Chapter Seven - The Merchandisers

Even as the mountaineers were cashing in on the needs of the Pike’s Peakers who had arrived during the fall mini rush, their counterparts in the Missouri River valley were busy planning their strategy as outfitters for the upcoming spring emigration. On 13 September 1858, the call went out in eastern Kansas Territory for a town meeting to discuss the newly-discovered gold regions and “the undeniable advantages which Leavenworth City possesses over all the other towns on the Missouri river as an outfitting point.”

The meeting was held on the corner of Delaware and Second streets in downtown Leavenworth. It was presided over by Mayor Denman. Also on the podium were General William Larimer, Colonel Slough and Judge Purkins, all of whom attempted to demonstrate that Leavenworth was in a unique position to benefit from the Pike’s Peak trade. As headquarters for the great freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell, the town could furnish outfits and transportation for nearly ten thousand emigrants. And as there was no rival town with which to divide the trade, it was only natural to conclude that Leavenworth would soon be filled with gold hunters. “Let them come,” trumpeted the Leavenworth Journal the next morning, “their own interest will prompt them to seek the best starting place.”

At stake were the enormous profits to be derived from the anticipated 1859 Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. The towns along the Missouri River had long served as outfitting points for the anuual spring emigrations to Oregon and California. But the emigrations had dwindled in recent years - down from the 50,000 in 1852 to a mere 5,000 in 1857 - and the frontier merchants had experienced a steady decline in business. Now with a new gold rush in the making, expectations for the coming year were growing increasingly optimistic. Already the fall mini-rush had produced nearly 2,000 gold seekers. A full-fledged rush in the spring might multiply that number fifty times over, precipitating a buying frenzy sure to fill the pockets of every well-stocked merchandiser. “If 100,000 men should go to Pike’s Peak...,” calculated the Lawrence Republican, “it will take the snug little sum of $2,000,000 to furnish them a fitting out at $200 per head, which is a light estimate.”

By planning their strategy early, the citizens of Leavenworth hoped to grab a lion’s share of the spring outfitting business. Committees were appointed to draw up handbills, encourage advertising, and send runners back east on extended promotional tours. The merchandising firm of Kiskadden and Trowbridge took out a full page ad in William Parsons’ guidebook. Russell, Majors and Waddell had business cards printed up to introduce thmselves as “dealers in dry goods, groceries, hardware, boots and shoes, hats and caps, clothing, gum goods, blankets, guns, pistols, knives, etc.” Over at the Pike’s Peak Outfitting Depot on Delaware Street, H. L. S. McLanathan put his entire stock of goods in the current of the Pike’s Peak trade: camp kettles, ready in a moment to furnish the Pike’s Peakers with a hot cup of coffee; hats to protect every miner’s head from the hot midday sun; big boots to enable novice prospectors to slosh about in cold mountain streams; in short, every possible article that a considerate merchandiser could conjure up to minister to the comfort and protection of the Pike’s Peak gold seekers.

Leavenworth’s efforts at self-aggrandizement did not pass unnoticed in the other towns of Kansas Territory. On 18 September 1858, the citizens of Wyandott were invited to their own enthusiastic meeting at Overton’s Hall. W. P. Overton was called to the chair; R. B. Taylor was appointed secretary. Dr. J. P. Root was asked to state the purpose of the meeting. He did so in a rather lengthy discourse, pointing out the proximity of Wyandott to the new Kansas gold mines and giving reasons “why the people of this place should take such action as would inform the eastern migration of the great advantage of making Wyandott the outfitting place for those going back to the mines.”

In nearby Lawrence, the merchandisers tried a more direct approach. Stearns’ grocery and provision store, Allen and Gilmore’s hardware establishment, and B. F. Dalton’s “mammoth outfitting establishment” all took out advertisements in Parsons’ guidebook. William O’Donnall, newly returned from Cherry Creek, announced himself ready to take up duties as an expressman. And George Churchill of the famed Lawrence Party began taking orders for Pike’s Peak wagons. Before the year was out, the Lawrence Republican could report that the local wagonmaker “has twelve hands constantly at work, and is about enlarging his shop to meet the demands made on him.”


To the west, Topeka advertised itself as being miles closer to the new gold fields. The word went out that anyone buying their outfits at Topeka could save the expense of hauling seventy-five miles from the Missouri River. The Kansas Tribune helped out with a late September proclamation: “We call the attention of all persons going to the Kansas gold mines to the very important fact that Topeka is the last place on the route to the ‘diggings’ where a good and complete outfit can be obtained. Teams of all descriptions, wagons, and to the numerous merchandise houses we call particular attention. Flour, tea, coffee, blankets, miner’s boots, picks, pans, blowers, hardware, tinware, and all descriptions of dry and West India goods can be had at Topeka, at a price very little in advance of river prices. Flour, meal, corn, potatoes, and all kinds of produce can be had here at a less price than at the Missouri river. The flouring mill at this place is doing a heavy business, and is making flour of a superior quality.”

Commercial preparations for the upcoming gold rush were not limited to outfitters and shopkeepers. Cattle drovers Coleman and Turner were soon busy rounding up nearly 1,500 head of oxen in western Texas. By early 1859, they had the great herd on its way to markets in the Missouri River valley. According to all reports, the oxen were “well broke, four years old and upwards,” just what was needed to supply the expected onrush of gold seekers.

Closer to home, Kansas City coachmakers Wiley and Harris began the manufacture of ambulances, which the Journal of Commerce represented as being just the thing for travel to the mines: “In addition to being light, strong and roomy, the seats are made to unfold so as to form a complete bedstead, on which a mattress may be fixed up for a king - all under a good oil covering, obviating all necessity for a tent.”

Also in Kansas City, a gunsmith named Masuch began production of a new gold washer. To demonstrate its worth, Masuch “took a $5.00 gold piece and filed it up into as many small particles as he possibly could. He then took and mixed the filings with five bushels of earth and ran the earth and gold through his washer. On cleaning out his machine, sifting and blowing his dust, he found on weighing his gold, that not one particle had been lost.” The demonstration so convinced representatives of the Kansas City Journal of Commerce that the paper felt obliged to promote the device as “the most complete, useful and unique machine for washing gold that we have ever seen worked.”

Down in St. Louis, at No. 5 Washington Avenue, the firm of Carmen and McCullen were beginning the manufacture of lightweight long toms, rockers, and all types of mining implements. The long toms weighed only thirty to forty lbs., the rockers twelve to fifteen. Projected prices: long toms $4, rockers $1.25. On nearby Locust Street, entrepreneurs Hood and Langan were hard at work on a prospecting auger. The auger was to be so well crafted that even a greenhorn prospector could easily bore ten feet below the surface, bring up the soil, and wash it out to ascertain its gold character - all within the span of fifteen minutes.

Perhaps the most alluring new product of all was the so-called Pike’s Peak Gold Gatherer, later advertised in bold print by both major St. Louis newspapers. The gatherer was reported to be constructed of a heavy timber framework, much like a stone boat, the bottom of which was composed of heavy iron rasps. “The frame work is hoisted to the top of the Peak, and a man gets on and slides down the sides of the mountain. As he goes swiftly down, the rasps on the bottom of the frame work scrape off the gold in immense shavings, which curl up on the machine, and by the time the man gets to the bottom nearly a ton of gold is following him.”

Surrounded as they were by such modern manufacturing marvels, the St. Louis city fathers felt little concern about the efforts of upstream communities to secure a major portion of the Pike’s Peak trade. After all, their city had long been regarded as the “Gateway to the West.” Even though the immediate jumping off places had been drifting steadily westward, St. Louis still remained the major supplier for each new river town incorporated. Independence, Westporrt, Leavenworth, Atchison, St. Joseph, Brownville, Nebraska City and Omaha, all relied on merchandise funnelled through St. Louis. Their success as outfitting points would be its sucess. Already dozens of steamboats were crowding its wharf and miles of merchandise lay stretched out along its levee. St. Louis was prepared. Let the great gold rush begin.

Kansas City, on the other hand, suddenly found itself “far behind other points upon this river in their efforts to secure the business that this great emigration will engender.” A mass town meeting was scheduled for mid-February of 1859. Judge B. A. James was called to the chair. C. C. Spalding was appointed secretary. The main address was delivered by a citizen named Groom, who enumerated the efforts already put forward by Leavenworth and St. Joseph in their attempts to lure the Pike’s Peak trade to their respective communities. “Unless we go to work in earnest,” Groom warned, “all the trade and traffic which will be engendered by this great exodus will go by us and concentrate itself on Leavenworth....”

Kansas City

At first glance it might have seemed that Kansas City’s late entry into the outfitting race had provided its river rivals with insurmountable leads. By early 1859, nearly every frontier town that could number one or more mercantile houses had already managed to portray itself as a commercial metropolis - ready, willing and able to handle the heavy trade contingent on the spring emigration. Leavenworth had long since flooded the east with its handbills and runners. Atchison had been busy promoting its magnificent steamboat landing. St. Joseph was endeavoring to attract its fair share of gold seekers via the newly-constructed Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad across northern Missouri. The upstream communities of Omaha and Nebraska City were locked in a mighty struggle, each attempting to snare a major portion of the Platte River trade. Only little Brownville appeared to be moving along quietly, depending entirely on its merits and geographical position.

But the citizens of Kansas City need not have worried. The focus of the Fifty Niners would be on the best route to the mountains, and Kansas City’s natural position astride the great Santa Fe Trail practically guaranteed it a fair share of the traffic. The exclusive use of this trail by the four parties of Pike’s Peak argonauts in the early summer of 1858 had already proven its worth as a viable route to the mountains. Theirs had been the way of the 1849-50 Cherokees: the Santa Fe Trail to where the mountain branch turned south at Bent’s Old Fort, then along the Arkansas River Road to the abandoned Pueblo at the mouth of Fountain Creek, and from there north up the famed Taos-Fort Laramie Trail to the diggings on Cherry Creek.

Map showing both the Santa Fe Trail & the Platte River Trail

This southern route from Kansas City to the mountains soon acquired a reputation among the Pike’s Peakers for being firm and level throughout its entire length. Argonaut William Parsons claimed that it was “undoubtedly the best ROAD.” David Kellogg, who left Kansas City during the height of the fall mini-rush, noted in his diary that the trail near 110-Mile Creek was “as smooth and well-worn as a city street.” And James Hamilton, who returned from the diggings in March of 1859, was so pleased with the route that he wrote a glowing report for the Kansas City Journal of Commerce: “I returned by the Arkansas and Santa Fe roads. It is the best road I ever traveled of anything like its length. I was two days at Bent’s Fort. From Pawnee fork to the mines I have never seen a road in the States that can compare with it, except a plank road. I met wagons that started from Kansas City with from two to four yoke of oxen, that were going along easily with but one yoke, the others being loose, and grazing along the road; one yoke being driven part of the day and then another. So easy and solid is the track.”

Testimonials such as these were just the panacea needed to jump start Kansas City’s efforts to secure its rightful share of the Pike’s Peak traffic. The local newspapers, especially the Kansas City Journal of Commerce, seized every opportunity to portray the city as the terminus of the best possible route to the mountains, a route with an established reputation for firm, level terrain and a bountiful supply of the three essentials for 19th century travel - wood, water and grass. The effort, however, soon deteriorated into a war of words, of bold type and screaming headlines, as other frontier newspapezrs responded in kind, each promoting a route of its own. “It is interesting to look over the papers published at different towns on the Missouri, below Omaha,” wrote an astute observer from Columbus, Nebraska Territory. “Every town that can boast of three houses, a well and a smoke house, are showing up their advantage as a place for outfitting; most of them have a military road leading to the mines, and each one is shorter than that of its neighbor - some of them about one-half the distance. Well now, that may be well enough, if they can make it win.”

While nearly every territorial newspaper appeared to join in the fray, each reserved its most virulent attacks for its closest competitors. L. J. Eastin, editor of the Leavenworth Weekly Herald, published a special eight-page newspaper supplement, in which he lambasted the southern route from Kansas City as being at least 140 miles longer than the proposed Smoky Hill route west from Leavenworth: “BEST ROUTE TO THE GOLD MINES, SMOKY HILL FORK THE ROUTE. LEAVENWORTH CITY THE STARTING POINT.”

The Leavenworth Times helped out with an editorial of its own: “It has been demonstrated a thousand times that the route to the gold mines from our city is the shortest, best supplied with wood, water and grass, and most agreeable to travel. The road is direct and even camping grounds are scattered at intervals from five to twenty miles. The streams are all bridged and supplies at hand.”

The new route proposed by the Leavenworth newspapers was to be by way of the Kansas River and its southern fork, the Smoky Hill, with Leavenworth as its principal starting point. Leavenworth already had connections with both major routes leading to the mountains, but the problem was distance - nearly 125 miles to Council Grove on the southern route, something over 300 miles to Fort Kearny on the northern route, making the entire distance to the mines over 700 miles by either route. A trail leading directly west from Leavenworth could possibly save more than 200 miles of roundabout traveling.

Map Showing comparing the Smokey Hill Trail to the older trails.

Critics of the Smoky Hill were quick to point out that it was as yet a via incognita, that once past Fort Riley there was only the unmarked prairie, with too little water and too great abundance of Kiowas. Even into the early spring of 1859, the Kansas City Journal of Commere was still asking its readers: “How often will it be necessary to tell the public that there is no road up the Smoky Hill?”

The answer was lost in the rush of support from other communities along the proposed route. The White Cloud Kansas Chief estimated that anyone traveling west from Leavenworth could expect an airline distance of only 555 miles, with settlements to within 250 miles of the mines. The Lawrence Republican, noting the spirited discussions going on between Leavenworth and Kansas City newspapers over the question of routes, came out in favor of the Smoky Hill because it “keeps much further in a settled country than does the Santa Fe route. There are settlements on the Kansas River and on the Smoky Hill for a distance of two hundred to two hundred an fifty miles...Of course, such a route would be much more favorable for obtaining feed for cattle and mules, than one through a country entirely destitute of settlements, as is the Santa Fe road almost the entire distance from Council Grove.”

Most of the towns in east-central Kansas Territory stood to benefit from the opening of a middle route up the Kansas and Smoky Hill rivers. Wyandotte, Lawrence, Topeka, Manhattan, even Atchison to the north and Junction City to the west, all were in the line of travel and all did what they could to promote the new route. The Junction City Sentinel even composed a ryhme to that effect: “Let Hercules do what he may, the Smoky Hill Route MUST have its day.” But the Smoky Hill route would always remain the love child of Leavenworth, conceived in the realization that it would run “plump into Leavenworth and nowhere else.” As such, it was nurtured through infancy by the Leavenworth Times, Ledger and Weekly Herald, all of which published unending testimonials describing its advantages.

When the Pike’s Peak Express arrived at Leavenworth on 21 December 1858, the Times seized the opportunity to question its passengers about their choice of routes. All were unanimous in pronouncing the southern route they had just traveled as “worthless, and miserable humbug, as compared with the direct and excellent route from Leavenworth...They earnestly advise all emigrants to take the latter route, as it is immeasureably the nearest, best and only reliable one.” That said, Captain W. Smith immediately turned his express wagon around and returned to the mines via the southern route.

In early March of 1859, the Times published a letter from General William Larimer of Denver City. The general told of five Michigan men, who had just arrived at the diggings by way of Leavenworth. The five had taken the middle route up the Smoky Hill. “They were delighted with the route. They made their own trail with one wagon; passed through a beautiful route the whole distance, and found no trouble crossing the streams.” A similar report arrived a month later from D. C. Collier, also of Denver City. “Several companies have come through by way of the Smoky Hill,” Collier wrote. “Their representations make it the best route traveled. They report a good supply of wood, water and grass. They found deposits of iron, coal and chalk, all of the best quality and in the greatest abundance. The Indians were extremely friendly, and ever ready to point out the road....”

Such glowing reports served only to further convince the editor of the Leavenworth Times that his expansive column of 4 February had held the best advice possible: “Choose your point of outfit and departure and then stick to it. Don’t let the representatives of interested parties influence you...If you prefer or think it best to go by the Northern route, why go that way...Or if by Kansas City and the Southern route, why bend your steps thitherward. Only remember that the united testimony of the most of those who are disinterested and who for years have traveled more or less all three routes is strongly and unmistakenly in favor of the road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley, and thence by one or two or three roads, as seems most practicable.”

This continual bickering in the Kansas territorial newspapers over the respective merits of the Arkansas and Smoky Hill routes was the subject of much editorial comment in the cities that used the great emigrant road up the Platte River valley. To their way of thinking, the northern route up the Platte was obviously the best known, the most widely traveled, and the most improved route of all. It was neither as long as the Arkansas nor as dangerous as the Smoky Hill. And it would be chosen by the great mass of the Pike’s Peak gold seekers for the simple reasons that it was the shortest, safest and best road in all the west.

By early 1859, St. Joseph, Nebraska City and Omaha were each the major terminus of a feeder line to Fort Kearny. At Fort Kearny the lines merged, first staying south of the Platte, then curving southwestward beyond the forks to follow the broad sweep of the South Platte all the way to the diggings. It was only 356 miles from Fort Kearny to Denver City. Despite a few sandy stretches, the route was a good one. The debate centered around which was the best feeder line to the fort.

The Nebraska City News opened the contest in early November of 1858 by prophesizing that, by spring, the Omaha-Council Bluffs to Fort Kearny Road on the north side of the Platte would be “one of the awfulist muddiest roads that was ever traveled in any country. It will be next to impossible to get through at all, much less with a heavy load.” The Omaha Nebraskian countered by publishing as table of distances to Fort Kearny, where all the routes from the Missouri River converged. The table clearly showed the Omaha-Council Bluffs Road to be nearly 110 miles shorter than the southern route from St. Joseph, and perhaps as much as seventy miles shorter than the roundabout oxbow route out of Nebraska City.

The businessmen of St. Joseph were under no illusions about the length of their feeder route to Fort Kearny. They hoped to counteract that fact of geography by providing easier access to their city via the newly-constructed Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad across northern Missouri. The railroad was completed in February of 1859, providing an eleven-hour passenger service between St. Joe and the Mississippi River, with connections to Chicago and points east.

St. Joseph

Nebraska City, founded by land speculators in 1854, also labored under certain disadvantages. It lacked a good levee. Its wholesale merchants were too few in number to properly outfit the spring influx of gold seekers. Worst of all, the old oxbow route to Fort Kearny followed the 200-mile northward bend of the Platte River instead of striking directly westward. In hopes of attracting their fair share of Fifty Niners, the city fathers arranged for the reconnoitering of a 160-mile airline route to Fort Kearny and entered into negotiations with the mammoth freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Wadell about the possibility of moving its headquarters from Leavenworth to Nebraska City.

Nebraska City

Omaha, meanwhile, continued to promote its own road up the north side of the Platte River. Hardly an issue of the city newspapers went to press without some mention of the road’s advantages. It was the shortest of all possible routes to Fort Kearny. It was the most improved. It led further through settled areas. It was the favorite route of the Mormons, who “like Buffalo and Indians always choose the shortest and best routes.”


Stung by critiisms of the road’s unbridged streams, muddy sloughs and difficult crossing of the Platte, the Omaha Nebraskian published an emigrant’s guide, which emphasized the bridging of the Elkhorn River, the “reasonable” ferry charges at Loup Fork, and the accessibility of the Fort Kearny ford “in constant use by the Government and attaches of the Fort.” Unaccountably left off the list was a rope ferry being constructed some twelve miles east of Columbus by Moses F. Shinn of Omaha. The establishment of Shinn’s ferry in April of 1859 provided a viable alternative to both the Loup Fork ferry and the often frustrating ford at Fort Kearny.

These unending newspaper debates over routes had for some time been a source of great amusement to the editor of the Brownville Nebraska Advertiser. He for one did not have a route to promote. But he did believe that a bit of romance was being practiced on those who intended to go out to the mines. “We would like to know how Omaha and Kansas City can each be the points for emigrants to start to Cherry creek. Omaha, if we are not mistaken, is about seventy miles north of Brownville, and Kansas City a long way south of this. Yet both of these towns claim to be nearest to the new El Dorado. - Will ye enlighten us, gents?”

The good editor’s advice to questioning gold seekers was simple and direct: “Examine your maps; look at your locality and the locality of the mines and the truth will be apparent to a man ‘without eyes,’ - Don’t have the mud rubbed in too thick. Look out!”

As it turned out, this common sense suggestion would be the one finally adopted by the great mass of Fifty Niners. The Santa Fe route would be chosen by most of those from the south and southeast, the Platte River Road by the majority from the northern states, and the uncharted Smoky Hill by those later characterized as “the fool-hardy and insane.” Among these last must be numbered several hundred gold seekers from northern Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, who bypassed the Platte River route and traveled an extra two to four hundred miles in order to go by way of Leavenworth or Kansas City.

Next Chapter - The Fifty- Niners

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1. Leavenworth Journal, 4 September 1858.

2. Lawrence Republican, 30 September & 7 October 1858, 31 March 1859.

3. L.J. Eastin, "Emigrants Guide to Pike's Peak."

4. Western Weekly Argus, 30 September 1858.

5. W.B. Parsons, The New Gold Mines of Western Kansas.

6. Kansas Tribune, 30 September 1858.

7. Kansas City Journal of Commerce, 18 February, 20 February, 27 February, 20 March, 9 April, 25 May 1859.

8. David Kellogg, Across the Plains in 1858.

9. Omaha Times, 25 November & 9 December 1858.

10. Leavenworth Times, 22 December 1858, 4 February & 5 March 1859.

11. White Cloud Kansas Chief 23 September 1858. 12. Atchison Freedom Champion 26 March 1859.

13. Nebraska City News, 6 November 1858.

14. Omaha Nebraskian, 9 April 1859.

15. Brownville Nebraska Advertiser, 14 October 1858. 16. Rocky Mountain News, 1 February 1860.