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The Ranch at Little Arkansas Crossing

The Ranch at Little Arkansas Crossing

by Louise Barry

Autumn 1972 (Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3), pages 287 to 294
Transcription & HTML composition by Larry E. & Carolyn L. Mix
digitized with permission of The Kansas Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets refer to footnotes for this text.

NINETY miles west of Council Grove, near the eastern boundary of present Rice county, Santa Fe trail travelers forded the Little Arkansas river. Joseph C. Brown, the trail's surveyor, 1825-1827, in his report, stated: "It is important that the ford on the Little Arkansas be found, as it is generally impassible on account of high banks and unsound bed. The ford is perhaps half a mile below the mouth of a small creek [North branch, or North fork], which runs into it on the east side. At the crossing . . . there is wood for fuel and the water and grass are tolerably good." [1]

It appears that William Mathewson (the original "Buffalo Bill") spent some months in 1857 and 1858 at Little Arkansas Crossing, trading with the Indians, and hunting buffalo. If so, no doubt he was the first white "settler" there. [2] In February, 1858, the territorial legislature granted E. F. Gregory and associates the privilege of building a bridge across the Little Arkansas "where the Santa Fe road crosses the same." Perhaps Gregory got gold fever later in the year, for there is no further mention of him. But the "associates" probably included William D. Wheeler (who soon became the dominant figure at Little Arkansas ranch), as well as Asahel Beach and son Abijah (who, in the late fall of 1858, separated from the group and established themselves at Cow creek, 18 miles to the west). [3]

Augustus Voorhees, en route to Pike's Peak with the "Lawrence party" of gold-seekers in 1858, recorded in his diary on June 7: "Drove twenty-one miles to the Little Arkansas. Saw several herd of buffalo, one was killed, got but little meat, it was to far from the road. But little timber on the river and but little watter. The banks are quite high. They are building a bridge here. The timber is cotton wood and box elder." The same day cotraveler William B. Parsons wrote: "Camped on the Little Arkansas. There is a trading post at this place, and a bridge in process of erection. The crossing is abominable." [4]

On July 12 H. B. Möllhausen and party, eastbound, reached the crossing and "camped on the right bank [west side of the stream] near a little log cabin which several adventurers had erected for the purpose of trading with the Kaw Indians," who were camped "farther above at a distance of about four miles." Two days earlier, Indian agent Robert C. Miller, westbound, had arrived at the Little Arkansas, overtaking there trader William Bent and the wagon train carrying annuity goods for the Plains tribes. Miller's subsequent report to the Commissioner of Indian affairs particularly mentioned the presence of the Kansa "returning home from the upper Arkansas," who had been in the vicinity several days, "attracted to the spot by the loadstone of whiskey, dealt out to them by a creature bearing the face and form of man, who receives, in return for his vile stuff, the few ponies and robes they had obtained from the Indians of the Arkansas." [5]

An unidentified gold-seeker, on his way to Pike's Peak with some 20 companions, arrived at Little Arkansas Crossing on October 22, 1858, and camped for a day on the west side. In his journal he wrote: "This is a fine place . . . We here once more find the residence of a white man, who hunts, trades, etc. He is building a bridge across the river." [6] The odds are that William D. Wheeler was the log cabin's occupant. But no traveler in 1858 mentioned a name.

A November issue of the Western Journal of Commerce, Kansas City, Mo., contained a "Table of Distances from Kansas City to the Gold Regions of Pike's Peak." For "Little Arkansas," 212 miles from Kansas City, the "Remarks" column read: "Mail station, store, water, grass, bridge and Buffalo." About this time, but not known to the table-of-distances compiler, Asahel and Abijah Beach and others were establishing themselves at Cow Creek Crossing (Beach Valley), 18 miles west of the Little Arkansas. It was at Beach Valley that a post office subsequently was established, early in 1859. So the mail station at the Little Arkansas was short-lived. [7]

Map of Rice County Kansas

Greenway owned an early day ferry near Wichita Kansas

This photograph was identified only as "GREENWAY" who owned an early-day ferry near Wichita, and was brother-in-law to Pioneer Wichitan William Greiffenstein. Presumably it is a portrait of A. J. GREENWAY who was at Little Arkansas ranch in the mid-1860's and at Wichita in 1869. Greiffenstein and Greenway married daughters of Pottawatomie chief Abram Burnett.

The territorial legislature in February, 1859, authorized William T. Williamson, Columbus Hornsby, Thomas Lounds, and James C. Horton to "establish a bridge across Little Arkansas river where Santa Fe road crosses it." There is no evidence these men made use of their charter, though they may have operated a ferry, briefly. When William W. Salisbury, on his way to the gold fields, arrived at the "little Arcasas" at 11 o'clock on May 18, 1859, he recorded in his journal: ". . . toll bridge here 25 cts. toll. but little timber Poore water saw a man that had been shot acidentely in the hip." Another gold-seeker, Charles C. Post, crossing there late in May, wrote in his diary: "The bridge was built last season by Gains & Wheeler, the owners of it and the ranch, twenty-five cent toll and ten gallons of water or twenty-five cents for ten gallons and cross at ferry." These travelers used the ferry and filled their water kegs "at a spring above one-fourth mile." Post made an examination of the stone used in the bridge piers. "It is a kind of lime granite very heavy," he wrote. [8] (At a later time J. W. Bean recollected: "The bridge across the river had been washed away before my day but the piers were standing five or six feet high. . . ." And George Hoffman remembered that there were three stone piers, and a solidly constructed flooring of logs and lumber.)

For 1860 little is to be found concerning Little Arkansas Crossing. A list of "Arrivals at the Gilkey House," Council Grove, for the week ending August 23, included the name "Wm. Wade, Little Arkansas." Presumably he was employed at Wheeler's ranch. In the November 6, 1860, election, held at Beach Valley, Peketon county voters -- 12 in number -- unanimously elected W. D. Wheeler to the office of probate judge. [9]

A. I. Baker, Council Grove Press editor, in his March 16, 1861, issue noted that Dr. A. I. Beach, of Beach Valley (Cow Creek Crossing) and William Wheeler of the Little Arkansas had "been in town for several days," and commented: "These gentlemen are pioneers in the true sense of the word; living far out upon the Western frontier. . . . The March 23d issue of the Press contained this advertisement:

Little Arkansas Ranche The Traveling Public are respectfully informed, that the undersigned is located on the Little Arkansas, where the great Santa Fe road crosses the same. I keep always on hand, Provisions, groceries and Liquors, also are prepared to accommodate travelers. I have several large [stone] corrals [10] for penning stock, Also, have built a strong and substantial bridge across the Little Arkansas, for the accommodation of the traveling public.
W. D. Wheeler

In the Council Grove Press of May 26, 1861, editor A. I. Baker wrote: "Our esteemed friend Wm. Wheeler of Wheeler's Ranche, Little Arkansas, reports all quiet on the plains. This Ranche is about 100 [i. e., 90] miles west of Council Grove. The proprietor keeps always on hand, ponies, horses, cattle, mules, & other live stock to sell; besides the weary traveler can be entertained to heart's content. Mr. Wheeler has erected a splendid toll-bridge across the Little Arkansas at that place."

There is an information-gap from mid-1861 to mid-1863. (During this interval the Council Grove newspaper was suspended.) In his July 6, 1863, issue the Press editor wrote: "We learn that W. D. Wheeler and all his hands at Little Arkansas where he has a Ranche and store have been very sick. Supposed to be poison thrown into his well."

Colorado troops had a fight with Southern Cheyennes on May 16, 1864, near Big creek, on the Smoky Hill river (present Ellis county). Next day, small bands of Cheyennes made retaliatory stock-stealing forays on the stage stations and trading posts in central Kansas. (One stage-line employee was killed on upper Cow creek.) The Council Grove Press of May 28, 1864, noted that the frontiersmen not yet scared out by Indians included "Wheeler at Little Arkansas." William Wheeler made no claim for losses on May 17, as did other area ranchers. It would appear his place was not attacked, or that he successfully defended his stock. [11]

In July, 1864, Kiowas, Comanches, and Arapahoes joined the Cheyennes in depredations along the Santa Fe trail. On the 17th, at Fort Larned, the stock was run off by Kiowas. just west of Camp Dunlap (Fort Zarah), on the 18th, Kiowas and Arapahoes killed 10 men of the Crow and Barret freighting outfits, and scalped two others (who survived). As word of trouble ahead reached other westbound trains, freighters corralled their wagons at strategic locations and prepared to fight or withstand siege. [12]

G. W. Ridge wrote a letter dated "Little Arkansas River, Kan., [Sunday] July 24, 1864," which stated, in part: "On Wednesday last [the 20th] they [the Indians] came upon three young men (herding) here, killing one and wounding the other two. They killed 30 head of cattle and then left. . . . Every train from here to Fort Larned are in camp afraid to move. There are several hundred wagons camped here prepared for battle; we expect the fiends hourly. . . ." [13] (The wounded men, of whom there is no other information, perhaps were attacked in the vicinity of Little Arkansas Crossing, but the body of the youth killed on June 20 -- Edgar Miller, of Marion -- was found near present Canton, in McPherson county.)

As it turned out, the Kiowas, Comanches, and Arapahoes concentrated their attack on Cow Creek ranch, 18 miles to the west, and besieged wagon trains corralled in that vicinity. When Peter Kelly, Santa Fe mail conductor, arrived at Kansas City, Mo., on July 28, his account of events out in central Kansas included comment that "At Wheeler's Ranch some forty head of cattle were lost." It may be that all the 30 or 40 head of cattle lost at, or in the area of, Little Arkansas Crossing (Stone Corral) belonged to freighters. Wheeler himself made no claim against the Indians. There is also the possibility that he had sold out in midyear, or simply packed up and departed before the July troubles. No mention of William Wheeler later than May, 1864, has been found. How many years his toll bridge continued in use is another question that remains unanswered. No contemporary reference to it later than May, 1861, has been located. However, years later a Rice county pioneer -- George Hoffman, of Little River -- recollected that the bridge toll was 75 cents when he traveled the trail in the late 1860's. He remembered seeing soldiers in tents and small huts at the crossing. [14]

And who was keeping the Little Arkansas stage station in April, 1865, when unidentified Indians stole stage stock from Cow Creek ranch (on the 24th) and put the stock at Little Arkansas ranch in jeopardy? Bvt. Brig. Gen. James H. Ford (then at Fort Zarah) dispatched a company of troops to each place. "Station Little Arkansas, Kansas" was established, before April 29, by Cpt. Theodore Conkey and Company G, Third Wisconsin cavalry. On May 8 Cpt. Carter Berkeley, 2d U. S. volunteer infantry, relieved Conkey (who went to Fort Larned). On May 21 Berkeley's Company K, 2d U. S. volunteer infantry, relieved the Wisconsin troops. Reinforcements from the 13th Missouri cavalry arrived in June -- Company B on the 19th; Company D on the 20th; and Cpt. Joel H. Shelly, of the 13th Missouri, took command at "Station Little Arkansas." [15]

On the last day in June, 1865, Indians killed, scalped, and otherwise mutilated three of Captain Shelly's cavalrymen, and a corporal of the Second Colorado cavalry, in two separate attacks in the vicinity of Little Arkansas Crossing. Maj. John E. Mayo (at Cow creek) reported to Maj. James M. Turley (at Fort Zarah):

Captain Shelly dispatched me to-day that the Indians have killed and scalped four more of his command, and captured the dispatches that you forwarded the other night. The band of red-skins numbered about twenty-five or thirty and crossed the Santa Fe road about seven miles east of Little Arkansas. Killed two of the dispatch bearers. Passed down and crossed the Little Arkansas about eight or ten miles below Captain Shelly's camp, where they found four men of Capt. Shelly's command killing buffalo, two of whom they killed. I have sent a force to intercept them, if possible, before they cross the Arkansas river. [16]

One of the victims was dispatch-carrier Cpl. (James?) Douglass, of Company D, Second Colorado cavalry. The three murdered 13th Missouri men were: Pvt. H. Hogan, Pvt. James Jones, and (Pvt?) G. W. Norris, all of whom were buried at Little Arkansas Crossing (Stone Corral); and at a later time reinterred at Fort Leavenworth. The Junction City Union's account states that men of Alex. Thompson's train, on July 1, 18 miles east of Cow creek, picked up the bodies of five soldiers killed on June 30th while carrying dispatches. (Another account also says five men were killed.) But the military report must be assumed correct both as to location, and number of Victims. [17]

No further information is available on "Station Little Arkansas." It appears the troops were withdrawn in July. Peace talks with the Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahoes, and Plains Apaches, held at the mouth of the Little Arkansas in August, 1865, resulted in a preliminary agreement on the 15th to cease hostilities. Peace treaties with these Plains tribes, and Cheyennes, were made in mid-October, 1865, after treaty councils held in the same area. From then, till the middle of 1867, Indian depredations on the Santa Fe trail were few in number.

"H. J. [i. e., A. J.] Greenway" wrote a letter dated "Little Arkansas Ranch, May 28, 1867," which the Junction City Union of June 8, published. It concerned six soldiers from Custer's (Fort Hays) command "scouting on Cow Creek, (or rather running buffalo). . . ." About May 25 these soldiers (deserters, in fact) had "encountered twenty odd Kiowas and Cheyennes," who, in a running fight, had killed all but one of them. The survivor, with "scalp cut around, but not taken," had been brought to the Little Arkansas ranch by an eastbound wagon train. There is some reason to suppose that A. J. Greenway may have been at Little Arkansas Crossing since 1864 (or earlier). If not there, he was in the vicinity, for he filed a claim of $1,050 against the Kiowas who had taken seven horses from him in a July 22, 1864, raid. [18]

During the summer of 1867 soldiers again were stationed at Little Arkansas Crossing. Cpt. Edward Byrne and Company C, 10th U. S. cavalry established Camp Grierson there, probably in June; and remained till November 10. They had no problem with Indians. But during the months of July and August there were 17 cases of cholera, and eight deaths, among these black troops. [19]

Theodore Sternberg -- as recollected by his brother C. H. Sternberg, in 1928 -- took over the ranch at Little Arkansas Crossing in 1867. The Sternberg family lived in Ellsworth county, where another son, George M., was Fort Harker's medical officer. Theodore (as C. H. recalled) rented a team and buggy from an Ellsworth livery stable and went down to visit the ranch. On the journey homeward he happened to look back and discovered six Indians in pursuit. To outdistance them he cut the harness, and rode one horse bareback, reaching home safely, but worn out and sore. Later he returned to get the buggy, but found the harness had been cut to pieces. [20]

On July 19, 1870, Z. Jackson, assistant marshal, with an escort of six soldiers from Fort Harker, took the census in Rice county. Up in the northeast corner he found five homestead settlers whom he enumerated as the only residents. Jackson wrote this note on the census sheet: "Farther south on the east side of Rice County [at Little Arkansas Crossing] I found Mr. Theodore Sternberg building a stone house and had up a large stone corrall for the protection of his stock from Indians but as it was extremely dangerous for him to stay here unprotected he spends most of his time at his father's in family No. 40 in Ellsworth county where I have him enumerated therefore his name is not entered as one of the inhabitants of Rice County." [21]

The stone corrals originally built by William Wheeler in 1859(?), and remodeled by Theodore Sternberg in 1870, presented a landmark of some prominence to the settlers who began arriving in Rice county in 1871. One of the later pioneers -- J. W. Bean -- ,who saw the ranch area about 1880, recollected that the corrals totaled 300 to 400 feet in length, and about 200 feet in width. The north wall, still standing then, was "about eight feet high and perhaps 30 inches thick . . . with many stones extending through the wall, binding it together." There were "one or two openings about 10 inches up and down, and two feet long on the inside, tapering to about 10 inches square on the outside" -- reportedly made in this way so as to get a wide range to shoot at the Indians. He also recalled that the "walls were laid perfectly with the slabs fitted so close together that little or no light showed through," and that a "small room or enclosure had been fitted into one end.

From December 6, 1872, till August 4, 1880, there was a post office named Stone Corral. George W. Hodgson, a pioneer of 1871, was the first postmaster. It may be that his residence was near, but not on, the site. The 1874 State Board of Agriculture map of Rice county shows Stone Corral P. O. on the NE 1/4 of Sec. 14, T. 20, R. 6 W. The legal description of the ranch location is SW 1/4 of Sec. 13, T. 20, R. 6 W. [22]


Louise Barry is a member of the staff of the Kansas Historical Society. She is author of many articles on Kansas and Western history and of the recently published The Beginning of the West (Topeka, Kansas Historical Society, 1972).

1. Eighteenth Biennial Report, Kansas Historical Society, p. 119.
2. The earliest (and most reliable) account of William Mathewson's life is in the United States Biographical Dictionary. Kansas Volume (Chicago and Kansas City, 1879), pp. 192-195. It does not (perhaps by printer's error) account for Mathewson's activities in the period between spring, 1857 (when he and Horace Green came east to Independence, Mo., from the mountains, to sell pelts), and the "summer of 1856 [1858 intended], . . ." when he associated himself with the Beaches at Cow creek. Almost certainly Mathewson, was at Little Arkansas Crossing in 1857 and 1858. The Portrait and Biographical Album of Sedgwick County, Kan. (Chicago, 1888), p. 171, in its sketch of him says that he "built" a post on the Little Arkansas. Years later, reminiscing of his lost diaries, covering 15 years of life in the West, Mathewson was quoted as stating that he had traded with Indians "at the great bend in the Arkansas River, at Cow Creek, and at the post on the Little Arkansas, on the old Santa Fe Trail." See "Kansas Scrapbook," M, v. 10 (in KHi library). An article in The Kansas Historical Quarterly, Winter, 1972, on Cow Creek ranch will have more about William Mathewson. His diaries were destroyed in a fire.
3. Private Laws of Kansas Territory, 1858, p. 35; The Kansas News, Emporia, December 4, 1858.
4. Colorado Magazine, Denver, v. 12, pp. 42-50 (Voorhees diary); Lawrence Republican, October 28, 1858, or, L. R. Hafen, ed., Pike's Peak Gold Rush Guidebooks of 1859 (Glendale, Cal., 1941), p. 324 (for Parsons).
5. Kansas Historical Quarterly (KHQ), v. 16, p. 369 (for Möllhausen); Commissioner of Indian affairs, Report, 1858, pp. 96-100 (Miller's report).
6. The Border Star, Westport, Mo., December 31, 1858.
7. Western Journal of Commerce, Kansas City, Mo., November 6, 1858, or see KHQ, v. 37, between pp. 136-137.
8. Private Laws of Kansas Territory, 1859, pp. 15, 16; KHQ, v. 22, p. 328 (for Salisbury); L. R. Hafen, editor, Overland Routes to the Gold Fields, 1859 (Glendale, Cal., 1942), pp. 37-38 (for Post). "Gains" is not elsewhere mentioned.
9. Council Grove Press, August 25, 1860 (for Wade); Peketon County election returns, 1860 (in KHi archives division).
10. The stone for stock corrals and bridge piers came from an outcropping of rock about a mile north of the ranch. -- J. W. Bean's recollections, in Horace Jones's Up From the Sod (Lyons, Kan., c1968), pp. 45-46.
11. War of the Rebellion . . ., Series I, v. 34, Pt. 1, pp. 934-935; ibid., Pt. 4, pp. 38-39, 101, 207, 403; KHQ, v. 37, pp. 143-144.
12. Ibid , p. 145; Leavenworth Daily Conservative, July 30, 1864.
13. Leavenworth Daily Conservative, July 30, 1864; or, Kansas City (Mo.) Daily Journal of Commerce, July 28, 1864; KHQ, v. 19, pp. 25-26.
14. Leavenworth Daily Times, July 30, 1864; or, Kansas City (Mo.) Daily Journal of Commerce, July 29, 1864. Horace Jones, The Story of Early Rice County (1928), p. 58.
15. War of the Rebellion, Series I, v. 48, Pt. 2, p. 245; Station Little Arkansas post returns, May and June, 1865 (National Archives Microcopy 617, Roll 1520, in KHi). The 2d U. S. volunteer infantry troops were captured Confederates -- some of the "galvanized Yankees."
16. War of the Rebellion, Series I, v. 48, Pt. 2, p. 1039.
17. Junction City Union, July 8, 1865; or, Leavenworth Daily Times, July 13, 1865; History of the Arkansas Valley, Colorado (Chicago, 1881), p. 88; Colorado Magazine, v. 3 (May, 1926), pp. 53-54; letter of Maj. C. L. Hyssong, Fort Leavenworth, August 29, 1939, giving information on Stone Corral burials (copy in KHi ms. division).
18. While there is a record of Greenway's having filed the claim, unfortunately the papers relating to it cannot, presently, be located in the National Archives. A. J. Greenway was probate judge of Marion county in 1867 and 1868, or perhaps only in the latter year. He also was associated with the early history of Wichita. The first issue of the Wichita Vidette, August 13, 1870, says: "In 1852 [1862?] Judge Greenway came to this valley on a hunting and trading expedition with the Osage Indians," and was "with them long enough to become acquainted with their language." "In 1869 Judge Greenway came back again and operated a general stock of supply goods for the Texas cattle trade. . . ." Another item in the same issue notes the death of the infant son of A. J. and Lucy Greenway at Wichita, July 27, 1870. For Greenway as probate judge see P. H. Green Indian depredation claim papers (microfilm from National Archives) in KHi.
19. The camp was named for the 10th U. S. cavalry regiment's commander, Col. B. H. Grierson, The mean troop strength for the two months was 78 men. -- Camp Grierson, Kan., Post return, November, 1867 (on microfilm, in ms. Box 680, KHi); War Department. Surgeon General's Office, Report on Epidemic Cholera and Yellow Fever in the, Army of the United States During the Year 1867, Circular No. 1 (1868), p. 50.
20. Lyons Daily News, August 17, 1946; or, "Rice County Clippings," v. 2, p. 92 (in KHi library); Horace Jones, The Story of Early Rice County (1928), p. 60. The question arises whether C. H. Sternberg's date of 1867 could be wrong. Perhaps it was not till 1869 that his brother Theodore took the Little Arkansas ranch? Theodore Sternberg was a Civil War veteran, having served as a first lieutenant in the New York infantry, August 23, 1862, to June 25, 1865. -- Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army . . . (1903), v. 1, p. 921.
21. U. S. census, 1870, Rice county, Kansas, in KHi.
22. Horace Jones, Up From the Sod, pp. 45-46 (for J. W. Bean), or see Lyons Daily News, August 17, 1946; Robert W. Baughman, Kansas Post Offices (Topeka, c1961), pp. 123, 221; A. T. Andreas and W. G. Cutler, History of the State of Kansas (1883), p. 760. Robert S. Gray, McPherson, who has located the Santa Fe trail crossing of the Little Arkansas, supplied the legal description.