Plains Indians traveled long distances to hunt, trade, make war, and visit sacred places. To do so, they used trails such as the Great North Trail that ran south from Canada along the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains into New Mexico. A trail that crossed it on the north bank of the Arkansas River ran east to the vicinity of Kinsley, Kansas, then overland to cross the southern part of Missouri to the mouth of the Ohio River. These and many other trails created a web across the face of the Great Plains.
The trails were designed to meet the needs of pedestrian travelers. The most important of these needs was water. People using pack dogs can only travel about ten miles per day, and the most heavily used trails had water holes spaced no farther apart than ten miles. Stream crossings and steep hills were avoided whenever possible; as a result, many trails ran along the divides between stream valleys. Although they were sinuous, these routes had the additional advantage of allowing the traveler to see long distances while passing by the headwater springs of numerous creeks.
Trails converged at good fords across streams and at the rare groves of trees in the High Plains. In some instances, such as the ford across the Kansas River in the Flint Hills, the geologic stratum underlying the divide along which a trail ran created a rocky ford where the ridge was cut by a river. Groves provided shade, vegetable foods, fuel for shelter, and a variety of game animals to hunt. The "Big Timbers" of the Arkansas in Colorado, of the Smoky Hill River in western Kansas, and of the Republican River in southwestern Nebraska were some of the favored campgrounds.
Operating in cultures that lacked systems of writing and mapmaking, Plains Indians took advantage of natural landmarks whenever possible. This was especially necessary because massive bison herds could erase in a single day pathways worn by decades of human travel. When natural landmarks were absent, stone or sod cairns were sometimes built. Cairns had varied functions. In some spots they marked the main course of a trail, in others they marked a good spring not visible from the trail itself, while in still other places they indicated the route to be used to regain the trail after a river crossing. Some cairns acted as shrines at which travelers added a stone as a prayer.
Well-designed Indian trails had a pronounced effect on the early European American history of the Great Plains. Native guides led explorers along them, traders built their posts beside them, and battles were fought near them. Emigrant trails such as the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails developed from Indian trails, although wagon traffic sometimes necessitated modifications to the routes. The well-spaced water holes and gentle grades of many trails led to the use of some as cattle trails and railroad routes. Thus their effects continue to be felt today.
Donald J. Blakeslee Wichita State University
Blakeslee, Donald J., and Robert Blasing. "Indian Trails in the Central Plains." Plains Anthropologist 33–119 (1988): 17–26.
Mead, J. R. "Trails in Southern Kansas." Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society 5 (1896): 88–93.