A dangerous crossing: May 1846
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
1800s photo of a Caw boatman poling a raft
that carried pioneer wagons across the Kansas River.
After following Virginia Reed’s route via Interstate 70 and US Highway 24 to Manhattan, Kansas, I met a local woman who told me exactly where the Reeds and Donners crossed the Kansas River (then called the Caw) a week after they left Independence, Missouri. So the next morning I backtracked a bit and found the crossing northwest of Topeka, off US Highway 24.
The families had just endured a series of thunder-storms that left them stuck on the trail and huddled in their wagons for several days. They dreaded the crossing, knowing that the Kansas River would now be swollen, swift, and filled with debris.
As I photographed the area, I remembered how one party member described the crossing: “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.”
Indians! Virginia Reed, who’d grown up listening to her grandmother’s stories about Indian “savages,” was terrified. Later, she mentioned the crossing in her memoirs:
“The first Indians we met were the Caws, who kept the ferry, and had to take us over the Caw River. I watched them closely, hardly daring to draw my breath, …and was very thankful when I found they were not like Grandma’s Indians.”
(Left) These days travelers quickly and easily cross the Kansas River by bridge outside the tiny town of Wamego, Kansas. (Right) Site of the river crossing today from the same nearby bridge.