Exploring the Santa Fe Trail in Oklahoma
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Last weekend I had the incredible opportunity to spend a day visiting several historic sites on the Santa Fe Trail where the Cimarron Cutoff passed through present-day Oklahoma. There are a lot of Santa Fe Trail historic sites today that have been preserved or marked in some way for the public to visit, but what makes these sites extra-special is that they're all on private land and are therefore not generally accessible to the public. Huge thanks to the Cimarron Heritage Center in Boise City, OK for putting together this once-in-a-lifetime event in honor of the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail. Also a big shout-out to the various property owners not only for opening up their lands for this special visit, but for their ongoing efforts to preserve and protect what remains of these incredible national treasures.
Willow Bar Crossing
Our tour started at 8AM at the Cimarron Heritage Center, where eager Trail enthusiasts filled three school buses for our day-long tour. The first stop on the tour was northeast of Boise City (it's pronounced "Boice" for those of you who aren't from Boise City) near the Willow Bar Crossing. The Willow Bar was the point where the Trail left the Cimarron River, marked by a sandbar covered in willow trees in the riverbed. Today no evidence remains of the crossing and the willows and sandbar have long since been erased by the river. Nearby, we unloaded from the busses to walk around in some trail ruts (photo below, left) and hear an introductory talk from the tour leaders. We also visited a nearby watering hole from the Trail days called Trujillo Springs, though as with many former watering holes, today it has little-to-no water at any given time and appears as nothing more than a dry streambed. From there we moved on to Wolf Mountain (below, center), one of many landmarks used by Trail travelers. Here we made our first truly exciting stop: the site of what historians believe was an attack on a wagon train (below, right.) The marker reads, "About 20 wagons burned here by Ute Indians sometime before trail abandonment in 1880. Erected Sept 1991 by Robert & Albert Kohler." Numerous artifacts had previously been uncovered at the site such as burned wagon parts, broken dishes and other evidence which strongly suggested what happened here, though the parties involved are forever lost to history.
Near this area is the Flag (or Flagg or Upper) Springs, another campsite along the Trail. Unfortunately the tour didn't make a stop there because nothing remains of the spring. A series of floods in modern times has completely washed out and buried the site of the spring.
From the Willow Bar and Wolf Mountain area our tour headed west roughly following the Trail, leading us to the most exciting part of the entire stretch of the Trail through Oklahoma: Autograph Rock. Also known today as Autograph Cliff, this was one of the most infamous campsites along the trail, and certainly one of the most dangerous areas along the Cimarron Cutoff. Autograph Rock, along with the smaller Inscription Rock, are two strikingly similar rocky outcroppings a few miles apart. Both sites feature cliffs that rise abruptly from the plains, and both have cold spring waters bubbling up from below. The sites had obvious appeal to travelers. Unfortunately for the Mexican and American traders camping here, the sites were also appealing to the local Indians. As such, the area was known to be a very dangerous place to camp.
A view of Autograph Rock which bears names carved by decades of traders along the Cimarron Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Cold water springs still emerge at the far left end of the formation.
Aside from its natural beauty, the site today is renowned for the hundreds, perhaps thousands of names carved into the cliffs by decades of travelers. The earliest inscriptions date to the 1820's and some appear nearly as crisp as the day they were etched, though many more have eroded significantly.
Today Autograph Rock is on private land, however it is open to public. Through the generous efforts of the landowners, the site is beautifully preserved and maintained. In partnership with the National Park Service, an access road, small parking area, signage, and an interpretive display welcome visitors to the site.
Just a few miles northeast is the much smaller Inscription Rock which also bears numerous names and dates. Like Autograph Rock it also has a cold water spring and was a popular campsite with Trail travelers. Inscription Rock is part of the same property as its larger sister site, however it is not open to the public. Both sites are believed to be littered with unmarked graves.
This short-lived military camp was constructed in 1865 by soldiers under the command of Kit Carson to protect travelers along the Trail. It was about 40,000 square feet, had officers' quarters, a commissary and a hospital, and housed about 300 soldiers. However it was abandoned in less than six months. The nearby Cedar Spring, bubbling up among the cedars about a quarter mile from the camp, was a popular campsite for travelers. Today nothing more than rubble remains of the camp walls. The site is on private land and is not accessible to the public, but an outline of the walls can be seen from the air. There is also a roadside historic marker nearby.
This crossing of the North Canadian River (aka Corrumpa Creek) is just across the border of New Mexico. It was a popular campsite due available water and its natural rocky bottom, which made it easier to cross with heavy wagons. It was named for a young man named Robert McNees who was camping at the site with Daniel Munro in 1828 as they waited for their wagon train from Santa Fe to catch up with them. McNees was killed by Indians just as the train was approaching, and Munro was fatally wounded and carried as far as Flag Spring where he died. Famous Trail trader Josiah Gregg was with the party at the time. On a subsequent journey, Gregg reportedly held the first-ever Independence Day celebration in New Mexico while camped at the crossing a few years later on July 4, 1831.
Today McNees crossing looks much as it did during the Trail days. The site is on private land, but access is not restricted.
Thanks for reading! All maps or portions of maps appearing in this post are original designs by Billy J. Roberts and may not be copied or used without express written consent. Prints may be available for purchase by visiting our Old West Maps store. As always, if you intend to visit any historic site, please make sure they are publicly accessible or that you have landowner permission before you go. Feel free to leave a public comment below or shoot me a message with the form at the bottom of the home page.