The Road Ranches
The early settlement years of what would become Ellsworth County were tenuous at best. The men that ventured onto the plains were adventurous entrepreneurs hoping to take advantage of a need for supply along the military route to the southwest. The Fort Riley Military Road had been surveyed in 1856 as a more direct route to Bents Fort on the Santa Fe Trail in what was then southwestern Kansas Territory. The area of Bents Fort would become part of Colorado Territory with Kansas statehood in 1861.
For now, long trains of military freight wagons slowly marched across Kansas providing supply to far reaching troops including Fort Union in New Mexico Territory. Smoky Hill Thompson and his team of hunters settled on Thompson Creek in 1859 (See Thompson Creek, 8-31-2004). In the spring of 1860, two of Thompsons partners, Joseph Lehman and Daniel Page, moved seven miles northwest of Thompson to the Smoky Hill River Crossing of the Fort Riley Military Road. There, they set about to establish a road ranch to trade with the military freight haulers.
Two brothers, Henry and Irwin Faris, also established a road ranch four miles northeast of Lehman & Page on the well watered crossing of Clear Creek. Within an area less than ten miles apart three settlements began to flourish. Each ranch hired men to provide such labor as blacksmithing and general haying, farming and hunting duties. The Indians were friendly and trading was carried on with such tribes as Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Sioux, Pawnee and Kansa. The men spent many hours on the plains hunting buffalo and other wild game. The winter would bring a need for many kinds of supplies such as prairie hay, so the tall prairie grass on the abundant river bottoms was mowed and hay stacked both for their own animals and for sale to passing wagon trains.
Everything seemed the perfect paradise until the wild prairie tribes began to realize that the ever-increasing numbers of settlers would never end. Perhaps one of the first signs of trouble was the murder of Tommy Thorn. Tommy lived in a dugout at Salina, Kansas, just 30 miles to the east of Lehman & Page. His place was a gathering place for hunters and was referred to as The Den. While Tommy liked to entertain, he preferred to hunt alone. His lonely habits probably led to his death. His body was found on the banks of Plumb Creek approximately 15 miles southwest of the Lehman & Page Ranch near present-day Holyrood.
In May of 1864, the Indians raided along the Santa Fe Trail in a general uprising. Some of them turned up the Fort Riley Road arriving at the Kansas Stage Station on Cow Creek west of present-day Claflin. There, they pretended to be friendly luring the station manager and stock tenders out into the yard. At the corrals the Indians opened fire killing Suel Walker. The Prather brothers escaped to the safety of the station where they held off the Indians until nightfall. Under cover of darkness the Prathers fled east to the Lehman & Page Ranch. The call went out. During the next day all the area ranchers gathered at Lehman & Pages place to decide what to do.
Soon drums could be heard along the Smoky Hill River to the west. There was only one decision and that was to abandon the ranches. The men beat a hasty retreat to Salina. The Indians had effectively shut down all trade along the trail and forced the advance settlement off the plains. In the coming days Denver, Colorado Territory would feel the sting of isolation as supplies ran dangerously low. For now, western Kansas belonged to the prairie tribes.