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Kansas Historical Collections - Padilla and the Old Monument Near Council Grove

From Kansas Historical Collections, Volume X, pp. 472-479

This article was written by George P. Morehouse. All footnotes are indicated by underlined numbers, e.g. 1. The footnotes have been converted to endnotes and are linked to the text.

In approaching the quaint old town of Council Grove, whether overland or by rail, the traveler is almost sure to notice and inquire about a strange pointed monument crowning the summit of a prominent hill near by.

From certain directions it can be seen for several miles, for the top of the hill is several hundred feet above the lower bottom-lands of the Neosho valley. If we take the trouble to climb to the top, we are richly repaid; for we behold a magnificent scene of hill and valley, timber and prairie landscape, and realize that one of the most picturesque of Kansas views is spread out before us. We can range our vision for twenty miles or more up and down the valley; and toward the west the higher levels of the uplands--

"Stretch in airy undulations far away."

Below us the darker shades of heavy timber line make a winding trail of green along the river valley, and the good old town of "The Grove" is snugly tucked away in the shelter of that famous body of timber that gave its name. By consulting a map we find that we are standing near the northeast corner of the southeast quarter of Section 22, township 16, range 8 east, on the top of Mount Padilla.

Yes, here is the monument, rough, ancient, though symmetrical, which probably marks the sacred resting place of America's first Christian martyr, Father Fray Juan de Padilla. In the year 1542, near this place, this pioneer missionary of the Cross gave his life at the hands of those he had come to serve and save.

The monument is about ten feet high, and is made of rough, uncut limestone. The base is about six feet square, composed of large stones, while the column is of smaller ones and gradually tapers to the top.

Formerly near the monument was a large pile of smaller stones of all kinds, colors and shapes, which had evidently been brought from a distance and reverently deposited as an offering or tribute to some noted personage or revered character. To one accustomed to primitive shrines and memorials it is evident that long, long ago, these simple offerings were brought to that which was regarded as a most sacred spot. Various causes in modern times have robbed this stone offertory and scattered its fragments. Unfortunately, many stones, great and small, have been carted away some of which had inscriptions of odd letters and hieroglyphics, the mystic symbols of the past. This custom was once followed by modern visitors, who have at times left their initials, but the ancient ones are gone. Located on the summit of this high elevation, its neat outlines projected against the sky, no matter from which direction approached, this crude shaft presents an imposing appearance.

Not far from the foot of the mount the clear waters of a never-failing spring start from the head of a winding ravine, forming a small rivulet. At certain seasons of the year the stream below the spring is hid beneath a thick mesh and luxurious growth of savory watercress, which is kept fresh, cool and green by the running waters. No one visits this spot without a desire to return and again experience the magic spell of the delightful scenery and sacred associations of this historic spot.

Notwithstanding its exposed position, this monument has withstood the grinding wear of time and the storms of centuries. In nature's effort of obliteration the elements have been relentlessly but hopelessly against it, and only vandal hands have at intervals desecrated its interesting features. At times a part of the top has been disturbed, but only to be replaced by kindly hands, that its original proportions might be preserved as they were when it was first viewed by the earliest traveler through that region.

There it stands--stands, like some lone sentinel of the ages--connecting the misty past with the living present, and is probably one of the oldest of American landmarks.

Who was this early Christian martyr, this herald of the Cross, who offered up his life, away out here in the interior of the continent, nearly two hundred years before our Pilgrim Fathers, as a--

"Band of exiles moored their bark
On the wild New England shore"?

From whence came this heroic saint, and what are the known circumstances of his venturing, in that early day, so far from civilization, to labor in his Master's cause?

Father Fray Juan de Padilla was a native of Andalusia, Spain. He was young and vigorous when he joined Coronado's expedition. His talents were of a high order, and he had occupied several important positions in old Mexico. At one time he was guardian of a convent in Jalisco. He occupied this station when he became a missionary to the Indians in the far unknown North, the "terra incognita" of that day. This change caused much personal sacrifice on his part, for it involved giving up high positions in the church and turning his back on influential ecclesiastical offices and subjecting himself to hardship and death among the ignorant savages he longed to save. In faith he looked far beyond, to a time when the aborigines of the great American desert would become educated and converted to the religion he humbly taught. He was one of the four Franciscans who accompanied Coronado in his attempt to colonize New Mexico in 1540. The other three either returned to civilization or remained with tribes of Indians in New Mexico who were fairly friendly to their labors. While Fray Padilla was kind and gentle in his demeanor, yet he was full of energy, and punished all moral evil-doers who tried to make things unpleasant in Coronado's camp. An iron constitution and impetuous soul greatly assisted him in stamping his influence upon all around him. At first he labored among the Moqui Pueblos, and they seem to have received him gladly. It seems that he also went among the Zunis, but rounded up at the winter quarters of Coronado, on the Rio Grande river, where the army rested before continuing the historic journey to the fabled Quivira.

It seems that the incentive to this adventurous expedition was furnished by the reports of the Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, the survivors of the ill fated Navarez expedition. At Pecos Coronado became interested in certain stories of a captive Indian prisoner held as a slave who claimed that he was born on the far eastern border of the great plains. The Spaniards called this odd individual the Turk. This was on account of the method of dressing his hair, it being closely shaven, except a small tuft of hair left growing on the top of his head. In other words he had left his scalp-lock, after the manner of the Osage, Kansas and two or three other tribes, who dressed their hair in that manner. He probably belonged to one of those tribes. He represented to the Spaniards that far away in the east there was a rich country called Quivira. He told them that this people was rich in gold, silver and other precious metals, and had other elements of wealth. His representations made an impression upon the minds of the Spaniards, who believed all he said. It is now considered that the Turk, after he had observed that they placed reliance upon his statements, connived with the Pueblo Indians in a scheme to get rid of the Spaniards, by sending them far into the desert, where they would perish. The Turk was also planning for an opportunity to return to his tribe. The Spaniards believed his statements and expected to find a rich and wealthy country with cities and great stores of precious metals, and a class of half-civilized people. They had found the Mexicans using gold for ornaments and also knew of the reports of wealth from Peru. When the Turk pointed to gold, which he seemed to recognize as valuable, they thought that he was truthful; but he might have been mistaken, not knowing the difference between crude gold and copper and pyrites of iron--the latter frequently giving a valuable appearance to rocks. When the Pueblos observed their unwelcome guests departing they probably induced the Turk to misguide and lead them, if possible, to destruction. The expedition started out early in 1541 [on the 3d of May]. It is not the purpose of this paper to give an extended account of Coronado's expedition, except in so far as it is necessary to set forth the movements of the famous missionary Padilla. Coronado met with little opposition as he journeyed eastward.

Somewhere in the western or southern great plains he left the main body of his men, and with thirty horsemen went northward in search of Quivira, reaching the Kansas plains in the later days of June. Of course, to the Spanish the expedition was a great disappointment. However, with what a limited vision did those historic gold-seekers view things? They little knew that the region they then passed over, although it might have looked like a great desert, was in many ways the garden spot of the West. They traversed what is now the richest portion of Oklahoma and the great wheat belt of Kansas, where, although precious metals form a small part of the wealth, yet the aggregate value of the millions of bushels of golden grain annually produced far outstrips the gold and silver productions of any state or country and the wildest dreams of Spanish avarice. It may be interesting to gather and work out from the full reports just where Quivira was located. Several educated men were with Coronado and published accounts of their movements and all that they observed. These accounts are not only interesting in showing the condition and products of the country at the time, but are historically important, as they set forth things so minutely that the location of Quivira has been reduced to a certainty.

Padilla went with Coronado on his farthest wanderings to Quivira, and back to the Spanish settlement. The year following, 1542, he returned to Quivira to continue in the missionary work he had commenced. On these trips he always walked. On his last trip, after he had labored among the strange people for some time, he met his death, and thus became not only the first missionary of the Cross in the great Mississippi valley, but the first Christian martyr in what is now the United States of America. The fact of his work and his death in this then far-away wilderness is undisputed; but there may be some question as to just where he was killed and the exact location of his grave. After one studies all the different accounts of the Coronado expedition to Quivira and what is known of Fray Padilla's subsequent return to labor among the that people, and his tragic death, it is easy to mark the borders of that country, and also substantially prove that he met his death near Council Grove, and that the before mentioned memorial stone or monument on Mount Padilla probably marks his grave. The writer realizes that another place (Herington, Kansas) is claimed to be in the neighborhood of his last resting-place, and that his memory has been honored with a monument there. This is well, but they bring forth no proof of the claim.

Coronado, considering his expedition a failure, after resting for a time on the banks of the Rio Grande, left for Old Mexico; but Fray Juan Padilla and Fray Luis remained at the river with Andrés Docampo, a Portuguese soldier, two Donados, named Lucas and Sebastian, and some Mexican Indian boys. Padilla's zeal and courageous temperament urged him to return again across the waste of distance to the far-away Quivira. It was no concern to him that that country and its people did not possess the elements of wealth to satisfy the avaricious dreams of the Spaniards. These simple, primitive heathen had souls to save, and he remembered them and longed to return and establish the religion of the Cross in their midst--but what an undertaking it was for a lone priest and his three companions! Some time during the fall of 1542 he prepared for the journey of over 1000 miles, and taking with him the needed effects for saying mass, in company with his three companions, he set out on this unique trip. They were probably guided back to Quivira by some Indians who had accompanied Coronado the year before. Their course was more direct than Coronado's first route. They started from Bernalillo, on the river above the present Albuquerque, and passed through Pecos and to the northeast, probably entering our state near the southwest corner and proceeding on to the land of the Quiviras. They reached their destination in safety, and were well received by the Indian tribe they had visited the year before. Coronado had erected a cross at one of the villages, which is supposed to have been in the Smoky Hill valley, somewhere near where Junction City now stands. Padilla, from this starting-point, began his labors, and seems to have had great success and influence among those primitive people. However, after a time he decided to depart and work among some other tribes, or at least to visit them temporarily. This has always been considered an imprudent act on his part and came from his not being skilled in the suspicious and jealous nature of the Indian. It has been said that "A missionary who has been well treated by one tribe always makes a mistake and is regarded with suspicion when he goes to another." The Indian nature regards the missionary who attains influence over them with great reverence, really superstition, and believes him to be a great Medicine man, and whatever good he brings departs when he leaves them.

Castenada says: "A friar named Juan de Padilla remained in this province, together with a Spanish-Portuguese and a negro and a half-blood and some Indians from the province of Capothan [Capetlan], in New Spain. They killed the friar because he wanted to go to the province of the Guas, who were their enemies. The Spaniard escaped by taking flight on a mare, and afterwards reached New Spain, coming out by way of Panuco. The Indians from New Spain who accompanied the friar were allowed by the murderers to bury him, and then they followed the Spaniard and overtook him. This Spaniard was a Portuguese named Campo." 1

It seems from other accounts that after leaving the Quivirans to labor among other tribes, and after more than one day's journey, Padilla met evil-disposed Indians of the nation he was leaving. They had probably followed him for a double-purpose: First, they were jealous because he was going to other tribes who were enemies of the Quvirans; and, second, the curious ornaments and belongings Padilla had with him excited their cupidity. They desired to possess them, believing they had mysterious powers (good medicine), and they disliked all of this to be transferred to their enemies.

It is fairly well established that the center of Quivira was near the present site of Junction City or Enterprise. More than one day's journey would bring Padilla as far as Council Grove, about thirty-five miles distant.

The enemies of the Quivirans (Pawnees) in those days were the Escansaques (Kansa), according to the account of Oñate, who met them during his expedition to Quivira in 1601. He says they were hereditary enemies.

The Kansa lived to the southeastward of Quivira, and Padilla would naturally leave the valley along which that nation lived and could easily reach the headwaters of the Neosho, and that valley would present a plain route upon which to travel. Doubtless he was on his way to the early ancestors of the Kansa nation when he was killed. But--strange circumstance--when followed and killed by the jealous Quivirans, he had reached a spot which afterwards became the long-occupied home of the very tribe he was trying to reach, the Kansa.

May it not be that this is the reason this tribe always regarded this spot, his grave monument, as sacred to the memory of some great white medicine man, "Nic-kah-ma-kah-tan-gah-skah"; that in some way they knew of his mission; that he had been cruelly slain by their enemies, the Quivirans (Pawnees), while on his way to scatter the blessings of his saintly life along the pathway of the Kanza nation?

But it was not to be, and the good father never lived to see the faces of that nation he was seeking to serve and save.

While there are different versions of just how Padilla met his death, I think that the weight of authority shows that he was killed by Quivirans, although they might have tried to make it appear that their enemies killed him. It is said that when he saw the evil intentions of his murderers he urged his companions to escape, while he serenely faced the charging savages, and met his death in the attitude of prayer. One of the accounts speaks of his body being covered with a pile of "innumerable stones." This surely corresponds with the place near Council Grove, and these "innumerable rocks" were finally formed into this crude but picturesque monument. After much inquiry and search during many years past, I know of no artificial pile of stone in the state as this one, which dates back of the memory of man and is known to have been in existence long before white men or Indians of modern times visited or occupied this part of Kansas. To even the casual observer it appears to be an ancient memorial of some kind, an old sacred spot, with an almost hidden history. It has been understood that he was killed near some springs. Near the foot of this mount, in the ravine near by, are the well-known Watercress springs above described.

The following is a fragmentary account of this missionary expedition of Farther Padilla as told by the writer, Moto Padilla.2

"He reached Quivira and prostrated himself at the foot of the cross, which he found in the same place where he had set it up; and all around it clean, as he had charged them to keep it, which rejoiced him, and then he began the duties of a teacher and apostle of that people; and finding them teachable and well disposed, his heart burned within him, and it seemed to him that the number of souls of that village was but a small offering to him that the number of souls of that village was but a small offering to God, and he sought to enlarge the bosom of our mother, the Holy Church, that she might receive all those he was told were to be found at greater distances. He left Quivira, attended by a small company, against the will of the village Indians, who loved him as their father.

"At more than a day's journey the Indians met him on the warpath, and knowing the evil intent of those barbarians, he asked the Portuguese that as he was on horseback he should flee and take under his protection the oblates and the lads who could thus run away and escape. . . . And the blessed father, kneeling down, offered up his life, which he had sacrificed for the winning of souls to God, attaining the ardent longings of his soul, the felicity of being killed by the arrows of those barbarous Indians, who threw him into a pit, covering his body with innumerable stones. . . . It is said that the Indians had gone out to murder the blessed father in order to steal ornaments, and it was remembered that at his death were seen great prodigies, as it were the earth flooded, globes of fire, comets and obscuration of the sun."

General Davis in his Conquest of New Mexico, page 231, gives the following translation from an old Spanish manuscript at Santa Fe:

"When Coronado returned to Mexico he left behind, among the Indians of Cibola, the father fray Francisco Juan de Padilla, the father fray Juan de la Cruz, and a Portuguese named Andres del Campo. Soon after the Spaniards departed, Padilla and the Portuguese set off in search of the country of the Grand Quivira, where the former understood there were innumerable souls to be saved. After traveling many days they reached a large settlement in the Quivira country. the Indians came out to receive them in battle array, when the friar, knowing their intentions, told the Portuguese and his attendants to take to flight, while he would await their coming, in order that they might vent their fury on him as they ran. The former took flight, and placing themselves on a height within view, saw what happened to the friar. Padilla awaited their coming upon his knees, and when they arrived where he was, they immediately put him to death. . . . The Portuguese and his attendants made their escape, and ultimately arrived safely in Mexico, where he told what had occurred."

The Portuguese and the boys wandered for years before reaching the Spanish settlements, and it is unfortunate that more is not known of their history. They must have returned prior to 1552, as their arrival at Tampico on the Gulf is mentioned by Gomara in his Conquest of Mexico published that year. 3

Much more would be known about Padilla and those early expeditions into Kansas, had it not been for the foolish destruction of great piles of invaluable historical manuscripts at Santa Fe a few years ago, where they were used to kindle fires and the remnant finally sold for junk. 4

As before suggested, I believe that there was a lingering idea in the mind of the Kansa to pay some tribute to the monument and the place it marked--a kind of traditional reverence or homage for something they did not quite understand, but to some one whom they knew had been a would-be benefactor. While they buried many of their dead on the second-bottom slopes below the monument during their many years' stay at Council Grove, yet it must be remembered that this monument existed long before the Kansa Indians moved fro the Kaw valley to their Council Grove reservation; and that they never claimed that it was their monument or marked the grave of an Indian chief; but that it was the marker for a great white benefactor or medicine man.

The first white traveler across the plains took notice of this high prominence and its curious monument. Approaching the famous old crossing of the Santa Fe trail over the Neosho from either direction, it could be sen for several miles. Some old-times used to call it a guide, although it was a mile or more from the trail. This tended to give it rather a modern aspect, but it is known that it antedates anything pertaining to that noted highway. When a boy I thought it possibly had a trail significance; but when I found that it was there before trail days, and before the Kansa Indians were moved there, and that it had a mysterious influence on the Indian mind, I could see that it marked the grave of some noted character who had been lost to modern historians.

Years afterwards, reading about Coronado and his expedition, and especially regarding the saintly Padilla, who had been with Coronado and then returned upon the first religious mission to the Indians of our great central plains, I began studying the matter, and the more I read and studied the matter, and the more I read and studied the Spanish translations and comments upon Padilla and his mission, I became convinced that there is no other reasonable hypothesis than that the first Christian martyr of our country was killed near the present Council Grove, and that this curious old monument marks his grave.

It may be asked, How could the Kansa Indians have any traditions reaching back to the time of Coronado or Padilla?

They had legends that related circumstances of the flood over the whole earth. they told of a time when their ancestors came from "the great sea near the rising sun," from whence came their mysterious sacred shells, although this migration was doubtless long prior to 1500.

The translations of Spanish manuscripts is proving beyond doubt that the Kansa were here in our state long prior to 1601, when met by Juan de Oñate, who called them Escansaques, the troublesome people, for they at that early day were making their annual raids on the Quivirans, they being hereditary enemies. If they were hereditary enemies of the Quivirans in 1601, they were doubtless their enemies fifty or sixty years before that time, or at the time that Padilla went on his mission to the Quivirans, when he lost his life in attempting to carry the story of the Cross to their enemies. As has been suggested before, it may be reasonably presumed that these enemies were the Escansaques, or, as later known, the Kansa Indians, to which Padilla was going when the jealous and disappointed Quivirans killed him.

What a change it might have wrought in the general character of the Kansa had Padilla reached them and labored in their midst for years. Even the thoughtless Quivirans, after killing this holy man, seemed to have relented when they remembered his kindly acts in their behalf. While their cruel act would prevent his going to erect crosses among their enemies, it would not bring him back to perform services in the shadow of those he had set up in their midst.

One account says that the Quivirans even permitted his companions to bury his body in a decent manner. What an impressive scene it must have been to these savages of the plains, when the two oblates, Lucas and Sebastian, his faithful pupils, clad as they were "in friar's gowns," tenderly laid away their devoted teacher in that lonely martyr's grave midway between the great oceans! What a subject for the brush of an artist, as they perform a brief service according to the rites of their church and place the first courses in that crude monument which has lasted to this day! Sorrowfully these religious youths hasten from the scene, overtake the Portuguese, and together they commence that remarkable period of several years' wandering. Part of the time they are thought to have been in captivity, but finally they reach the Gulf of Mexico. It is said that during all of this journey they were followed by a faithful dog, and the rabbits and game he caught often saved their lives.

During this trip they made a rude cross of wood, and took turns in carrying it, faithfully observing the religious admonitions of their superior they had left behind, "trusting that in such company they would not go astray."

Sebastian died soon after their return; Lucas became a missionary to the natives of New Mexico.

It is well to preserve the history of first things in Kansas, to note the ancient landmarks, and above all to dwell upon the bold, heroic characters who first trod our borders. Let us not infer that the life of Padilla and this tragic death was without its lessons. Let it ever remind us of the devoted and consecrated life of America's first Christian martyr, and also of the lines of Owen Meredith:

"No stream from its source
Flows seaward, how lonely so e'er its course,
But some land is gladden'd. No star ever rose
And set without influence somewhere. Who knows
What earth needs from earth's lowliest creatures?
No life
Can be pure in its purpose, and strong in its strife
And all life not be purer and stronger thereby."


1. Fourteenth Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology, p. 529.
2. Moto Padilla, cap. XXXIII. secs. 8, 9 and 10, p. 167, quoted by Winship in Fourteenth Annual Report, Bureau Ethnology, pp. 535-536.
3. Bureau of Ethnology, vol. 14, p. 401.
4. Gen. W.H.H. Davis, former governor of New Mexico, stated in reply to an inquiry that when he revisited Santa Fe, a few years ago, he learned that one of his successors in the post of governor of the territory, having dispaired of disposing of the immense mass of old documents and records deposited in his office by the slow process of using them to kindle fires, had sold the entire lot--an invaluable collection of material bearing on the history of the Southwest and its early European and native inhabitants--as junk.--Fourteenth annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, p. 535.