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Debate centers on Santa Fe Road or Trail
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A Santa Fe Trail scene is depicted.

By David Clapsaddle

The use of Santa Fe Road in contrast to Santa Fe Trail continued in use into the 1860s when W. D. Wheeler advertised the amenities of his ranch in the March 23, 1861, Council Grove Press.

“The traveling public are respectfully informed, that the undersigned is located on the Little Arkansas, where the great Santa Fe Road crosses the same. I keep always on hand, provisions, groceries and liquors, also are prepared to accommodate travelers. I have several large (stone) corrals for penning stock. Also, have built a strong and substantial bridge across the Little Arkansas, for the accommodation of the traveling public.”

The same wording with reference to the Santa Fe Road is found in a certificate of incorporation dated Jan. 10, 1863:
“This is to certify that we, Charles Rath, John F. Dodds, James A. Robbins, F. Lederick, and A. D. Robbins, have associated ourselves together, under the name and style of the “Walnut Creek Bridge Company,” with a capital stock of $1,000 which is divided into shares of $10 each for the purpose of building a toll bridge over Walnut Creek, in Peketon County, State of Kansas, where the Great Santa Fe Road crosses said stream.
“The lands on each side of said stream belongs to the Government of the United States and we claim the exclusive right and privilege of said stream for that purpose to the exclusion of all others for the distance of five miles above and below said bridge.”
At this point, a discussion of the terms “road” and “trail” seems appropriate.
In this regard, James Mead’s description is instructive:
“The great Santa Fe Trail connected people of diverse race and language, separated by hundreds of miles of savage wilderness. The huge trail, 60-to-100 feet wide, was worn smooth and solid by constant travel of ponderous wagons carrying 8,000-to-10,000 pounds each.”
Mead’s description, 60-to-100 feet wide, belies the notion of trail in spite of his use of trail in the description. Mead wrote his memoirs near the end of the 19th century when trail had become the popular designation for what previously had been called road.
Contrast Mead’s description with what is known as the Appalachian Trail, a footpath for hikers, extending 2,050 miles along ridges of the Appalachian Mountain system from Mt. Katahdin, Maine, to Mt. Oglethorpe, Ga.
Another testimony to the road versus trail comes from an unlikely source, the Little Arkansas Peace Treaty conducted Oct. 14, 1865, between the United States and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.
One of the terms reads as follows —
“It is further agreed by the Indians parties hereto that when absent from their reservation they will refrain from the commission of any depredations or injuries to the person or property of all persons sustaining friendly relations with the Government of the United States: that they will not, while so absent, encamp by day or night within ten miles of any of the main traveled routes or roads through the country to which they go, or of the military posts, towns, or villages therein, without the consent of the commanders of such military posts.”
Still another such testimony is derived from the township plat maps compiled during the survey of counties in west central Kansas during the early 1870s.
The surveyors carefully identified the course of existing roads long before township roads came into being.
By way of example, the surveyors noted the Santa Fe Road and sometimes wagon roads in Pawnee County. In Ellis County, what we now call the Smoky Hill Trail was labeled the road to Denver.
Incongruously, while Santa Fe Trail remains unchallenged in present-day print, those routes which emanated from the various railheads of the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division to connect with the established route of the Santa Fe Road were not known as trails. Rather, as they became the far eastern legs of the Santa Fe Road, they maintained road as their designation.
The route from Junction City to Walnut Creek was known by several names.
Deputy U.S. Marshal H. L. Jones referred to it as “The Fort Riley and Fort Larned Road.”
James Mead called it “the old military road running from Fort Riley to Larned.”
A.C. Spilman, Mead’s contemporary, referred to it as “the Fort Zarah Road.”
Lt. M. R. Brown designated it the Santa Fe Road.
Never known as a trail, it to this day is known as the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road.
The same could be said for the route from Hays City to Fort Dodge. From its advent, the route has been known as Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road.
Regardless, the roadside marker at Alexander, Kansas, erected by the Kansas State Historical Society and the Kansas Department of Transportation is titled, “The Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Trail.”

Clapsaddle serves as president of the Santa Fe Trail Association’s Wet Dry Routes Chapter