Walking Across History on the Santa Fe National Historic Trail

On a cold, late October day we huddled together, looking over Swanson’s Ruts in central Kansas trying to decide what the main story of this site should be on an interpretive sign. Only the locals came prepared for the cold; the rest of us read the weather forecast that called for temperatures in the 70s. Stretched out in front of us was a pristine set of wagon ruts, or swales as we tend to call them, left unplowed by generations of farmers who saw the value of them. Here the wagons on the Santa Fe Trail spread out as they pulled up out of the Little Arkansas River Crossing, leaving a pattern like corduroy in the landscape. Walking out into the field the ground seemed to sway beneath your feet with a constant undulating down into a swale and back up the other side. Each swale maybe one or two feet deep, stretching the length of the field and disappearing into the trees at the river’s edge.

Wagon ruts at Swanson's Swales, Kansas, photo by National Park Service

Wagon ruts at Swanson's Swales, Kansas, photo by National Park Service

We, interpretive rangers with the National Park Service, and a hired contractor had joined local landowners and a Santa Fe Trail Association member to plan for designing interpretive panels. These private landowners, several of them farmers, all agreed to make the trail sites on their property open to the public. Today they were here to help lend to us their knowledge of local trail history. They pointed out features in the landscape we would never have seen, showed us artifacts they’d found on the ground, and helped us understand these sites.

This is one of the things I love about working on National Historic Trails; the opportunity to meet and work with people right in their own back yards. These people respect the importance of historic events and resources, and many make sites on their own land open to the public, of their own volition. National Historic Trail stories are told in isolated remnants of trail swales, historic buildings, old road beds, and landscape features that collectively tell the story of events that impact our lives today.

Without these landowners, more prepared and knowledgeable than we are, this story would lose something. It would lose that opportunity to feel the ground undulate beneath your feet as you walk across a piece of history.

Carole Wendler is Chief of Interpretation for the National Park Service National Trails Intermountain Region.