by Jim Winnerman
The inherent restlessness of Americans to move west began as soon as the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The first footprint in the sand was the beginning of a journey that hundreds of thousands of Americans would continue, carting their possessions westward to the Pacific and never looking back.
For many years beginning in the 1840's all of Missouri, which was granted statehood in 1821, was the center of attention in America during the height of the westward migration. Perhaps the entire state should be referred to as the "Gateway to the West," a title now associated with St. Louis. Most settlers heading west first took routes that did indeed funnel them through St. Louis. But they also continued their journey across the state on steamboats plying the Missouri River.
Overland they took Boone's Lick Trail. It began just west of St. Louis in St. Charles and continued until it terminated at a salt spring near the western edge of the frontier in Arrow Rock.
By the early 1840's Independence, Missouri, had become the origin of all three main routes that would be responsible for settling the west. From there the Santa Fe Trail took traders southwest to Arizona, and those headed to the northwest left on the Oregon Trail until it split into the California trail.
So, St. Louis was the front gate restless Americans had to enter to get into the "yard," which was Missouri. Independence was the open, back gate that needed to be exited before passage on to the unknown actually began. In a very real sense, all of Missouri was the "gateway."
Today's Journey Begins in Independence
Today the journey west still begins in Independence at the National Frontier Trails Museum. Since it opened in 1990, the museum has presented the story of the intrepid men and women who trudged across the country and then Missouri, and the preparations they made for their improbable journey to the Pacific. Dioramas, an award winning film and a myriad of passive and interactive displays chronicle the treks initially thought impossible to make in a wagon. Vast arid plains, the home of curious and sometimes hostile Native Americans, rivers that had to be crossed, and the Rocky Mountains were the only certainty in what was an uncertain future.
The first display a visitor encounters at the museum traces the route of the Lewis and Clark journey in 1804. It also credits the mountain men and traders who helped explore the west and open up the frontier ahead of the settlers soon to follow. These fellows carried a map of the west in their heads.
After exploration organized westward travel, West began in Franklin, Missouri, in 1821. Franklin resident William Becknell had advertised for a group of men to accompany him on his journey west, and on September 1 he left the little town with eleven men (he had advertised for 70) leading a pack train to trade with Mexicans at Santa Fe. The route he took became known as the Santa Fe Trail, and it developed primarily as a trade route versus one of emigration. Of interest was the fact that he left with $30,000 worth of merchandise for trading with the Mexicans. He returned with $190,000 of new merchandise, and in only 45 days! Trading was proving to be very profitable! This merely stimulated the appetite for other pioneers to seek their fortunes “out west.” Later, the gold rush would cause an even more chaotic rush to the west.
This Marker at Courthouse Square in Independence, Missouri, is the starting point of The Oregon Trail
Independence Earns A "Royal" Title
By 1827 a combination of circumstances had made the newly formed town of Independence the origin of the Santa Fe Trail, and for the same reasons it would eventually become the origin of the Oregon and California trails and earn the title of the "Queen City of the Trails."
First, in 1827, Independence was the most western settlement in the United States. Fort Osage, built by the United States in 1808 as one of the first U.S. outposts to be established in the Louisiana Purchase Territory to expedite trade with Native Americans, was east of Independence.
photo of Osage Road as it appears today
Also, Independence merchants supplying Santa Fe traders with wagons, oxen and necessary utensils, established a reputation for supplying quality merchandise to those traveling to Santa Fe. Their businesses were waiting when, in the early1840's, the Oregon Tail offered the promise of free land and a new life, and later, when the California Trail became the route to the gold rush.
Those who had been to Oregon had brought back tales of what awaited. Sometimes their descriptions became greatly exaggerated.
"Gentleman, they do say, that out in Oregon the pigs are running about under the great acorn trees, round and fat, and already cooked, with knives and forks sticking in them so that you can cut off a slice whenever you are hungry." Peter Burnett, 1843*
However, the possibility of even a hint of truth in such statements lead to many discussions around a kitchen table that a better life might be possible in the west. Once a decision was made, the first objective was to get to Independence.
"I can see now our little caravan of ten or twelve wagons as we drove out of old Springfield, Illinois, my little black-eyed sister Patty sitting upon the bed, holding up the wagon cover so that Grandma might have a last look at her old home." Virginia Reed Murphy, age 13 in 1846*
Two other points contributed to Independence becoming "Queen City of the Trails." Many settlers intent on heading west took a Missouri River riverboat to a point just a few miles from the city, where the river made a turn to the north and a direction of no interest to most of the settlers.
For those who made the journey over land, the Boone's Lick Trail was the popular route people heading west were using. First charted about 1807 by Nathan and Daniel Morgan Boone, sons of the famous frontiersman, it led to a salt spring near Arrow Rock where the mineral, essential to settlers for curing meat, was available. From there it was an almost direct route west to Independence.
"We began to see signs of the great western movement that was taking place. Parties of emigrants, with their tents and wagons, were encamped…on their way to the common rendezvous at Independence." Francis Parkman (1874)*
The actual physical location of the National Frontier Trails Museum is also significant, but not just because it is in Independence. The site is just a few feet from public springs where anyone had unrestricted access to water. It was the last place settlers stopped to fill up their tanks before heading out.
The land surrounding the museum is known to have been the location where settlers camped and made preparations before setting off along one of the three trails.
In fact, next to the museum, narrow Osage Road is now paved, but this lane was the main route west out of Independence. Today the earthen embankments alongside the one-lane, one-way street are several feet high in places, the result of thousands of wagons wearing down the soil.
Visible swales in a field parallel to Osage road are thought to have been secondary paths wagons used to bypass the beginning of the trail, which was frequently congested. The swales, only discovered in 1999, bypass the impressive Bingham-Waggoner estate next door to the museum (and also open to visitors) which was plotted in 1827 and built in the 1850's because of the owners interest in trade along the Santa Fe trail.
The Bingham-Waggoner Estate
built by those who prospered from trade along the Santa Fe Trail |
Inside the Independence log
courthouse, by candlelight
An actual freighter, used in 1850 to “hit the trail”
Rear view of an authentic prairie schooner and some of its load
The Melee That Was Independence
When the emigrants arrived eager to begin their journey, they found Independence to be a massive temporary camp. Circling the courthouse square that still exists today were houses, tents, cabins and livestock pens spread out for several square miles. Interspersed were blacksmith shops, wheelwrights, gunsmiths and harness shops that toiled incessantly as the number of people wanting to head west steadily increased.
Most often the emigrants were not the wealthy of the Atlantic coastline, but the poorly educated, determined to make their fortunes out of free lands out west. They were farmers who had never driven a team of oxen or mules, even though in a few days they would sit behind six or eight of the animals with the reins in their hands, and rely on them to deliver their families and possessions to a destination thousands of miles away.
"Some had resolved upon making an effort to retrieve their fallen fortunes in Oregon…many were in pursuit of health. Some…a mere love of change, and a few, I believe, knew not exactly why they were upon the road. The motives which thus brought this multitude together were, in fact, as varied as their features." Jesse Quinn Thornton (May 16, 1846)*
Adding to the conglomeration were the men of the frontier. Spaniards attached to one of the Spanish trading companies and dressed in pantaloons, groups of Indians wrapped in blankets that were in town to trade, and slaves all mingled together with the emigrants.
There were mountain men and trappers, too who had returned from the west. Wearing greasy buckskins, they were free with their advice."I met, this afternoon, three returning Santa Fe trading companies…One of the leading men said that the journey to Santa Fe was one of great fatigue and hardship…but that the journey to California was infinitely more so (and) that our lives would be shortened ten years." Edwin Bryant (May 13, 1846)*
Joining a wagon train headed west was not as simple as arriving in Independence and tagging along with the next group headed out of town. The summer was too hot to travel over the plains, and the winter too cold, so most caravans left in late spring. Then the grass had grown to a height able to support the oxen and mules pulling the wagons.
While final plans were made, emigrants looked for a wagon train that was forming which was to their liking. Before departure a leader was elected to function as the "mayor" of the community on the move. Frequently it was a mountain man who would receive $5 a day.
The Independence merchants outfitting settlers were the envy of nearby Missouri towns. When migration was at its height in the 1840's and early 1850's, Missouri communities such as Weston, Westport, Kansas City, and St. Joseph sent emissaries to St. Louis to meet future emigrants and persuade them on the merits of using their respective city as a more favorable "jumping off point." A compelling argument was that cholera was rampant in a competitive town, even if no cases had been reported.
The gathering in Independence each spring was referred to at the time in local papers as the "swelling of the city." Then, after the last wagon train had departed, mention was made as to how desolate the small town seemed.
One Trail Becomes Three
After leaving Independence, the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails shared the same path for the first few days, until the 900-mile Santa Fe trail turned southwest at Gardener, Kansas. For a time, a simple sign marked "Oregon," and an arrow pointing to the right signaled the cutoff.
Use of the trail as a trade route set in motion over a half century of commerce and cultural exchange between Mexico and the eastern trade centers of the United States, from which goods from Europe filtered into the American frontier. After the Santa Fe Trail turn-off, the Oregon and California trails, both about 2000 miles long, continued together to Idaho. There, settlers had several turnoffs to take into California.
The Bidwell-Bartleson Party is generally credited with being the first true emigrant train. It left Missouri in 1841. Bidwell's diary was carried back and published in 1842, becoming the first overland emigrant "guide." It was used for the first major migration to Oregon in 1843, when 913 settlers left. Then yearly totals began to steadily increase. Later, the discovery of gold lead to the beginning of the California trail which led to the famous California gold fields, where many a man went to seek his fortune.
By the 1850's some years had seen as many as 80,000 people piling what they could in a wagon and setting off on an epic journey. More frequently, however, yearly totals are thought to have been between 10,000 and 20,000. Totals changed dramatically year to year due to disease at home or rumors of disease on the trail, the economy, and rumors of encounters with Native Americans.
As the 1860's approached, as many as 500,000 Americans had moved west, after spending five months of "riding through heaven and living through hell.”
"As we had lived in a tent and had been on the move for nine months, traveling 2400 miles, we were glad to settle down and go housekeeping in a shed that was built in a day of timber…" Catherine Haun (1849-1850)*
"Napa Valley is the place where I am now residing…The greatest objection to beef is that it is too fat." James Reed (July 2, 1847)*
The end of the trails arrives by train
By the late 1860's the perilous journeys were about to pass into history as the railroads began to reach further and further west. Each time a new rail line was opened, the wagon trails became shorter. Today, within a block of the origin of the three trails at the National Frontier Trails Museum, the restored and relocated 1879 Chicago and Alton railroad depot represents that phase of westward expansion.
The Santa Fe Trail was the last of the three to disappear. When the railroad reached Santa Fe, an 1880 newspaper headline declared "The Santa Fe Trail Passes into Oblivion."
This Chicago/Alton train depot from 1879 is on the grounds of the National Trail Frontier Museum. The trails gave way to the train . . and the hard, hard trek west became easier, faster, and safer.
Independence, the "queen," had been dethroned. The last of the wagon trains west had been replaced, by another type of train.
*Quotes are taken from some of the 2000-plus original journals owned by the National Frontier Trails Museum and published in the museum paperback "Voices From the Trails" One in 250 emigrants are thought to have left a diary.
The National Frontier Trails Museum is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm on Mondays through Saturdays. Sunday hours are 12:30 pm to 4:30 pm Admission is $5 for adults and $4.50 for seniors. Admission for ages 6-17 is $3, and children age five and younger are free. For more information call 816-325-7575.
The Chicago and Alton Railroad Depot is on the grounds of the National Frontier Trails Museum and is open April through October. Hours are Monday and Thursday through Saturday from 9:30 am until 4:30 pm and Sunday 12:30 pm until 4:30 pm. For more information call 816-325-7955. (See photo at top of page).
The Bingham-Waggoner House is across the street from the National Frontier Trails Museum and is open April through October weekdays Monday through Saturday from 10 am until 4 pm, and Sunday from 1 pm until 4 pm. Adults are $5, seniors $4.50 and children and students are $2. For more information call 816-461-3491 (see photo above).
This peaceful town today holds the marker which establishes the spot in New Franklin, Missouri, where the Santa Fe Trail began in 1821
These organizations are devoted to chronicling and sharing the history of the trails.
Symposium 2009 - September 24-27, 2009 -- Arrow Rock, MO.
On the Trail to Heaven
When a wagon train left Independence:
-there were at least 25 wagons per train, and sometimes as many as 250.
-wagon trains did not always move in a single line, but spread out as much as a mile wide to avoid the dust that became intolerable for wagons further back in the line.
What kind of a load did the average wagon carry? What kind of provisions, daily menu and fuel predominated on the trail?
Guidebooks were published that contained all the information a traveler on the trail needed to know, and included an inventory of what they should take. Recommendations for an ideal wagon load varied from 1,600 to 2,500 pounds.
One of the earliest guidebooks suggested 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. The basic kitchenware was a cooking kettle, fry pan, coffee pot, tin plates, cups, knives, and forks.
"Throw Out Your Grandmother's China!"
A common emigrant mistake was to pack too many belongings. The excess weight was hard on a wooden wagon frame as well as on the oxen and mules. Families who moved too slowly faced the possibility of being left behind as the wagon train disappeared over the hill. As settlers entered the high and dry climate of the west, wagons began to shrink and crack and excess weight became even more of a problem.
The remedy? Jettison supplies as soon as they posed a problem. Trails were littered with cast off cargo of iron stoves, fine china, expensive furniture and even excess food.
How Many Made It?
About 90% of those who made the trip were successful. As many as 20,000 perished and were laid to rest alongside the trails. Cholera was rampant 1849-1853. Common reasons for death were falling under wagon wheels, and the accidental discharge of a gun.
Attacks on the Wagons
Initially Native Americans were curious about the white man's migration more than they were threatened. As the settlers began to deplete natural resources and the cultures clashed, conflict increased. While emigrants were always nervously looking for signs of trouble, most passed through Indian Territory without incident.
Wagons were pulled together at night to form a large circle, but the purpose was to corral the animals more than to ward off an attack. Another hazard on the trail: Rattlesnakes!
The Birth of the
The Santa Fe Trail was responsible for the Missouri Mule. The mountain men and trappers who ventured to Mexico brought mules back to Missouri where they were bred to be larger and stronger.
According to tradition, in 1822, William Becknell of Howard County led the first trading party over the Santa Fe Trail and returned with a herd of Mexican mules and donkeys.
Missouri breeders, quick to recognize the need for a hardy animal to endure the rigors of the
900 mile journey, developed the large, intelligent draft mule that efficiently pulled the wagons west. By 1840, the mule industry flourished, and Missouri, the "jumping-off" place, funneled neers to the great frontier.
Gradually oxen became the animal of preference for pulling the wagons. The teams often numbered six oxen.
It was said the later President Harry S. Truman could be stubborn as a Missouri Mule. Here he gets acquainted with a couple
Missouri Mules - Photo 1904
The "Wind Wagon"
William Thomas of Westport, Missouri invented what he thought was an easier way for wagon trains to move westward. His invention, a large wagon topped with a 20-foot high mast to propel it across the flat prairie, promised settlers the ability to carry more supplies while reducing the number of oxen and mules required to make the trip. On the maiden voyage along the Missouri/Kansas border, a strong wind pushed the contraption along at an unmanageable speed. It broke apart in a ditch, and the idea was abandoned.