Tempting though it may be to imagine early Santa Fe trail surveyors as a grim, distance-obsessed lot, pressing across the plains in sixty-six foot increments while their lagging chainmen whined and complained, there was more to life on the trail than measured miles and weary feet.
Survey parties camped each night by necessity, but occasionally they stayed in the same spot for several days: a decision sometimes dictated by circumstance — a swollen river, delayed messages, Indian threats — but just as often occasioned by pleasant surprises. Rich grasses, good timber, or an abundance of game were gifts along a dangerous, difficult road, and gifts were not to be received lightly.
August 24, 1825 ~ Busy all day writing and gathering seeds. Buffalo passing all day near camp. Several fat ones killed. At a short distance from camp, the men get great quantities of very fine plums. Horses doing very well here, and we intend to stay several days. John Walker lost his horse, saddle, and blankets when it ran off with a herd of buffalo.
A few days later, as they neared one of the most important landmarks on the Santa Fe Trail, an enormous, rocky cliff known as Pawnee Rock, Sibley again recorded events in his journal:
August 30, 1825 ~ The morning clear, cool and pleasant, a fine air stirring. After breakfast at 30 minutes past 8, we all started. The wagons and most of the party kept up the river bottom. Mr. Gamble and myself rode out upon the high prairie.
We first rode nearly north about a mile to a remarkable rocky point, which projects into the bottom from a high ridge. These rocks are very large and of a glossy black color; towards the river, the face is nearly perpendicular. We rode upon the top which is probably 50 feet above the plains below, and from whence there is a charming view of the country in every direction.
Jacob Fowler, an army surveyor hired in 1821 to accompany Colonel Hugh Glenn up the Arkansas river to the northern Rio Grande, may have seen much the same sight as Sibley, though his journal entry is a marvel of creative spelling:
We set out at the ushal time and at 8 miles West We pased point of red Rocks about 600 yds from the river and at Eleven miles crosed the paney [Pawnee] River. Some Cottenwood on the Banks and Some Bushis. the Red Rock is evidently a volcanic production is pourous lime onestone but heavier than sand stone.
Perhaps Fowler was confused by the “desert varnish” which gives the cliffs their black surface, and which could be mistaken for basalt. The “point of red rocks” which both he and Sibley found so remarkable is, in fact, Dakota sandstone: sedimentary rock that lay buried beneath newer deposits of clay, silt, and sand for untold years.
Over time, as erosion stripped away those softer layers, the harder sandstone became exposed, making Pawnee Rock a significant landmark for travelers.
From 1821 until the 1870s, the Santa Fe Trail ran about two hundred yards south of the rock where Sibley and Fowler stood. Any wagons they saw would have taken about three weeks to make the journey from Independence, Missouri to that almost-halfway point on the Trail.
Today, vehicles passing on the highway that parallels the old wagon tracks might have left Independence as few as six hours earlier — or perhaps seven, if the driver stopped for a leisurely lunch. Early travelers rejoiced in their first sight of the rock. Today, most pass by without a thought.
How the rock received its name remains a mystery. Some claim the Pawnee considered it sacred, and held tribal councils there. Others suggest the naming occurred after a battle in which a small band of Pawnee was overcome by a combined force of Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.
During the early 1840s, American trader Josiah Gregg reported the rock had been named after a battle “between the Pawnees and some other tribe,” and in September, 1843, Philip Cooke told of a similar battle between the Pawnee and “Camanche hordes.”
One of the more interesting early travelers, an actor named Matthew C. Field, had his own way of memorializing Pawnee Rock.
After selling his watch and chain and borrowing money from a friend, Field “joined a group of 17 other adventurers and merchants, Mexican and American, intent on a trip to Santa Fe. By steamboat, Field with his companions reached Independence, where they secured passage to Santa Fe with a caravan of 80 wagons.”
In a July 28, 1839 journal entry, Field waxed poetic about his glimpse of the famed Rock:
We passed quite near to “Pawnee Rock”
From hence we saw a young Elk flock,
Rather Some twenty young Does, led
By an Elk with large horns o’er his head.
I lay last night in the fair moonlight
With a clear sky, shining o’er me
And my thoughts went back o’er our dreary track
And forward to that before me.
After his return, Field became an assistant editor at the New Orleans Picayune and published several articles about his exploits. In November, 1840, he recounted some Pawnee legends attached to the rock:
An evil spirit once roamed the land drinking the rivers dry and tearing up the trees. It was he who created the plains.
In time, the spirit was confined to a cleft in what we now know as Pawnee Rock. There he was pacified by offerings, especially in the hunting season, when huge quantities of buffalo meat were dropped into his gaping jaws.
When the tribe prepared for war or some sickness spread, a pilgrimage would be made to the rock where prayers were said and offerings made. Those who violated tribal taboos were bound hand and foot and placed in the monster’s cavernous mouth. Anyone who dared to rescue such an unfortunate soul was sure to suffer the same punishment.
A less gruesome, if more fanciful, explanation for the rock’s name involves the famous frontiersman, Kit Carson.
In the spring of 1826, the seventeen-year-old Carson joined an expedition led by Colonel Ceran St. Vrain, a fur company agent headed to the Rocky Mountains. Hired as a general hand, Carson’s responsibilities included helping to drive the extra animals, hunting game, standing guard, and fighting Indians if necessary.
Departing from Fort Osage, east of present-day Kansas City, the expedition reached the Walnut Creek crossing between Council Grove and Fort Larned before encountering Indians for the first time. As Henry Inman tells the tale:
They had halted for that day; the mules were unharnessed, the camp-fires lighted, and the men just about to indulge in their refreshing coffee, when suddenly half a dozen Pawnee, mounted on their ponies, hideously painted and uttering the most demoniacal yells, rushed out of the tall grass on the river-bottom, where they had been ambushed, and swinging their buffalo-robes, attempted to stampede the herd picketed near the camp.
The whole party were on their feet in an instant with rifles in hand, and all the Indians got for their trouble were a few well-deserved shots as they hurriedly scampered back to the river and over into the sand hills on the other side, soon to be out of sight.
The next day, the expedition traveled sixteen miles and camped beneath the large, still-unnamed rock, taking every precaution to prevent another surprise attack:
At dark the sentinels were placed in position, and to young Kit fell the important post immediately in front of the south face of the Rock, nearly two hundred yards from the corral; at about half-past eleven, one of the guard gave the alarm, and ran the mules that were nearest him into the corral.
In a moment the whole company turned out at the report of a rifle ringing on the clear night air, coming from the direction of the Rock.
The men had gathered at the opening to the corral, waiting for developments, when Kit came running in, and as soon as he was near enough, the colonel asked him whether he had seen any Indians. “Yes,” Kit replied, “I killed one of the red devils; I saw him fall!”
Early the next morning, before breakfast even, all were so anxious to see Kit’s dead Indian that they went out en masse to where he was still stationed, and instead of finding a [Pawnee] as expected, they found the boy’s riding mule dead, shot right through the head.
Kit felt terribly mortified over his ridiculous blunder, and it was a long time before he heard the last of his midnight adventure and his raid on his own mule.
According to some frontier traditions, his amused companions commemorated his unfortunate experience by naming the location Pawnee Rock.
Whatever his role in the naming of Pawnee Rock, Kit Carson — by all accounts one of most enthusiastic graffiti artists on the frontier — left his mark there, incising his name into the soft sandstone.
Eventually, Carson’s name was lost when Pawnee Rock was quarried for building stone in the 1870s. Still, hundreds of travelers’ names remained.
In 1848, James Birch, a soldier on his way to the Mexican War, wrote: “Pawnee Rock was covered with names carved by the men who had passed it. It was so full that I could find no place for mine.”
Pawnee Rock ~ Stereograph by J.R. Riddle, 1870-1890
Courtesy, Kansas Historical Society
Mr. Birch might have been surprised to learn that women’s names also appeared on the rock. Susan Shelby Magoffin, grand-daughter of the first Kentucky governor and the wife of a well-to-do merchant, traveled the Santa Fe Trail in relative luxury in 1846, recording her own experience of name-carving in her journal:
We went up and while mi alma with his gun and pistols kept watch (for the wily Indian may always be apprehended here, it is a good lurking place and they are ever ready to fall upon any unfotunate trader behind his company — and it is neccesary to be careful), so while mi alma watched on the rock above, and Jane stood by to watch if any should come up on the front side of me, I cut my name among the many hundreds inscribed on the rock, and many of whom I knew.
Around 1900, after the historical importance of the rock was realized, quarrying ceased, and name-carving was discouraged. Still, the temptation could be strong, and information gleaned from later inscriptions can be fascinating.
In 1931, Chester Fulton Smallwood, nicknamed “Buster,” carved his name into the rock. He was twenty-four at the time: the youngest of eleven children born to Hezekiah K. and Mary Smallwood. In a neat bit of historical coincidence, his grandfather, also named Hezekiah, was born in Kentucky in 1825: the same year that George Sibley began surveying the Santa Fe trail.
His obituary, published in the Cheyenne [Oklahoma] Star, included these details:
Mr. Smallwood, a former resident of Hammon, was a Tulsa contractor at the time of his death. [He] was killed December 10, 1965, when his car and a cement mixer truck collided head-on. Highway Patrolman George Stratton said Smallwood was dead on arrival at St. Frances Hospital of head and internal injuries. The [driver of the cement mixer truck], James A. Reynolds, was not injured.
Stratton said the truck went out of control on the rain slick road, crossed the center line, and knocked Smallwood’s car 61 feet backward. The two vehicles were welded together by the impact.
No doubt Buster would be surprised to find the world reading again of his death, thanks to his careful carving on the face of Pawnee Rock.
As railroads and settlers in need of building stone reduced the size of Pawnee Rock foot by foot in the 1870s, its eventual disappearance seemed likely. After a long, passionate, and wholly interesting campaign, the Woman’s Kansas Day Club acquired the site in 1908, and arranged for its transfer to the State of Kansas.
No longer a mark for those seeking stone, and no longer an approved surface for graffiti artists, the rock instead began to be marked with a series of plaques and monuments.
On May 24, 1912, a stone monument was dedicated with great celebration before a crowd of some 8,000 onlookers.
In honor of the brave men and women who passing over the old Santa Fe Trail endured the hardships of frontier life and blazed the path of civilization for posterity
Pawnee Rock, given to the State of Kansas by Benj. P. Unruh, in the year 1908
Erected by Woman’s Kansas Day Club, Daughters of the American Revolution, Woman’s Relief Corps, Kansas Federation of Women’s Clubs, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, the site received one additional plaque in 1971: an acknowledgement of William Becknell as the Father of the Santa Fe Trail.
Visiting Pawnee Rock still is best done in solitude, on a morning clear, cool and pleasant, with a fine air stirring. At such times, the surveyor’s chain gives way to the poet’s words, and Colonel Henry Inman reminds us of the incomparable beauty of the plains:
In the early fall, when the Rock was wrapped in the soft amber haze which is a distinguishing characteristic of the incomparable Indian summer on the plains; or in the spring, when the mirage weaves its mysterious shapes, it loomed up in the landscape as if it were a huge mountain, and to the inexperienced eye appeared as if it were the abrupt ending of a well-defined range.
But when the frost came, and the mists were dispelled; when the thin fringe of timber on the Walnut, a few miles distant, had doffed its emerald mantle, and the grass had grown yellow and rusty, then in the golden sunlight of winter, the Rock sank down to its normal proportions, and cut the clear blue of the sky with sharply marked lines.
Few write of Pawnee Rock with such eloquence today. Of course, few now cherish the rock as intensely as did travelers on the Trail — as a refuge, a comfort, and a guarantee of the accuracy of their chosen path.
No longer a landmark, no longer visited by travelers compelled to leave their own, quite human marks upon its face, the rock broods above the plain: neither happy nor unhappy, but secure in the knowledge of its ages-old influence.
This much is true. Beneath the shadow of Pawnee Rock, a passing traveler may yet discover the mark of the rock itself to be powerful and permanent: a reminder of the joys and perils of travel across any of the world’s frontiers.