A howling wind sweeps across the prairie grass in the sparsely populated Oklahoma panhandle where towns are few, but history is abundant.
Indian arrowheads can be found amidst the waving grass, while deep wagon ruts still scar the landscape where wagon trains passed and pioneer traders once trudged with their wares. The ruts lead to Boise City (pop. 1,483) and its historic landmark, Autograph Rock.
This 200-foot tall and 700-foot wide slab of Dakota sandstone boasts more than 320 documented signatures of early-day American and Mexican traders, Kiowa and Comanche Indians, and others. Townsfolk boast the rock is one of the most visited landmarks in Oklahoma (counting all the people who passed its way in history). Recent visitors average about 2,000 from March through November each year.
“There’s no telling how many people that rock has seen,” says Dan Sharp, owner of the ranch where the rock stands. “That rock definitely has a story to tell.” Sharp tells that story to history buffs who flock to Boise City to learn about Autograph Rock and the Santa Fe Trail. Many travelers on the historic international trade route between the United States and Mexico carved their names on the rock from 1822 to the 1880s.
Boise City holds an annual Santa Fe Trail Daze each June to celebrate the trail and rock in this ranching and farming community. The festival features a parade and bus tours to the rock, and visitors can also see the plaque at the Chamber of Commerce commemorating Boise City’s 1943 bombing. It seems Army airmen accidentally dropped six practice bombs on the town after miscalculating their target 40 miles away. The bombs left large craters, but no deaths or injuries.
The stories behind the names on Autograph Rock are an education. “People come here to learn more about the ones who came before them,” Sharp says.
F.B. Delgado, a member of a prominent Santa Fe family, carved his name more than any other during his travels on the trail. S. Brown, a U. S. Army Infantry soldier, patrolled the trail and signed the rock in 1859.
“A lot of the names were well-known people in their day, but they’ve been lost in history,” Sharp says.
Jeff Hall, a Colorado native, didn’t care that he couldn’t recognize any names. “As I looked at the names, my imagination carried me back to those pioneer days. It was as if I was there. I can’t imagine the struggles they must have faced,” he says.
The oldest signature found is T. Potts, a merchant who left his mark in 1826. Historians have also found markings from several groups, including Mormons, Masons, American Indians, and more.
Phyllis Randolph, director of the Cimarron Heritage Center in Boise City, says some names have a cross beside them, leading to speculation that the land surrounding Autograph Rock may be a burial ground. That’s never been proved.
Randolph says most visitors search for names such as frontiersman Kit Carson. Carson’s name has not been found, but he built a fort near the rock to protect wagon trains that passed there. Concerned about their safety in a land inhabited by American Indians, Carson waited until 500 wagons arrived before letting them continue.
“He thought it was safer that way,” Randolph says. “He made them go four abreast in a line that was probably three to four miles long.”
Sharp says it’s hard to imagine what that must have been like.
“One end of the wagon train could be attacked and the other might not even know it,” he says.
It’s a history that has helped give Boise City an identity all its own.