Renegade Roads

Dreams of Gold on the Starvation Trail

From Kansas City, Missouri, to Denver, Colorado.

From Kansas City, Missouri, to Denver, Colorado.

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Gold seekers intent on finding the quickest ways to the Colorado gold fields forged the Smoky Hill Trail, but many of them paid a terrible price in their quest as tthey failed to recognize the dangers in crossing the Kansas and Colorado Plains.

Named for the Smoky Hills (a low clay ridge between the Smoky Hill and Republican Rivers in present-day Kansas), the Smoky Hill Trail was used by gold seekers in the late 1850s and as the route of the Butterfield Overland Despatch stage company line begun by David Butterfield in 1862 to link the Missouri River and Colorado mining communities.

Lucian J. Eastin of the Kansas Weekly Herald, on March 1, 1859, set the stage for disaster when he called the Smoky Hill route the best trail to Colorado’s gold mines. News of gold in the Pike’s Peak region had spread throughout the country during the fall of 1858. Missouri River towns, wanting the business associated with the anticipated rush, promoted themselves as the best jumping-off places.

Leavenworth, as Eastin’s article noted, was due east of the gold, although hundreds of miles away. If gold seekers traveled straight to the west they would save days of travel and beat those who opted for the well-established northern road (the Oregon-California Trail) that had been in use since the 1840s. The Smoky Hill route was also shorter than the equally well-established Santa Fe Trail. Eastin pointed out that the Leavenworth route followed a beeline up the Smoky Hill Fork of the Arkansas River.

Eastin didn’t bother to emphasize that the route had “not been explored through its entire length.” His lack of forthright detail, combined with a start too early in the year and just plain old bad luck, led to the most horrific tragedy on any trail to Colorado’s gold fields. But before we get to the tragedy, let’s start at the Missouri River.

Buried Treasure in Kansas City

Today’s Kansas City region drew travelers who came there to “jump off” for the West from points like Independence, Westport, even Leavenworth, where the Smoky Hill Trail had its genesis.

I start my exploration for a Smoky Hill journey at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Created from the treasure uncovered by five men who found the Arabia buried under 45 feet of dirt and mud in a farmer’s field, the museum is a snapshot of the goods people would have had available for a journey across the Plains to Colorado in 1859, for the Arabia sank in 1856. That means everything on display in this museum would have been accessible during the period. The array of goods is nothing short of astounding: leather boots and brogans, felt hats, porcelain buttons, jewelry and other personal items; knives, lanterns, chains, buckets and other workday goods; gold flasks, porcelain dishes, pitchers, bowls, table utensils, even toys; and so much more, from Indian trade beads to horse tack.

After a visit to the Arabia museum and a good plate of barbecue at Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ, I am ready to jump off toward the west. I head out of the city on Interstate 70 and take a quick side detour north on Highway 7 to Leavenworth, so I can say I “started” at the genesis of the Smoky Hill Trail. Then I return to I-70, which I’ll follow to the mother lode.

Walking Toward Disaster

Carrying packs and leading a horse also loaded with goods, the Blue brothers—Alexander, Charles and Daniel—trudged across the Kansas Plains on their way to the gold diggings in the Pike’s Peak region in early spring 1859. Leaving their homes in Clyde, Illinois, the brothers had traveled by train to St. Louis and by steamer down the Missouri River to Kansas...

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