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Farmer marks Kaw Indian Trail

Staff writer

William Benda of Pilsen owns an 80-acre parcel of ground north of Marion through which the 100-mile-long Kaw Trail ran in the mid-19th century.

Benda recently marked the trail with a limestone monument after researching its history.

He read the book, “Along the Kaw Trail,” by state senator and historian George P. Morehouse (1859-1941) and learned that the Kaws traveled to central Kansas with ponies and on foot from their reservation at Council Grove to hunt buffalo. They walked in single file but followed many parallel paths.

“I knew the trail went through this area,” he said. “Then I saw ruts on my land and wondered what they were.”

He found a map in “Marion County Kansas Past and Present” that showed the Kaw Trail going through the county, but it didn’t pinpoint the location.

Then he saw a sale bill of land adjacent to his that noted the property was “in close proximity to the Kaw Trail.”

He went to the county road and bridge department, where Bev Cooper helped him find a map that plotted trails as well as section lines, and it showed the trail going directly through his property.

He contacted Steve Schmidt, president of the area chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association, who sent him a copy of an 1857 surveyors’ map that showed the exact location. The surveyors noted every time they crossed the trail.

One small draw, or swale, was clearly visible in a grassy meadow on Benda’s land. He looked for more paths and found a few more indentations that might have been paths. He even went so far as to use copper dowsing rods to locate disturbed soil, which might indicate a path. He said he found 11 paths that way but isn’t sure how accurate his findings are.

He surmised the paths were marked most clearly by the travois that were trailed behind ponies to take the buffalo meat and hides back to the Kaw home at Council Grove.

Benda decided to erect a monument to mark the Kaw Trail on his property. Using a section of concrete from a former wall around St. John Nepomucene Cemetery at Pilsen, he hired Chris Meierhoff of Marion Marble and Granite to etch the words “Kaw Trail” into it.

The marker is buried two feet below ground and is anchored in a concrete base. He said it took some work, but he feels pride and satisfaction in seeing the result.

“I learned quite a bit by looking into this,” he said. “’I’m glad I did it. I thought it was something that needed to be marked somewhere.”

Located one-half mile east of Timber Rd. on 250th Rd., the marker sits along a dirt road, making it accessible only in dry weather.

History of the Trail

The Kaw Nation was settled in 1847 in an area southeast of Council Grove. They called themselves Kanza.

Kansas as a territory was named after them in 1854. It became a state in 1861.

According to Morehouse, twice a year the entire tribe of some 800 people traveled to central Kansas and spent time hunting buffalo. The meat provided food and the buffalo skins provided clothing and cash.

The large group traveled through Diamond Springs in Morris County and crossed Marion County diagonally, travelling about two miles south of present-day Lincolnville, then through the north portion of Marion Reservoir, Hillsboro, and on west.

After killing buffalo, the Kanza women prepared buffalo jerky at their hunting camps to take back to their home.

Competition with the Cheyenne Indians made it increasingly harder to hunt in central Kansas.

By 1872 and 1873, few Kanzas went west to hunt because white settlers were becoming more numerous.

In June 1873, the 600 remaining Kanzas were relocated to a reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

Morehouse said white men used the trail until fences stopped them. It was used for a time as a mail route between Council Grove and Marion Centre.

Last modified Sept. 30, 2015

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