The Raynesford Papers: Mapping and Marking the Butterfield Overland Despatch Trail

Mapping and Marking
the Butterfield Overland Despatch Trail

     In Nov. of 1958 Howard C. Raynesford and August Schutte of Ellis went up to Wallace County to the famous Madigan Ranch by appointment with Frank Madigan to search out the old Butterfield Trail and locate its station sites through Wallace County. We went west from the ranch almost to the State line and located first the Blue Mound Station in the southeast quarter of Sec. 18, township 13, Range 42 W. This is where the famous Big Timbers was located where Black Kettle and his Indians who escaped from the Chivington Massacre on Sand Creek took refuge. It consisted of several acres of big cottonwood trees with no underbrush, and Frank Madigan says that as the surveyors of the trail approached, it appeared to them as a very large mound which looked blue to them in the distance, hence the name of the station, Blue Mound, though it was also sometimes spoken of as Big Timbers Station.

     In the something over 90 years since the trail was surveyed, the Smoky Hill River has changed its course, and at this particular point is a good quarter of a mile wide, the north bank having moved more than half that distance, partially obliterating the Trail and most of the actual station site. The early settler who lived on the place said that in one of the many floods on the Smoky Hill, a large number of big tree stumps were uprooted and went down the stream. The settlers, who began coming in in 1886 felled all these trees for lumber and firewood, and at the present time there is only one very large cottonwood tree left and it stands about midway in the sandbed that constitutes the Smoky Hill River at this place. Just east of the station site a hundred-foot wide sand gulley, which did not exist at all when the station was there, has been made by floods, the banks of which are some 30 or 40 feet high and very nearly perpendicular.

     WILLOW CREEK Station was found in Sec. 15-13-41, more than a mile and a half east of the present mouth of Willow Creek, but it appears that at sometime Willow Creek has cut through its low sandy banks to the Smoky Hill, as the old bed can be traced almost to the site of the Willow Creek station, which was supposed to be at its mouth, and this old bed forms the north boundary of Fitch's Meadows, which consists of a heavily grassed flat between the old bed of Willow Creek and the Smoky River which here is something like a half mile further south. This meadow is still mowed for hay. So Willow Creek and Fitch's Meadows are at the same place, which accounts for both names having been applied to this station.

     GOOSE CREEK Station was not a station of the original survey but was established sometime later, and is the scene of several recorded Indian attacks. It is on the east bank of Goose Creek near its junction with the Smoky Hill, in the northeast quarter of Sec. 9-13-40. In all these stations sites there is very little evidence of where the buildings stood, the soil being of such a sandy nature that heavy floods wash it easily, and thus wash it away or fill in the depressions usually indicating the location of buildings.

     POND CREEK Station was originally located in the Northwest quarter of Sec. 26-13-39 near the mouth of Pond Creek, but when the Union Pacific RR was built through, it was moved a half to three-quarters of a mile northwest next to the railroad. Pond Creeks main station building is the only original structure still in existence of all the stations in western Kansas, and is now on the Madigan Ranch some 15 miles northwest of Wallace. When the station was abandoned, Thomas Madigan, who came to Wallace County in 1868, bought it and moved it to Wallace and used the first floor for his store and the second floor as living quarters, and most of his children were born there. When he closed his store the building was moved to his ranch, and now it has been given by the Madigans to the Fort Wallace Memorial Association to be moved back to Wallace to become part of the museum and park. The lumber to build it was hauled overland from Colorado Springs by Oxteam and the heavy framing timbers are mortised together as barns in the east were once made, with the outside boards nailed on perpendicular, and in several places they are pierced with bullet holes, evidence of the station having under fire.

     About 2 1/2 miles east of Pond Creek Station the Trail went through Fort Wallace and on in a little north of east direction into Logan Co. Where the next station was Henshaw's Springs, south of present McAlister. Nothing is left of Ft. Wallace except the cemetery, which was preserved largely because of the stone wall enclosing it. August Schutte's father, Wm. Schutte, was a military scout on the plains in the early days and knew and associated with many of the military personel and scouts, many of whom are buried in Ft. Wallace cemetery, and he often expressed sadness that the plot was not taken better care of and preserved. So when a La Cross banker, W.A. Hays, ran for State representative for Rush Co., August, who was well acquainted with him and having his father's lamentations in mind, called his attention to this condition and expressed the hope that if he was elected he would try to do something about it. He heartedly agreed and after he was elected he had August come down to Topeka where he addressed the House of Representatives pleading for better care of the graves of those who had fallen in the cause of making the country safe for the settlers. The result was an appropriation with which was built a fine stone fence around the cemetery, which sets it apart as hallowed ground and preserves its sanctity from thoughtless trespas.

     The old Butterfield Overland Despatch was a very important trail in early western Kansas history and in searching it out through Wallace County we are greatly indebted to Frank Madigan, for without his personal pioneer knowledge it could never have been correctly traced through Wallace County because of the close proximity of much of it to the Smoky Hill River, which in the many years since the Trail's abandonment has completely obliterated parts of it.

     This Trail was also sometimes called the Old Denver Trail. It was the most direct and most favored route between the Missouri River and Denver, being 116 miles shorter to Denver than either the Santa Fe or Platte River trails, and had other great advantages, such as a good road bed (no sand) and plenty of grass and water, alkali free. For these reasons it was not only favored by the Government wagon trains but was much used by many transporting companies as well as a great many settlers. Perhaps its greatest drawback was the fact that it was not so well protected by the Military from Indian attacks as other trails, resulting in much loss of life and property, and contributing greatly to its final abandonment. The German family tragedy was one, they having followed this trail from near Ellis to within 27 miles of Fort Wallace where five of them were killed by Indians and four girls taken captive. Almost every station was repeatedly attacked with many people killed and many stations destroyed.

     Kansas is not yet so history-minded as many older states but the time will come when it will be regretted that this Trail was not marked when it could be easily traced. It still could be done with very little expense if each adjacent community could be induced to care for that part in its immediate vacinity. Raynesford suggests that each station site should have a marker something like those used by the State Historical Society telling something of its history. And as this Trail runs east and west through these seven counties, if a suitable marker could be placed alongside every regularly laid out road or highway running north and south through this approximately 220 miles where they cross this Trail, it would be pretty well located through the whole distance. These markers could be made of some durable but inexpensive rock with a very simple inscription facing the road, such as B O D with the date 1865 under it, for to anyone interested that would be ample identification. They should also be uniform throughout the entire distance for obvious reasons. The rock from the quarry on the Philip Ranch, for instance, would be practically everlasting and is what Bill Philip used to mark several places on the Trail at and near his ranch.

      Howard C. Raynesford in Hays Daily News, March 1959.

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