Pappan’s Ferry: An important crossing of the Kansas River at Topeka

Pappans Ferry Drawing
This drawing depicts Pappan's Ferry on the Kansas River in Topeka, Kansas Territory. Artist: Worrall, Henry, 1857 

Pappan’s Ferry: An important crossing of the Kansas River at Topeka by pioneers following the Oregon-California Trail

Pappan’s Ferry is listed as an important Oregon Trail site by the National Park Service. It was begun by Joseph Pappan, a Missouri-born French-Canadian fur trader from St. Louis, and operated by him and 3 brothers: Eurebe, Achan (Etienne), and Louis. Indians had been using the ford at Topeka long before non-native people started using the Oregon Trail, but its first recorded use was on April 29, 1838, when an American Fur Company brigade crossed there on its way to the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. Among them was John Augustus Sutter, on his way to California.

The Bidwell-Bartelson party, generally acknowledged as the first emigrant party, crossed the Kaw in 1841, enlisting the help of the Kansa, who loaded the travelers and baggage into bullboats, then floated and towed them across.

The “Great Migration of 1843” marked the start of large-scale westward emigration to California and Oregon. The first wagons to reach the Topeka ford in 1843 found a crude ferry available for hire. The ferry was a flatbed; a ferryman guided the craft across the river with a pole and rope that was strung from a tree on one bank to another tree on the opposite side. Peter Burnett, who later became the first elected governor of California, wrote that “On 28th Pappa’s [sic] platform sank, and several men, women and children came near being drowned, but all escaped, with the loss of some property.” Burnett’s letter marks the earliest reference to Pappan’s ferry, which was the first ferry service ever used by emigrant traffic on the Oregon Trail.

In 1844 a flood of such magnitude occurred that the Kansas River Valley was filled from bluff to bluff and the ferry service was destroyed, along with the Pappans’ homes. It may have been the worst flood ever to occur on the Kaw. The river cut a new channel around the ferry landing, turning the land on which one of the houses had once stood into an island. But the ferry was in operation again in 1845.

The infamous Donner/Reed party crossed the Kaw at Topeka May 19, 1846, and wrote this description: “The wagons were hauled as near the boat-landing as they could be by the teams, and then with their loads in them were lifted and pushed into the boats by the united strength of the men. By hard and unremitting toil the … wagons…were safely transported to the other side; and all our oxen, horses, and loose stock swam over…. The fee for ferriage, per wagon, was one dollar. Two boats are employed, and they are large enough to transport two wagons each trip. They are pushed across the stream with long poles handled by Indians.

The amount of traffic using the ferry service fluctuated, but increased dramatically in 1849-50 with the California Gold Rush. At that time another ferry service 16 miles upriver at Uniontown came into being and provided fierce competition. Charles Fish operated a ferry between these two locations. Both Pappan’s Ferry and the Fish ferry changed locations many times during their 20+ years of operation, depending on the conditions and configuration of the river.

With the opening of Fort Riley in 1852, the military trail connecting Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley and to the Santa Fe Trail became very busy and bottlenecks often occurred. In May 1852, a Santa Fe-bound Army officer wrote: “The river is crossed by the main traveled route from Fort Leavenworth to the Council Grove and by the Emigrant road from Independence to Oregon &c., at the same point. Here we met hundreds of emigrants for California and Oregon, whose trains, and herds of cattle and sheep, lined the banks on either side…. I was surprised to find at the Kansas River Ferry a young Canadian Frenchman, apparently proprietor of the ferry, who, with notebook in hand, was all day long busily occupied in taking down the number of wagons, horses, mules, sheep &c., crossed over in his boats. Between the emigrant trains and those belonging to our command you may be sure he had a task to attend to.

On May 24, 1859, Horace Greeley, Editor of the New York Tribune recorded: “We turned a sharp angle through the magnificently fertile and admirably timbered bottom of the Kaw or Kansas to the Topeka ferry, Along the north bank of the river…a party of half-breeds have a reserve a mile wide by twenty miles long…

Travelers could find other services at the Topeka ford. These included supplies, fresh horses and other stock, facilities for repairing broken wagons and postal service. Sometimes travelers who crossed late in the day camped near the Pappan’s cabin. In one account Matt Field and two companions were fed a supper of wild turkey, potatoes, boiled pumpkin, biscuits and coffee by the “lady of the house”, presumably either Josette or Julie Pappan.

Also in great demand was whiskey, which was readily found at Pappan’s ferry. While there was a ban on the sale of alcohol in Indian country, the French-Kansa lands were not legally part of Indian country. There was a plentiful supply from and the area between the Kansas River and Soldier Creek was a veritable whiskey-trading hotbed.

It is unclear just when Pappan’s Ferry ceased operations. It is known that Orren A. “Jack” Curtis, son-in-law of Louis Pappan, took over the ferry in 1859 and operated it at least until October 1863, when he received a commission as a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War, and probably as late as 1866, when the Union Pacific Railroad’s advent to Topeka negated any further need for a ferry.

Jack Curtis was the father of Charles Curtis, vice-president of the United States under Herbert Hoover, who was born in 1860 on the north bank of the Kaw at approximately the intersection of Curtis and Harrison Streets. In remembrances penned to historian George Root in later life, Curtis recalls going to the river bank near the foot of Harrison Street to watch the ferry operation.

Young Charlie’s mother died when he was a small boy and as a result he spent much time with his grandmother Curtis in North Topeka, and with his grandmother Pappan, on the Kansa reservation that had by now moved to Oklahoma. As a teen Curtis, wiry and experienced in bareback riding on the reservation, became a noted jockey; but getting an education was his real goal. By the time he was 16 he had qualified to study law; two months later he was trying cases in the justices’ courts and at 18 was admitted to the bar. At 24 he was elected Shawnee County attorney, then was elected to the US House of Representatives, the US Senate for 16 years and served as Majority Leader, and finally, Vice President of the United States under Herbert Hoover. James Safford in 1907 called him “the most remarkable example of the self made man now living on the great round earth.

Pre-territorial trails and crossings:

Oregon-California Trail: This emigrant trail left Independence and Westport, following the Kansas River west. Most travelers along the trail crossed the river at Pappan’s Ferry in the heart of current downtown Topeka or at Uniontown 16 miles west, but other ferries operated in the Topeka area as the traffic increased. Travelers crossed on foot if the water was low enough.

Military Road/Santa Fe Trail: Traffic from Leavenworth to Santa Fe used this trail during the Mexican War, crossing the Kaw at the Fish or Smith’s ferry about two miles upriver from Pappan’s Ferry. This trail was changed when it was officially laid out in 1850, crossing the Kaw at Pappan’s ferry, thence to Council Grove, where it intersected the main Santa Fe Trail from Independence. Usage of this trail from Fort Leavenworth increased when Fort Riley opened in 1852.

River Road: The river road became a major thoroughfare along the north side of the Kansas River between Westport and Fort Riley. U.S. Highway 24 today follows the same route and the Union Pacific Railroad roughly follows its path.

Note: the primary source for this article is the Overland Journal, Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2001 “Pappan’s Ferry and the Oregon Trail” by Jimmie G. Benbrook.

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