By David K. Clapsaddle
Santa Fe Trail Association Ambassador David Clapsaddle is president of the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter and a frequent contributor to Wagon Tracks.
The first 50 miles of the route from the Arkansas River was semi-arid region known as Jornada del Muerto — the Journey of Death.
That leg of the journey brought the traders to Sand Creek, usually dry. Ten miles farther was Lower Spring, a sure source of water even when the nearby Cimarron River was not.
As to the historic designation of William Becknell’s route, Matthew Field in 1839 wrote, “We traveled by the Semirone Road.”
Five years later. Josiah Webb wrote, “So when the train left the river by the Cimarron Route, we re-crossed the river and started on our trip ahead to Bent’s Fort.”
Second Lt. William D. Whipple reported in 1852, “Twenty-five miles beyond Fort Atkison is the old and main crossing of the Arkansas River to take the Cimarron Route.”
In the 20th century, the Cimarron Route was designated by a number of writers as the Dry Route, a reference to the jornada which constituted the distance between the Arkansas and Cimarron Rivers.
This reference has no roots in the 19th century and distracts from the historic Dry Route which ran between Pawnee Fork and two separate points on the Arkansas River, one near the Caches, the other one mile east of Fort Dodge.
Perhaps more perplexing is the 20th-century invention, the “Cimarron Cutoff.”
This designation was not used in the 19th century.
It has reference to the Cimarron Route being a shortcut to Santa Fe in opposition to the Bent’s Fort Road which took a more circuitous route by way of Bent’s Fort and Raton Pass. This route came into prominence in 1861 when the Post Office eschewed the Cimarron Route in favor of the Bent’s Fort Road due, in part, to the establishment of the post office at Fort Wise in September 1860.
Subsequently, traffic on the Bent’s Fort Road increased substantially when freight caravans were able to negotiate Raton Pass due to the construction of a toll road in 1860 across the previously difficult summit.
Just when the Cimarron Cutoff was included in the Santa Fe Trail lexicon is difficult to determine, but its reference has been contagious.
Scholarly historians have made use of the designation — Max Moorhead, “New Mexico’s Royal Road: Trade and Travel on the Chihuahua Trail;” Marc Simmons, “Murder on the Santa Fe Trail;” Morris Taylor, “First Mail West.”
Such usage extends to popular historians and the general publlc.
Even one of the Santa Fe Trail Association’s chapters is named the Cimarron Cutoff. Two notable writers have refused to use this terminology — Leo E. Oliva, “Soldiers on the Santa Fe Trail;” and a more recent author, Stephen Hyslop, “Bound for Santa Fe The Road to New Mexico and. the American Conquest, 1806-1848.”
Regardless, those engaged in the Santa Fe trade never regarded the Cimarron Route as a cutoff.
From its advent, it was the direct route, and even after the Bent’s Fort Road came into use, it remained the most used route of the two. The matter, however, became academic in 1868 when the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, reached Sheridan, Kansas.
At that time, freight began to be dispatched from that railhead on a new 120-mile road to Fort Lyon.
Consequently, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail east of Fort Lyon ceased and the death knell was rung for the Cimarron Route.