The Smoky Hill Trail

Before writing about more donors of the Pioneer Monument and am writing about what the monument celebrated, the end of the Smoky Hill Trail.  The gold rush to Kansas Territory started in 1858.  The Smoky Hill Trail began in 1859, and ran from Atchison, Kansas to Denver.  Denver is fourteen miles farther north than Atchison, Kansas.  Ideally, you could draw an almost straight line, traveling 590 miles (highway distance) between the two cities.  This is about the same distance race cars traveled today in two Memorial Day races with in a few hours.  In 1859 the trip was not so easy.  From Atchison the B.O.D. (Butterfield Overland Dispatch stage coach) route took twelve days and cost $175.00.  In today’s dollars, this would be $5000.00 to travel by stage between the two settlements.  Travel by foot or wagon could take a couple of months.

The Smoky Hill Trails was thought to be the most direct route to the gold fields.  The Santé Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail looked longer.  Why was Atchison, Kansas or Leavenworth, Kansas the starting point of the trip to the gold fields?  The reason is that both settlements were located on the Missouri River.  You could take a steam ship up river to these settlements, they were the western most places that allowed a straight line from the Missouri River to the gold fields.  William Byer’s, Handbook to the Gold Fields, encourages Council Bluffs as a starting point.  This starting point takes the northern route into gold fields.

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William Byer’s Handbook to the Gold Fields mentions steamboats as a way to get to Kansas Territory.  On page 19 it directs the traveler: “upon the opening of navigation a line of first class steamers will be put upon the route between St. Joseph and Omaha, and there will be daily arrivals from St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburg and other points.”  Rarely do we think that the Pike’ Peak Gold Rush started on a river boat.  The Missouri River carried Lewis and Clark on their expedition.  John J. Audubon and George Armstrong Custer traveled up the Missouri by steamer.  Native Americans traveled down the river to reservation life in 1881 by steamer.  Mark Twain, when still known as Samual Clements, received his steamboat pilots license in April of 1859, the same time the gold seekers were heading west.

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I never thought my research would take me to steamboats on western rivers.  I was researching Atchison, Kansas because this was the beginning of the Smoky Hill Trail and was intrigued that steamboats were a small part of our Colorado History.  Another find in this research was the discovery William Byers book. As of this writing, William Byer’s Handbook to the Gold Fields can be found at this web address:

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The Smoky Hill Trail was 592 miles long.  Its heyday was from 1855-1870.  The story of the trail included numerous facets of the settlement of the West.

John C. Fremont along with Kit Carson explored the Smoky Hill Trail for the U.S. Government in 1842.  It is named for the Smoky Hill River that it follows through Kansas.  The Smoky Hill Trail had three routes, the northern, the middle trail-known as starvation trail, and the southern route.  The biggest threat was from Indian attacks.  Lack of water caused major problems for travelers.

A stage route was established by David A. Butterfield.  This is a different person than John Butterfield who established the mail route to Denver.  The stage took 12 days.  There were 40 stations along the way, 16 of these were Home Stations that supplied meals.  Eventually, Ben Holliday who now owned the mail route, bought out the Butterfield Overland Dispatch route, (BOD). He had protection of the army for his mail route and used it to help insure protection to the stage passengers.  This operation was sold to Wells Fargo in November of 1866.  The years 1867 to 1870 were considered the years of Indian Troubles along the route.  The BOD ended operations in August of 1870.  The railroad took over as the desired mode of transportation.

As a side note, the Pony Express operated from April 1860 to October 1861.  The route traveled only 26 miles in present Colorado.  It went through Sedgwick County in the North East part of the now Colorado.

The discussion of the Smoky Hill Trail must also include the debate whether Kansas would be pro-slavery or a free state.  The fight to determine which way it would go was violent.  Eventually when Kansas was admitted to the Union, on January 29, 1861, a few months before the start of the Civil War, it was voted in as a free state.

The story of the Smoky Hill Trail is more than tough times on the trail.  It includes Steamship travel, this included changes to the Native American population.  The now, well travelled rivers, also brought disease and alcohol.  The overland trails and steamship travel changed with the railroad.  The railroad changed the food production with cattle drives.  As the west was settled, political matters followed, anti or pro slavery was the first question asked of incorporated areas.  The last Indian raids on Kansas soil occurred in 1878, years after the railroad was established.  The railroad eliminated the long travel on the trail, it affected steam ship travel on the rivers.  The Civil War changed the pace of western settlement by both steamship and railroad.  All these factors shaped the western migration, all need to be mentioned when researching how the West was settled.

Additions, comments and corrections are welcomed, JOE S






















Steamboats were being used since the early 1800’s.  It would not be unthinkable to travel by steamboat from St. Louis to Kansas City.  Then travel up the Missouri River and leave to the gold fields from Atchison, Kansas, the start of the trail.


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This entry was posted on May 28, 2018 by in Larimer Street.
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