SFT thru Douglas County

The Santa Fe Trail through Douglas County — also known as “The Narrows

Your location from the 2nd evening into the 5th day –traveling west on the SFT from Independence, MO1

In Brief:

  • The Narrows is a term used for the ridge that serves as the watershed divide between the Wakarusa and Kansas Rivers to the north and the Marais des Cygnes River to the south. 2
  • The wagon trains followed this ridge knowing that it would greatly minimize the creeks and streams they would need to cross thus greatly reducing the chances of getting stuck or damaging their wheels and axles. 2
  • There is no specific beginning or end but it probably starts at roughly the Douglas County line on the east and ends close to Overbrook on the west. 2 
  • The Narrows follows a thin narrow ridge between the tributaries of these two rivers. 2
  • The wagons’ need to follow this ridge is the reason the trail bends to the north and then back south as it moves across Douglas County. 2 –  Dr. Roger Boyd, 2020
  • Some travelers on the Trail noted their reaching, or passage through The Narrows
    • the Sibley Expedition on their survey of the Trail in 1825 3
    • Josiah Gregg – trader on the Trail 1831 -1840 4
  • Editor’s Note -our chapter is always looking for more references to travel on our area of the Trail, so please let us know if you find any!
  • Douglas County has 5 miles of Original Santa Fe Trail on which you can drive! More info coming soon!

Important note: The trail is not fully marked at this time.  Cell service can be spotty along the Trail, so you will want to download a map prior to your trip. Also, much of the Trail is on dirt roads, so please drive slowly and carefully.  If it is wet or muddy, the roads can be slippery.

More Information:

Definition: The path of the Santa Fe Trail (SFT) through Douglas County followed along a thin strip of land called “The Narrows.”  The Narrows is the top of a ridgeline between the tributary waters of the Wakarusa River (pronounced WA-ka-ROO-suh) which flows into the Kansas or Kaw River to the north and the Marias de Cygnes River (pronounced MARE-uh de Sane/Zane) water shed flowing into the Osage River to the south. Wagon trains used The Narrows in order to avoid water crossings and muddy areas as much as possible.  These wet types of areas caused difficulties for and slowed down the wagon trains.

Location: The SFT entered Douglas County from Johnson County about 1 mile north of US 56 at E. 2400 Rd. The Narrows began just west of the old town of Black Jack (US 56 and E 2100 Rd).  The narrow ridge of the watershed runs through the site of Willow Springs (E. 1100 & N. 550 Rds.), about 9 miles west of Baldwin City. While some consider this to be the end of The Narrows, the ridge of the watershed area continues west and southwest of Willow Springs, becoming much wider. 6 The actual ridge ends around the west side of the town of Overbrook in Osage County, about 19 miles slightly SW of the Douglas County line.

SFT Route: In Douglas County, one is able to follow the actual route of the SFT very closely by car and visualize The Narrows.  Few stream or water crossings will be noted along the drive.  A shallow stream crossing can be found close to the start of this Original 0.6 mile Route of the Trail on E. 400 Rd at N. 1700 Rd/Do. Co. 1055/6th Street. Only a few more crossings are found on the rest of the route before reaching Willow Springs on N. 1100 Rd, 6 miles to the west.  After Willow Springs, the land flattens out, with very few water crossings. Trail diarists noted that the travelling was much easier in this area.

Ridge Height: The height of the ridge on which the wagon trains traveled and the role the ridge plays in helping to avoid and divert water can be also seen by car in several areas.  One of the best places to view it is the corner of N 400 Rd & E 1600 Rd looking north.  Another Original 0.6 mile Route of the SFT runs across the top of the hill on E 1600 Rd, just ½ mile from the intersection.  Water runs down and away from the area on which the wagons traveled.

Historic Stream Crossings: Although the ridge was high, and stream crossings were few in Douglas County, water could cause quite a bit of difficulty.  Parts of the Trail dipped into lower areas of ground. Even areas that appeared dry and easily crossable could be tricky as noted by travelers along the Trail.  Josiah Gregg, a trader who crossed the trail multiple times between 1831 and 1840, called the area “a region of troublesome quagmires.”  He reports, “…it is quite common for a wagon to sink to the hubs in mud, while the surface of the soil all around would appear perfectly dry and smooth.  To extricate each other’s wagons we had frequently to employ double and triple teams, with ‘all hands to the wheels’ in addition – often led by the proprietors themselves up to the waist in mud and water.” 7

Josiah Gregg Was Here?: While the exact location in which Josiah Gregg may have been stuck “to the hubs in mud” is not known, local historian, Katharine Kelley, notes in her research, that one area to consider was in Mud Springs.  Mud Springs was located northwest of the town of Brooklyn. 8 While neither community exists today, the town of Brooklyn is noted by a green marker on the east side of E. 1400 Rd at N. 550 Rd along the SFT.  As the next 3 miles of Original Route of the SF Trail continues to the west of E. 1400 Rd, it moves onto lower ground.  Field research finds a current waterway crossing the trail within ¼ mile, and another very low waterway can be found about 1 mile west (about E. 1300 Rd), then another within ½ mile.  (*Editor’s Note: While we cannot be sure exactly what waterways were present in the 1800’s, the lowness of the area, and the presence of water at this time might indicate that the area has a more wet history than other, higher areas of the trail.  This question certainly bears more research!)

Susan Shelby Magoffin Experience: Susan Shelby Magoffin noted the following on June 13, 1846, in her diary.  “The hindermost one [wagon] has stuck in a mud hole and they are doubling and tripling teams to pull it out… We have made but a poor travel to day; not more than eight miles…. the mud hole detained us two full hours; so to make up in some measure we did not stop until after 8 o’clock tonight.” 9 Mrs. Magoffin writes the next day, June 14, “We are out on the Prairie now.”  (*Editor’s Note: Is this west of Willow Springs where the land opens up?) She notes that they reached 110 Mile Creek, which is west of Overbrook, in Osage County, on June 15. (*Editor’s Note: We will need to do some research to see if we can determine where she may have gotten stuck.)

Drive the Trail: Total drivable mileage of the Santa Fe Trail through Douglas County is estimated at 12 miles.  One can drive close to much of the original trail and can actually drive ON 5 miles of the ORIGINAL ROUTE of the TRAIL!  Coming soon – more info!

Important note: The trail is not fully marked at this time.  Cell service can be spotty along the Trail, so you will want to download a map prior to your trip. Also, much of the Trail is on dirt roads, so please drive slowly and carefully.  If it is wet or muddy, the roads can be slippery.

By M. Jardon, 4/2021, Rev. 7/2021

Notes:

  1. Magoffin, Susan Shelby, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847, ed. Stella M. Drumm, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 2-10.
  2. Boyd, Dr. Roger L., 4/2021.
  3. L. Stephen Schmidt and Richard E. Hayden, “The Survey and Maps of the Sibley Expedition, 1825, 1826, & 1827,” Santa Fe Trail Association(website), published August 2011, accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.santafetrail.org/about-us/scholarly-research/sibley-survey/index.html.
  4. Gregg, Josiah, Commerce of the Prairies, ed. Max. L. Moorhead, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974), 28.
  5. Magoffin, Diary, 2-10.
  6. Boyd, Dr. Roger L., 4/2021.
  7. Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 28.
  8. Kelley, Katherine, Along the Santa Fe Trail in Douglas County, Kansas – A Brief History of The Seven D.A.R. Marker Sites and Town Sites Along the Route of the Trail in Douglas County (booklet), 1987, Santa Fe Trail Historical Society of Douglas County Archives, Baldwin City, Kansas, 22.
  9. Magoffin, Diary, 8.