Sapling Grove Touches American History


Renaming of historic park
attracts national attention

From the Overland Park Sun, May 20, 2004,
By Rob Roberts, Sun staff writer.
Reproduced with the permission of the
Johnson County Sun.
(I have added bolding and coloring of some text in the article. Steve Wien)

     The renaming of a city park at 82nd Terrace and Grant in Overland Park on Saturday morning attracted only a small crowd of neighbors and dignitaries.

     But don't let that fool you.

     "What we're doing here today has national impact," Ross Marshall said prior to the unveiling of a sign announcing the site's new name: Sapling Grove Park.

     According to Marshall, a former president of both the Santa Fe Trail Association and Oregon-California Trail Association, the National Park Service has a keen interest in the park because it is part of a site that served as a historic campground and watering hole for pioneers and traders heading west on the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails.

     Craig Crease, a Shawnee resident and historic trail researcher, said the National Park Service was interested in partnering with the city of Overland Park to add interpretive signage at Sapling Grove Park, which lies about 300 yards west of the ridge where the three historic trails followed the same path.

     "The Santa Fe Trail, Oregon and California trails are inarguably the most famous and important trails in all of America," Crease said during a historical talk delivered Saturday morning from a shelter house at the park.  "They have fired the collective imaginations of Americans ever since the wagons stopped rolling about 120 years ago.  And the Kansas City area, in particular, is blessed with a singular circumstance, because only here did the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and Santa Fe Trail follow the same path."

     Crease, who serves as president of the Kansas City Area Historic Trails Association, said those who stopped at Sapling Grove while traveling one of the three aforementioned trails included the following prominent historical figures:

  • John Sutter, who headed west with the American Fur Co., fleeing business debts in Westport, Mo., about a decade before the 1848 discovery near his American River saw mill touched off the California Gold Rush.
  • J.B. Charboneau, who was with the American Fur Co. party that rendezvoused at Sapling Grove in 1837, the first of four straight years that the trappers gathered there.  Charboneau, then a 33-year-old scout, was the son of another famous scout, the Indian maiden Sacajawea, who had helped lead the Lewis and Clark expedition 34 years before.
  • John C. Fremont, the Pathfinder, who in 1843 came through Sapling Grove as he headed out on the second of his great expeditions.

     Perhaps the earliest historic figure to come through Sapling Grove, Crease said, was William Becknell of Franklin, Mo., who along with a small brigade of five men headed southwest on a trading expedition in 1821 and became the first party to blaze the Santa Fe Trail.

     "Becknell's timing was fortuitous," Crease said, "because colonial Santa Fe had just thrown off the reins of Mexico and declared its independence and, in the process, had thrown out decades of trade restrictions.

     "Colonial Santa Fe welcomed Becknell and his little brigade, and thus this trade route was opened between the two young nations.  And from that moment on, through this campground and other campgrounds the wagons never stopped rolling for 60 years."

     According to Crease, the Santa Fe Trail, and the Oregon and California trails after it, were traversed by "mountain men, traders, emigrants, winners, losers, trappers, soldiers, Indians and gold seekers."

     The Oregon Trail was originally pioneered in 1827 by mountain man William Sublette as a route to and through the Rocky Mountains and the rich fur trapping regions of the Northwest, Crease said.

     "Once again, commerce was the motive," the trail historian continued, "however not for trade but to supply the ever-spiraling demand that existed in the 1820s and 1830s for beaver felt hats."

     According to Crease, Sublette followed the Santa Fe Trail through present-day Overland Park before branching off to the northwest in present-day western Johnson County, near present-day Gardner, thus creating Sublette's Trace - the forerunner of the Oregon Trail.

     In 1835, Col. Henry Dodge led a group of 1,200 U.S. dragoons through Sapling Grove on a 1,645-mile round trip aimed at impressing the Indians of the plains.  And by 1836, the Oregon Trail was being traveled by Christian missionaries, which the federal government viewed as another vital precursor to westward emigration.

     Then, in 1841, the first wagon train destined for California settlement headed west on the Oregon Trail after rendezvousing at Sapling Grove.

     "If the location of Sapling Grove was only known for this particular wagon train," Crease said, "it would make it worth renaming this park.  It was the first rendezvous point for the Bidwell-Bartleson party, recognized as the first overland emigration party to reach the Pacific."

     That group of 60 people, Crease said, departed from Sapling Grove on May 12, 1841, and later split up at Soda Springs, with 32 men, one woman and one infant continuing on to California.

     Within a decade, euphoric masses would be heading west on the overland trails in the nation's great rush for gold, Crease said. And even that icon of the American West, the stagecoach, would see use along the great trails during their twilight years, he said.

     "But it's the compelling image of families, barefoot children, the gangly farmer of a father, and the mother in sun bonnet and calico that is seared into the consciousness of most Americans when they think about the Oregon and California trails," Crease said.

     And that all started with the party led from Sapling Grove 163 years ago last week by John Bidwell, a 20-something schoolteacher from Weston, Mo., and John Bartleson, a grizzled 50-something trader from what is now South Kansas City.

      Thirteen-year-old Christopher Lamb and his mother, Kathy Lamb, who live down the street from a city park then known as Comanche Park, learned about their neighborhood's rich trail history last June upon viewing an exhibit on frontier trail sites at the Johnson County Museum.

     Christopher Lamb subsequently came up with the idea of circulating a petition in support of renaming the park.  And after 111 signatures from neighbors in the area were obtained, the idea gained the endorsement of the Overland Park Historical Society and the Grantioch Homes Association, which represents 450 residences near the park.

     Ultimately, the renaming proposal made its way through the city's committee process.  And last November, the Overland Park City Council voted unanimously to rename the historic park.

     Ward 1 City Council representatives Terry Happer-Scheier and Dave Janson attended Saturday's culmination of the renaming, and both wondered aloud about the hopes, dreams and fears of those who had come so many decades before them to the spot.

     "Can you imagine?" Janson said, "One hundred and sixty-three years ago this week, 60 people left on an adventure to the west, and they did it without the benefit of interstate highways, SUVs or $2 gas.  What do you think they discussed the night before?  Were they fearful of what they'd encounter?  Were they excited?"

     Christopher Lamb, now an eighth-grader at Holy Cross School, provided an insight into one pioneer's state of mind as he read a quote written at Sapling Grove by one William Marshall Anderson in 1834.

     Surrounded by tall hickories not unlike those that Anderson would have been shaded by, with gurgling from the same nearby branch of Turkey Creek in the background, Lamb recited the following:

    "Today we have left the settlements.  After a 20-mile horse walk, we have reached and made our camp in Sapling Grove.  We are a mighty band to meet and contend with a whole village of redskins.  We count 37 in all, with 95 horses and mules.  I presume I am now out of the United States and in the territory of our good Uncle Sam.  But does his law or power still protect me?  Should I say to the red man, 'Take care what you do.  If you strike me I will sue you for assault and battery'?"

     One hundred and seventy years later, another comedian would flex his wit at Sapling Grove.

     Charles Smith, president of the Overland Park Historical Society, noted Saturday that "Sapling Grove Park" is not a new name.

     "We have just come back full circle to 'Sapling Grove,'" he said. "If this idea becomes catching, the city of Shawnee is going to become Gum Springs again."

Posted by stevewien on 11/23/2007
Last updated by susana on 10/14/2009
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