Upon completion of the Territorial Land Surveys in Kansas, the Legislature passed laws providing for public highways on section lines. These laws were passed on a county-by-county basis, starting with Brown County in 1860. The Legislature had previously designated a number of existing emigrant and military roads Territorial Roads to insure that main arteries of travel were kept open. Commissioners were appointed to survey these roads, relocating them to section lines where feasible, and establishing new routes to shorten distances wherever possible. For example, the Ft. Leavenworth and Ft. Riley Military Road was changed in 1859 to cross Grasshopper (Delaware) River at present Valley Falls, instead of farther south at Ozawkie. It then followed a new route to reach the Kansas River Valley near St. Marys. Whether or not military traffic made use of the new route is uncertain. Butterfield's Overland Despatch stage line crossed at Valley Falls in 1865, but apparently rejoined the original road at Mount Florence, west of Ozawkie.
The laws establishing territorial roads also allowed property owners to fence off old roads, and redirect traffic to the section perimeter. A specified period of time was allowed to effect this transfer, after which the old road became a permanent part of the public domain. Freighters especially resented these forced detours, and violent confrontations were common. Setting prairie fires was a favorite form of retaliation.
In many cases, road relocation was undesirable due to terrain restrictions, or access to good fords at some of the larger streams. In a few instances, the original road remains in use to the present day. A glance at the USGS 30-Minute quadrangles of the mid-1880s in Northeast Kansas indicates the extent of section line road construction in the twenty-five years from 1860 to 1885.
After nearly 150 years, vestiges of these pioneer trails still exist. Eroded rut swales on prairie hillsides, often marked with wild plum thickets or buckbrush are silent witness to long forgotten activities of emigrants, freighters, stage coaches and military expeditions. An observer along the little Blue River in Nebraska about 1900 said that sunflowers in bloom marked the old trail in August as far as the eye could see. Once the tough prairie sod was broken and trail traffic ceased, weeds, brush, and even trees took root in the fertile soil.
Ruth Willis of Sabetha, Kansas, reported a quaint theory explaining the location of emigrant graves in wild plum thickets. According to Mrs. Willis, when a forty-niner died, his companions sat around the grave eating plums and disposing of the seeds in the freshly tilled earth. Her son, Edwin Avery, said that he knew of thirteen such graves within sixteen miles of Sabetha in 1916. There is one small flaw in this theory, however; wild plums bear fruit in late summer, and emigrant travel in Kansas ended in May.
Emigrant campsites were located where wood, water and grass was plentiful. In addition to major stream crossings, campsites were often located on spring-fed tributaries which head near the divide followed by the trail. Fuel was usually in limited supply at these camps, consisting of sumac, willows, or perhaps a few elms. After several years of heavy travel, this supply was depleted, and it was necessary for the traveler to import fuel. Guidebooks published in 1850 and subsequent years described these campsites and tabulated distances between camps. These distances were frequently inaccurate and many emigrants complained bitterly about the discrepancies.
Most trail related sites in Kansas are hidden away on private property, and permission must be obtained to explore them. Local tradition has preserved knowledge in some areas, but many of these sources have dried up with the passing of older generations. Some information has been preserved in County histories and early newspaper files, but the site mentioned in these sources is often tied to contemporary land ownership, and require further research to identify the actual location.
Pacific City, Nemaha County, is a case in point. It is mentioned in a number of publications at Kansas State Historical Society, including Ralph Tennal's 1916 History of Nemaha County, but nowhere is a specific location given. About 1960, the author attended an old timer's picnic in the Ford Community on Tennessee Creek southeast of Seneca. A local farmer pointed out the site on a USGS 30-Minute quadrangle near the center of S14 TS R13E. He also volunteered the information that Orrin Gage's tavern had been torn down in 1902. Apparently the only city improvements were the hotel and a good well. Perhaps the well still exists or could be located with a little probing.
The 1887 Atlas of Nemaha County confirms that Orrin Gage owned the SE1/4 S14, but also shows that he and David Myers each owned 80 acres at the center of S24, about 1 « miles southeast of this site, and one mile west of future Log Chain. It was common practice for town promoters to preempt 40 acre tracts in contiguous quarter sections, thus insuring some control of surrounding land areas. These property line patterns are still evident on modern USGS 7.5 Minute quadrangles, and are a strong indication that a town site once was located here.
How many of the emigrant graves mentioned by Edwin Avery are known today? Probably McCloud, David Butley, and A. Powers, named in other passages, are included on his list, but the location of most of the thirteen graves has faded from memory. Local landowners may have knowledge of graves on their property, but only a few overlanders took time to erect a permanent marker. David Butley, who died Aug. 1844, is known to have had an engraved headstone. McCloud was murdered at the head of Deer Creek approximately 4 « miles northwest of Sabetha, date unknown. Powers, of Peoria County, Illinois, died May 20, 1850, probably at a campsite on a branch of Webster Creek 1 « miles southeast of Sabetha.
Pioneer road swales represent a physical link to the American past, and there is a compelling magic in their rediscovery. Western expansion was the focus of our National aspirations for more than a century and thousands of emigrants staked their fortune on the great adventure. For many, the dream ended in an unmarked grave beside the trail, adding to the mystery of time and place. In My Antonia, Willa Cather described an abandoned pioneer road in Nebraska, "....which used to run like a wild thing across the open prairie, clinging to high places and circling and doubling like a rabbit before the hounds." Miss Cather's timeless prose aptly expresses the emotional appeal of historic trails for today's students of trail lore.
The Oregon and California Trails Association is presently engaged in the monumental task of identifying and mapping trail remains on modern United States Geological Survey 7.5 Minute quadrangles. Graves, campsites, rut swales, cut-downs at creek crossings and structures from the emigrant/pioneer period are being cataloged and surveyed by teams of volunteers organized by MEP (Mapping Emigrant Trails), a division of OCTA. Readers having knowledge of physical evidence remaining from trail days in Kansas are encouraged to contact the Oregon-California Trails Association, 524 S. Osage St., P.O. Box 1019, Independence, MO 64051-0519.