MEMORIES IN FOCUS: County's first explorer was no piker years ago
The first white man to spend a night in Marion didn’t arrive in 1860, as many believe.
The city’s first documented non-indigenous overnight visitor arrived 54 years before settlers from the Billings, Griffith, and Shreve families homesteaded near present-day Central Park.
In 1806, just three years after the United States had obtained the Louisiana Purchase from France, 27-year-old Army lieutenant Zebulon Pike was ordered to lead an expedition to map the new territory and contact indigenous people in the region.
The land was vast, including the entirety of what now are the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, plus portions of Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming and small sections of the present-day Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
France had asserted ownership until 1762, when the region was ceded to Spain. Napoleon briefly regained control in 1800 but sold the area to the United States three years later for $15 million, the equivalent of $333 million today.
Three years after that, Pike set out July 15, 1806, from Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis with a detachment of 20 soldiers and 51 captured members of the Osage nation.
His orders were to free the captives, reuniting them Aug. 15 with their tribe near present-day Fort Scott on the Kansas-Missouri border.
He then set out, with Pawnee and Osage guides, to contact members of the Pawnee nation in southern Nebraska.
The Pawnees never had been notified that Spain had given the area to France or that France had sold it to the United States.
His instructions were to tell the Indians to retire a Spanish flag flying over their settlement and replace it with an American flag.
En route, Pike’s path took him through lands of the Kaw, also known as the Kans and Kanza. His orders included talking to the warring Kaw in hope of securing peace in the region.
There’s no evidence he did, however. Soon after leaving the Fort Scott area, several of his Osage guides, fearing contact with the Kaw, their sworn enemies, refused to go along and returned home.
Regardless, Pike began to follow what he regarded as the Grand River, though he actually was alternating between two parallel tributaries, the Neosho and the Verdigris.
In the more than two centuries since his travels, researchers have attempted to determine his exact path by studying his journal and comparing actual terrain to rudimentary maps he drew — maps that often had no clear orientation and ignored minor features.
In Chase County, they have concluded, he ended up crossing Cedar Creek and began following another Neosho River tributary, the Cottonwood River.
The Cottonwood, of course, had no official name at the time. It began being called Cottonwood Creek decades later. Pioneers on the Santa Fe Trail named it after a new variety of tree they encountered at the trail’s crossing of the river near Durham.
Still thinking he was following the Grand River, Pike traveled from between present-day Matfield Green and Bazaar to the vicinity of present-day Cedar Point, writing in his journal at the end of that day:
Sept. 12th. Commenced our march at seven o’clock. Passed very ruff [rough] flint hills. My feet blistered and very sore.
I stood on a hill, and in one view below me saw buffalo, elk, deer, cabrie [antelope], and panthers.
Encamped on the main branch of Grand River, which had very steep banks and was deep.
[Expedition members] Dr. Robinson, Bradley, and Baroney arrived after dusk, having killed three buffalo, which, with one I killed and two by the Indians, made six; the Indians alleging it was the Kans’ hunting ground, therefore they would destroy all the game they possibly could.
Distance 18 miles.
The next day, he headed up the Cottonwood to Marion, writing when he reached here:
Sept. 13th. Late in marching, it having every appearance of rain. Halted to dine on a branch of Grand River.
Marched again at half past two o’clock and halted at five. . . .
Killed six buffalo, one elk, and three deer.
Distance nine miles.
Pike’s map of the day indicates he camped on the bank of the Cottonwood, just west of where two other rivers came together to flow into it.
Nearly a century later, in 1895, researcher Elliott Coues, a naturalist with the U.S. Geological Survey, concluded that these two rivers where Mud and Clear Creeks at Marion.
At the time of Coues’s writing, Mud Creek was known not as Mud Creek but as Brook Luta.
An intriguing notation on Pike’s map was that an established Indian trail, which he referred to as “road of the Kans to the Arkensaw,” traversed the region.
“The Indian trail seems to have run past or through Marion,” Coues wrote.
This may have been a reference to what later became known as the Kaw Trail, an Indian path that stretched from Council Grove to Florence and may have looped back north from there to near Tampa.
Its precise route still a mystery, the trail first was used by the Kaw during hunting expeditions and later was used as a wagon train road by settlers branching off from the Santa Fe Trail and as a route for cattle drives. By the end of the 19th century, only traces could be found west of Florence and along Diamond Creek in Chase County. Evidence of a segment of the northwestern loop of the trail was discovered in recent years near Marion Reservoir.
Leaving Marion, Pike marched, possibly along this very route, between Cottonwood Creek and Brook Luta (Mud Creek), still regarding one or the other of these as the Grand River, which he eventually renamed the White River.
The area appeared to be a fertile hunting ground, as Pike explained in his journal:
Sept. 14th . . . On the march we were continually passing through large herds of buffalo, elk, and cabrie, and I have no doubt that one hunter could support 200 men.
I prevented the men shooting at the game, not merely because of the scarcity of ammunition but, as I conceived, the laws of morality forbid it also.
Encamped at sunset on the main branch of White River, hitherto called Grand River.
Killed one buffalo and one cabrie.
Distance 21 miles.
Historians seem to agree that his encampment was near present-day Durham and that the next day he somewhat zigzagged from there to an area northwest of present-day Tampa.
Sept. 15th. Marched at seven o’clock; passed a very large Kans encampment, evacuated, which had been occupied last summer.
Proceeded on to the dividing ridge between the waters of White River and the Kans. This ridge was covered with a layer of stone, which was strongly impregnated with iron ore, and on the west side of said ridge we found spa springs.
Halted at one o’clock, very much against the inclination of the Osage, who, from the running of the buffalo, conceived a party of Kans to be near. Killed two buffalo.
Distance 18 miles.
Pike appeared to be traveling between the headwaters of the Cottonwood and Mud Creek, which eventually drain south into the Arkansas River, and the headwaters of Turkey Creek, which flow north to the Smoky Hill River, the Kansas River, and ultimately the Missouri River.
“He is flanking the higher hills, 1,500 feet or more, in which the main Cottonwood heads, by leaving them to the left or west,” Coues wrote. “I suppose he crossed the divide between Tampa and Kuhnbrook (northwest of Tampa in Blaine Township), thus passing from Arkansan to Missourian waters. . . . He continues on, bearing to the vicinity of Elmo and Banner.”
Pike’s expedition continued for many months, eventually reaching Colorado, where he encountered a particularly high mountain that now bears his name: Pike’s Peak.
Last modified Nov. 15, 2019