Ferries in Kansas
Part XII -- Marmaton River

by George A. Root

February 1937 (Vol. 6, No. 1), pages 14 to 20
Transcribed by Gardner Smith;
digitized with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets are links to footnotes for this text.

     THE Marmaton river rises in the eastern part of Marmaton township, Allen county, and flows south and east for about ten miles into the Marion township, Bourbon county. Thence, by a most circuitous route east and west across Bourbon county, it crosses the Kansas line and enters Missouri in Vernon county, to join the Little Osage river a few miles from Schell City. The stream is approximately 85 miles long, about 10 being in Allen county, 50 in Bourbon county, and 25 in the state of Missouri.

     The late Judge Charles E. Cory, of Fort Scott, in his pamphlet Place Names Of Bourbon County, Kansas, has the following regarding the Marmaton:

     The Marmaton had its name from the old French voyageurs or trappers who came here long before the settlers or even the traders came across the plains. Along this stream they first found prairie dogs, which they called Marmots, supposing them to be the little animal common in Europe, to which the prairie dog is related. The name Marmaton which they gave the stream, was a puzzling thing for the English-speaking hunters and the few settlers who soon came. They could not pronounce the nasal French "N." And so, for a long time, the writing and speaking of the name was badly confused. In old documents it is found written and printed Marmiton, Marmoton, Marmaton, Marmitaw, Marmotaw, and perhaps in other ways There are plenty of people now living who have heard it pronounced as if spelled in the last form. The speakers were trying to accommodate their English tongues to the French pronunciation. However, the name finally settled down to its present spelling.

     Scant mention has been accorded this stream in histories of either Kansas or Missouri. Lippincott's Gazetteer has the most pretentious account we have examined -- about three or four lines -- reciting that it is a small river which rises in Allen county, runs across Bourbon county, and enters Missouri in Vernon county, and joins the little Osage about twelve miles north of Nevada.

     The earliest mention of the Marmaton we have located is on a map of a road from Fort Coffey to Fort Leavenworth, prepared in 1837 by Charles Dimmock. He spelled the name Marmiton.

     Ferries were probably not needed on this river, except during the period of spring freshets. While there may have been one or more ferries operating earlier, the first mention we have noticed, is the following item printed in a newspaper of 1859:

     Capt. Daniel Funk intends placing a large ferry boat at the lower ford of the Marmiton for the transportation of wagons and horses, during the high waters which prevail in the spring and fall. Such an institution is very much needed, and we trust the Capt. may be as successful in this line as he has been in his piscatorial operations. -- Fort Scott Democrat, August, 1859, reprinted in Lawrence Republican, August 11, 1859.

     By 1860 the Fort Scott Bridge and Ferry Co. had been organized, and at the special session of the legislature that year obtained authority to erect a toll bridge across the Marmaton river and Mill creek, at or near the mouth of Mill creek, in Bourbon county, and to keep a ferry on the Marmaton at that point until the bridge was built. This company included William R. Griffith, [1] William R. Judson, [2] H.T. Wilson, [3] S.A. Williams, B.F. Riggins and their associates. Their capital stock was divided into shares of $10 each, not to exceed $8,000 in all. This act was signed by Gov. Samuel Medary on February 25, 1860, [4] and took effect at once.

     Probably the last movement for water transportation on this stream in Kansas was made by the Marmaton River Navigation Company, organized on July 1, 1890, at Fort Scott, for the purpose of making this stream within the state of Kansas navigable by slack water navigation for boats in the carriage of freight and passengers. The business of the corporation was to be transacted on and along the river, with the principal place of business in the city of Fort Scott. The corporation was "to exist for all time to come," and to be governed by a board of five directors, those chosen for the first year including F.L. Spengler, Emil Spengler, J.M. Limbocker, J.A. Schmith and Griffith Peters. The new corporation was capitalized at $5,000, divided into 200 shares of $25 each. This charter was filed with the secretary of state July 9, 1890. [5]

     The Marmaton has numerous tributaries, the main ones from the north being Turkey and Mill creeks, and from the south Yellow Paint creek, made famous by Eugene F. Ware, the "Paint creek bard." At times excessive rains in the watershed drained by the Marmaton have disrupted travel and made ferrying necessary. One such freshet occurred during the spring of 1862, when the military bridge across the Marmaton was swept away. Another flood occurred on July 11, 1869, when many houses in the Marmaton bottom were completely submerged. [6]

     No mention has been found of the date the first bridge was built across the Marmaton, but it must have been in the early 1860s, for an item in the State Journal, of Lawrence, of May 1, 1862, mentioned that the military bridge across this river had been swept away. This structure was probably close to the old ford where the military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Gibson crossed the river, about a mile east of town. This bridge, or one that replaced it, was known as the "Osbun" bridge, because it was on the farm of Dr. A.G. Osbun, one of the earliest settlers in the county. [7] In 1933 a new structure over the river at this point was dedicated. An Associated Press dispatch of March 22, said:

     A concrete bridge costing $40,000, built across the Marmaton river by the city [Fort Scott], was dedicated here today. Opening of the bridge on National avenue marks the end of detours on U.S. highway 73 E and 54 through here. The dedication program included a parade, an address by Mayor Martin Miller, vaudeville entertainment at Memorial Hall and a salute by Battery E, 161st field artillery. The bridge replaces a steel structure built in 1872, one section of which collapsed in July, 1931, killing a workman repairing a girder. The new bridge is 200 feet long and of rainbow arch type.

     The city of Fort Scott, built around the old fort which was established in 1842, was on the old military road running south. For many years this was the only established highway reaching the frontier forts and Indian settlements to the south. In later years a number of roads were laid out to and from Fort Scott. One in 1859 ran to Leavenworth; one in 1865 to Ottawa; another the same year, to Iola; one in 1868 to Baxter Springs, and one in 1870 to Erie, These roads were primary factors in the development of the south-eastern portion of the state, which, up to the early 1870s had been the habitat of various Indian tribes. [8]


     WAKARUSA creek or river has its source in a number of small branches that head in Wabaunsee and Shawnee counties. The most westerly of these, as well as the longest, begins in Wabaunsee county, in Township 13, Range 12, about four and one half miles from the Shawnee-Osage and Wabaunsee county boundary, flows across the northwest corner of Osage and enters Shawnee county in the southwest corner of Auburn township, not far from old Grand Haven post office. Through Shawnee county the stream has a west to east course, deviating less than three miles from north to south. It enters Douglas county in S. 26, T. 13, R. 17. From here its course is to the northeast for several miles, thence after a somewhat circuitous route eastward it joins the Kansas river at the eastern limits of present Eudora. The stream is approximately 75 miles in length, about 35 being in Douglas county, 31 in Shawnee county, six or seven in Osage county, and the balance in Wabaunsee county.

     Wakarusa creek has been known by that name for considerably more than 100 years. It is a Kaw word. A literal translation of the word cannot be printed without offense, although in the Indian tongue there was no vulgarity and the definition is a perfectly proper one. In modern times the accepted version of this translation as handed down by those versed in the Kaw tongue, is "hip deep." [1] Another and more modern definition is "River of Big Weeds." [2]

     The earliest printed mention of the stream we have located is that by Prof. Thomas Say, of Long's expedition of 1819-1820, who made a trip to the Kansas Indian village, and mentioned that the prairies about the headwaters of the "Warreruza" abound in game. [3] Isaac McCoy and his son John C. McCoy, in their survey of Cantonment Leavenworth and the Delaware reservations, in 1830, mentioned the stream as the Warkusa and also Wacharusa river. [4] Joel Palmer, in his Journal of Travels Over the Rocky Mountains to the Mouth of the Columbia River, in 1845 and 1846, mentions having crossed the Walkarusha. [5] Among various spellings of the name we note the following: Wakaroosa, [6] by J.W. Abert, in 1846; Wah-karrusi, [7] by Abert in 1847.

     The first and probably the only ferry over the Wakarusa was at Bluejacket's, [8] where the Oregon trail from Westport crossed this stream. Just when Bluejacket inaugurated this service has not been definitely learned, but it must have been early in 1855, when the bulk of travel south of the Kansas river followed the Oregon trail.

     The flatboat for Bluejacket's ferry was built in 1855 by a Shawnee named Tula or Tooley, who operated a ferry not far from the Delaware crossing, or Grinter's as it was commonly known. The Emma Harmon, a small stern-wheeler, and the first steamboat to ascend the Kansas river after the white settlement began, had left Kansas City on the afternoon of May 19, 1855, for Topeka and way landings. About noon the next day the boat went to the bank to get a supply of wood, and shortly after starting again it was hailed by an Indian, who made the crew understand that he wanted a flat-boat towed up the river. The steamboat accordingly was brought alongside and the flatboat made fast, before proceeding on its journey. At the mouth of the Wakarusa the tow lines were cast off and the passengers waved a parting salute to the red man, who proceeded to "pole" his ungainly craft up the smaller stream. [9]

     Bluejacket's ferry, as shown on an early map of Douglas county, was located on the SE 1/4 of the SW 1/4, S. 12, T. 13, R. 21E. [10] This was near the Wakarusa fort and crossing at the north boundary of the defunct town of Sebastian, and about two miles from the historic town of Franklin. From Bluejacket's the old Oregon trail ran through the towns of Franklin and Lawrence, touched the northeast corner of Marshall, thence westward to Big Springs and Shawnee county. At a number of points through Douglas and Shawnee counties, the ruts of this old thoroughfare are still plainly visible, showing where countless thousands of ox and mule teams plodded their way across the prairies on their toilsome journey westward.

     Aside from the following item, but scant mention has been found of this ferry:

     James Moore in attempting to cross the Wakarusa at Bluejacket's crossing, on Tuesday last, was drowned. He was driving a team attached to a wagon, and had his wife in with him. While crossing in the ferry, the horses got frightened and jumped over. The horses, as well as the driver, were drowned, but the lady was rescued. -- Lawrence Republican, February 21, 1861.

     Bluejacket's was an important point in its day, and as early as 1855 the legislature passed an act establishing a territorial road from Shawnee Methodist Church, South, to Tecumseh, by way of this crossing. [11] Two years later the legislature of 1857 established a territorial road from Olathe on the Santa Fe trail, on the most direct and practicable route to the crossing of the Wakarusa at Bluejacket's. [12]

     With the settlement of the Wakarusa valley there was a demand for a more expeditious mode of crossing than by the old ferry. As early as 1855 the legislature authorized James Findlay to establish a bridge across the Wakarusa river at the crossing of the territorial road leading from the Missouri line to Lawrence and Tecumseh, requiring him to complete the bridge within three years. [13] At the same session John G. McClelland and Clarkson M. Wallace were authorized to erect a toll bridge across the Wakarusa river, where the road leading from Fort Leavenworth to St. Bernard crosses the river. [14]

     So far as known this completes the history of ferrying and early bridging of the Wakarusa.


     TURKEY creek of Johnson and Wyandotte counties rises in the southern part of Shawnee township, Johnson county, about five miles south of the town of Shawnee. It flows in a north and northeasterly direction into Wyandotte county, and before its first diversion passed through the present Rosedale business district, thence across the state line into Missouri, emptying into the Missouri river about two miles from the Kansas line. The stream took its name from the abundance of wild turkeys which ranged along its course in early days. The first mention of the stream we have located is found on a map of the Shawnee lands, surveyed in 1833 by Isaac McCoy and his son John C. McCoy. The creek originally was about fifteen miles long, but various diversions in modern times have shortened this by four or five miles.

     In 1919 following many disastrous floods in this creek, its waters were diverted through a 1,450-foot tunnel into the Kansas river in Kansas City. Despite the fact that Turkey creek most of the time was a small and insignificant stream, it occasionally proved to be most troublesome to the traveller, for it had no rock-bottom fords near its mouth, and teams and vehicles sometimes mired in the mud. Gov. William Walker in his "Journal" under date of March 10, 1849, makes mention of a bridge over Turkey creek that was gone, and of a ferry boat used there for some years following. [1] The next year he wrote that he made a trip to "Kansas [City] and on my way found the ferryboat at Turkey creek sunk. After hard labor (and I bearing the principal part) we succeeded in getting her afloat; then commenced the process of bailing with an old tin kettle with as many holes as it had seen years and their names was 'Legion'." [2]

     In later years this ferry must have been discontinued, and the only ferry accommodations remaining was a ferryboat operated by Capt. S. Wiltz, called the Gate City, that ran from Wyandotte to Turkey creek, and across into Missouri. [3] The foregoing references are the only ones we have found regarding ferrying on Turkey creek.



     1. William R. Griffith was the first State Superintendent of Public Instruction.Return to reading

     2. William R. Judson was colonel of the Sixth Kansas cavalry.Return to reading

     3. Hiero T. Wilson was a prominent early day citizen of Fort Scott. He was appointed postmaster February 26, 1849, and in 1854 was appointed county commissioner. He was a judge of the first election, November 19, 1854, and an early director of the Kansas State Historical Society.Return to reading

     4. House Journal, 1860, special session, pp. 299, 334, 537. Senate Journal, 1860, special session, pp. 495, 519. Laws, 1860, special session. pp. 16, 17.Return to reading

     5. "Corporations," v. 35, p. 380.Return to reading

     6. State Journal, Lawrence, May 1, 1862. Fort Scott Monitor, July 14, 1869.Return to reading

     7. Cory, Place Names of Bourbon County, Kansas, p. 34.Return to reading

     8. Laws, Kansas, 1859, p. 585; 1865, p. 145; 1867, pp. 247, 261; 1870, p. 210. Original plats of above roads are in the Archives division of the Kansas State Historical Society.Return to reading


     1. Letter of George W. Brown, July 8, 1902, in Manuscript division, Kansas State Historical Society.Return to reading

     2. Andreas, History of Kansas, p. 531.Return to reading

     3. Thwaites, Early Western Travels, v. 14, p. 183.Return to reading

     4. "Indian Surveys in Kansas," pp. 35, 56.Return to reading

     5. Thwaites, Early Western Travels, v. 30, pp. 36, 37.Return to reading

     6. Sen. Ex. Doc. 7, p. 11, 30 Cong., 1st sess., Ser. No. 505.Return to reading

     7. Ibid., pp. 389-391.Return to reading

     8. Charles Bluejacket was a grandson of the famous Bluejacket, chief of the Shawnees. The original Bluejacket acquired his name on account of a blue linsey woolsey blouse he was wearing when captured by the Shawnees. He was white, a native of Virginia, and was named Marmaduke Van Swerangen, being known as Duke by his family. On being captured, Duke consented to go with his captors and become a member of the tribe, providing they allowed his brother to return home. This the Indians agreed to do and the arrangement was carried out in good faith by all concerned. Bluejacket soon became popular with the Shawnees, entering heartily into all their activities, and when about twenty-five years of age was made chief of the tribe. He took a Shawnee for a wife, and had several daughters and but one son. This young man was named William, and was a rather wild and reckless young fellow who married and left several children, one of whom was Charles Bluejacket. Charles was born in what is now Michigan, on the Huron river in 1816, and came to Kansas with the tribe, in 1832. He was educated at the Quaker mission before coming to Kansas, became a Christian, and united with the Methodist church. He moved to Indian territory with the tribe and died there October 29, 1897. -- Kansas Historical Collections, v. 10, pp. 397, 398.Return to reading

     9. Ibid., v. 9, pp. 331, 332.Return to reading

     10. J. Cooper Stuck's Map of Douglas County, Kansas (1857).Return to reading

     11. Statutes, Kansas territory, 1855, p. 954.Return to reading

     12. Laws, 1857, p. 169.Return to reading

     13. Statutes, Kansas territory, 1855, pp. 770, 771.Return to reading

     14. Ibid., p. 965.Return to reading


     1. "William Walker and the Provisional Government of Nebraska Territory," in Proceedings and Collections, of the Nebraska State Historical Society, Second Series, v. 3, p. 284.Return to reading

     2. Ibid., p. 313.Return to reading

     3. Advertisement in Western Argus, Wyandotte, September 30, 1858.Return to reading

Go to cover page for this issue     Go to KHQ main page