De Soto took root along historic California Road emigrant road
Just as now, in its earliest years De Soto was on an important roadway connecting Kansas City to Lawrence.
From 1856 to the start of the Civil War in 1861, the California Road was a frontier thoroughfare to carry emigrants to the West and goods from Westport to Lawrence and beyond in territorial Kansas.
Craig Crease, president of the Kansas City Area Historic Trails Association, said it was one of several important trails that crossed Johnson and Douglas counties, the most famous of which were the Santa Fe and Oregon trails that started west out of Westport, Mo.
What trails such as the California Road provided were "routes of least resistance," Crease said. It's no surprise that four-lane Kansas Highway 10 runs near the California Road or that U.S. Highway 56 hugs the route of the Santa Fe Trail.
"It's the same geography as today," Crease said. "The ridges are still the ridges and the creeks are still the low points. We had the KCAC people take a map with all the streams and stream headings, and you could see the trails bypassed all the streams."
Although paralleling the Kansas River, the California Road was far enough to the south to avoid the deep hallows and gullies near the river, he said.
The California Road was already there before it became a popular emigrant route, Crease said. Shawnee Indians used to shuttle coal dug from the banks of the Wakarusa River and Coal Creek in Douglas County to Westport, and John C. Fremont used it on at least one of his trips to California, Crease said.
It became a frontier thoroughfare and got the name California Road when the Kansas/Missouri border war began heating up in the late 1850s, Crease said. At that time, it became an alternative to the Oregon/California Trail cutoff that separated from the Santa Fe Trail at Gardner and merged with the California Road near the Wakarusa west of Eudora.
"It got very dangerous to be on the southern Johnson County trails," Crease said. "That drove a lot of emigrant traffic north."
In the 1940 memoirs of a then 86-year-old Alice Smith Dow now being published in The De Soto Explorer, Dow remembers U.S. Army details traveling through De Soto and sometimes camping for the night. Dow wrote that the soldiers were traveling on what was another of the notable early trails -- the Military Road connected Fort Leavenworth with Fort Scott.
That's not so, Crease said. The Military Road ran through Shawnee and what is now Prairie Village before hugging the state line. But he said in the wide-open spaces of early Kansas, travelers were free to improvise.
"There were other commonly used routes," he said. "In that time, the land was claimed but not staked out. You were free to cross the land, or jayhawk, as long as the landowner didn't object."
Although the Army took steps to remove brush and trees along the Military Road, the other trails of the 1850s were unimproved, Crease said.
"It would have been a relatively smooth dirt road," he said.
In wet weather, the well-beaten path would have been a hindrance, and travelers would have moved to unbroken prairie for better traction, Crease said.
Another feature of the road was stations like that operated by Eudora's founder Paschal Fish. Dow wrote about a weigh station in Lexington, a town forced out of existence to make room for the Sunflower Army Ammunition plant. According to Dow, the California Road just missed what was then a Kaw River-hugging De Soto, but went through its southern neighbor.
"You would expect to see one (station) about every 10 to 20 miles," Crease said. "A wagon carrying freight could expect to make about eight to 10 miles a day. They would want a place to feed and water their livestock, or in this case, somewhere to spend the night.
"It wouldn't have been a great big operation, but a minor thing to another business the person owned. In some cases, it would have been just part of the house."
At least one famous Old West character made his home on the California Road. Crease said Wild Bill Hickok lived on a farmstead on the trail near Gleason Road and 83rd Street in 1858 to 1859. It was there that Hickok was introduced to frontier law enforcement as the first constable of Monticello Township, Crease said.
"He staked a claim on 160 acres," Crease said. "His stake was pre-empted by a Shawnee Indian who already had title. That's why he left.
"He got over to Lawrence quite a bit. They are photographs of a young Hickok in Lawrence. So he knew the California Road well."
Crease will give a lecture on Hickok as part of De Soto's Sesquicentennial Celebration at 6:30 p.m. March 28 in De Soto City Hall, 32905 W. 84th Street.
Although hesitant to estimate, Crease said during a peak day during its heyday there might have been 1,000 travelers on the California Road. Some were emigrants heading west, others were using it to haul freight back and forth to Lawrence and others just going to local destinations.
Traffic began to decline with the Civil War, Crease said. The wagon freight traffic had new destinations soon after.
"At the end of the Civil War, the Kansas Pacific Railroad began moving west through towns in Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties," Crease said. "Wherever it went, that became the new rail head."