The earliest transportation through Oklahoma naturally depended upon the many rivers and streams that water the area. With the Arkansas, Verdigris and Grand rivers flowing together at Three Forks, this region became an early hub for traffic west of the Mississippi.
The rivers were important for the export of furs, salt and pecans, which the Indian nations traded with European and American merchants. Then in the 1780s, the Osage began to settle in the Three Forks region. Their principal trade partners were the Chouteau family in St. Louis.
The Osage traveled overland from the Three Forks to Missouri along a trail that became known as the Osage Trace. This trail, which followed the natural contours of the land, became the basis for many roads that followed.
With the establishment of Fort Smith, Fort Gibson and Fort Towson, military roads were built connecting these posts. It was along these roads that many of the Five Tribes made the final leg of their tearful trail into their new homeland, Indian Territory.
Since this new territory was set aside for Indians only, the territory soon became a place for pioneers to simply “pass through” on their way to settling the West. In the 1820s and ’30s the Osage Trace was crowded with settlers heading out from Missouri and the Midwest to Texas. The trail became known as the Texas Road.
Another road carrying pioneers through Oklahoma was called the Cherokee Trail. Gold seekers to California and Colorado followed this trail from Fort Smith through the Three Forks area westward to join the Santa Fe Trail.
During the Civil War, several battles were fought in Indian Territory for control of the Texas Road, including the Battle of Honey Springs. During the decade of the cattle drives, the Texas Road became the Shawnee Cattle Trail and hundreds of cattle were driven up from Texas to the railheads in Missouri and Kansas.
Following the Civil War, railroads began to forge into Indian Territory. The first was the Missouri-Kansas & Texas (KATY). The route chosen for this first rail line followed closely that of the Osage Trace, crossing the Arkansas River near the ford of the Texas Road. The railroad surveyors and engineers could not improve upon the instinct of the Indian and pioneer in choosing the best route.
When the Good Roads Movement of the early 1900s pushed for paved roads, the old Texas Road was included in a north-south interstate called the Jefferson Highway. Today, this road is U.S. 69, and it crosses through Oklahoma closely following this same route. It has been said that when first constructing the Jefferson, a roadbed did not need to be laid. The ground was rock hard from the tramp of hundreds of Texas longhorns passing over it.
The rivers, roads and rails that carry traffic through Oklahoma today are still vitally important for travelers and for local economies. Along the old Jefferson Highway, Oklahoma’s “Granddaddy Road,” some of the state’s most fascinating history can also be found.
Reach Jonita Mullins at email@example.com.