The Leavenworth to Wilmington Military Road of the Santa Fe Trail and the Glaciated Physiographic Region of Kansas

Sarah Pick and Katie Simmons
ES 546 - Field Geomorphology
Emporia State University
Fall 2013

Table of Contents
Trail History
Glaciated Physiographic Region
Area Impact


The Santa Fe Trail is a piece of American history. It is not as well-known as the Oregon Trail or romanticized as the Civil War, but it is just as an important part of our past. The Santa Fe Trail originates in Missouri, crosses Kansas and Colorado, and ends in New Mexico. The trail was mainly used by merchants who wanted to transport their wares west and sell them for greater profit. In the 1800s, after the establishment of forts, branches were added to incorporate traffic between the forts and the main branch of the trail. The portion of the trail that is focused on in this study is the military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley that turned south to Wilmington, Kansas.

Zoomed in map fo the Fort Riley Military road of the Santa Fe Trail (Image from National Park Service, 2013).

In Kansas there are several physiographic regions. The region of focus for the military road of the Santa Fe Trail is the glaciated region. The boundary on the west by the Blue River and the south by the Kansas River. This region gets its name based on a glaciation that occurred approximately six hundred thousand years ago. Glaciers are extremely complex based on how they add ice and change the landscape. This area has many remnants, as seen by landscape changes, based on erosion, deposition, deformation and meltwater. Each of these geomorphic processes took place in this area. Glacial erratics, pebbles and boulders, are seen throughout this region.

Physiographic regions of Kansas (Aber and Aber, 2009).

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Trail History

Fort Leavenworth

In the late 1820’s, disputes between American traders and Native Americans escalated to such a point that the government decided to build more forts in an effort to keep the peace. In 1827, Colonel Henry Leavenworth and his men were ordered to locate a site near the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail as a possible location for a fort. The spot that Colonel Leavenworth chose was located near the Kansas-Missouri border, about thirty kilometers north of where the Kansas and Missouri Rivers join. Construction began at the site and the area was named Cantonment Leavenworth. The presence of the fort was not enough to reduce the amount of raids by the Native Americans. So in 1829 soldiers from Cantonment Leavenworth were ordered to join traders as they travelled the trail until they reached the Arkansas River. The soldiers would then wait at the river and rendezvous with the traders on their return journey (Santa Fe Trail Research Site, 2013). The name was changed in 1832 to Fort Leavenworth (Legends of America, 2013).

(Photo from Legends of America, 2013.)

The Trail from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley

This branch of the military route is not easily visible because it was not excessively traveled and because the area this trail has been altered. According to records from Fort Leavenworth, the western branch this trail ran through what is now Easton, Indianola (north Topeka), Silver Lake, Louisville, Manhattan, and Ogden. Fort Riley itself was established in 1853 near the union of the Smokey Hill and Republican Rivers.

Construction of Fort Riley (Photo from Kansas Sampler Foundation, 2008). Photo courtesy of USAG Fort Riley Public Affairs.

In May of 1853, Samuel D. Dyer constructed a ferry that forded the Blue River. Construction material, food, and other materials came to Fort Riley via this trail (Smith, 1928). The southern branch of the Fort Riley Military Road turned south at Topeka and traveled southwest to Wilmington, Kansas where it joined with the main branch of the Santa Fe Trail (National Park Service, 2013).


The Fort Leavenworth-Fort Riley military trail joined the main branch of the Santa Fe Trail at Wilmington, located in southeast Wabaunsee County Kansas. The town was originally established in 1856 and once was home to about 400 residents, complete with stores, doctors, a blacksmith, a hotel, and a post office (Kaberline, 2011). A school and church were built in the 1870s. After the construction of railroads, towns along the Santa Fe Trail did not receive much traffic, the trail became obsolete, and towns like Wilmington died out (Burns, 2012). All that remains of the town of Wilmington are a couple of residents and the school house.

Aerial photos of Wilmington. The photo on the left is looking southeast and the photo on the right is looking south. The stars represent the assumed path of the trail according to Franzwa, 1989 (Photos courtesy of J.S. Aber, 2013).

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Glaciated Physiographic Region

Glacier Development

Glaciers are formed by the change of snow to ice; this occurs when there is more snowfall in the winter than will melt in the summer and repeated for numerous years. The snow will begin to create pressure on itself with the weight of the accumulated snow and turn into ice (Hambrey and Alean, 2004). Glaciers have four components to them: ice, water, air, and rock debris. This ice behaves like a plastic under low pressure that allows for deformation of the interior and flowage. Water is found with high pressure underneath many glaciers (Aber, 2013a). Growth and shrinkage of a glacier is dependent on three zones of a glacier: accumulation, ablation and equilibrium. The accumulation zone is in the upper areas of the glacier where accumulation surpasses loss. In this area, there is usually no surface melting. The ablation zone is where loss is greater than gain. In this area, the summer melts the winter accumulation and some of the ice below. The equilibrium line is where the accumulation and ablation is balanced (Hambrey and Alean, 2004). At the equilibrium, a line of firn will be present. Firn is snow that has remained for the minimum of one summer season (Aber, 2013a). An image of this process can be found by (Granshaw and Fountain, 2003).

Glacial Landscape Development

There are three geomorphic effects of glaciers and ice sheets on the landscape. These are erosion, deposition and deformation. Erosion and deposition can occur underneath a glacier based on its velocity, melting and freezing of the base, and terrain conditions. Erosion mostly happens underneath the accumulation zone, and deposition under the ablation zone (Aber, 2013b). Deposition of a glacier is made of diamict sediments, usually till. This is transported and deposited sediment from a glacier with minimal sorting by water. Landform developed by glacial deposition may be comprised of diamict or stratified sediments. Many boulders may show the direction of glacial movement due to their position in sediments (Aber, 2013c).

Deformation caused by glaciers can range from microscopic to continental and occurs in the frozen and thawed materials under, beneath or in front of glaciers. This may occur during the maximal or recessional periods of glaciation. These features may be faults, folds, or fractures. Landforms created by glaciers display their original morphology or change the originating landforms (Aber, 2013d). The stratified sediments may be featured as kames and eskers. Kames accumulate in lateral positions. Eskers are usually found at the behind hand heading toward the end moraines (Aber, 2011a).

Parts of a continental glacier as they would have occurred in Kansas (Lyle, 2009).

Kansas Glaciated Landscape

Two glacial events took place in Kansas during the Independence glaciation, about six hundred thousand years ago. These were first written about by Louis Agassiz in the late 1860s. The Independence ice sheet advanced southward to northern Leavenworth County westward to Nemaha County, known as the Early Independence Glacial Limit (Aber, 2013e). The Late Independence Glacial Limit swings down to eastern Johnson County, westward to northern Wabaunsee County, and northward to Washington County (Aber, 2011b). The landscape features have been highly eroded and weathered, leaving remnants rather than the original form (Aber, 2013e).

Map of Kansas showing extent of glaciation and current county coverage (KGS, 2005a).

Most features in this area were created by glacial erosion, deformation and deposition, and also by melt water. Because of catastrophic flooding, due to the ice damming the Blue, Kansas and Missouri Rivers, many smaller valleys were eroded to create alternative routes for water (Aber, 2013e). Boulders of quartzite were moved to this area from South Dakota (KGF, 2007).These glaciers overran a forest and wood is common in the till (Aber, 2013e). Loess, a fine sediment, was left when the glaciers retreated and have provided fertile soil for crops to grow (KGF, 2007).

Left: Hilly landscape showing glacial erratic outcropping near Alma, KS. Right: Glacial erratic and pebbles along roadcut south of Topeka, KS. Images by Katie Simmons, 2011 during a Quaternary Geology field trip.

Overview of the Glaciated Physiographic Region of Kansas

The glaciated physiographic region of Kansas is defined by its rounded hills with expansive valleys with deposits of quartzite from glacial activities. This areas west boundary is the Blue River and southern boundary of the Kansas River (NRCS, 1999). The bedrock underlying the glaciated region is of Pennsylvanian and Permian age, consisting of limestones and shales covered thickly of glacial deposits (KGS, 1999). The bedrock has a gentle dip to the west and northwest (KGS, 2005). In Wabaunsee County, there are several hillsides with many quartzite boulders. It is believed that this may be the southern edge of glaciation, as no other boulders have been found further south of this location (KGS, 2005). Due to the glaciation, the area has high relief created by flat upland areas and steep hills divided by large stream valleys, created by spillway melt. The vegetation today tends to be oak and hickory forest and prairie (Aber and Aber, 2009).

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Area Impact


Land use today is mostly agriculture; corn, wheat, milo. Today there are still many glacial features shown. Loess, created by the pulverization of the rocks and sediments as the glaciers moved, was deposited in the floodplains of the streams from the melting. In this region, the loess is usually yellowish in color and may crop out on hillsides and valley walls. Many boulders and pebbles that were carried by the glaciers are seen. These boulders and pebbles are called glacial erratics and may include quartzite, granite, and basalt. Quartzite is the most common erratic, and came from South Dakota, around the Sioux Falls area. This quartzite is known as Sioux quartzite for this reason (KGS, 1999). The most important features, however, are the spillway valleys, resulting from outburst flooding from glacial lakes (Aber and Aber, 2009), such as the Missouri River. This river provided the keelboat access to Fort Leavenworth. In this physiographic region, there is also a chance of an earthquake. These earthquakes are usually microearthquakes caused by the rebounding of the deformed crust (Aber and Aber, 2013)

Military Road

Remnants of the Fort Riley Military Road of the Santa Fe Trail are rare as the land has been modified. Expansion of larger cities like Leavenworth and Topeka, construction of Perry Lake reservoir northeast of Topeka, construction of railroads, roads and highways, altering land for crops, and many other anthropomorphic activities have occurred in this area between the peak time of this trail and today. Many smaller settlement, such as Wilmington, have been destroyed and only small remnants occur.

Left: Image of the Wilmington school, as of 10/17/2013. Right: Sign about Wilmington during its height, posted next to the school. Images by Katie Simmons, during class field trip.

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For more information on this class, please visit: Field Geomorphology Syllabus

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