NORTHEAST KANSAS TRAILS
by Morris W. Werner
Absolute identification of trails used by the pioneers of the 1840s is, of course, impossible. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the routes shown on the accompanying map are based on the Bureau of Land Management surveys of the mid 1850s, on the assumption that only minor relocations were made before the routes were recorded. The problems encountered by Cornelius Gilliam and Maj. Clifton Wharton in 1844 beyond the South Fork of Big Nemaha, resulted in Kearny's discovery a year later of the rock bottom crossing of the South Fork at Baker's Ford north of Seneca, and a road which circumscribed the northern tributaries of the Black Vermillion. While Gilliam's trail beyond the South Fork remained valid, it was several miles longer than Kearny's route. The first emigrants from the St. Joseph area in 1845 probably followed Gilliam, as Lt. Carleton assumed in The Prairie Logbooks. One must also keep in mind that Gilliam's route was greatly influenced by the floods of 1844, which permitted travel only on major divides. His delay at the South Fork probably permitted him to scout his further advance, and thus avoid Wharton's error later in the same year.
The location of the St. Joseph Trace in Brown county around the head of Walnut Creek is based on the description by Lt. J. Henry Carleton, who was on Col. Kearny's staff in 1845. Unfortunately, the BLM Surveys failed to record several miles of this route, but an analysis of Franklin Street's guidebook, California in 1850 Compared With What It Was in 1849, confirms its location. Picking up Kearny's route at the head of Wolf River would have saved Street several miles, but the existence of established campgrounds probably influenced him to stay with the original route in this area. However, he did pick up Kearny's route in the vicinity of Fairview, and followed it to the junction with the original Oregon Trail west of Marysville.
Gilliam's route beyond Walnut Creek is based on the narratives of Carleton and Wharton, and John Minto's recollections at the turn of the century. Since Minto mentions Hamlin, it is possible that Gilliam struck Walnut Creek several miles north of the trail recorded by the BLM Survey. However, Minto makes it clear that Gilliam stayed on the divide south of the Big Nemaha drainage until they crossed the South Fork south of Seneca. Lt. Carleton also served on Wharton's staff in 1844, and his observations provide valuable insights on the routes traveled by Gilliam, Wharton, and Kearny.
The map which accompanied Wharton's report illustrates the lack of topographical knowledge of the region in 1844. Since Wharton followed the 1834 Council Bluffs Trail until he crossed Independence Creek northwest of Atchison, it is apparent that "Clough Creek" is, indeed, the South Fork of Wolf River, and that Pvt. Clough is buried somewhere on the east side at the head of this stream, perhaps a mile or two southwest of Purcell. Wharton continued his journey by circling south around the head of the South Fork, and passing northwest near future Everest and Baker. West of the South Fork of Big Nemaha, his map is exceedingly sketchy. For instance, the Black Vermillion (not labeled) is indicated as flowing south, instead of west into the Big Blue River. John C. Fremont's map of 1843 also made this error. Although Fremont's map was not available to Wharton in 1844, it probably represents contemporary understanding of existing drainage patterns.
Wharton may have pioneered the "Lower Robidoux Crossing" of Robidoux Creek (sometimes called "Vermillion Creek") south of Beattie, Kansas. This cannot be confirmed. Robidoux Creek was named for Michel Robidoux, youngest brother of the founder of St. Joseph. "M. Robidoux--Trapper--1841" is carved in stone southwest of the crossing. Tradition says that he married an Indian woman and operated a trading post in the vicinity. His wife was brutally tortured and killed by tribal enemies, and Robidoux left the area to spend most of his life in the fur trade near Ft. Laramie.