Smoky Hill Trail

In 1858, gold was discovered in the Kansas Territory east of the Rocky Mountains (now Colorado), and when the news reached the Kansas City area, a trail was needed to travel across the plains. What was once an old Indian trail that ran along the Smoky Hill River became the most direct route to the gold fields in 1859, and it was named the Smoky Hill Trail. There were cutoff routes to Denver from both the Oregon and the Santa Fe Trails, but the Smoky Hill Trail was the most traveled; it was also the most dangerous of the three trails because of the possibility of Indian attacks and the scarcity of water.

Emigrants using the trail outfitted in Leavenworth, Kansas City, Abilene or Salina and followed the Smoky Hill River to southwest Colorado near Old Cheyenne Wells where the headwaters of the Smoky Hill began. From there, the Smoky Hill trail divided into two trails, a north and a south trail, both of which went to Hugo and then to Lake (just south of Limon). At this point the North Trail continued on a route similar to present day Interstate 70 / U.S. 40 coming into Denver from the east; the South Trail went to more of a western route to present day Kiowa and then northwest to Denver. It is not hard to imagine how desolate this area was at that time. If you have ever taken the Kiowa road to Denver from Limon, as I have, you will know that, even today, there is not much of anything out there for miles and miles.

A third section of the trail, called the Middle Smoky Hill Trail, went west from Lake, then turned northwest to Denver where it met the South Smoky Hill Trail. This portion of the trail became known as the “Starvation Trail” because of the gruesome story of the Blue Brothers who resorted to cannibalism in 1859. Daniel Blue’s survival story was written by Henry Villard, a newspaper correspondent who joined in the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1859, which appeared in the Cincinnati “Daily Commercial” on June 3.

In 1858, gold was discovered in the Kansas Territory east of the Rocky Mountains (now Colorado), and when the news reached the Kansas City area, a trail was needed to travel across the plains. What was once an old Indian trail that ran along the Smoky Hill River became the most direct route to the gold fields in 1859, and it was named the Smoky Hill Trail. There were cutoff routes to Denver from both the Oregon and the Santa Fe Trails, but the Smoky Hill Trail was the most traveled; it was also the most dangerous of the three trails because of the possibility of Indian attacks and the scarcity of water.

Emigrants using the trail outfitted in Leavenworth, Kansas City, Abilene or Salina and followed the Smoky Hill River to southwest Colorado near Old Cheyenne Wells where the headwaters of the Smoky Hill began. From there, the Smoky Hill trail divided into two trails, a north and a south trail, both of which went to Hugo and then to Lake (just south of Limon). At this point the North Trail continued on a route similar to present day Interstate 70 / U.S. 40 coming into Denver from the east; the South Trail went to more of a western route to present day Kiowa and then northwest to Denver. It is not hard to imagine how desolate this area was at that time. If you have ever taken the Kiowa road to Denver from Limon, as I have, you will know that, even today, there is not much of anything out there for miles and miles.

A third section of the trail, called the Middle Smoky Hill Trail, went west from Lake, then turned northwest to Denver where it met the South Smoky Hill Trail. This portion of the trail became known as the “Starvation Trail” because of the gruesome story of the Blue Brothers who resorted to cannibalism in 1859. Daniel Blue’s survival story was written by Henry Villard, a newspaper correspondent who joined in the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1859, which appeared in the Cincinnati “Daily Commercial” on June 3.

Map of the Smoky Hill Trail in Colorado

The Smoky Hill Trail in Ellis County was 5 miles north of the Smoky Hill River on the east border of the county, and it was just over one mile north of the river at the west border. It had the following stations: Fort Fletcher (Old Fort Hays), Big Creek Station, Lookout Station, and Louisa Springs Station. (Map can be seen in “Trails of the Smoky Hill” by Wayne C. Lee and Howard C. Raynesford.)

Fort Fletcher, located south of Walker, was organized in 1865 to protect the stages and wagons of the Butterfield Overland Despatch which used the Smoky Hill Trail to travel to Denver. Fort Fletcher closed in 1866 after the BOD went bankrupt and the Smoky Hill Trail was no longer used. The darker line running through the middle of the county in the map below is the Smoky Hill Trail; the lighter line below it is the Smoky Hill River.

The Smoky Hill Trail Association (SmHTA) was established in 2007 to preserve and promote the heritage of the Trail. The Special Collections room at Forsyth Library was asked to be the caretaker of the Smoky Hill Trail Association archives, and we now have several files from the organization in the archives.

A. Materials regarding the history of the trail can also be found in the Western Collection in the Special Collections room.

1)      The Smoky Hill Trail: Following the Old Historic Pioneer Trails on the Modern Highways  by Margaret Long – F781 .L6 1953

2)      Trails of the Smoky Hill by Wayne C. Lee and Howard C. Raynesford – F687 .S84 L43 1980

3)      The Smoky Hill Trail in Western Kansas by John N. Neyer – LD2652 .T5 H5 N492 1950 c.2

B. Other information about the Smoky Hill Trail can be found at these links:

1)      http://www.kshs.org/publicat/khq/1959/59_2_gower.htm – article titled The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush and the Smoky Hill Route, 1859-1860 by Calvin W. Gower

2)      http://www.kshs.org/places/forthays/history.htm

3)      http://www.kancoll.org/articles/raynesford/index.html – Mr. Raynesford, who was from Ellis, did quite a bit of valuable research on the trail and his papers are available at the Hays Public Library. We also have a copy of the papers in the SmHTA Archive.

4)     http://www.keystonegallery.com/area/history/bod.html – Good source of information about the Smoky Hill Trail from the Keystone Gallery

5)    http://smokyhilltrail.com/index.htm – website of the Smoky Hill Trial Association. If you are interested in becoming a member of the Association, membership information is available on this website.

C. Information used for this blog came from:

Lee, W. C. (1980). Trails of the Smoky Hill.

Long, M. (1953). The Smoky Hill Trail: Following the Old Historic Pioneer Trails on the Modern Highways.

Villard, H. (1931). To the Pike’s Peak County in 1859 and Cannibalism on the Smoky Hill Route. Colorado Magazine , 8 (6), 225-236.

One thought on “Smoky Hill Trail

  1. John Neyer was my High School math teacher, and was a thoroughly interesting person. Just seeing what I can find, I knew he had been to FHSU.

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