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Professional Archaeologists of Kansas
NEWS RELEASE April 15, 2004

  • Dr. Brad Logan, President, Professional Archaeologists of Kansas, (785)532-2419, blogan@ksu.edu

  • Dr. Robert Hoard, State Archeologist, Kansas State Historical Society, (785)272-8681, x-269, rhoard@kshs.org

  • Virginia Wulfkuhle, Public Archeologist, Kansas State Historical Society, (785)272-8681 x-255, vwulfkuhle@kshs.org

April is Kansas Archaeology Month!

Kansas Archeology Month celebrates the role of archaeology in studying and understanding the state's historic and prehistoric past.  The purpose is to increased public knowledge about the past, the science of archaeology, and to involve the public in protecting our cultural heritage. 

As part of our educational outreach for Kansas Archaeology Month 2004, The Professional Archaeologists of Kansas is providing a series of four articles about Kansas archaeology.  The first article in this series, prepared by Dr. Donald Blakeslee, Professor of Archaeology at Wichita State University, is presented below:

Indian Trails in Kansas

For thousands of years before Europeans arrived on the scene, Indians traveled across Kansas on well-defined trails. 

Sometimes they had to travel long distances to find buffalo herds to get meat and hides.  There is archaeological evidence that people from Iowa were visiting central Kansas for this purpose in the 1300s.

Native Americans also traveled long distances to trade with one another.  One historic account from North Dakota in the 1730s mentions the visit of an Indian chief who had learned to speak Spanish in New Mexico.  The same trail used in times of peace also may have been traveled for purposes of hostility or the "warpath." 

Other trail destinations were religious or sacred spots. Shrines were scattered all over the region, and Native Americans traveled long distances to visit them.  For instance, the Pawnees who lived in north-central Kansas and central Nebraska visited shrines near Pike's Peak, Colorado, and the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Indian trails had a number of features in common.  The most important of these was access to fresh water, as people traveling on foot found it hard to carry more than a day's supply.  As a result, most frequently used trails had waterholes every ten or twenty miles.

Trails crossed streams at good fords, such as Rocky Ford of the Kansas River west of Topeka near the small town of Paxico.  Kansa Indian guides led the French explorer Bourgmont to this ford in 1724.

Many trails ran along the high ground between stream valleys.  These routes avoided unnecessary stream crossings and the brush that grew along the creeks, while giving travelers an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. For instance, a trail ran along the crest of the Flint Hills from northern Oklahoma up into Nebraska.  A person using this trail could go from the Arkansas River in Oklahoma to the Platte River in Nebraska and only have to cross the Cottonwood and Kansas Rivers during his trip.  Headwater springs of small streams provided water along these upland routes.

Groves of trees were another feature of many of the trails in the western part of the state.  Trees were rare there, and groves of trees were excellent camping grounds where certain game animals, such as wild turkeys, could often be found.  Council Grove, on what became the Santa Fe Trail, is the most famous grove in Kansas, but there were others scattered all the way to the Colorado border.  Big Timbers of the Smoky Hill River was a winter campground for Cheyenne and Sioux.

Markers were sometimes set up along the trails to help people find their way.  They were necessary because foot traffic usually did not leave much of a visible trace, and large buffalo herds could wipe out most of the evidence of man-made trails.  When Zebulon Pike crossed Kansas in 1806, he traveled south on an Indian trail following the tracks of a Spanish army of 600 men.  Even so, he lost the trail for a while north of present-day Wilson Lake because a large herd of bison had completely wiped out evidence of the trail.

In areas with trees, people sometimes "blazed" a tree by removing bark from a large spot.  The Black Dog Trail that ran across the southern edge of the state from Baxter Springs to Winfield was marked in this way.

Where there were no trees, single upright stones or piles of rocks or sod were used.  In 1706, while crossing from Colorado into Kansas, the Plains Apache guides for a Spaniard named Valverde became lost on the high plains until they spotted some piles of sod that marked the trail they were trying to follow.  It led them to a good spring in an otherwise arid landscape.

Indian trails served as important transportation routes for the Europeans and Americans who eventually came to Kansas.  This was certainly true for Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, whose Indian guides led him from Texas to the land they called Quivira in central Kansas and then back by a different route to New Mexico.

When trade developed between the American frontier and New Mexico, one set of trails became known as the Santa Fe Trail.   While William Becknell generally is given credit for developing this trail in the early 1820s, he mostly followed what were already ancient routes.  In 1804, Lewis and Clark had drawn a map that showed what later became known as the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, and Coronado's Indian guides had led him along this trail on the north side of the Arkansas River west of Great Bend.

Trading posts were erected on Indian trails so that Native American customers could reach them on familiar routes.  James R. Mead, later one of the founders of Wichita, established his post on an Osage trail at the western edge of Towanda.  His good friend, Jesse Chisholm, bought goods from him on credit and carried them to his own post west of present-day Oklahoma City.

Army posts were also established on Indian trails in order to restrict travel by the Indians.  Fort Dodge was established midway between two Indian fords on the Arkansas River.  Fort Zarah, located near Great Bend, was established at a flash point on the Santa Fe Trail ­ where Indian raids had been a problem.  Raids were common there because a north-south Indian trail intersected the Santa Fe Trail in this vicinity. 

When the railroads were built, the surveyors who laid them out wanted to find routes that avoided too many stream crossings as trestle bridges were expensive.  Also, they needed water for the steam locomotives every ten miles or so.  As a result, many Indian trails ended up covered with iron rails, and the routes that were so important to early Kansas history were obscured but continued to be used as transportation routes.

Dr. Donald J. Blakeslee
Professor of Anthropology
Wichita State University

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