Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Little Vermillion Crossing on the Oregon Trail

It's known as "Flyover Country," a vast place in the middle of the country that contemporary travelers fly over or speed past on the four-lane super highway to someplace else. That is not just a recent development.  A case could be made that Kansas and its neighbors have been pathways, rarely destinations, for better than 200 years, since the earliest European trappers and fur-traders found their way to the Rocky Mountains.

Kansas is dotted with historic sites associated with those pathways - the Santa Fe, Oregon, California, Chisholm, and Butterfield Trails, the Pony Express, etc. 19 different trails passed through Marshall County alone. Just a few blocks from my Overland Park home are markers for several trails and a Santa Fe Trail campground. (If all the numerous trail crossing signs in Johnson County are accurate, there must have been junctions and intersections galore, necessitating traffic constables to prevent collisions or disputes over the right of way.)

This posting is about my short visit to the Little Vermillion (or Red Vermillion) Crossing on the Oregon Trail, located in Pottawatomie County. A visit to the trail sites associated with the crossing over the Vermillion river stirs visions of the countless human dramas represented as hopeful migrants endured the hardships of the epic march westward. It is estimated that 300 thousand passed over the Oregon Trail during a span of twenty years. Travel over the trail continued during the Civil War, but quickly declined as sections of the Union Pacific Railroad were finished.

In my previous Kansas Journeys post, I recounted my visit to the Tulip Festival at Wamego. Departing the festival in mid-afternoon, I decided to take a slightly longer route home via US-24, avoiding the interstate. East of Wamego, I noticed a sign pointing to an Oregon Trail crossing. Fortunately I was driving slowly enough (locals in a hurry must hate me) to make the turn onto Onaga Road which led to Oregon Trail Road. Before reaching anything resembling a trail crossing, a cemetery caught my eye. More specifically, an unusual iron entry way drew my attention, framing the view of a distant hilltop cemetery, the resting place of Louis Vieux and his immediate family.

An interpretive sign placed by the Pottawatomie County Historical Society tells the story of Louis Vieux, a Frenchman who married into the Pottawatomie tribe prior to their forced move to Kansas Territory. Vieux owned this land on the Little Vermillion, built a toll bridge over the river, and charged $1 per wagon to cross it, earning up to $300 in a single day. Vieux became an important member of the tribe, made several trips to Washington DC representing his people, and became a chief.    

Vieux Family Cemetery

Grave Marker, Mary Vieux - first wife of Louis

Known but to God

A short distance to the west on Oregon Trail Road, I crossed the modern crossing over the Red (Little) Vermillion River and pulled into a small parking lot for the Louis Vieux Elm.

In 1979, the Louis Vieux Elm tree, an important landmark on the Oregon Trail, was judged to be the largest in the USA. A few years later, the giant tree was struck by lightning. A senseless act of vandalism caused further damage. Members of the Pottawatomie County Historical Society then took steps to preserve remnants of this ancient tree and erected the protective cover seen in this photo. The stark memorials in the foreground serve as memorials to the unknown soldiers killed by an outbreak of cholera. (Even after its demise as a settlers' trail to the west, the route of the Oregon Trail was an important military trail, and this site served as an oft-used campground throughout all those years.)
While visiting this site, I met and fell into a lengthy conversation with an older gentleman who had been here on several occasions. He volunteered to show me the path to the nearby "cholera cemetery." He led me back across the Red Vermillion bridge, and followed a path through the woods and along the waterway to a small cemetery enclosed by chain link fence. Within were two natural stone markers with roughly and hurriedly chiseled names. It is believed that 45 to 50 people were buried in the immediate vicinity, but only three markers have survived. The chain link fence exists to protect the remaining stones from vandalism. 

The deaths occurred in the spring of 1849 when a large wagon train camped on the east side of the creek was struck by cholera. Believed to be the cause of cholera outbreak: warming, but not boiling, the river water used for coffee. 
T.S. Prather, May 27, 1849

The Rest of the Story:
When my elderly new acquaintance had arrived at the Vieux tree site, he had left his car doors open and the radio on so he could continue to hear "Live from the Metropolitan Opera." As we began walking toward the cholera cemetery I inquired if he shouldn't turn off the radio, but he insisted that was no problem. You're way ahead of me, aren't you, dear reader? When we returned, his car would not start and we had no luck jump-starting it. I had my cell phone, but was out of range. We waited for 15 to 20 minutes for a non-existent passing motorist. He suggested we drive around in my car to see if we could find an area farmer (several of whom he had met before) who would certainly know more about cars than either of us. At about the fourth farm house we tried, a crusty and reluctant soul was found who somewhat grudgingly agreed to help him out. He waved me on my way home.
The next afternoon I did hear from this gentleman that the fellow had turned out to be a kind sort of guy after all, and had got him back on the road.  

More about Louis Vieux (including portrait):
Timeline - History Oregon Trail in Kansas:


  1. Great post, Frank. Fascinating history.

  2. Thanks for sending me this blog update. You are traveling in my area Wamego,Vermillion and Westmoreland. Enjoyed your tulip festival blog where I spent every Sat. in the 40's shopping and taking music lessons.
    If you want a good 4th of July trip visit Wamego for parade and fireworks. Fireworks better than Sea World-San Diego. Make motel reservations early however. Visit to Oz museum is a must....

  3. Frank,
    Help! I need a Kansan's help locating where the Vermilion, Little Vermilion and Blue Rivers all converged into the Kansas River. Where did I get this info you may ask?;sort:Pub_List_No_InitialSort%2CPub_Date%2CPub_List_No%2CSeries_No;lc:RUMSEY~8~1&mi=0&trs=11

    (hopefully you get the link & it doesn't get blanked out)

    Anyway. I'm following Frank Parkman, Jr. across Kansas and need some bearings.


  4. It's a beautiful place. Kansas is one of the best states in this country and everyone can support me. There are to many places and we can learn a lot of things about the people. A number of communities in Kansas are giving away free building lots and other benefits for families willing to move to the community and build a house. Due to dwindling school populations and reduced tax revenues, small towns in Kansas came up with this great marketing program.

  5. Great story Frank! Glad you stopped there by accident!

  6. Frank,
    My grandpa Tanner raised his family in this area. He and his eight boys fished for catfish on the Vermillion Creek. The boys, my uncles, grew up to be very tall, strong men who worked in the quarries around the area, from West Moreland to Alma. They helped build limestone fenceposts and bridges in the area, and the stonework outside Wamego highschool. They helped build homes and rest homes in the area for family and others.

    I visited the cemetary you pictured. I was told the entryway was constructed from parts of the old steel bridge originally over the Vermillion. The steel bridge had been replaced by a concrete bridge in the l950's. Steve Frazier Kansas City.

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