THE MORMON TRAIL (ROAD)
IN KANSAS TERRITORY
by Morris W. Werner
The Public Land Surveys of Kansas Territory in 1855-60 recorded a
"Mormon Road" [Trail] in Osage, Wabaunsee, Geary, Riley, Marshall and Washington
Counties whose origin and existence has been largely overlooked by
students of Mormon history, as well as emigrant historians in general.
This monograph attempts to enumerate and evaluate the available
documentation. Since most of this information is from secondary sources,
a need exists to study the original documents for additional data, as well
as to search manuscript files and other sources for possible
The Beginning of the West, by Louise Barry, contains an
excellent summary of contemporary sources about the Mormon emigration of
1854 in Kansas Territory. It appears that most of these emigrants were
European converts, many from Scandinavian countries unable to speak
English. They were met at Westport by William Empey, commissioned by the
Latter Day Saints church to purchase wagons, oxen and supplies for the
trip across the plains. Another group was organized at Pleasant Grove in
the Salt Creek valley three miles west of Ft. Leavenworth.
The Westport contingent planned to follow the Santa Fe Trail to One Hundred Ten
Creek and then open a new road to Ft. Riley, rejoining the original Oregon Trail
somewhere in Nebraska. This new road was estimated to be "330 English miles" in
length. The Ft. Leavenworth group perhaps followed the already well marked Ft.
Leavenworth/ Ft. Laramie military road; however, it is possible that they followed the
recently established military road to Ft. Riley, and joined the Westport group at that
The size of the Mormon migration of 1854 is conjectural. Contemporary estimates
placed it as high as 4,000, but this would include parties from the Council Bluffs vicinity,
as well as those from Westport and Ft. Leavenworth. The Westport group was divided
into at least two companies of 50 and 73 wagons. Christian J. Larsen who was with a
third train, also outfitting at Westport, reported that eleven persons were assigned to each
wagon (a very high average). This party reportedly traveled via Ft. Leavenworth, but on a
"new road" which suggests that Larsen may have referred to the recently established Ft.
Leavenworth & Ft. Riley military road. A group of east bound Mormons on the Platte
River in August stated that "they met three large trains of English, Danish and other
foreign emigrants on their way to Utah, comprising in the whole, over 200 wagons,
besides many smaller scattering companies." It would appear that at least 1300
Mormons left from Westport, and perhaps another 700 from the
Ft. Leavenworth area.
Letters Received by the Office of the Adjutant General, 1854, Maj. O. F. Winship.
See excerpts from original manuscript and notes included herein. Maj. Winship's
expedition was designed to survey and improve communications between Ft.
Leavenworth and Ft. Riley, and recommend a route from Ft. Riley to the Santa Fe Trail
and from Ft. Riley to the Oregon Trail. He was aware of the Mormon emigration from
Westport, which was several weeks behind him at Ft. Riley. He stated that they
intended to follow the Republican River beyond Ft. Riley, and cross over to the Platte
near Fort St. Vrain. Perhaps this explains the estimated "330 miles of new road."
Winship footnoted his report to indicate that he later learned that the Mormons crossed
directly from Ft. Riley to Ft. Kearny, and this, no doubt, is the route identified by the
Public Lands Surveys of a year or two later.
The following emigrant diaries are summarized in Platte River Road Narratives, edited
by Merrill Mattes:
John Johnson Davies, 1854. Mormon convert from Liverpool, England. Many deaths
from cholera on steamboats ascending the Missouri River and at Westport. Left Westport
July 1 in a train of 50 wagons. Wife gave birth to a daughter at first night's camp on
Hans Jensen Hals, 1854. Mormon. His mother died near Westport before start of
journey. Left Westport in train of 73 wagons "over a new road for 330 English miles."
His company lodged the complaint at Ft. Laramie which led to the
Christian J. Larsen, 1854. Mormon. Left Westport June 15, north overland by "a new
road" to Ft. Leavenworth, then via "old emigration road to Ft. Laramie. Eleven persons
assigned to each wagon.
Hans Hoth, 1854. Mormon. Left Ft. Leavenworth July 6 for Utah with a freight train
of 21 wagons, loaded with 3 tons per wagon and pulled by 12 oxen each.
Jean Frederich Loba, 1854. Mormon--8 yrs. old. Left Pleasant Grove near Ft.
Leavenworth in June. Returned to Kansas Territory in 1857 with his father, who had
become alienated to Mormonism.
Eugene Bandel, 1855. Private in U.S. Army. Left Ft. Riley for Ft. Kearny in July. "No
direct road from Riley to Kearny, so they traveled by compass until they came to the
California Road." Apparently they did not follow the Mormon Road established the
previous year, which was sufficiently well marked for the public land surveyors to record
in 1857-58. On the other hand, if they had followed the Republican River, they would
have had no need for a compass, at least until they crossed from the Republican to the
Platte River east of Ft. Kearny.
Israel Putnam Alcorn, 1856. Left Westport and traveled down the Santa Fe Trail,
taking the Ft. Riley Road by error. Groped northward by trial and error to reach the "old
emigrant road" on the Little Blue.
J.A. Butler, 1856. Left Westport May 6? down the Santa Fe Trail with party of 32.
Missed the Oregon Trail turnoff, and traveled the Ft. Riley road to regain the "old
Helen McCown Carpenter & Emily McCown Horton (sisters), 1857. Left Westport end
of May in company of 5 wagons. Traveled via Ft. Riley to St. Joseph Road.
Frederick Loba, 1857. Mormon convert from Switzerland who emigrated to Utah in
1854, renounced Mormon religion and returned to Kansas. Loaned government wagon
at Ft. Laramie for return to Ft. Leavenworth. Family turned south at Big Blue River
(Marysville) to establish a claim on the Black Vermillion.
S. W. Campbell, 1859. (9 yrs. old). Left Blue Springs, MO, in company of 5 wagons.
North to Ft. Leavenworth, then followed military road to Ft. Riley and north to the Platte
Martha Missouri Moore, 1859. Left southwest Missouri May 1. To Ft. Scott, Ft. Riley,
and north to "main California road." Probably followed Ft. Riley/Ft.
Kearny military road.
Malvina Virginia Manning, 1860. From Arkansas to "Counsel Grove" on Arkansas (?)
(Neosho) river and Ft. Riley on the "Coy River" (Kaw, or Kansas River).
The Ft. Riley & One Hundred Ten Creek road is documented in the Executive Minutes
of Gov. Geary in 1856. John W. Geary was the third territorial governor of Kansas.
Pertinent diary entries follow:
"Oct. 26--Proceeded today toward "110," on the California and Santa Fe road;
marched rapidly over a dull monotonous country, consisting of high, rolling prairie--not
a shrub or tree to relieve the monotony, and no sign of human habitations until we
reached "110," the great California stopping place....Leaving "110," marched a northwest
direction on the Ft. Riley road; reached the headwaters of the
Wakarusa, and encamped.
"Oct. 27--Leave camp at 8 o'clock and travel briskly toward Ft. Riley, as rations are
getting short in proportion to the distance yet to be traveled. The road keeps a high
divide between the waters of the Neosho and the Wakarusa, the banks of which are
skirted with timber, both in full view of the road. Encamped on the headwaters of the
"Oct. 28--Proceeded along same divide. Immense quarries of white limestone on
each side; country uninhabited, except at the crossing of Clark's Creek, where a number
of settlements are made. Passed through Riley City, and crossed the Kansas, which was
very high from a freshet from Smoky Hill Fork, to Pawnee City (first territorial capitol of
KT), and went on to Ft. Riley..."
Theodore Weichselbaum, 1857-58. Settled at Ogden, KT, in Dec. 1857, having
followed the Mormon road from One Hundred Ten Creek to Ft. Riley:
"I followed the Santa Fe Trail with my three wagons until I reached the station at 110.
From there I took the Mormon trail and traveled three full days, and never saw a person
or a house. On the morning of the fourth day I saw a house within three rods of where
we had encamped the night before. I went to the house to find out where I was, and
found I was on the head of Humboldt creek (Moss Spring?)...I drove to Ft. Riley, and
crossed the Kansas river at Whisky Point...
"I only knew the road as the Mormon road. Before and after I came to Ogden the
Mormons traveled on that road, turning onto it from the Santa Fe trail. They crossed the
Kansas at Whisky Point...and climbed the hill on the east side of where the hospital now
stands at Ft. Riley, and thence across country to Ft. Kearny, Neb., and from there to Salt
Lake City. I don't renenber of any other emigration than the Mormons using that road. I
have seen hundreds of them come that way in all kinds of conveyances. Some of them
took out strings of fine horses."
Clara (Harvey) White, 1859. She was 3 years old when her father, James M. Harvey,
settled on the north edge of the Ft. Riley reservation on the SE 1/4 S35 T10S R5E. Mr.
Harvey was the fifth governor of the state of Kansas. Her recollections are published in
Log Cabin Days, "Twice Told Tales" 1928:
"In the earliest days many a settler from miles away to the north or west, overtaken by
night or storm on his way to Ogden to file upon his claim, sought shelter in the little log
cabin which was our parents' first home...I do not know by what trail these travelers
reached the Harvey claim. No great trail came near it although there was one known as
the Mormon Trail which passed about one-half mile from where the cabin stood. I have
understood that this trail had been made by a band of Mormons, at what date I do not
know, possibly before the founding of Ft. Riley in 1853. These Mormons came across
Kansas from Kansas City to the site of Ft. Riley, then, turning abruptly to the northwest,
crossed what is now the military reservation and traveled on to reach the great main trail
across Nebraska to Utah. When I can first remember this trail it consisted of about eight
parallel roads, some very deeply gullied. Probably in some parts of this trail's length its
gullies may still vex farmers who know nothing of its history. Only very recently were
the last signs of it effaced where it crossed our land."
Clara's account was written when she was about 70 years of age, and her childhood
recollections are not completely accurate. The BLM Survey shows that she was correct
about the location of the Mormon Road east of her home. However, the trail which
diagonally crossed their quarter section was the original Ft. Riley/Ft. Kearny Military road
on its way west to the crossing of Madison Creek. This road was, indeed, very heavily
traveled for the first few years of its existence, and was probably fenced off by Mr.
Harvey when a new or alternate road was located from Madison Creek down the
Republican Valley to enter Ft. Riley from the west. This is probably the deeply gullied
road of eight parallel rut swales remembered by Clara Harvey.
Several bridges were constructed on the Ft. Kearny Military road in the Republican
River valley in 1858. These bridges were constructed by U.S. Gov't. contractors under
the direction of Lt. Francis Bryan. The first of these bridges was
on Madison creek.
Floyd Wolfenbarger of Manhattan, Kansas, told the author in 1956, that his
grandparents had settled in the 1870s in Riley county north of May Day, and that rut
swales of the Mormon road still existed in their pasture. His father told him that the
swales were the remains of a military road, indicating that the route may have been an
alternate choice for troop movements between Ft. Riley and Ft. Kearny.