Podcast Episodes

Angel of the Battlefield

This episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast was written and hosted by Jason Epperson with narration by Abigail Trabue.

Listen below:

Clarissa Harlowe Barton, or Clara, as she wished to be called, was only ten years old when she assigned herself the task of nursing her brother David back to health after he fell from the roof of a barn and received a severe head injury. She learned how to distribute the prescribed medication to her brother, as well as how to place leeches on his body to bleed him (a standard treatment at the time). She continued to care for David long after doctors had given up. He made a full recovery.

In this difficult time in the world, we look to heroes from our past as inspiration to help us find the resolution to possess even a small fraction of their helping spirit. Clara Barton’s life’s work began with her brother David but never ceased. The effects of her tenacity have rippled through the generations, and, in fact, the response to today’s pandemic crisis might have been very different were she never born.

On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, one of the most decorated women in American history, and the Clara Barton National Historic Site.

Introduction to Clara Barton:

Clara was a timid child all through her early life. To overcome her shyness, her parents persuaded her to become a schoolteacher. She achieved her first teacher’s certificate in 1839, at only 17 years old. She served for 12 years in schools in Canada and West Georgia. Barton fared well as a teacher; she knew how to handle rambunctious children, particularly the boys since as a child, she enjoyed her male cousins’ and brothers’ company. She learned how to act like them, making it easier for her to relate to and control the boys in her care. After her mother’s death in 1851, the family home closed down and Barton decided to further her education by pursuing writing and languages at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York, where she developed many friendships that broadened her point of view on many issues occurring at the time.

She returned to teaching, and in 1852, she was contracted to open the first-ever free school in New Jersey. She was successful, and after a year, she had hired another woman to help teach over 600 people. Both women were making $250 a year. This accomplishment compelled the town to raise nearly $4,000 for a new school building. Once completed, though, Barton was replaced as principal by a man elected by the school board. They saw the position as head of a large institution to be unfitting for a woman. She was demoted to “female assistant” and worked in a harsh environment until she had a nervous breakdown along with other health ailments, and quit.

The experience led her to quit teaching and move to Washington D.C. where she began work as a clerk in the US Patent Office. This was the first time a woman had received a substantial clerkship in the federal government and at a salary equal to a man’s salary. For three years, she received abuse and slander from male clerks until her position was reduced to that of copyist, and in 1856, under the administration of James Buchanan, she was fired because of her politics. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, she returned to the patent office as a temporary copyist, in the hopes that she could make way for more women in government service.

Her future would change when the first units of federal troops poured into the capital in 1861. The war had just begun, the troops were newly recruited, and residents in the capital were alarmed and confused. Barton perceived an immediate need in all this chaos for providing personal assistance to the men in uniform, some of whom were already wounded, many hungry, and some without bedding or any clothing except what they had on their backs.

She started by taking supplies to the young men of the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry who had been attacked in Baltimore, Maryland, by southern sympathizers and were temporarily housed in the unfinished Capitol building. Barton quickly discovered that many were “her boys,” as she put it; she had grown up with some of them and some she had even taught.

She collected some relief supplies herself, appealed to the public for others, and learned how to store and distribute them. Besides supplies, Barton offered personal support to the men in hopes of keeping their spirits up: she read to them, wrote letters for them, listened to their personal problems, and prayed with them. She knew, however, that where she was needed most was not behind the lines in Washington but on the battlefields where the suffering was greatest.

Barton prodded leaders in the government and the army until she was given passes to bring her voluntary services and medical supplies to the scenes of battle and field hospitals. Following the battle of Cedar Mountain in northern Virginia in August 1862, she appeared at a field hospital at midnight with a wagon-load of supplies drawn by a four-mule team. The surgeon on duty, overwhelmed by the human disaster surrounding him, wrote later, “I thought that night if heaven ever sent out an angel, she must be one—her assistance was so timely.” Thereafter she was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” as she served the troops at the battles of Fairfax Station, Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Charleston, Petersburg and Cold Harbor.

At Antietam, she ordered the drivers of her supply wagons to follow the cannon and traveled all night, actually pulling ahead of military medical units. While the battle raged, she and her associates dashed about bringing relief and hope to the field. She nursed, comforted, and cooked for the wounded.

Barton’s Story of Antietam, In Her Own Words:

On the way to Antietam, my wagons were at the rear of the army; the road was filled for ten miles with a solid moving mass. It was impossible to get by until they stopped for the night. You understand that if one wagon tries to pass another at such a time, it simply is pushed into the ditch. But at dusk, the train drew to one side of the road and halted for the night. At midnight I directed my drivers to harness quietly and drive on past them, if possible, without creating suspicion. We made the entire ten miles before daybreak and took our place in the rear of the headquarters wagon and moved on next day unquestioned – passing the field of South Mountain, the guns of which had rung in our ear all the day before. On the evening of the 16th of September we reached the valley of Antietam.

It was a miserable night. There was a sense of impending doom. We knew, every one knew, that two great armies of 80,000 men were lying there face to face, only waiting for dawn to begin the battle. It gave a terrible sense of oppression. Then the came was in a hollow which was filled with men and beasts; it was all used and made fetid by this press of human beings and animals. Before dawn I went up on the hill, and there I could sweep the country with my glass, see the countless watchfires of both armies, lying face to face, ready to spring, yet not a man to be seen. Before I left the hill, the dawn came, and the firing began away on the right. There was to be the beginning of the battle, and there I should be needed first. I hastened down; my men were all ready with their wagons, and ordered them to drive to the right, eight miles. We galloped the whole distance, and drew up behind the line of artillery which was covering our infantry and slanted away to the left. There was a big cornfield, and we drove in, and up towards an old barn which was standing in the midst. My men unharnessed the mules and tied them to the wheels and we were ready for work. They were always my helpers. We knew the wounded were in there somewhere, the men went in search of them. The corn was immensely tall, it entirely hid the house from us. Presently, the men came back saying, “yes, they are over there, the tables and surgeons” and I followed them through the corn and came upon the house. It had a high, broad verandah, and on this every kind of thing that pretended to be a table was standing, and on the tables were the poor men, and beside them the surgeons. They were the same with whom I had just been at the second Bull Run.

“The Lord has remembered us!” “You are here again”
“And did you want me?” I asked.
“Want you! Why, we want you above all things, and we want everything.”
“I have everything,” I replied
“Look here,” he said, “see what we need, and how much we need it, we have no more chloroform, no more bandages nor lint, no more liquor, nothing. See here” and he showed me some poor fellows whose raw new wounds were actually dressed with those rough corn leaves.

And this was the beginning of the battle. You must know that we had passed the supplies the night before; they could not come up until the fate of the day was decided. Those were their orders; they must not risk falling into the hands of the enemy. That was the point I always tried to make, to bridge that chasm, and succor the wounded until the medical aid and supplies should come up. I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner and I tried to fill that gap. My men unloaded the wagons, and brought up everything the good women of the country had provided; the wounded kept pouring in, and we kept working over them. After a time my stores for feeding the men began to give out; not the other things, oh no there were plenty of those; but of food I had naturally not enough for thousands, and by afternoon the line of wounded stretched out for five miles.

A curious thing happened there. I had twelve cases of wine, the first nine opened were packed in sawdust; but the last three, when we were nearly in despair of food, were packed in corn meal. My men were almost superstitious over that; they had the idea it must have changed some way from sawdust to meal. It was a lucky sign too, for when we went into the house to reconnoitre for food; down in the cellar we found three barrels of Indian meal and a bag of salt; there were three or four great kettles in and about the house, and we made gruel, gruel, gruel and my men carried it up and down the…

Towards sunset the third charge was made on the line of artillery covering our infantry. Of course, all day the cannonading had been close upon us; but the house and corn field were under the lee of a hill and the enemy’s guns were mostly trained on that hill so that the firing went over us. The upper stories of the house were riddled to be sure and several shells fell in among us and at the edge of the verandah, yet none explored to do harm, fortunately.

This third charge was the most terrific artillery duel I ever heard, and I have had some experience. The tables jarred and rolled until we could hardly keep the men on them, and the roar was overwhelming. After a while I looked around, and to my surprise saw all the surgeons gone, except one man, the chief, who was standing by a table where a man lay, but there was no one to help him with the operation.

“What has become of your assistants?” said I going up to him. “Don’t blame them, madam” said he. “They have been here through ghastly scenes since daylight and then cannonading is nerve-breaking. Don’t blame them that they have retired, and some have gone down the line to the wounded.”
“Very well” said I, “and how about this man? Do you want to go on with the operation? Can I assist you?”
“Can you stand it?” said he.
“Oh, yes” said I, and I took the chloroform. He gave me directions and we tended the man through the whole of the frightful firing.

With night the firing ceased, and I went to see about lighting up the barn. I had brought plenty of lanterns with me this time… When I came back from the barn I went into the house where I saw a solitary light burning. The surgeon was sitting in one of those dark, dank rooms with two inches of a candle by him, and his head on his hand, the picture of despair.

“You are tired, doctor” I said, going to him and putting my hand on his shoulder.
“Tired” he exclaimed, lifting his head with a wrathful gleam in his eyes, “yes, I am tired of this human incompetence, this neglect and folly which leaves me alone with all these soldiers on my hands, five hundred of whom will die before daybreak unless they have attention, and I with no light by that two inches of candle,” and he let his head fall on his hand again.
“Come, doctor”, said I gently, for from my heart I pitied him, “I want to show you something.” I took him to the door, and told him to look towards the barn; it was like a garden illumination of Chinese lanterns.
“What are they?” said he in amazement.
“Lanterns” said I.
“Lanterns, where did they come from?”

“I brought them. The men will be here in a few moments to light the house. You will have plenty of light and plenty of assistance. Don’t despair in your good work doctor”. He didn’t say a word, but he looked at me, and afterward set his own particular guard to keep close by me all the time, to follow me like my shadow … so that I should always have some one at my elbow to help me. The doctor and I have been good friends ever since. We worked through that long bloody night together, and the next morning the supplies came up, my things were all gone, my strength was all gone, they made up a bed for me of an old coverlet on the floor of a wagon; and I lay down on it, and was jogged back to Washington, eighty miles. When I reached there, and looked in the mirror, my face was still the color of gunpowder, a deep blue. Oh yes I went to the front!

American Red Cross:

Toward the end of the war, Clara Barton found herself writing to many families who inquired about men who had been reported missing. Here, again, she recognized a pressing human need and did something practical to address it. In the month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln wrote: “To the Friends of Missing Persons: Miss Clara Barton has kindly offered to search for the missing prisoners of war. Please address her . . . giving her the name, regiment, and company of any missing prisoner.” Barton established the “Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army” and operated it out of her rooms in Washington for four years. She and her assistants received and answered over 63,000 letters and identified over 22,000 missing men.

She participated in establishing a national cemetery around the graves of the Union men who died in the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. With the help of Dorence Atwater, who had secretly tabulated a list of the dead during his own imprisonment in Andersonville, and a team of 30 military men, Barton identified the graves of nearly 13,000 men. After she helped raise the U.S. flag over the Andersonville grounds at their dedication in 1865, she wrote, “I ought to be satisfied. I believe I am.”

She wasn’t.

Clara visited Europe in search of rest in 1869, where she was introduced to the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, and read a book written by the founder of the global Red Cross network, who called for international agreements to protect the sick and wounded during wartime without respect to nationality and for the formation of national societies to give aid voluntarily on a neutral basis.

The first treaty embodying the Red Cross ideal was negotiated in Geneva in 1864 and ratified by 12 European nations, now known as the Geneva Convention.

With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Clara Barton once again went into a war zone. To protect herself with the newly accepted international symbol of the Red Cross (the reverse of the Swiss national flag which bears a white cross on a red field), she fashioned a cross out of red ribbon she was wearing and made tireless efforts to help the men on the field in countries far from her own.

Barton returned to America, intent on getting a country in reconstruction after a long and bitter war to ratify the Geneva Convention accords. Armed with a letter from the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Barton took her appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, but he looked on the treaty as a possible “entangling alliance” and rejected it. His successor, President James Garfield, was supportive and seemed ready to sign it when he was assassinated. Finally, Garfield’s successor, Chester Arthur, signed the treaty in 1882, and a few days later, the Senate ratified it.

Clara Barton, became the founder of the American Red Cross and would lead it for the next 23 years.

The Red Cross received its first congressional charter in 1900 and a second in 1905, the year after Barton resigned from the organization. The most recent version of the charter–which was adopted in May 2007 restates the traditional purposes of the organization, which include giving relief to and serving as a medium of communication between members of the American armed forces and their families and providing national and international disaster relief and mitigation.

The American Red Cross, with Barton at its head, was largely devoted to disaster relief for the first 20 years of its existence. The Red Cross flag flew officially for the first time in this country in 1881 when Barton issued a public appeal for funds and clothing to aid victims of a devastating forest fire in Michigan. In 1884, she and 50 volunteers arrived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to help the survivors of a dam break that caused over 2000 deaths. In 1892, she organized assistance for Russians suffering from famine by shipping them railroad cars of Iowa cornmeal and flour. After a hurricane and tidal wave left over 5,000 dead on the Sea Islands of South Carolina in 1893, Barton’s Red Cross labored for 10 months, helping the predominantly African-American population recover and reestablish their agricultural economy. In 1896, Barton directed relief operations on behalf of victims of unrest in Turkey and Armenia, the sole woman and only Red Cross advocate the Turkish government allowed to intervene. During her last relief operation, in 1900, Barton distributed over $120,000 in financial assistance and supplies to survivors of the hurricane and tidal wave that struck Galveston, Texas, and caused more than 6,000 deaths.

During the Third International Red Cross Conference in Geneva in 1884, Barton proposed an amendment to the Geneva Treaty calling for expansion of Red Cross relief to include victims of natural disasters. Although some national societies were dubious, the resolution passed and became known as the “American Amendment.”

Over the years, several countries honored Barton with decorations, such as the German Iron Cross for her relief work in the Franco-Prussian War and the Silver Cross of Imperial Russia for the supplies provided during the famine of 1892.

The American Red Cross moved in a new direction near the end of Barton’s tenure as head of the organization when they delivered supplies and services to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Recipients of Red Cross aid included members of the American armed forces, prisoners of war, and Cuban refugees. This was the first time that the American Red Cross provided assistance to American armed forces and civilians during wartime.

In addition to leading the Red Cross, Barton maintained interests in other fields, such as education, prison reform, women’s suffrage, and civil rights.

Barton resigned as president of the American Red Cross in 1904. Leaving the organization she created, Barton turned her attention to establishing the National First Aid Association of America and served as its honorary president for five years. This organization, though small and short-lived, emphasized basic first aid instruction, emergency preparedness, and the development of first aid kits. She published several books on her life and on the Red Cross before she died on April 12, 1912, at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, and was buried in the Barton family cemetery plot in Oxford, Massachusetts.

Barton’s legacy to the nation—service to humanity—is reflected in the services provided daily by the employees and volunteers of the American Red Cross throughout the nation and in troubled spots around the world.

Visiting the Clara Barton National Historic Site:

Barton’s family donated her papers and awards, along with numerous mementos, to the Library of Congress. The National Park Service manages what is now the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, which offers daily tours.

Glen Echo was her home for the last 15 years of her life and acted as the Red Cross Headquarters upon her arrival to the house in 1897. The structure illustrates her dedication and concern for those less fortunate than herself.

It’s the first National Historic Site dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman and preserves the early history of the American Red Cross. The National Park Service has restored eleven rooms, including the Red Cross offices, the parlors, and Barton’s bedroom.


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

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For great American road trip destinations, give us a listen on the See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one. If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

What Makes a National Park?

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with audio from Ed Rizzotto: The Importance of Urban Parks.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:

The National Park designation has become one of the most prestigious terms in the English language. National Parks have stirred the imagination of Americans ever since they were dreamed up, and a recent focus has been sparked by the confluenc of social sharing like YouTube and Instagram, the park service’s recent 100th anniversary celebrated in 2016, and incredible documentaries like Ken Burns’ “America’s Best Idea.” But the structure of the National Park System remains a mystery to many casual visitors — some of it’s even confusing to the National Park expert. What exactly makes a National Park?

This popularity, combined with politics and the promise of tourism dollars, have driven government officials to leverage the Park system to fit their agendas in recent years. It’s time to step back, take a look at the whole picture, and take stock of what we have and what we haven’t.

I thought we’d take a look at the park system, how it’s actually structured, and show why our focuses are often severely misdirected. Who are the parks for, and how do we decide what a park is?

There are 419 units in the National Park system, and only 62 of them have the congressional designation of “National Park,” including the most recent, White Sands National Park. White Sands was formerly a National Monument, as many National Parks were at one time. National Monuments are places declared reserved for the public by the President of the United States. Most are managed by the Park Service, but not all. National Parks, however, must be named by Congress. In addition to Monuments and National Parks, we have National Battlefields, National Battlefield Parks, National Battlefield Sites, National Military Parks, National Historical Parks, National Historic Sites, International Historic Sites, National Lakeshores, National Memorials, National Parkways, National Preserves, National Reserves, National Recreation Areas, National Rivers, National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways, National Scenic Trails and National Seashores.

So…it’s a bit of a mess, and though the Park Service has guidelines for nomenclature, Congress can essentially call something whatever it wants. In the end, the National Park Service calls them all National Parks. They are all managed under the exact same parameters, and there is no special funding or any other benefit to having the congressional National Park designation.

That surprises a lot of people. In the last few years, three new congressionally designated National Parks have joined the fray. White Sands, along with Indiana Dunes National Park, and Gateway Arch National Park.

All three were already National Park Service units, and quite literally, the only change for their operation was removing and replacing signage, badges, brochures, and the like.

Now, here’s the problem. For all three of these parks, local members of Congress lobbied hard for the name change, openly touting the increased tourism it would bring. And they weren’t wrong. Indiana Dunes is probably the best example, with visitation increasing 21% the year after the new National Park status.

But why? Are we so addle minded as Americans that we don’t accept the beauty and splendor of a place without a name change? Do we really skip all these other wonderful places because they don’t have National Park in the title? Unfortunately, for a lot of people, the name really is the thing. Which I suppose is why there was a lot of anger when Gateway Arch National Park was announced.

Gateway Arch was formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and it consists of the Arch, of course, and the Old Courthouse (where the landmark Dred Scot case was tried) and a museum representing the location on the St. Louis Riverfront as the ceremonial beginning of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Some thought naming it for the arch diminished the importance of the Courthouse. Others thought it too small. Most, frankly, just think a National Park is a large expanse of beautiful nature, and Gateway just didn’t fit the bill.

I think we’re missing the bigger picture.

On the importance of urban parks such as this, here’s retired ranger Ed Rizzotto in an oral history interview with the Association of National Park Rangers. Ed was a ranger for 7 years at Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey and New York, not to be confused with Gateway Arch.

So what’s the big picture? National parks are all unique, whether on the shores of the Mississippi or in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada. They’re here to protect fragile ecosystems, or to help us remember our history, or yes, for our enjoyment.

Should politicians leverage the system for the gain of their district, I don’t know. But I do know that if we didn’t care so much about names, it wouldn’t work. Yes, the naming system is a mess and could be entirely overhauled. Heck, maybe they should all just be named National Parks. But I beg of you, don’t consider any park service designation as being more important than another. Doing so may have you missing out on the incredible, vast mountains, desert and untamed rivers flowing in deep canyons at Dinosaur National Monument. Or the craggy shores of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Or the somber halls of Ellis Island, where 12 million immigrants waited for their first taste of the American dream for themselves and generations to come. Each National Park Service Site has a wonderful, unique story to tell. Dig deeper than 62 passport stamps.


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Pick up your own “From Sea to Shining Sea” gear in the America’s National Parks Teespring store.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 69434150_735914166836084_179055030496657408_n.jpg

For great American road trip destinations, give us a listen on the See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one. If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

The Great Prarie Highway

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:


I’m standing on the Powder Mill Pedestrian Bridge, which spans Interstate 435 in southern Kansas City, Missouri. I’m looking south at the confluence of I-435, I-49, I-435, I-470, U.S. 50, and U.S. 71. Over 250,000 cars a day pass through here, making —which is known to the locals as Grandview Triangle—one of the busiest interchanges in the country. In fact, this has been one of the most traveled stretches of road since before there was a road.

The Grandview Triangle officially goes by another name — the 3-Trails Crossing Memorial Highway. Two hundred years ago, about 15 miles north of this spot, wagon trains set out on their journies along one of three routes towards the largely unknown West.

For about 50 miles, the trails were one before they diverged. This bridge I’m standing on is, in fact, part of the 46-mile 3-trail corridor, as it’s now known. It was erected specifically to allow people to walk or bike the 46-mile journey before the trails separate, through the concrete jungle of Kansas City, passing many historic sites, until it reaches beyond the edges of town, where green grass fields still show the wagon ruts from 19th-century pioneers looking for a better life.

The upper route headed towards Oregon and the middle route to California. The Oregon and California trails were the pathways to the Pacific for fur traders, gold seekers, missionaries, and emigrants. For almost 30 years, beginning in 1841, more than 300,000 emigrants followed this route from the Midwest to fertile Oregon farmlands or California gold fields—trips that took five months to complete.

But the lower route was another matter altogether. It was an international road for American and Mexican traders, until 1848 when the Mexican-American War ended, and New Mexico joined the United States. It became a national road for commercial and military freighting, stagecoach travel, emigration, and mail service.

History of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail:

On June 10, 1821, a 31-year old saltmaker named William Becknell published a notice in the Missouri Intelligencer newspaper soliciting participants for a trip “to the westward for the purpose of trading for Horses & Mules, and catching Wild Animals of every description, that we may think advantageous.” Becknell was bankrupt and facing jail for debts, as Missouri fell under the grip of a devastating depression.

Becknell left Franklin, Missouri, for Santa Fe in September of 1821 with five other men, the first to journey on this particular route to the almost mythical city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Spain jealously protected the borders of its New Mexico colony, prohibiting manufacturing and international trade. Those that journeyed to Mexico before Becknell had been arrested by Spanish soldiers and hauled south toward Mexico City to serve lengthy prison sentences. Those that made it back told of a land starved for manufactured goods and supplies. Becknell was pleasantly surprised to find upon his arrival that Mexico had overthrown the Spanish, and the new Mexican government – unlike their predecessors – welcomed outside trade.

Not surprisingly, others got into the trade soon after Becknell returned, and by 1825 goods from Missouri were not only being traded in Santa Fe but to other points farther south as well. Some traders used the so-called Mountain Route, which offered more dependable water but required an arduous trip over Raton Pass. Most, however, used the Cimarron Route, which was shorter and faster but required knowledge of where the route’s scarce water supplies were located.

From 1821 until 1846, the Santa Fe Trail was a two-way international commercial highway used by both Mexican and American traders.

Suspicion and tension between the United States and Mexico accelerated in the 1840s. With the American desire for territorial expansion, Texans raided into New Mexico, and the United States annexed Texas. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846. General Stephen Watts Kearny led his Army of the West down the Santa Fe Trail to take and hold New Mexico and upper California and to protect American traders on the trail. He marched unchallenged into Santa Fe.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848, the Santa Fe Trail became a national road connecting the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories.

Commercial freighting along the trail boomed to unheard-of levels, including considerable military freight hauling to supply the southwestern forts. The trail was also used by stagecoach lines, adventurers, missionaries, wealthy New Mexican families, and emigrants. The Santa Fe Trade developed into a complex web of international business, social ties, tariffs, and laws, passing goods from as far as New York, London, and Paris.

Movies and books often romanticize Santa Fe Trail treks as sagas of constant peril, with violent prairie storms, fights with Indians, and thundering buffalo herds. In fact, a glimpse of bison, elk, antelope, or prairie dogs was sometimes the only break in the tedium of 8-week journeys. Trail travelers mostly experienced dust, mud, gnats and mosquitoes, and heat. But occasional swollen streams, wildfires, hailstorms, strong winds, or blizzards could imperil wagon trains.

At dawn, trail hands scrambled in noise and confusion to round up, sort, and hitch up the animals. The wagons headed out, the air ringing with whoops and cries of “All’s set!” and soon, “Catch up! Catch up!” and “Stretch out!”

Stopping at mid-morning, crews unhitched and grazed the teams, hauled water, gathered wood or buffalo chips for fuel, and cooked and ate the day’s main meal from a monotonous daily ration of 1 pound of flour, 1 pound of bacon, 1 ounce of coffee, 2 ounces of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Beans, dried apples, or bison and other game were occasional treats. Crews then repaired their wagons, yokes, and harnesses, greased wagon wheels, doctored animals, and hunted.

They moved on soon after noon, fording streams before the night’s stop because overnight storms could turn trickling creeks into raging floodwaters. At day’s end, crews took care of the animals, made necessary repairs, chose night guards, and enjoyed a few hours of well-earned leisure and sleep.

Westward from Missouri, forests gave way to Kansas prairie. Long days traveling through seemingly endless expanses of tall and short grass prairie, with a few narrow ribbons of trees along waterways, evoked vivid descriptions. “In spring, the vast plain heaves and rolls around like a green ocean,” wrote one early traveler. Another marveled at a mirage in which “horses and the riders upon them presented a remarkable picture, apparently extending into the air. . .45 to 60 feet high. . . At the same time, I could see beautiful clear lakes of water with. . .bulrushes and other vegetation. . .” Other travelers dreamed of cures for sickness from the “purity of the plains.” As the route was mainly commercial, once most wagon trains made it to Santa Fe, they turned around and headed right back.

As void of human presence the prairie landscape might have appeared, the lands the trail passed through were the long-held homelands of many American Indian people. Most early encounters were peaceful negotiations centering on access to tribal lands and trade in horses, mules, and other items that Indians, Mexicans, and Americans coveted. As trail traffic increased, so did confrontations, as the travelers disrupted more and more traditional ways of American Indian life. Mexican and American troops began providing escorts for wagon trains.

In 1862, the Civil War arrived in the West. The Confederate plan for the West was to raise a force in Texas, march up the Rio Grande, take Santa Fe, turn northeast on the Santa Fe Trail, capture the stores at Fort Union, head up to Colorado to capture the goldfields, and then turn west to take California. They pushed up the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico. Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell. But the tide turned at Glorieta Pass, on the Santa Fe Trail. In the most decisive western battle of the Civil War, Union forces secured victory when they torched the nearby Confederate supply train. The Confederates abandoned any hope of reaching Fort Union – and with it, their foothold in New Mexico. The Union Army held the Southwest and its vital Santa Fe Trail supply line.

The close of the Civil War in 1865 released America’s industrial energies. The railroad pushed westward, gradually shortening and then replacing the Santa Fe Trail. Within two years, rails had been laid across central Kansas, and by 1873, two different rail lines reached from eastern Kansas into Colorado. As lands were parceled out for railroads and the bison were hunted nearly to extinction, Native people were pushed aside or assigned to reservations.

Because the Santa Fe Trail hauled primarily commercial goods, the railroad expansion meant that the trading caravans needed to traverse increasingly shorter distances. During the early 1870s, three different railroads vied to build rails over Raton Pass in order to serve the New Mexico market. The winner of that competition, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, reached the top of Raton Pass in late 1878. In February 1880, the railroad reached Santa Fe, and the trail faded into history.

The Santa Fe National Historic Trail:

For nearly 60 years, goods were exchanged on the Santa Fe trail, as well as knowledge and culture. It’s no accident that there are towns in Missouri named Mexico and Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe National Historic Trail spans 900 miles of the Great Plains and traverses five states. The route was commemorated in 1987 by the National Park Service as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A highway route that roughly follows the trail’s path through the entire length of Kansas, the southeast corner of Colorado and northern New Mexico has been designated as the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway. Museums, interpretive centers, and historic sites pepper the journey today – places like Fort Dodge, Fort Union, and the Cimmaron National Grassland.

The National Trails website on NPS.gov does a fantastic job of showing the hundreds of sites along the route, and you can find a wealth of information at SantaFeTrail.org, the website of the non-profit Santa Fe Trail Association. For more information about the 3 Trails Corridor, visit 3trailscorridor.com.

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For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

Toward a Dark and Indefinite Shore

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted and written by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

That’s the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. It’s not Lincoln’s most famous speech, but it’s close, and those last words are as fine as anything he ever wrote or spoke. A month later, the war was over after the surrender at Appomattox.

Lincoln waited two days to speak. He opened, “we meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart.”

“Gladness of heart” was something quite different from happiness. Lincoln was looking ahead to the reconstruction of the nation, but it would take place without him.

His would-be assassin, a notable stage actor, was at both speeches, biding his time until the moment arrived on his home turf.

Ford’s Theatre was first constructed in 1833 as the First Baptist Church. In 1859, the structure was abandoned as a place of worship. John T. Ford, a theatre entrepreneur from Baltimore, leased the building in 1861. A church board member predicted a dire fate would fall anyone who turned the former house of worship into a theatre. In 1862, Ford renovated the theatre and performances began, setting in motion events to follow that would shake America to its core.


John Wilkes Booth was born in Maryland into a family of prominent stage actors, including his older brother Edwin, the greatest actor of his time. John became a famous actor too and national celebrity in his own right, in fact, Abraham Lincoln, was a big fan. He had seen him previously in a play at Ford’s Theater and had repeatedly invited him, without success, to visit the White House.

Booth was no fan of Lincoln, however, a fact which had eluded the President. During the civil war, he was an outspoken Confederate sympathizer.

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, then commander of the Union armies, suspended the exchange of prisoners of war with the Confederate Army to increase pressure on the South, who were strapped for men.

Booth decided to get involved. He concocted a plan to kidnap Lincoln, with the goal of holding him hostage until prisoner exchanges resumed. He recruited five men to help — Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, and John Surratt. On March 17, the conspirators planned to abduct Lincoln as he returned from a play at Campbell Military Hospital, but the President changed his plans at the last minute and instead attended a ceremony at the National Hotel. In a strange twist of fate, Booth was living at the National Hotel at the time. Had he not gone to the hospital for the failed kidnap attempt, he might have been successful.

As the war drew toward a conclusion, Booth continued to believe in the Confederate cause and sought a way to salvage it. Meanwhile, he attended Lincoln’s speech at the White House in which he promoted voting rights for blacks. Booth said that it would be the last speech Lincoln would ever give. It wasn’t. In fact, Booth also attended Lincoln’s second inaugural in the closing days of the war.

Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln told of a dream he had. One in which he entered the white house to see mourners and a military guard. He asked someone who had died. “The President,” came the response.

On the morning of April 14, 1865, Lincoln told people how happy he felt. He told his cabinet that he had dreamed of being on a “singular and indescribable vessel that was moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore.” A dream, according to Lincoln, he’d before “nearly every great and important event of the War.”

While visiting Ford’s Theatre in daylight to pick up some mail, Booth learned that Lincoln and Grant were to see the play “Our American Cousin” that night. No stranger to the staff and layout of the theater, Booth knew the perfect opportunity to attack Lincoln had presented itself.

The conspirators met at 7 p.m. Booth assigned Lewis Powell to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home, with David E. Herold as a guide. Meanwhile, George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel.

Booth planned to shoot Lincoln at point-blank range with his single-shot Deringer, after which he’d stab Grant. The conspirators would simultaneously strike shortly after ten o’clock.

Despite what Booth had heard, General Grant and his wife, Julia had declined the invitation. Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris would accompany the Lincolns. Mary Lincoln had developed a headache and intended to stay home, but Lincoln told her he must attend because newspapers had announced that he would.

The president arrived late to the play, which was haldted for the orchestra to play “Hail to the Chief” for the 1,700 standing spectators. Lincoln sat in a rocking chair that had been selected for him from among the Ford family’s personal furnishings.

Policeman John Frederick Parker was assigned to guard the President’s box. At intermission, he went to a nearby tavern along with Lincoln’s footman and coachman and was not at his post. Navy Surgeon George Brainerd Todd saw Booth arrive, saying: About 10:25 pm, a man came in walking slowly and I heard a man say, “There’s Booth” and I turned my head to look at him. He was still walking very slow and was near the box door when he stopped, took a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and gave it to the usher who took it to the box. In a minute the door was opened and he walked in.”

Once through the door, Booth barricaded it by wedging it with a brace he had prepared. A second door led to Lincoln’s box.

Booth knew the play by heart and waited to time his shot with one of the best lines of the play, one which was sure to get a loud laugh. He opened the door, stepped forward, and shot from behind with a derringer while Lincoln was laughing.

Lincoln slumped over in his chair and then fell backward. Rathbone turned to see Booth standing in gunsmoke and jumped from his seat wrestling the pistol away. Booth drew a knife and stabbed him in the left forearm. Booth jumped 12 feet from the box to the stage. His riding spur became caught on the flag decorating the box, causing him to land awkwardly on his left foot. He began to cross the stage, and many in the audience thought it was part of the play.

Booth held his bloody knife over his head, and yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus!,” a phrase Marcus Brutus utters after killing Julius Ceasar. It means “thus always to tyrants.” He followed it in English with “The South is avenged!”

Booth ran across the stage and exited through a side door, stabbing the orchestra leader on the way. He escaped on a horse he had waiting in the alleyway.

Army surgeon Charles Leale was in attendance that night, and after the commotion, he drove through the crowd to Lincoln’s box but couldn’t open the door. Rathbone noticed and removed the wooden brace Booth used to jam it shut.

Leale found Lincoln with his head in Mary’s arms. “His eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous,” “he said. Thinking Lincoln had been stabbed, Leale shifted him to the floor. Meanwhile, another physician, Charles Sabin Taft, was lifted from the stage into the box.

After Taft and Leale opened Lincoln’s shirt and found no stab wound, they found the gunshot wound. The bullet was too deep to be removed, but they were able to dislodge a clot, after which Lincoln’s breathing improved. They decided that Lincoln must be moved, but a carriage ride to the White House was too dangerous. They took the President to one of the houses across the road, that of tailor William Petersen. It rained as soldiers carried Lincoln into the street. In Petersen’s first-floor bedroom, the exceptionally tall Lincoln was laid diagonally on the bed.

More physicians arrived, all agreeing that the wound was mortal. Throughout the night, as the hemorrhage continued, they removed blood clots to relieve pressure on the brain. Eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln arrived sometime after midnight but twelve-year-old Tad Lincoln was kept away.

Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15. According to Lincoln’s secretary John Hay, at the moment of Lincoln’s death, “a look of unspeakable peace came upon his worn features.”

Ten days prior, Secretary of State William H. Seward had been thrown from his carriage, suffering a concussion, a broken jaw, and a broken arm. On the night of the assassination, he was confined to bed at his home in Lafayette Park. As Booth was making his way to the Ford Theatre, David Herold was guiding Lewis Powell to Seward’s house. One of Seward’s servants answered the door and Powell told him he had medicine from Seward’s physician, and that his instructions were to personally show him how to take it. Powell was admitted and made his way up the stairs. At the top of the staircase he was stopped by Seward’s son, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick W. Seward, who, suspicious, said his father was asleep. Daughter Fanny emerged from a room and said, “Fred, Father is awake now” – revealing to Powell where Sewards location. Powell turned as if to start downstairs but suddenly drew his revolver. He aimed at Frederick’s forehead and pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. He knocked Frederick unconscious with it, instead.

Powell then went in the room and stabbed at Seward’s face and neck, but the splint doctors had fitted to his broken jaw prevented the blade from penetrating deeply, saving his life. Seward’s son Augustus and Sergeant George F. Robinson, a soldier assigned to the home, were alerted by Fanny’s screams and rushed into the bedroom. Both received stab wounds struggling with Powell. As Augustus went for a pistol, Powell ran toward the door, where he encountered a State Department messenger and stabbed him in the back. He then ran down the stairs and out the door. Once outside, he exclaimed, “I’m mad! I’m mad!”. Whether that was a code to alert Herold, or an attempt to frighten pedestrians outside remains unclear, regardless, by the time Powell made his way out of the house, Herold had already ran off, leaving him to find his own way in an unfamiliar city.

George Atzerodt, meanwhile, had rented a room directly above Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was staying at the Kirkwood House in Washington. Carrying a gun and knife, he went to the bar downstairs, where he tried to get his courage up. He eventually became drunk and wandered off through the streets.

Within half an hour of the shooting, Booth crossed the Navy Yard Bridge into Maryland where an army sentry questioned him about his late-night travel. Although it was forbidden for civilians to cross the bridge after 9 pm, the sentry let him through. David Herold went across the same bridge less than an hour later. After retrieving weapons and supplies they had stored away, Herold and Booth went to the home of Samuel A. Mudd, a local doctor, who splinted the leg Booth had broken jumping from the presidential box.

After a day at Mudd’s house, Booth and Herold hired a local man to guide them to Samuel Cox’s house. Cox took them to Thomas Jones, who hid them in a swamp for five days until they could cross the Potomac River. On the afternoon of April 24th, they arrived at a tobacco farm in King George County, Virginia. Booth told the owner he was a wounded Confederate soldier.

The hunt for the conspirators quickly became the largest in U.S. history, involving thousands of federal troops, who tracked them to the farm.

Booth and Herold were sleeping on April 26th when soldiers surrounded the barn, then threatened to set fire to it. Herold surrendered, but Booth cried out, “I will not be taken alive!” The soldiers set fire to the barn sending Booth scrambling for the back door with a rifle and pistol.

Sergeant Boston Corbett crept up behind the barn and shot Booth in the back of the head, almost exactly where he shot Lincoln. He died on the porch of the farm two hours later.

The remaining conspirators were arrested by month’s end – except for John Surratt, who fled to Quebec then Europe until a friend from his school days recognized him in there in early 1866 and alerted the U.S. government. He was finally captured in Egypt in November 1866.

Mourners lined up seven abreast for a mile to view Lincoln in his walnut casket in the black-draped East Room of the White House. Special trains brought thousands from other cities, some of whom slept on the Capitol’s lawn. Hundreds of thousands watched the funeral procession, and millions more lined the 1,700-mile route of the train that took Lincoln’s remains to Springfield, Illinois.


Following the assassination, the government appropriated the theater, with Congress paying Ford $88,000 in compensation. An order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement. Between 1866 and 1887, the theater was taken over by the U.S. military and served as a facility for the War Department with records kept on the first floor, the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office on the second floor, and the Army Medical Museum on the third. In 1887, the building exclusively became a clerk’s office for the War Department, when the medical departments moved out.

On June 9, 1893, the front part of the building collapsed, killing 22 clerks and injuring another 68. This led some to believe the facility was cursed. The building was repaired and used as a government warehouse until 1911.

A Lincoln museum opened on the first floor of the theater building in 1932, and in the following year, it was transferred to the new National Park Service.

In 1964, Congress approved funds for the building’s complete restoration, which began that year and was completed in 1968. Ford’s theater became a venue for live entertainment again. Vice President Hubert Humphrey dedicated the restored theater at a gala performance.

The theater was again renovated during the 2000s. The re-opening ceremony was on February 11, 2009, to commemorate Lincoln’s 200th birthday. The event featured President Barack Obama, Katie Couric, Kelsey Grammer, James Earl Jones, Ben Vereen, the President’s Own Marine Band, Broadway star Audra McDonald and more.

The Ford’s Theatre Museum beneath the theater contains Lincoln artifacts, including some related to the assassination, like the Derringer pistol used to carry out the shooting, Booth’s diary, the original door to Lincoln’s theater box, and the blood-stained pillow from the President’s deathbed.

Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site is open every day except for Thanksgiving Day and December 25. Tickets are free and required for entry. The theatre is an active performing arts venue, and there are times when it is closed for matinees, rehearsals and special events. In most cases, the museum and Petersen House, where Lincoln died, will remain open even if the theater is closed for performances.

A performance is another opportunity to see the historic theater. Regular runs of exceptional quality plays and musicals can be attended by anyone willing to purchase a ticket. The presidential box is never occupied.



Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Pick up your own “From Sea to Shining Sea” gear in the America’s National Parks Teespring store.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 69434150_735914166836084_179055030496657408_n.jpg

For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and me as we travel the country with our three boys at Our Wandering FamilyParagraph

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

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