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Historians' efforts land Cherokee Trail back on Kansas maps

Patricia Middleton
The Hutchinson News

The Cherokee Trail is back on the map after years of being forgotten, thanks to the research of historians from southern Kansas.

Linda Andersen, a historian from Galva, first heard of the trail in 2005 at the Santa Fe Trail national symposium in McPherson, when two speakers talked about the trail.

"I had never heard of it before then," Andersen said.

A group known as the Friends of the Cherokee Trail — Kansas first met on Sept. 17, 2013.

"We have people from all different parts of the trail," Andersen said. "We're not a formal organization, we're just friends with the same interest."

That interest led to hours of research into historical records and visual surveying of the trail.

The wagon trail

The Cherokee Trail was forged in 1849 when a group of 130 white men and 15 Cherokee in 40 wagons journeyed northwest through Oklahoma and Kansas to forge a path that would intersect with the Santa Fe Trail.

Cherokee from Tahlequah, Oklahoma and white men from Evansville and Fayetteville, Arkansas, joined together in Salina, Oklahoma, to go the the goldmines of California, Andersen said.

The Cherokee were invited to join the group in the hope that their presence would deter attacks from other tribes.

"The whites saw the advantage of taking Indians along, because they would go through Osage areas east of Wichita," said Brian Stucky, a historian from Goessel.

The wagons chose a route that ran through Kansas from Independence up through El Dorado, Potwin, Walton, Goessel and on to Galva. On May 12, 1849, the wagon train came to the Santa Fe Trail at Running Turkey Creek, one mile east and two miles south of Galva.

To mark the junction of the new trail with the Santa Fe Trail, the travelers wrote about their arrival on pasteboard, wrapped it in oilcloth and placed it under a large rock. Their notations about the new road, which was roughly 300 miles long, told of the ease of crossing the prairie with water in plentiful supply along the way.

"We're used to square miles now, but back then, there were no roads," said Mel Epp, president of the Frederic Remington Historical Society.

Mapping the Cherokee

The trail was marked on early maps of the area.

"The good thing about the Cherokee Trail is it's a well-documented trail," Stucky said. "It shows up on the original surveys where they laid out the square miles and the townships in about 1860. Farmers may not even know that it goes across their land, but we have survey maps and written notes."

Augusta Stewart of El Dorado wrote in her diary in 1859 that 100 wagons per day could be seen rolling along the trail. A stone house built as a way station for the Cherokee Trail still stands in El Dorado today.

Artifacts such as cannon balls, rifle parts, metal pots and horseshoes have been dug up near where the Cherokee Trail passed south of Goessel, indicating that the military used the trail.

"It just shows that, 150 years later, we're still finding things that we did not know about," Andersen said.

The Cherokee Trail was used until 1861, when the end of the Gold Rush era and the beginning of the Civil War turned America's focus away from westward expansion.

The newly formed group began retracing the trail.

"We covered from the Oklahoma border up through Galva," Stucky said.

Seeing the ruts left in the earth by wagon wheels, the newly formed group was able to map the Cherokee Trail and approached landowners in 2014 to determine if there would be interest in placing markers to raise awareness of the trail.

"Some of the landowners were so excited to have the trail on their property, they didn't mind paying to put up a sign," Andersen noted.

In Butler County, the Frederic Remington Historical Society provided funds for signs in their area. There are now more than 30 signs in Kansas marking the path of the Cherokee Trail.

"It's so exciting, if you like history, to stand on a spot and know this is where the Cherokee Trail crossed," Andersen said.

Back on the map

The group brought in other trail organizations to tour the Cherokee Trail and met with Principal Chief Bill John Baker of the Cherokee Nation to tell him of their work.

When Andersen was asked why the Cherokee Trail was not on the Kansas map, she contacted the Kansas Department of Transportation to ask how it could be added. With the information the Friends of the Cherokee Trail — Kansas had gathered and details from a feasibility study conducted by the National Parks Service, the Kansas Historical Society was able to approve the trail's inclusion on the map of Kansas that was put out by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism this year.

"It was a group effort to get it all done," Andersen said. "Each member of the committee was very interested in their own area, and that really helped when we all came together."