Like all great migrations it began slowly, in fits and starts, ebbing back toward the known, the comfortable and familiar before once again surging forward into uncertainty.
Driven by curiosity as well as by commerce, enticed by rumor or persuaded by reason, traders and caravaners, mountain men, shopkeepers and scouts followed in the footsteps of men like Zebulon Pike, overcoming first one obstacle and then another as they created the collection of loosely-bundled routes we know today as the Santa Fe Trail.
On July 17, 1825, thirty-three men on horseback and seven others driving horse-drawn baggage wagons left Fort Osage, Missouri, “running a line” to measure distance as they traveled to Santa Fe. By August 5, having achieved 145 miles and having come into Osage territory, they stopped for breakfast in a grove of trees on the Neosho River – a spot that later would become the town of Council Grove, Kansas.
George C. Sibley, one of three commissioners appointed to survey the road to Santa Fe, noted their intentions in his journal.
“Here we find most excellent pasturage, and a large and beautiful grove of fine timber; and we determine to wait here for the Osages, who are expected in two or three days.”
Three days later a party of Osage chiefs, headmen and warriors numbering about fifty arrived at the camp. The morning of August 9, a first meeting was held and recorded in Sibley’s journal.
“The Commissioners explained to them fully and clearly what they desire respecting the road, and proposed to give them $800 as compensation for the privilege of marking it through their land, and the free use of it forever.
After a few minutes’ conversation among themselves, the chiefs declared their assent to the proposition and expressed their readiness to execute a treaty to that effect. And they were told that the Commissioners would neet them again tomorrow, prepared to conclude and sign the treaty as now agreed on.”
On the next day, August 10, the Osage and the Commissioners, the Commissioners’ Secretary, Archibald Gamble, and translator “Old Bill” Williams met at the base of what now is known as The Council Oak, where the treaty was read and signed. Three hundred dollars of goods were given immediately to the Osage, along with an order through trader Auguste P. Chouteau for five hundred dollars in ammunition, knives and assorted other goods.
Today, the remains of that Council Oak and a sign indicating its significance lie alongside U.S. Highway 56 where it follows the Santa Fe Trail through Council Grove.
While the August 10th Council which opened the route for development was important, the grove in which it was held was no less so.
From the western border of Missouri to Council Grove, passage was relatively easy. Few travelers experienced difficulties with the Indians, water was consistently available, and the well-wooded countryside provided adequate fuel for cooking fires.
West of Council Grove, there was little timber to be found for repairs or fuel. The elm, oak, ash, walnut, hickory and cottonwood trees of the grove constituted a rich and necessary resource. By 1831 Council Grove had become a rendezvous point, a place for traders and caravaners to rest and graze their animals as they made repairs, repacked wagons, agreed on travel rules and elected caravan officers.
Despite the rigors of cutting and preparing timbers for wagon repairs on the trail, the record reveals a remarkable appreciation on the part of caravaners for the beauty surrounding them. Walker D. Wyman, in an article on “Freighting” written for a 1931 volume of the Kansas Historical Quarterly, cites a brief description from the September 28, 1850 issue of the Missouri Republican.
“The oppressive monotony of the wide prairie is broken by gentle slopes and deep ravines, well-wooded with groves of stately oaks and walnuts, which form promontories of woodland, jutting out into the open-prairie sea… graceful elms, tall cottonwoods and stately sycamores adorn the margins of the streams.”
One Council Grove elm gained particular prominence after General George A. Custer and a portion of his troops set up camp beneath its canopy.
In the reorganization of the U.S. army after the Civil War, Custer had been assigned to the 7th Cavalry with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He remained the acting commander of the Regiment until his death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Clearly, Custer’s final troubles at Little Big Horn were far from his first. In 1867, the same year he camped in Council Grove, he was court-martialed and removed from command for leaving his post at Fort Wallace, Kansas without permission.
Reinstated in September, 1868 after efforts on his behalf by General Philip H. Sheridan, Custer moved on to the Battle of the Washita in November, 1868, where numbers of Cheyenne and their allies were either massacred or defeated, depending upon your point of view. Custer himself was accused of abandoning a small detachment of his men at Washita, and this so-called Elliott affair divided the Regiment until it met its end at Little Big Horn.
All of this may help to explain Custer’s interest in farming. U.S. Army Brigadier General Amos Kimball had served with Custer in the 1868-69 Winter Campaign against the Plains Indians, and the thought of a peaceful retirement may have appealed to them both. But it was not to be. After Custer’s death in 1876, his wife, Libby, and Kimball went on to sell the 120 acres in 1881.
At least one other tree in Council Grove, the so-called “Post Office Oak” has attained nearly mythological status. Crouching under its sun-and-rain-shielding canopy like a leprechaun under a toadstool, it’s surrounded by assorted plaques, markers and signs attesting to its significance as a cache for messages left by travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.
Storm-damaged and aged, the tree was declared dead in 1990. On September 9, 2008, the remaining trunk was cut down and divided, with the portion shown below returned to its place of honor before the Hebrank family home, a native stone structure erected in 1864.
This photograph from 2006 shows the tree just two years before its removal.
And this even earlier view shows the tree in full leaf, very much as it might have looked to travelers along the Trail.
As for the caching of letters, the specifics of that practice seem uncertain.
There are reports of a stone cache built at the tree’s base, but just to the east the Neosho River flows and floods, so caching near the ground seems unlikely. Others have suggested that mail was hidden away in a natural hollow, and there are reliable reports such a hollow branch existed, but whether it was used for mail service is debatable.
An intriguing discussion of the matter is offered by Derrick Doty, a Council Grove resident (and founding member of the Tallgrass Express String Band) who happens to have a pechant for history.
In this c.1900 photograph, a woman presumed to be Mary Metzger stands next to the Post Office Oak on the steps of the Hebrank home.
In a March 29, 2013 blog entry, Doty explores the possibility that the tree never functioned as a postal drop, and adds this tantalizing detail.
Mary Metzger, who lived in the stone house near the tree, expressed her disappointment when the “decision was made to recognize the oak tree on the Crum property as the Council Oak Tree and they called the oak tree on her property the Post Office Oak. She deeply felt the decision was the wrong one.” Apparently Metzger had reason to believe that her tree was the Council Oak. I won’t go there.
And neither will I.
Despite the compelling histories associated with these remnants of Council Grove trees, I confess my favorite is a Bur oak known primarily for the fact that it’s still alive.
Standing only a few feet from the elm marking Custer’s campground, it has sheltered no Generals and played no particular role in great historical events. It exists only as a reminder of that mile-wide stretch of hardwoods which allowed Council Grove to play such a significant role in the development of the Santa Fe Trail.
Its given sprout date – 1776 – resonates with significance, making the tree contemporaneous with America’s beginnings as a nation. Tree dating being a somewhat inexact science, it’s true the tree could be either younger or older than indicated. Still, “Sprout Date – 1772” or “Sprout Date – 1785” doesn’t have quite the same ring. If the year 1776 was selected for patriotic effect there’s no real harm done, and similarities to the famous Liberty Tree certainly are evident.
The tree itself is beautiful, a tall complexity of branches and leaves. Despite its age, it continues to produce acorns, albeit with year-to-year variations in crop size.
When I met the tree in the fall of 2011, only a few of its fuzzy-capped gems were hidden in the grass. Amazed by their size, I brought home two caps and hoped for a better harvest in 2012. That year, I did find a small clutch of beautiful specimens, enough to satisfy my collector’s heart.
When an artist and blogging friend in the Pacific Northwest mentioned in passing that she’d never seen Bur oak acorns, I said I’d try to gather some for her on my trip back to Council Grove last fall. She was delighted, and suggested that a few leaves would be nice, too – if it wasn’t too much trouble.
It was no trouble at all, particularly since the crop was abundant. I filled a bag with acorns and laid the delicate leaves across the back seat of the car. Once I returned home, green leaves and brown, fuzzy caps and smooth, glossy acorns set off for Seattle – tokens of friendship and mementos of the Trail.
Some weeks later, my acorns and leaves returned, transformed by Rosemary’s talent and brush into this delicate watercolor.
My first impulse was to laugh with delight at these peripatetic acorns – collected in Kansas, carried to Texas, sent to Seattle – which unexpectedly had circled back to me in such a wondrous way. Clearly, Rosemary had captured some of the flavor of their “great circle route” in the composition of her painting.
Still, looking at this circle of acorns and leaves over time, I found myself seeing even more.
I see not only one tree and one grove, but also the life that took shape there. I see great, wooden wheels circling as surely as the seasons, creaking their wagons across the plains. I see the wagons themselves, circled together for comfort and defense, secure beneath the stars of the vast prairie night. I see the great circle of commerce, imprinted into the deeply-rutted earth from Independence to Santa Fe and eastward again.
Above all, I see the great circle of life and of death, played out in the journeys of those who perished and those who trekked on, part of that great American migration that never truly ended but only was transformed, in time, by history itself.