The Smoky Hill River

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I am working on a series of historical western romances for Harlequin that take place in the fictional town of Oak Grove in Logan County in northwest Kansas. The town is situated just north of the Smoky Hill River which has so many interesting stories about it that I wanted to share a few here.

The waters of the Smoky Hill River start in the high plains of eastern Colorado and flow east with many other rivers joining in, until it flows into and forms the Kansas River. From there the water flows into the Missouri River and then on to the Mississippi River.

Kansas MapFor many years, Comanche, Sioux, Kiowa, and Arapaho tribes hunted extensively along the river before being forced out by encroaching settlers. Game was plentiful in the extensive grasslands and fish populated the river.

There are differing stories as to how the river got its name. The Plains Indians, depending on which tribe, called it CHETOLAH OR OKESSE-SEBO. The early English and French explorers called it the RIVER OF THE PADOUCAS. It has since become known as the SMOKY HILL RIVER.

George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938—naturalist, explorer, author, anthologist) said that the name came from a large grove of cottonwood trees along the river on the Kansas/Colorado state line. The trees were very tall and could be seen for miles from the flat grasslands. It is said they looked like a cloud of smoke. The place was a gathering place for many tribes to camp and barter and visit with each other. It was also a burial grounds and a place of refuge for the Indians under Black Kettle of the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.

James R. Mead’s version differs slightly. He said that the river is named the Smoky Hill because of the buttes along the river, that when seen from afar appear hazy from smoke. James  R. Meade was a trapper and trader in the area during the years of 1850 to 1860.

Logan County,Kansas

The Smoky Hill Trail used by the Native Americans along the river was the shortest, fastest route west across Kansas. In 1858, it was traveled by those heading to the goldfields of Colorado or beyond. The Native Americans did not want to relinquish the rich land and skirmishes with settlers followed. The army set up several forts along the river. A road followed, and then as more settlers came, a railroad. In 1870, the Kansas-Pacific Railway to Denver was completed.

Smoky Hill River

The Smoky Hill River in the area of Logan County where my story takes place is only about three feet deep. Of course, this level changes dramatically depending on the rains and the melting snow. One bit of research I found interesting took place in 1868 when a drought plagued the plains and the river level was quite low. An immense herd of bison—hundreds of thousands of them (enough to cover a thirty-mile area)—came to the river to drink. The first bison were crowded out by the animals that followed, who in turn, were pushed out by those in the rear. It is said they drank the river dry!

I am collaborating with author, Lauri Robinson, in writing the stories of the people of Oak Grove. Laurie has the fortune of having lived in the area for a few years. Since I have never visited Logan County along the Smoky Hill River, I have had to lean on book and internet research of the area for my next three stories. If any of you have been there and have something you would like to add, suggest or correct—please comment! I have a feeling that I will only feel reassured of my information if I get a chance to visit the area myself. A road trip may just be in my future!

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15 thoughts on “The Smoky Hill River”

    • Hi Janine. Thanks! I wish I could find more pictures of the area that are not “modern.” I’m still searching. Pictures always help me get into the feel of the area and also give me ideas for plot.

  1. Katheryn- I love this blog. I live in Southwest Kansas and for work I travel up to the smoky Hill river basin often. I can’t wait to read this series, sound phenomenal. Thank you for the historical info on this river basin, I’m going to share it with my coworker. Have a beautiful spring day.,

    • Hi Tonya,
      Oh…I’m so glad to hear this! I may have to call on you for research help if Laurie doesn’t remember certain things. Kansas surprised me–there is so much diversity in landscape within the state whether one is in the east, the central area, or the western part. It is quite beautiful.

      • I’m originally from Stephenville, Texas, but I’ve been living up here for 23 years. I learn so much about Kansas history, and loving historicals as I do, I’ve found some neat history up here, especially with the settlers heading west and the Indians.

  2. Hi Kathryn!

    What an interesting blog. I loved the pictures. One of my books, WAR CLOUD’S PASSION, takes place in the Smoky Hill area, along with other Kansas sites. Like you, I felt I had to take a road trip there — which I did a couple of times. Another of my books, THE ANGEL AND THE WARRIOR, also takes place in Kansas.

    Loved the post.

    • Hi Karen! Truly–I do feel a little shaky on just using book knowledge vs actually seeing and getting a feel for the area. It is gearing up to be a busy spring and summer, but somehow I must take a week off and make that drive.

  3. I don’t think we have driven through that area yet. There is a possibility we might this coming June, but our route from Texas to Omaha, Nebraska via Oklahoma City isn’t firm yet. It won’t be a straight line, but depends on how much of a sense of humor my husband has after a little over 2 weeks on the road from TN. It is fascinating how much the terrain changes over even a short distance sometimes. It had great impact on those who live there or travel through.
    You live closer and it sounds like it would be a nice long weekend type of trip. If you are like me, you look for any excuse to hit the road. This time you have a really good one.

    • Oh, you are so right Patricia! Thanks for stopping in and commenting! It sounds like you have quite a road trip planned! I believe there is an amazing western museum or cowboy museum there in Oklahoma City that is worth a visit too. So much to see…so little time 🙂

  4. Thank you for such an interesting blog on a part of the country and its history that I knew little about. I so love blogs like yours where I learn something new.

    I have several questions but if you don’t have time to answer I will definitely understand.

    1. Do you have a working title for the first book yet?
    2. The Smoky Hill River series?
    3. When you say you’re collaborating with Lauri Robinson, does that mean you’ll both be working on a same story together, or perhaps write different books in the series? (P.S. Either way this is a dream for me because I love stories by you both!)
    4. CHETOLAH OR OKESSE-SEBO: Do you you know which tribes these come from and what they mean?
    5. Last (thank goodness, right?), do you know if the Pawnee too were in the area since they were primarily in Nebraska and Kansas, or was the area you described a little too far west for them?

    Thanks again, and as soon as you have a projected date, I’ll put it on my to-buy list. : )

  5. Hi Eliza,
    Wow! Lots of great questions! Lets see how many that I can answer right off.

    The series is being built around a town we are calling Oak Grove. We had at first suggested Cedar Grove to the marketing department at Harlequin, but they nixed that idea because of Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove Series. I suggested The Smoky Hill River Series but did not get any traction with that. The first book is scheduled to release the end of May and is available for pre-order now and titled: Mail Order Brides of Oak Grove.

    The kick-off book for the series is what Harlequin calls a Duet–actually two stories in one book. It was Laurie’s idea to write about twin sisters, so she took one twin’s story and I took the other. They intertwine a bit, which was a new challenge for me and FUN! I think Lauri and I both enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other to make the stories the best we could. Then we both are writing more single titles and short stories set in Oak Grove and the releases will be staggered.

    I read that CHETOLAH was used by the Plains Indians. Other Native Americans used OKESSE-SEBO. Nothing more specific than that at the moment. And regarding the Pawnee, early on they were in Logan County, but by the time of my stories (1878) they were no longer in the area.

    I’ll post more about the stories (of course) as the release gets closer. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoy Laurie’s and my stories!

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