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Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Between 1821 and 1880 the Santa Fe Trail linked the supply and transportation centers of Kansas and Missouri to consumer markets in Mexico and New Mexico. Along the approximately 800-mile wagon road between western Missouri and Santa Fe, wagon trains forded streams, endured weather extremes, fought and traded with Native Americans of the Plains, and sought the easiest way to their destination. William Becknell (“father of the Santa Fe Trail”) realized after his first trip from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, that he could probably find a faster route.

In 1822 Becknell chartered his second course over what came to be known as the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail, which in time would carry about 75% of all traffic between the United States and Old and New Mexico. This route left the Arkansas River just west of Cimarron, Kansas. Cutting diagonally it crossed the southwest corner of Kansas, clipped Colorado, and then traversed the extreme western portion of the panhandle of Oklahoma. From there it angled north of Clayton, New Mexico to just east of Springer. At Taylor Springs it headed toward Wagon Mound and on into Watrous paralleling modern Interstate 25 to finally join the Mountain Branch at La Junta/Watrous, New Mexico. It wasn't until the early 1830s that the Mountain Branch became the choice for pack trains using mules or lightly loaded wagons. This route continued west along the Arkansas River from Cimarron, Kansas, to the safety of Bent's Fort near modern La Junta, Colorado, down to Trinidad, and over the treacherous Raton Pass.

Because most of the Murphy freight wagons were heavily loaded the preferred trail was the Cimarron Cutoff. It was also the choice of the fast running mail coaches. Although this route avoided the arduous Raton Pass and shortened the route by a 100 miles (about 10 travel days), it was prone to the hardships of making dry camps and Indian ambushes. As one traveler noted: "Fatigue, hunger, and thirst could make this last stretch of the journey across the high desert country disorienting." Thus, the use of natural landmarks called pilot\'s knobs were key to the survival of these Santa Fe Trail caravans.

Several first-hand accounts describe negotiating the trail as it left the Arkansas River at Cimarron, Kansas, and headed to the area north of Clayton, New Mexico. Even crossing the Arkansas at the lower crossing "was quite tedious and difficult...the water being waist-deep and the bottom uneven." Once on the southern side of the river the jornada of twenty-six miles began. An early traveler, Albert Pike, described this portion of the trip as follows: "[T]he prairies…between the Arkansas and Cimmaron were not level, but rather composed of immense undulations, as though it had once been the bed of a tumultuous ocean, a hard, dry surface of fine gravel, incapable, almost, of supporting vegetation. The general features of this whole great desert--its sterility, dryness and unconquerable barrenness--are the same wherever I have been in it." During this stretch there was no water to be had for neither human nor beast for about half its distance. Often travel at night was the only option, especially during the summer months of intense heat and blinding sunlight. Mirages were a constant worry, drawing men to imaginary pools of water. Wagon trains made their way at a rate of eight miles a day to Wagon Bed Spring on the Cimarron River in western Kansas, described by Pike as the "saltiest, most singular, and most abominable of all the villainous streams of the prairie."

Wagon Bed Spring, today a National Historic Landmark (NHL) on private land, was so-called when a wagon bed was sunk in the spring to collect potable water. It had previously been called the Lower Spring of three along the Cimarron River. It was here that Comanches killed the famous mountain man, Jedediah Smith while he was out scouting for a wagon train. Josiah Gregg extolled the Lower Spring on the Cimarron with "its delightful green-grass glades and flowing torrent." Pike described the Middle Spring as being "flanked to the north by steep bluffs with just breaks enough between them for the wind to whistle merrily between their rough teeth." All three springs were crucial sources of water because in summer the Cimarron River itself was dry and any water holes were alkali. Along this stretch of the river travelers encountered herds of antelope and often camped and hunted at each of the springs before heading once again out on the "continuous level plain, treeless and trackless, except for the road we traveled, covered with buffalo grass."

It was at the Upper Spring that Rabbit Ears, "the first great land mark," came into view and toward which travelers shaped their course. Rabbit Ears Mountain (NHL) at an elevation of 6062 feet is a remnant of Tertiary volcanos, surrounded by lava flows, located just north of Clayton, New Mexico. "These twin diminutive sentinels of the Rockies, stationed here to the left of our road, could not have been more appropriately named, their resemblance to the ears of a jack-rabbit being strikingly obvious." However, another story suggests that they were named for Chief Orejas de Conejo (Rabbit Ears) of the Comanche who was killed by Spaniards in the 1700s.

This Spanish-led expedition left Santa Fe and headed for Orejas de Conejos to meet the Comanches in battle, in order to rescue some Spanish prisoners. The Spaniards knew this name before the Chief was killed, so they, too, may have been referring to the natural landmark, rather than the Chief. Possibly the Chief received his Spanish name because his tribe frequented this area. The Spanish force of 500 men was led by don Juan de Padilla, Carlos Fernández and Padre Pino. They charged the Comanche camp, killing hundreds and taking 700 prisoners. The battle of Rabbit Ears put an end to all Comanche depredations against Spaniards.

Keeping Rabbit Ears Mountain in view wagon masters on the Cimarron Cutoff continued on a southwesterly bearing, cutting across the extreme northwestern portion of the Oklahoma Panhandle. At this point the road left the Cimarron River to travel for about twenty miles through a rough country of hills and mesas to Camp Nichols. Northwest of Wheeless, Oklahoma, Camp Nichols (NHL) was founded in 1865 by Colonel Kit Carson and commanded by Lt. Richard Russell, husband of Marion Sloan Russell, the writer of an engaging trail story. Charged with protecting travelers on the Cimarron and Aubry cutoffs, the military outpost lasted only a few months.

Continuing to use Rabbit Ears as a pilot's knob travelers headed for McNees Crossing of Corrumpa Creek in New Mexico. Also a National Historic Landmark, this crossing was named for Robert McNees. In 1828 he and Daniel Monroe, young eastbound traders, rode ahead of their caravan to scout the trail and look for water. Indians attacked the two while they rested at this spot, killing McNees instantly, and mortally wounding Monroe. Just three years later Josiah Gregg recorded Fourth of July celebrations taking place here, probably the first ever held in New Mexico.

As the wagon road made its difficult crossing at Turkey Creek Camp just seven miles north of Rabbit Ears, other landmarks came into view. George Champlin Sibley, in his journal of travel on the Santa Fe trail, drew a silhouette of the four major landmarks at this point: Rabbit Ears, Mt. Dora, Round Mound (Mount Clayton) and Sierra Grande. "The only relief for the eye, or solace for the mind, came from such prominent landmarks as the jagged Rabbit Ears and the nearby Round Mound that rose from the tedious expanse." These two landmarks together alerted travelers that their ordeal was coming to an end. At Rabbit Ears Creek Camp just north of Mt. Dora, wagon trains would rest for several days to take advantage of the abundance of water, fuel, and game.

The trail then passed to the north of both Mt. Dora at 6290' and Round Mound, described as looking like a sugar loaf and today called Mt. Clayton at an elevation of 6677'. These were major landmarks recognized by all travelers. Off to the north of the trail stood Sierra Grande. At 8720' it is one of New Mexico's largest extinct volcanoes. Both Mt. Dora and Sierra Grande are superb examples of shield volcanoes. This part of northeast New Mexico has many such volcanoes, of which Capulin National Monument is at its center.

With Rabbit Ears and Round Mound to their backs, wagon masters made a heading toward Point of Rocks. Today the Cimarron Cutoff crosses US 64/87 just south of Grenville as it headed toward the Rock Crossing of the Canadian, using Point of Rocks as its westward guide. Although there was a fine spring and the Rocky Mountains in view, the trail was still treacherous, as Indian ambushes were frequent. Upon reaching Rock Crossing just south of Taylor Spring, the Santa Fe Trail again diverged, with some trains heading for Rayado and Taos. Often these trains consisted of mules loaded with trade goods. But occasionally, as Sibley did in 1825, wagon masters would send for pack animals from Taos, unload the majority of the goods from the heavy wagons, and take both the pack trains and the light wagons over the mountains to Taos.

The main trail continued on to another of the Cutoff's most prominent landmarks, Wagon Mound (NHL). Said to resemble a high-top shoe or a covered wagon being pulled by oxen it was the last great landmark on the westward journey, ranking in renown with Pawnee Rock, Kansas, and Rabbit Ears Mountain. Near this lava outcrop was Santa Clara Spring, an important rest stop but favorite ambush site. The cemetery here holds the remains of freighter Charles Fraker. He was of German and Cherokee ancestry and married María de Luz, daughter of Manuel LeFevre, a French-Canadian trapper living in Taos in the 1820s. LeFevre's other daughter, Dolores, married Uncle Dick Wootton of Raton Pass fame. Again, the trails diverged with an off-shoot heading west to Ft. Union.

At this point on the road the Mountain Branch was about twenty miles further to the west and heading for Ft. Union. Finally at Watrous, New Mexico (NHL) the trails converged. This spot was previously called La Junta de los Ríos referring to the convergence of the Sapello and Mora Rivers. La Junta/Watrous became the main rendezvous point for eastbound caravans and was equivalent to Council Grove at the trail\'s eastern terminus. It was here that small parties would gather until a wagon train had enough wagons to safely cross through Indian Territory back to Missouri.

Although this northeastern part of New Mexico gained most notoriety during the Santa Fe Trail period, it was not unknown to both Native Americans and Hispanics. Utes and Jicarilla Apaches extensively hunted this area and knew the best trails to reach the massive buffalo herds of the Great Plains and probably used the same landmarks. Likewise, the ciboleros, Hispanic buffalo hunters, and comancheros, Hispanic traders to the Comanches and Kiowas, knew well the watering holes and good roads and used Rabbit Ears Mountain as a rendezvous spot. Some have suggested that the expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado returned from central Kansas to the Bernalillo area in 1541 via this route, although he more likely re-entered New Mexico near Tucumcari.

In addition to Becknell other names familiar in New Mexico history entered the area via the Cimarron Cutoff. Among them were Charles Bent, trader and later the Territory\'s first governor, and Josiah Gregg, writer of one of the most well read accounts of trail travel.

Today many of these distinctive landmarks are on private land but can be seen along New Mexico\'s Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway and the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway. Also, trail ruts are clearly visible from many public rights-of-way. As you travel this part of Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, you notice, as did Sibley, that upon leaving the Arkansas River "there is a striking difference in the general aspect of the country. It is more broken, sterile, sandy and dry. Its features are more bold and various, especially after arriving within an hundred miles of the mountains, when they become more and more grand and interesting."

Sources Used:

Chronic, Halka. Roadside Geology of New Mexico. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1989.

Gregg, Kate L., ed. The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1952.

Hyslop, Stephen G. Bound for Santa Fe: The Road to New Mexico and the American Conquest, 1806-1848. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Napton, William B. Over the Santa Fe Trail, 1857. Santa Fe: The Stagecoach Press, 1964.

Simmons, Marc. Following the Santa Fe Trail: A Guide for Modern Travelers. Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1986.