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Family Donates Unique Santa Fe Trail Map Collection Bringing History Closer

The family of Lee and Dorothy Kroh with members of the Kansas City Area Historic Trails Association
Accent Summer 2021 Magazine
The family of Lee and Dorothy Kroh with members of the Kansas City Area Historic Trails Association at the Marge Smith Archives at MNU. Mrs. Dorothy Kroh is in the middle, seated.

The most detailed, complete maps of the Santa Fe Trail in existence have a new physical home in the Marge Smith Archives at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas, just in time for the trail’s bicentennial. 

The maps are digitized allowing anyone with Internet access to study the maps at kansasmemory.org.

Lee Kroh had a passion for learning about the Santa Fe, Oregon and California National Historic trails that cross the U.S. and led Pioneers and adventurers West in the 1800s. A welder by profession, Kroh spent time researching historic journals, books and surveyor’s notes, then hand drawing the Santa Fe Trail routes on U.S. Geological Society topographic quadrangle maps (quads). He and his wife, Dorothy, drove the Santa Fe Trail from the 1970s to the 1990s, documenting historic spots along the way. His maps are purported to be the most detailed, complete maps of the Santa Fe Trail in existence. Now those maps have a new physical home in the Marge Smith Archives at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas, just in time for the trail’s bicentennial. 

According to MNU Archivist Lon Dagley, the maps in the Lee and Dorothy Kroh Collection are a treasure trove of historical information that can help researchers pinpoint locations where the trails ran in the area, one of which is no more than a quarter mile from the MNU campus. 

Standing on MNU’s circle drive looking down College Way to the west, one is looking toward the section of the Santa Fe Trail that, 200 years ago, stretched from Leawood to Olathe to a nearby encampment for travelers called Lone Elm.

There is great significance in these detailed trail maps, Lon Dagley explains.

“More of the Santa Fe Trail lies in Kansas than all other states combined,” Dagley says. “The Kroh maps are based on original research. You can’t compare these to the official guide to the Santa Fe Trail, published in 1989, because Kroh mapped the routes down to the city block. His work is 10 times more detailed than any previous maps.”

Dagley is well versed in trails as a member of the Kansas City Area Historic Trails Association, the group that received the collection from the Kroh family. 

“This provides a big jump in our understanding of history,” he says. “Previously, there were only a couple of places where I knew the trail ran. Behind Prairie Village City Hall and Shawnee Mission East High School are swales, depressions in the earth left by wagon wheels, where you can actually see evidence of the trails. With these maps you can find the trail route down to the city block, all over our area.”

According to Gregory M. Franzwa, author of Maps Of The Santa Fe Trail (1989), maps including the trails in Kansas have been available since the 1850s, when a section-by-section survey by the Government Land Office was required for statehood. In 1987, President Reagan signed into law a bill declaring the Santa Fe Trail as a component of America’s National Historic Trail System. This initiated a massive mile-by-mile study of the trail by the National Park Service. 

Dagley adds that during the original 1850s survey, the trails were still in use, giving surveyors precision when they noted a trail crossing. However, those maps did not show the entire route, so using those surveys and surveyors’ notes, Kroh noted where the trails crossed grid section lines. He called these hard points (recognized today by brown historical trail road signs throughout Kansas). The topography on the maps gave Kroh clues about the route because he knew the trails would follow high ground. Plus, many surveyor’s maps included names and addresses of buildings that still existed, allowing Kroh another proof point.

After Kroh passed, his family donated the maps to the Kansas City Area Historical Trails Association. The KCAHTA wanted an educational institution to house the maps so that they could be used to prepare the next generation of Kansas history educators. 

“As an archivist I knew it would be a wonderful addition for the university,” Dagley says. “This is a one-of-a-kind collection that has been in private hands until now. We are the first archive to have this level of research on the trails available to the public.”

Darin Tuck, PhD, assistant professor of history, agrees. 

“MNU students will have a rare opportunity to help push forward academic research and serve our local community by exploring how trail life still shapes us today,” Tuck says. “MNU is fortunate to be surrounded by amazing local historians and organizations that have spent decades researching these trails and we hope to build on that legacy.” 

Tuck says he anticipates the maps and other resources will be used to build lesson plans and other activities for classrooms ranging from elementary schools to universities. 

“I hope this will enhance the public’s understanding of our past and serve Kansas teachers for generations to come,” he added.

The Marge Smith Archives at MidAmerica Nazarene University are located in Mabee Learning Commons. Find out more at mnu.edu/learning-commons/library-archives. 

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Summer 2021

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