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Trans-Mississippi Musings

Tour Stop, “Byram’s Ford, West Bank”

[Waypoint = 39.016928, -94.520392]

Tour stop in Google MapsTour Stop Description


Now you will walk down to the west bank of the Big Blue River where Byram’s Ford crossed. It’s a relatively easy walk of about 0.4 miles. Only the last 100 yards or so might be considered moderate in difficulty. Once you leaved the paved streets, it can be muddy if there have been recent rains.

Return to E 60th Street and turn right (east). Head straight east down E 60th Street and continue walking east across the mowed field. You should be able to see a small sign about 300 yards in the distance. Head for that sign. When you reach the wooded area, you should be able to see the path that goes into the woods. This is the stretch of the Historic Byram’s Ford Road on the west side of the Big Blue River. Follow the old road bed down to the Big Blue River until you get to the sign marking the location of Byram’s Ford.


Ely's Ford by Alfred R. Waud 
Ely's Ford by Alfred R. Waud courtesy of the Library of Congress

Back in the mid-19th century, the most common way to get across a small moving body of water was to use a ford. A ford was a naturally occurring shallow place on the stream with a gravelly or rocky bottom, which provided good footing. Byram’s Ford was no different. This crossing was called Byram’s Ford because it was the ford over the Big Blue River near the farm owned by Peter and Augustus Byram.

In his book, The Battle of Westport, Paul B. Jenkins described Byram’s Ford as “an easy crossing at a point where the river was wide and shallow.” Jenkins published his book over 100 years ago in 1906, so the river’s physical characteristics could have changed. But looking at the river today, you can see how much of a challenge it was to get one wagon, let alone 500 wagons, down and then up these steep river banks. There was a rocky bottom here in the river bed. And the river’s flow was typically low at this point in the late summer and early fall. But the steep river banks seem to make this location less than optimal as a place to ford the river. And surely you remember the steep descent down the Byram’s Ford Road on the other side of the river.

Because of the steep river banks, Byram’s Ford crossed the Big Blue River at an angle, from the northeast to the southwest. Look across to the far side of the river a 100 feet or so down river to see if you can find the area where the river bank is not as steep. Look for trees marked with two yellow paint dots. We are not absolutely certain, but believe the Byram’s Ford Road entered the ford near that location and exited the river near where you are standing.

Byram’s Ford and the Byram’s Ford Road had its origin as a convenient way for the freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell to move their oxen from the Santa Fe Trail over to their pastureland just across the state line due west of here. It was shorter to cut across instead of continuing down the Santa Fe Trail to New Santa Fe and then up the Military Road to their pastureland. Between Independence and Kansas City or Westport, there were other better roads and ways to get across the Big Blue River.

Why did Major General Sterling Price decide to take his army and wagon train on the Byram’s Ford Road? His objective was the border town of New Santa Fe. By selecting the Byram’s Ford Road, the wagon train was going to have to cross the Big Blue River three times. If they had followed the main route of the Santa Fe Trail, the wagons would have faced only one river crossing between Independence and New Santa Fe. Price’s decision was influenced largely because of the tactical situation facing the Confederates on October 22, 1864.

By the time he reached Independence, Price was concerned with getting his wagon train loaded with plunder safely away to Arkansas. He planned to leave the area through the eastern part of Kansas continuing his work of plunder and destruction. So his immediate objective was the border town of New Santa Fe.

On the surface, it seems the simplest route would have been to continue down the Santa Fe Trail, cross the Big Blue River at the Red Bridge and then on to New Santa Fe. When his wagon train was on the move, it stretched out for over five miles. Price knew this would make an easy target for the Federal cavalry under Major General Alfred Pleasonton. Likewise, going down river over the crossing on the Main Independence to Kansas City Road would leave his wagon train exposed to the Federal cavalry under Major General Samuel R. Curtis.

So Price decided to split the difference and use the Byram’s Ford crossing. He would put the Big Blue River between his wagon trains and Pleasonton’s cavalry. His wagon train would be exposed to Curtis’ cavalry for a relatively short distance. In addition, while exposed on the east side of the river, Price would have the advantage of being able to defend interior lines. So Byram’s Ford turned out to be the best option available.

Historical Vignettes

Major General Sterling Price described the situation in his official report. 

"The enemy had fallen back to Big Blue, on the Kansas City road, to a position strong by nature and strengthened by fortifications … I determined to advance on the Santa Fé road, which had been obstructed by felling trees, and did so, Brigadier-General [Jo] Shelby's division in front … Brigadier-General Shelby crossed the Big Blue with the remainder of his division, meeting some opposition from the enemy, which was soon overcome. After crossing the Big Blue he engaged the enemy to cover the crossing and the passage of the train … On the morning of the 23d I took up my line of march, and in a short time discovered the enemy in position on the prairie. The train had been sent forward on the Fort Scott road. I had instructed Major-General [John S.] Marmaduke to resist the advance of the enemy, who was in his rear, if possible, as he was on the same road as the train."