Then white men began to show up. Most of them traveled east to west, finding a region of swaying green and brown grass and choking dust that gradually inclined toward the mountains, at its center twenty-five hundred feet above sea level. Zebulon Pike would be followed by another army officer, Major Stephen Long, who echoed his predecessor's opinion that this eastern portion of the Great American Desert was "uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture for their subsistence."
Such sentiments certainly didn't persuade people back east to fill wagons with plows and seed and head to the Arkansas River area to begin farming. But a few entrepreneurs saw the explorations of Pike, Long, and others as opening the territory to traders. One of the very first was William Becknell. He loaded up mules in Missouri and took them to Colorado to trade with Indians for furs. Not finding any willing customers there, he accompanied a group of scouts to New Mexico, specifically, to the settlement of Santa Fe. Trading there was brisk, and when he returned to Missouri, Becknell had blazed what would become the Santa Fe Trail.
In 1822, the year after his first sojourn, Becknell was back again, with a group of wagons and workers and more goods to trade. He was soon followed by others. In April 1824, the largest group yet, consisting of eighty-three men in twenty-four wagons, set off from Franklin, Missouri, and three months later reached Santa Fe. Coming and going, they passed near the site of the future Dodge City.
Still, the city could have become nothing more than one of dozens of settlements that found ways to survive near the Santa Fe and other trails. What contributed greatly to this particular settlement, earning a prominent place on the map of Kansas, was the founding of a fort, and there would be not one but two officers named Dodge associated with it.
The Comanche, Apache, and other Indian tribes did not have an inherent hatred of white people. At least, not initially. Encountering them here and there had the benefit for the Indians of trading furs and other animal products with them for trinkets and some clothing, and, unfortunately, whiskey, for which the Indians had no immunity. Even just occasional exposure could lead to alcoholism and early death. This was also true of diseases like smallpox and cholera. During the decades of white migration west before the Civil War, the Santa Fe Trail was basically a commercial route for traders though, beginning in 1849, it also served as a stagecoach route. All this exposure to white travelers resulted in thousands of Indians dying from diseases, much more so than in armed conflict.
Many Hollywood movies would have viewers believe that the sight of any white people out on the prairie would whip Indians into a fury. For the most part, however, white people and their equipment were a curiosity to them. One example of the latter was the Conestoga wagon. It was constructed to resemble a longboat and was watertight so that it could "sail" across the vast ocean that was the Great American Desert. These wagons became known as "prairie schooners." Indians could not imagine riding in such contraptions, but rather than attack them, they watched as they moved on to westward destinations. The friction would increase years later when there were many more white people and more of them were stopping to settle or were killing the buffalo.
When Indians did attack with more frequency and savagery, migrants and miners petitioned the U.S. government for protection. The government did attempt to work out treaties with tribes and compensate them for allowing safe passage. Such treaties rarely lasted long, because they were broken by avaricious white traders and eager settlers, or because the Indians really hadn't understood what they were giving away and thus continued with their traditional practices of hunting and camping wherever they pleased. When white people got in the way or trespassed (according to the Indians) on sacred ground, or when an exchange of goods went wrong, arrows flew, guns that had often been gotten from traders blazed, and the white intruders had to fight to survive.
As the historian Samuel Carter III described it, "To the marauding Comanches and Cheyennes, still lords of the Plains whatever others thought of them, the wagon trains were like the Spanish galleons to the pirates of the Caribbean. Time and again they raided the caravans, killing and scalping the drivers for good measure. A favorite point of ambush was Cimarron Crossing, twenty miles west of the site of Dodge, where the Conestoga wagons trying to ford the shallow Arkansas made an easy target for the raiders."
The army sent units west to build forts in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. The southern ones became important when the ending of the war with Mexico resulted in a leap of trading along the Santa Fe Trail and the increase in conflicts with Indians due to of more whites passing through the territory. A fort, or post, no matter how crudely constructed, offered some shelter from bad weather as well as from Indians in addition to being a place to resupply and rest.