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Smoky Hill River

The Smoky Hill River rises as two branches in Cheyenne County, Colorado. The north branch of the Smoky Hill River enters Kansas in Sherman County and flows through Wallace and Logan counties. The south fork enters Kansas in Wallace County and flows east into Logan County, where it joins the north branch about six miles west of Russell Springs. From there, the main channel flows through Gove, Trego, Ellis, Russell, Ellsworth, McPherson, Saline, and Dickinson counties before joining with the Republican River to form the Kansas River at Junction City. Its two main tributaries are the Saline River, which joins near Salina, and the Solomon River, which joins west of Abilene. Total length of the main channel is about 560 miles, of which about 400 are in Kansas; the river and its tributaries drain about 20,000 square miles. Cedar Bluffs Reservoir in Trego County and Lake Kanopolis in Ellsworth County are both fed by the river.

The Smoky Hill first appeared on a map drawn by French cartogrspher d'Anville in 1732; he called the river of the Padoucas. The first white man to call it the Smoky Hill was Zebulon Pike, who encountered it on September 4, 1806, while on his way to a Pawnee village. Pike recorded in his journal that the Pawnee believed the river to be the main south branch of the Kansas River, and that he called it Smoky Hill because it flowed through the Smoky Hills region. The Smoky Hill Trail, which paralleled the river, provided the fastest and easiest route through Kansas for those heading to the gold fields at Pike's Peak. Forts Downer, Harker, Hays, Monument and Wallace were established along the trail by the U.S. Army to protect travelers. The river itself, however, has never been a major transportation route, as it is too shallow throughout much of its run to float cargo or passenger boats.

map of Smoky Hill River

Zebulon Pike

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> The West >> Kansas

This page was last updated on September 22, 2017.