For thousands of years, before Europeans arrived on the scene, Native Americans traveled across Kansas on well-defined trails.
Sometimes they had to travel long distances to find buffalo herds to get meat and hides. There is archaeological evidence that people from Iowa were visiting central Kansas for this purpose in the 1300s.
Native Americans also traveled long distances to trade with one another. One historic account from North Dakota in the 1730s mentions the visit of an Indian chief who had learned to speak Spanish in New Mexico. The same trail used in times of peace also may have been traveled for purpose of hostility or the “warpath”
Other trail destinations were religious or sacred spots. Shrines were scattered all over the region, and Native Americans traveled long distances to visit them. For instance, the Pawnees who lived in north central Kansas and central Nebraska visited shrines near Pike’s Peak and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Indian trails had a number of features in common. The most important of these was access to fresh water, as people traveling on foot found it hard to carry more than a day’s supply. As a result, the most frequently used trails had waterholes every 10 or 20 miles.
Trails crossed streams at good forks. Many trails ran along the high ground between stream valleys. Groves of trees were a feature of many of the trails in the western part of the state. Trees were rare there, and groves of trees were excellent camping grounds where certain game animals could be found.
In due time, Army posts were established on Indian trails in order to restrict travel by the Indians. Fort Wallace in Kansas, Fort Sedgwick in Colorado, and Fort McPherson in Nebraska were all situated on branches of the Ancient Indian Traders Trail, which passed through Cheyenne County.
Written by Marsha Magley and published in the Bird City Times and St. Francis Herald Aug 21, 2014
With the passage of Section 5 of House Bill 2424, signed by Gov. Brownback on April 12, 2014, State Highway 161 between Bird City and Benkelman, officially received recognition as part of the Ancient Indian Traders Trail.