The Mystery of Bluff Station

From the Fall 2017 Kearny County Museum Newsletter

Indian Mound and Chouteau’s Island were significant points along the Santa Fe Trail in Kearny County. Travelers knew when they reached these points they could turn south and head through Bear Creek Pass to Wagon Bed Springs. Joseph C. Brown, a member of the Sibley party which surveyed the Trail from 1825 to 1827, made references to both landmarks. Both are also on the Carl Hunnius map of 1870. The military heavily relied on Hunnius’s maps which included details of physical features on the plains before the arrival of the railroads and large-scale settlement. Much has been written about events which took place near Indian Mound and Chouteau’s Island. Bluff Station, on the other hand, is somewhat of a mystery.

Hunnius’s map shows Bluff Station to be east and north of Indian Mound. In 1936, after consulting the map, Virginia Pierce Hicks deduced that it was near the old Sherlock crossing (Holcomb). Hicks contradicts herself years later in “History of Kearny County, Kansas Volume I,” showing the coordinates as less than a mile from Indian Mound. Writing for Volume II, Robert Coder and Ernest Craig, Jr. placed Bluff Station “somewhere east of Deerfield, probably not far over into Finney County.” To add even more controversy, legendsofkansas.com names Pierceville as the site of Bluff Station.

Hicks’ father, F.L. Pierce, came to Kearny County in 1879. By that time the railroad had been built, and Bluff Station had not been in use by the overland mail stage for around 10 years. At the age of 95 and 60 years after the event took place, Pierce recalled Kearny County’s big 1880 Fourth of July celebration held at Chouteau Island. “About five miles west of Lakin, our procession rounded the corral, dugout pit, and crumpled walls of Bluff Station south and east of Indian Mound.”

Some historians believe that Bluff Station may have been established in a trading post set up at Chouteau Island by fur trader/trapper Auguste Pierre Chouteau in the early 1800s. But not all historians agree that Chouteau built a trading post at this site. Other writers suggest that Bluff Station was built by Major Bennett Riley and his troops who camped near Chouteau’s Island for three months in 1829 awaiting the return of a traders’ caravan from Santa Fe. The first military escort on the Trail, Bennett’s troops accompanied the traders to protect them from Indian attacks. This theory too has been disputed as the troops were too busy fighting off Indians to build a station, and they frequently moved their campsite because of the accumulating human and animal waste.

F.L. Pierce claimed that A.A.G. Stayton, a freighter who followed the Santa Fe Trail, had stopped at Bluff Station where he received news by stagecoach from his home in Missouri of the birth of his daughter Belle. Belle was born in 1860. Other sources, two of whom were stagecoach drivers, claim there were no relay stations along the “Long Route” in 1861 when the Santa Fe mail service was changed and continued west along the Arkansas River to supply Fort Lyon instead of taking the Cimarron Cut-off. In her book, “Early Ford County,” Ida Ellen Rath wrote that “relays were provided from thirty to fifty miles apart, except from Fort Larned to Fort Lyon which were two hundred forty miles apart,” hence the name ‘Long Route.’

Robert M. Wright (who later became the founder of Dodge City) was employed by Barlow, Sanderson & Co. “in the early ‘60’s, and I built all the little stations in between the forts.” In a letter written in 1867 to General Hancock at Fort Dodge, Sgt. William Barnett, an agent for the Sanderson Overland Mail Line, listed stations at Big Coon, Fort Dodge, Cimarron Crossing, Bluff Ranche, Choteau Isle, Fort Aubrey (four miles east of present-day Syracuse), Pretty Encampment and Sand Creek. While Barnett noted a distance of 12 miles between Bluff Ranche and Choteau Island, a Sanderson’s Overland Stage Company distance chart from 1866 placed the bluffs 20 miles east of Chouteau Island. That is the same distance calculated on an 1864 Locke & Wrightson chart as well as in “J. W. Goodwin’s Pacific Railway Business Guide & Gazetteer of Missouri and Kansas for 1867-8.” Using Hunnius’ map and a map from the 1887 Official Atlas of Kansas, visual comparisons of the curvature of the Arkansas River in regards to the placement of towns certainly seem to the naked eye to place Bluff Station closer to Deerfield than to Lakin.

So who was bluffing about Bluff Station? If Bluff Station was used by freighters from 1840 to 1860 as Volume I implies, why is there no mention of it in diaries or distance charts of Santa Fe Trail travelers? Could there have been more than one Bluff Station or could F.L. Pierce have mistakenly identified the remains of the Chouteau Island station as Bluff Station? Instead of Belle Stayton, could Pierce have actually been referring to her younger sister, Laura, who was born a few years later? Bare in mind that none of the old timers who had first-hand knowledge of Bluff Station would have been around to dispute Pierce’s story. What evidence did Virginia Pierce Hicks find to make her change her mind about the location? For now, Bluff Station remains a mystery.

Sources: “Reminiscences of Ten Years Experience on the Western Plains: How the United States Mails were carried before Railroads Reached the Santa Fe Trail” by James Brice; “Early Ford County” by Ida Ellen Rath; “The Old Santa Fe Trail” by Colonel Henry Inman; “Dodge City the Cowboy Capital” by Robert M. Wright; “Fort Aubrey” by Louise Barry, “Southwest History Corner” Sept. 12, 1936; 16th Biennial report of the Kansas State Historical Society; “History of Kearny County” Vol. I and II; “1887 Official Atlas of Kansas”; Hunnius Map of Kansas with parts of Neighboring States and Territories; Survey/field notes of U.S. Engineer Joseph C. Brown; Ft. Dodge microfilm, newspapers.com; hathitrust.org, legendsofkansas.com; kshs.org; santafetrailresearch.com and museum archives.