the exception of the Choctaw, the Five Tribes did not unanimously agree to side with the Confederacy at first; however, with the removal of Union forces – and federal allotment monies – an alliance was sought. The decision to side with the Confederates after Union removal was driven by negotiations and treaties made with the Five Tribes by Albert Pike, a Confederate. In his negotiations he promised that each tribe would hold title to their lands that they lived on. Confederate president Jefferson Davis had other ideas. He stated clearly in a report that the lands owned by the Five Tribes would be “turned into a state.” Deception was both the driving force behind the joining with and the controversy over aligning with the Confederacy; thousands of individuals from the Five Tribes joined the war effort, divided between the opposing forces. No major Civil War battles were fought in Oklahoma, but there was heavy fighting in a number of skirmishes, mostly in the eastern quarter of the future state. During the war both Union and Confederate forces and guerilla bands plundered the tribal fields, orchards, and livestock and burned homes, schools, and churches. By the end of the conflict, much of the area was devastated. The tribes’ alliance with the Confederacy was used against them as the rationale for annulling and abrogating earlier treaty agreements. Eventually, in 1866, Congress decided to authorize the cancellation of all existing treaties with the Five Tribes. They were forced to cede large portions of their lands in Indian Territory to immigrant tribes being expelled from Kansas.

Established just after the Civil War, Camp Nichols was the only military post along the Oklahoma portion of the Santa Fe Trail. In May 1865 General James H. Carleton, commander of the Department of New Mexico, ordered Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson to establish a post about halfway between the Cimarron Crossing of the Arkansas River and Fort Union in New Mexico. Founded as the western terminus of the Aubry Route, the intent of this new post was to protect wagon trains traveling along the Cimarron and Aubry routes from Indian raids. The small fortified post was located on high ground between two forks of South Carrizozo Creek about one-half mile north of the Santa Fe Trail and a short distance east of Cedar Spring. The post was constructed and manned by three companies of New Mexico and California volunteers who escorted wagon trains along the trail and protected traffic primarily from raids by Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Lieutenant Richard Russell and his wife Marion arrived at the post in June 1865 about two weeks after construction began. Marion noted that the soldiers built several stone walled dugouts with dirt floors and dirt roofs supported by logs. The stone walls of the dugouts formed an enclosure, outside of which was a moat. These structures housed the seven officers and had other functions, such as a hospital. Some 300 soldiers lived in tents and dugouts within the enclosure. There were also ten Indian scouts, two Indian women, and two laundresses who were wives of Hispanic soldiers at the post. Wagon trains outbound from New Mexico assembled at this post situated about 130 miles east of Fort Union. From here they were escorted by detachments of troops to the Arkansas River. Camp Nichols was only occupied for a few months before being abandoned in late September by the Army when raids by Indians decreased.

Antelope in the Oklahoma Panhandle

Antelope in the Oklahoma Panhandle

Although the Santa Fe Trail crossed Cimarron County in the Oklahoma panhandle, it had little impact on trade and development of Indian Territory, Oklahoma Territory, or the future county or state. The route from Missouri to Santa Fe was less significant to Oklahoma than to the other states through which it crossed. The less well-known route used by Josiah Gregg’s livestock traders, which ran across Oklahoma from Van Buren, Arkansas, into New Mexico generally following the Canadian River had a greater impact on this state than did the Cimarron Route. No towns were laid out along the Santa Fe Trail in Oklahoma while the route was active. The unincorporated town of Wheeless, the only populated place in the general trail corridor, was not settled until 1907 and was a few miles south of the trail – about three miles from Camp Nichols. The only manmade structures built during the 59-year Santa Fe Trail period were Camp Nichols and Cold Spring stage station, both of which were semi-permanent and of short duration. A branch of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was built across Cimarron County; however, it did not follow the route of the trail. No roads or highways follow the route of the trail through the Oklahoma panhandle. Some individuals from the Indian Nations were likely employed by trail freighters as teamsters or drovers, and some who worked or traveled along the trail may have subsequently settled in Oklahoma.


Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June 2018.

Source:  Santa Fe Trail National Register of Historic Places Nomination


Also See:

Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail Detail & Timeline

Santa Fe Trail People

Santa Fe Trail Routes

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