Centennial Trails


Saturday, February 17th 2007, 3:02 pm
By: News On 6


NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Long before Europeans arrived in North America, American Indians in what is now Oklahoma followed animal trails, especially those made by buffalo. The American Indians learned that buffalo trails were best because the animals chose the line of least resistance in traveling.

Spanish explorers including Francisco Vasquez de Coronado are believed to have crossed parts of modern Oklahoma during the 1500s and later. The earliest known Spanish trail ran from what is now east Texas through modern southwest Oklahoma to Santa Fe.


In many areas this trail was marked by deep ruts made by heavy-laden Spanish carts. The absence of prominent landmarks meant travelers relied on the ruts and the stars to guide them.

After Major Stephen H. Long took an expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1820, he returned east following the Canadian River across modern Oklahoma. Long labeled the plains from Nebraska to Oklahoma as a ``Great Desert ... unfit for cultivation'' and ``uninhabitable by people depending upon agriculture.''

After Long returned east, Congress designated much of modern Oklahoma as Indian Territory and established Fort Gibson in present-day Muskogee County and Fort Towson near the Red River in what is now far southeast Oklahoma. Soldiers at these forts were ostensibly to protect eastern American Indian tribes that were removed to Indian Territory.

Government surveyors soon arrived in uncharted Indian Territory. They laid out a military road from Fort Gibson to Little Rock, Ark., in 1824. Another road was built between Little Rock and Fort Towson. Later both forts were linked to Fort Coffee, another fort built in 1834 on the Arkansas River in modern LeFlore County.

In 1831, the government hired Rev. Isaac McCoy, a missionary, to survey the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation to make sure the Cherokees had the 7 million acres guaranteed by treaty. The following year, McCoy surveyed the boundaries of the Seneca, Ottawa and Shawnee Indian reservations, and in 1833 Capt. Nathan Boone, son of Daniel Boone, surveyed a boundary between the Creek and Cherokee nations.

General Henry Leavenworth took command of the military in Indian Territory in 1834 and ordered a road built from Fort Gibson to the Washita River. The route crossed the Canadian River, ran southwest to past the sites of modern Holdenville, and Allen, stopping at the Washita River. There, nine years later, Fort Washita was built 15 miles northeast of modern Durant, and 15 miles east of present Madill.

Josiah Gregg, a medical doctor and Santa Fe trader, developed another trail from Fort Smith to Santa Fe in 1839. Gregg followed a route blazed in 1823 by two early Santa Fe traders. Gregg took about 30 men, several wagons and two small cannon and followed the north side of the Canadian River to the modern Texas Panhandle and on to Santa Fe.

By the time the Mexican War began in 1846, a north-south trail developed across eastern Indian Territory carrying emigrants settling in Texas. This Texas Road, as it was called, stretched from Baxter Springs in modern southeast Kansas, south through eastern Indian Territory to Fort Gibson. Another trail joined the Texas Road where Salina now stands. It came from St. Louis, Mo.

Six stagecoach stations were located between Baxter Springs and Fort Gibson. providing fresh horses, food and lodging for travelers. From Fort Gibson the Texas Road ran southwest past Honey Springs and crossed the Canadian River near modern Eufaula. It continued southwest to Boggy Depot in modern Atoka County where the road split.

Travelers could go directly south across the Red River into Texas or continue west to Fort Washita and then across the Red River north of modern Preston, Texas.

After gold was discovered in California in 1848, Gregg's route became the principal trail across modern Oklahoma for California gold seekers. In the spring of 1849, Capt. R. B. Marcy and a body of troops escorted 500 gold seekers over this route. It also became a U.S. mail route.

Shortly before Marcy escorted gold seekers west in 1849, a group of 130 California bound gold seekers led by Capt. L. Evans of Fayetteville, Ark., took 40 wagons and set out from western Arkansas. They crossed the Grand River near modern Salina and moved northwest crossing the Verdigris River north of where Claremore stands today. They continued northwest until they reached Santa Fe Trail in what is now central Kansas. Because Cherokee traveled this route, it became known as the Cherokee Trail.

Soon another branch of the Cherokee Trail ran from Fort Smith across Cherokee country crossing the Grand River at Fort Gibson. It followed and then crossed the Verdigris River moving northwest to the Arkansas River to the Santa Fe Trail near Fort Mann, Kan.

A third route ran from Fort Smith past the future Oklahoma communities of Perryville, McAlester and Boggy Depot to Fort Washita. The trail then crossed the Red River into Texas and ran to El Paso. Over these routes at least 25,000 gold seekers crossed modern Oklahoma bound for the gold fields in California between 1849 and the early 1850s.

The Oregon Trail located farther north in modern Kansas and Nebraska carried many more gold seekers, but the southern route through modern Oklahoma had an advantage over the northern route. Spring came earlier on the southern route and grasses greened up earlier for livestock to eat. Gold seekers using the southern route could leave earlier in the spring than travelers to the north.

A lesser known trail called Whiskey Road ran from Fort Smith up the north side of the Arkansas River to what is now Webbers Falls. U.S. troops patrolled this route regularly to stop peddlers from bringing large shipments of whiskey into Indian Territory.

Countless trails crisscrossed Oklahoma during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Today some of them are the routes of modern highways. In central and western Oklahoma some of today's highways follow trails first made by buffalo.