The trails that criss-crossed Johnson County more than a century and a half ago made an indelible mark on the development of our northeast corner.
The paved streets of NEJC sit on top of some of the most historic transportation routes in American history. And some of our NEJC houses are now built over the top of those trails. It is impossible to drive the area without noticing the brown sign markers that note where the Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails headed west with settlers and trade goods. The Fort Leavenworth Military Road also crossed through NEJC.
Plotting the path of the Santa Fe Trail, the best known of the 19th Century travel routes, can be confusing if you try to piece it together just from the marker signs that were erected by the Kansas City Area Historic Trails Association.
The preserved wagon ruts from the Santa Fe Trail run through Santa Fe Trail Park in Prairie Village just north of 79th Street. The Santa Fe Trail also is marked through Westwood, Roeland Park and Mission. The Santa Fe Trail also crossed into Leawood.
How does one trail hit so many spots? It’s because the Santa Fe Trail moved over the years since its beginning in 1821. By 1830 the trail had become a viable trade route to Mexico and by 1833 Independence had become the point for outfitting wagons for the trip. The Santa Fe Trail from Independence ran south, cutting into Johnson County near 123rd Street.
By the 1840s, steamships could make it farther up the Missouri River and Westport became the center for outfitters, according to Gary Hicks, KCAHTA president. That meant a new route towards Gardner and southwest. But that Westport route had two branches, Hicks says. One ran into the present Westwood, and Roeland Park, passing by the Shawnee Indian Mission. The other branch crossed a corner of what was to become Mission Hills and into the future Prairie Village, where the wagon ruts can be found.
The trail moved as easier routes were found, Hicks says, and new branches of the trail were created.
The KCAHTA more than 20 years ago plotted the routes as they would have passed over present day streets and created a map of all the routes through Johnson County. That map is available with a KCAHTA membership for free or for purchase on the website.
More details about the trails through NEJC will be explored in future stories.