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Water essential for Santa Fe Trail travelers
Wagon Tracks
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By David K. Clapsaddle

“The essentials for a camping place are wood, water and grass.” wrote Robert Morris Peck in “Rough Riding on the Plains: A Trooper’s Story,” in the National Tribune, Feb. 28, 1901.
In the Trans-Mississippi West, travelers camped in the open far removed from even the meager amenities of a frontier settlement or a trading ranch.
They had to depend upon Mother Nature for the elements of survival, if not comfort.
The elements requisite to any good campsite were three — water, grass, and fuel, wood or buffalo chips. If grass were not present, oxen could subsist for a period, but water was a more urgent necessity, both for man and beast.
Campsites along overland routes were identified in itineraries called tables of distances published for the convenience of travelers.
One such table published in 1858, “From Kansas City to the Gold Field Regions of Pikes Peak,” listed the distances between stops and the availability of water, grass, and fuel.
Though not mentioned in this table, several trading ranches along its route had wells; and at the Little Arkansas River Ranch, the proprietors charged 25 cents for a toll across their bridge and 10 gallons of water or 25 cents for ten gallons of water and the use of a ferry.
However, in most cases, water was provided by streams supplied by run off.
In some cases, especially during spring, water could be found in buffalo wallows or an occasional pond. Otherwise, water came from springs, called live water.
Such water, fresh and clean, was far preferable to that found in streams often muddied by sudden runoffs, tainted by alkali, and near crossings spoiled by animal waste.
In addition, water located in languid pools was more often than not tepid, if not unbearably warm. In contrast, spring water was cool.
This study is devoted to springs along the Santa Fe Trail and its auxiliaries. The first length of the Santa Fe Trail replicated the Osage Trace from Franklin, Mo., to Fort Osage.
Running westward from Franklin, the Osage Trace came to the Missouri River where passengers were ferried across the Missouri River to the area of Arrow Rock. Not far from the landing was a spring which has become known as Santa Fe Spring.
Local lore claims William Becknell watered there in his 1821 expedition to Santa Fe.
Beyond that point, the Osage Trace pursued the south bank of the Missouri River to Fort Osage, west of which were several springs identified by Gregory Franzwa. Two springs were located north of present
Marshall, one called Indian Spring.
Farther west was another spring Roger Slusher placed at seven miles east of Lexington on his family’s property purchased in 1829-1830.
More than a century later, the Slusher Homemaker’s Club published “A History of Homes,” which stated that on the property’s homestead “a very good and everlasting spring is nearby.”
The spring was located in Lafayette County on Highway 24 which basically replicates the Osage Trace.
West of Lexington by 2.5 miles was Simpson’s Spring; and in Independence, near the present National Frontier Trails Museum,
Franzwa identified the evidence of yet another spring which “left a deep chasm, the route of the waters which once issued from that spring.”
Several tables of distance commence at Independence which superseded Frankiin in 1827 as the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail.
John Bingham’s 1848 table which originates four miles north of the city, for all practical purposes, begins at Independence.
Not identified by Bingham or any other contemporary source, Cave Spring is situated 10 miles southwest of Independence.
Located in the present William M. Klein Park, it was marked by the Missouri Daughters of the American Revolution with one of their familiar red granite monuments and placed on the Register of Historical Places. Regardless, the site has no historic documentation.
The first spring Bingham identified was Willow Spring, 65 miles from Independence.
En route to Santa Fe during the Mexican War, Thomas Lester Bryant with the First Illinois Volunteers confided to his diary on July 16, 1847, “After marching eight miles, we came to Willow Spring which offers an inexhaustible supply of the finest water.”
Santa Fe Trail Association Ambassador David Clapsaddle is president of the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter and a frequent contributor to Wagon Tracks.
(To Be Continued)