Ft. Riley to Ft. Kearney Road led country’s first settlers through western Republic County

By Deb Hadachek Telescope News

(Editor’s note: The road through Republic County is located on private property. People who would like to retrace the trail should do so on nearby public roads and not enter any private properties without the owners’ permission.)

Where other people see streets, highways, houses and a golf course, Duane Gile sees prairie, bluffs and wagon trains inching through Kansas, carrying settlers in search of a new life.

Several years ago Gile became interested in the Ft. Riley (KS) to Ft. Kearney (NE) Road, an early day trail that passed near where the Amana Lutheran Church today sits in Scandia, and northward through the draw that is the Buffalo Park Golf Course on US36.

“I love Western history and I wanted to give this area its due in its place in Western history,” Gile says.

Last year Gile completed one stage of the journey he and another local historian started several years ago. Gile coordinated local donors and a grant from the Dane Hansen Foundation to erect a monument to commemorate the route. The new sign is placed in the Scandia American Legion Park on US36 Highway, near another historical landmark in Scandia: a monument that honors the first settlement of the Scandinavian Agriculture Society in Scandia Township in 1868.

A notable point along the Ft. Kearney route is Ft. Lookout, established at the beginning of the Civil War, in the far northwest corner of Republic County.

“Although Ft. Lookout is a long way from where the Civil War was fought, the military wanted to protect the supply road just in case,” Gile says. The Army abandoned Ft. Lookout in 1867, but it was used by state militia in 1868 during Indian uprisings, and local settlers used it until at least 1870 as a refuge during Indian scares.

Ft. Lookout was a small two-story cabin type structure, with the second story offset at an angle to aid in observation and possible defense. A timber from the structure is on display in the Republic County Historical Museum in Belleville.

Looking For Better Route

The trail’s history bridges a gap in the county’s population between the disappearance of the Pawnee Indian settlement south of present day Republic in the 1700s and the arrival of the first white settlers in Republic County February 28, 1861, a month after Kansas became a state.

Six years earlier, on March 3, 1855, Congress appropriated $50,000 to survey a road from Ft. Riley to Bridger’s Pass near the Rocky Mountains. The intent of the survey was to develop a better route from Ft. Riley to Ft. Kearney and on to Utah and California.

Lt. Francis T. Bryan, a topographical engineer, was in charge of the survey, accompanied by John Lambert, topographer; Harvey Engelmann, geologist; a survey crew and a military escort.

They left Ft. Riley June 21, 1856, and proceeded along the east side of the Republican River through the present-day counties of Riley, Clay, Cloud and Republic. The road crossed through Republic County in a north, northwesterly direction into Nebraska, just east of Hardy.

The road’s path was through the present-day towns of Norway, Scandia and just west of Republic.

Military and westbound immigrants traveled the road from the late 1850s and 1860s.

Document Trail

Gile used a map found in the Scandia Museum made by the late George Cardwell as the pattern for the map displayed on the US36 sign. This map accurately showed the route of the road through Republic County.

One curious entry on the log talks about a “remarkable rock” in northern Republic County. This entry relates to the area near the river bluff where the Pawnee Indian Village Museum sits today.

“As viewed from a distance, I could understand them thinking it was rock,” Gile says.

One piece of physical evidence of the trail remains: wagon swails–deep ruts cut by covered wagons–near what locals call the “silt pit” northwest of Scandia. Ruts are evident in few places. Most were destroyed when the prairie sod was broken for farming.

Information from the Military History of Kansas indicates the 11th Kansas Cavalry came up the trail in February 1864 and were later heavily involved in Indian battles in Wyoming, he says.

“They came through in late February and the heavy snow and cold weather was so severe it took them 12 days to reach Ft. Kearney,” he says. “Although a cavalry regiment, large numbers of the men were on foot and most had inadequate clothing. A lot of men suffered frostbite.”

Gile thinks it’s possible famed Western lawman “Wild Bill” Hickcock traveled the Ft. Kearney RD in 1866 when he was a Cavalry scout assigned to guide General William Tecumseh Sherman from Ft. Riley to Ft. Kearney. At that time, Sherman toured the forts in this area and was in charge of most of the territory between St. Louis and the Rocky Mountains.

“Railroads weren’t running through here yet, and this road was well established, so this would have been their probable route to Ft. Kearney,” Gile says. “I haven’t found any additional documentation, although this trip is referenced in a book on Hickock’s life.”

Gile says old maps show another trail though northeast Republic County that is referred to as the Ft. Riley to Ft. Kearney Military Trail, that he thinks was possibly used before the 1856 road was surveyed.

“This would be an interesting topic for further research,” he says. “Who knows what we’ll learn as we keep digging into the records?”