George Champlin Sibley (1782-1863) was appointed head trader at the Indian Factory at Fort Osage, Missouri, when it opened in l808. Son of Dr. John Sibley, head factor at Natchitoches, Louisiana, George Sibley had been assistant factor at Fort Bellefontaine, near St. Louis, for three years at the time of his appointment.
In May 1811 Sibley led a party of interpreters and Osage scouts on a two-month exploration intended to improve relations between the Kansa and the Pawnee and to examine the hunting grounds of the Osage. The group visited the Kansa village on the Kansas River near present Manhattan, Kansas, and then met with the Pawnee on the Platte River. The party then turned south, stopping at the Osage villages along the Arkansas River near the mouth of the Verdigris River in present northeastern Oklahoma.
During his visit with the Osage Sibley took two brief excursions. The first was to the Great Salt Plains along the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River, which he called the "Grand Saline." He also visited the "Rock Saline," probably the salt springs near the Blaine Escarpment on the upper Cimarron River. Both visits were shortened by the reports that bands of Comanche were nearby; however, Sibley did participate in hunting buffalo on the plains. He was confident the salt deposits would eventually prove commercially profitable. He returned to Fort Osage on July 11, l811.
Sibley's second exploration was at the behest of the U.S. Congress. In l821 William Becknell learned that the recently independent Mexican government was open to trade between the United States and New Mexico. The Santa Fe Trail shortly thereafter became a major artery of commerce. In l824 Congress, under the leadership of Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, passed a bill approving funds for three commissioners to survey the route from Missouri to Santa Fe and to secure safe passage from the tribes along the trail.
The commissioners were Sibley, Benjamin Reeves of Missouri, and Thomas Mather of Illinois. Sibley became the expedition's de facto head, and in April l825 the party set out from Fort Osage. On a tributary of the Neosho River the commissioners met with the leaders of the Kansa and Osage tribes, negotiating agreements for safe passage. Sibley noted the occasion by naming a nearby copse of oak trees "Council Grove." The town of Council Grove, Kansas, stands on this location.
The party then marched to the Arkansas River and followed it to the 100th Meridian, the contemporary border with New Mexico. As part of the survey, the group erected mounts to guide travelers from Fort Osage to this point. They waited here for approval to enter Mexico, which they received in late September. Then Sibley pushed on toward Santa Fe; the other commissioners returned to Missouri.
The reduced party followed the north bank of the Arkansas for about forty miles, crossing at a ford. After following the river a few more miles, Sibley led them south toward the Cimarron. Their path roughly traced what would become the Cimarron Cutoff, bisecting the corner of the present Oklahoma Panhandle. After suffering from lack of water in what became known as the "Cimarron Desert," the party reached Taos.
The group was treated cordially by the local government and eventually received permission to survey the route in New Mexico. However, the other commissioners never arrived, and in August l826 the grouped returned to Missouri. After several delays the commissioners submitted their report in October l827. The survey had little impact, because the constant traffic to Santa Fe had by l827 left a clear path for others to follow.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: George R. Brooks, ed., "George C. Sibley's Journal of a Trip to the Salines in l811," Missouri Historical Society Bulletin 21 (April l965). Seymour V. Connor and Jimmy M. Skaggs, Broadcloth and Britches: The Santa Fe Trade (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1977). Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road to Santa Fe, The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995). Thomas Isern, "George Champlin Sibley, 1811 and 1825-1826," in Frontier Adventurers: American Exploration in Oklahoma, ed. Joseph A. Stout, Jr. (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1976).
Carl N. Tyson
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