Dave Kendall has driven the length of the Santa Fe Trail — about 1,200 miles through five states — yet the spot he believes might be the most striking to see along the route is just 50 miles from his doorstep.
It’s a small roadside park off U.S. Highway 56 about three miles east of Baldwin City. The area marks the 1856 site of one of the first Civil War battles; the clash happened near a stand of blackjack oak trees along the Santa Fe Trail. From 25 years of heavy freight wagon traffic by then, wheel ruts were deep enough to be used as trenches during the conflict.
Several of those swales are still visible at Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Park, where officials recently added a short gravel loop around what’s often called the Black Jack ruts.
“It’s a good place to go and think about all the wagons that must’ve been coming down that slope to create these deep impressions in the earth that are still there,” said Kendall, an independent documentary filmmaker and producer who lives in Dover, southwest of Topeka. “That’s the kind of place that you can go and just muse about what was involved as all those freight wagons made their way across the midsection here on the Santa Fe Trail.”
The fifth generation Kansan has spent the past two years pondering the significance of the trail and talking to experts about its place in history. That’s how long he’s been working on a documentary to coincide with this year’s 200th anniversary of the opening of the country’s first international road of commerce.
In September 1821, a small group of men led by William Becknell set out on a trade mission from Franklin, a river town in central Missouri, through unsettled land to Santa Fe, Mexico’s northern colonial outpost. Missouri had become a state a month prior to their departure and while the pack train was en route, Mexico won its independence from Spain and subsequently lifted trade restrictions. The men and the mules loaded with $300 in goods were welcomed rather than detained upon arrival in Santa Fe after a two-and-a-half-month journey.
The September launch of that expedition is now considered the start of the Santa Fe Trail, which would go on to see heavy wagon traffic for freight hauling and military activity until railroad transportation covered the same route by 1880. During those six decades, the route developed into a two-way exchange of commerce and culture. The trail also played a role in conflict during wartimes and as the associated expansion of the United States displaced native people along the route.
In 1821, Missouri was the edge of the American frontier. Eventually the territory along the rest of the trail formed into Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico. Kansas has the largest piece of the trail — nearly 500 miles, including a split near Dodge City where the Mountain Route heads to Colorado then down into New Mexico and the Cimarron Route cuts a diagonal across Oklahoma on its way to New Mexico.
Much of the Santa Fe Trail today is on private property though you can roughly follow it in Kansas by driving U.S. Highways 56, 54 and 50. Along the way are markers, museums, historic sites, forts, ruts and other trail-related attractions. The Santa Fe Trail Association and communities across all five states are commemorating the bicentennial with events, activities and even a few new and improved historic attractions (see article on Page 14).
The 200th anniversary was the main push for Kendall to launch the documentary, which has the working title “The Road to Santa Fe,” though he had another incentive. He wanted to finally dig into family stories that his great-great-grandfather was a teamster on the Santa Fe Trail.
“I thought maybe learning more about the trail would help me understand more about my family’s past,” he said.
He learned William Marion Walter got off the steamboat in Kansas City in 1857 and drove a wagon on the trail for no more than two years before settling down to farm in Morris County. Walter also served as postmaster for what was in the 1860s identified as “Far West” Kansas.
Kendall likely is not the only Kansan who didn’t know as much as he felt he should about the Santa Fe Trail, considering he grew up in Morris County not too far from it.
He didn’t remember learning in history class that the Arkansas River was an international boundary for the trail’s first 25 years and that the trail had a commerce role not an immigrant role in opening up the west and southwest.
Growing up, Council Grove had always been the home of the rival to his Herington High School. Now, he better understands that Council Grove had a prominent role on the trail. For a time, it was the last chance for traders heading southwest to get goods, services and prepare for the toughest portion of the trail. In 1825, it was where the first treaty establishing right-of-way on the trail was signed between the U.S. government and tribes.
This is the third full-length documentary Kendall has created as an independent producer. That means he’s funding the project through grants, donations and sponsorships.
Kendall, who has a master’s degree in Media Anthropology from the University of Kansas, is likely best known as the producer and host of the public television series “Sunflower Journeys” from 1987 to 2015. In all the stories he filed for the program, he only recalls covering the Santa Fe Trail once, when the National Park Service designated it a National Historic Trail in 1987.
He started this project in spring 2019 to give himself extra time for research, but the pandemic cut short the time he was able to film and interview in New Mexico and Colorado. He had completed work in Missouri before COVID-19 and was able to safely continue day trips throughout Kansas, though he didn’t work in tandem as much as he’d planned with Rex Buchanan, director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. They’d planned to do more scenes with Buchanan walking and conducting interviews while Kendall filmed.
He’s now in the editing stage and aims for a broadcast debut this September on KCPT, Kansas City PBS. The two-hour film will then be available to air on other PBS stations; reach out to your local station’s program director to request it.
Two years ago, he’d planned that the project would be shown publicly for the first time during the Symphony in the Flint Hills Signature Event, a June 12 concert by the 80-piece Kansas City Symphony. Kendall is an emcee at the annual event and he knew organizers had planned to incorporate bicentennial elements in addition to selecting a site along the Santa Fe Trail. For now, he’s holding off on scheduling any in-person screenings.
The documentary could eventually be available online. For now, you can watch segments containing elements of his research under the projects tab at his website, prairiehollow.net. These are not clips from the documentary but separate pieces produced using some of the content he’s gathered in making the film. He’s also using audio he and Buchanan collected to create monthly segments for Kansas Public Radio; they can be heard at kansaspublicradio.org.
“I didn’t have an appreciation for the significant part the Santa Fe Trail played in American history and now I do,” Kendall said. “I hope that’s what people pick up from watching this documentary.”