The National Frontier Trails Museum is a museum, interpretive center, and research
library dedicated to telling the rich history of America’s principle western trails.
One of the most fascinating epics in American History is the story of the overland
migrations across the western American wilderness during the mid-nineteenth century.
Thousands of wagon trains slowly snaked their way along rugged trails, crossing
wind-swept prairies, barren deserts, and formidable mountain ranges. The pioneer
adventurers faced storms, mud, swollen rivers, accidents, deserts, choking dust,
thirst, deadly plagues, and many other dangers to seek trade, new homes and opportunities
in the West. Many did not survive the grueling journey, with tens of thousands of
unmarked graves silently guarding the trails today. This extraordinary saga ranks
today as the largest voluntary, overland mass migration in the history of the world.
The three principle trails which crossed the West were the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California. The Santa Fe Trail, begun in 1821, was
a 900-mile foreign trade route unique in American History due to its overland rather
than seafaring commerce. The 2,000-mile Oregon Trail began to be heavily traveled
in 1843 by settlers wanting to establish new homes in the northwest, while others
forked off on the equally long and grueling California Trail to seek their fortunes
in the gold fields. Together, these three rugged pathways and their pioneers changed
the face and history of America.
Independence, Missouri, a frontier village of only a few hundred people poised on
the edge of American civilization, was the principle "jumping-off" point for all
three of these western trails. Founded in 1827, the town first became the eastern
terminus for the Santa Fe Trail, and later as an "outfitting" post for the Oregon
and California emigrants as well. Every spring during the trails period the center
of present-day Independence was blanketed by thousands of emigrants, complete with
wagons, teams, other livestock, tents, cargo, and supplies. Commotion, confusion,
and excitement reigned as wagons were purchased, loaded, and organized into trains.
Many of the emigrants washed and watered their livestock with water from the large,
free public spring once located just a hundred yards north of today's National Frontier
Trails Museum. Thousands of wagons rolled down the hill from the square and passed
this spring and crowded camping site, bound for Mexico to trade, or to a new home
in Oregon or California. Water still flows from this pioneer spring on the grounds
of the museum.
In the 1830s a small gristmill, utilizing water from the public spring, was in operation
just to the north of the current Trails Museum. Peter Waggoner purchased the mill
and operated it until his retirement, at which time the mill passed to his son,
William. William Waggoner rebuilt and enlarged the business. Converting from grinding
grist to producing flour, William went into partnership with George Porterfield
Gates to found the Waggoner-Gates Milling Company. After nearly a century of being
one of the major employers in Independence, the mill stopped production after World
War II. In 1967 an explosion and spectacular fire reduced most of the large mill
complex to rubble.
In 1989-90 the National Frontier Trails Museum was built by the State of Missouri
with the surviving portion of the Waggoner-Gates Mill incorporated into the design.
The old mill's locker room was refurbished as well, and serves as the national headquarters
of the Oregon-California Trails Association. Operated by the City of Independence,
the Trails Museum tells the story of the exploration, acquisition, and settlement
of the American West. An award-winning introductory film prepares visitors for the
interpretive exhibits which guide them along the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California
Trails. Quotations from trail diaries are extensively used, allowing pioneer travelers
to tell of their experiences in their own words.
9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 12:30 - 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
For further information: National Frontier Trails Museum, 318 W. Pacific, Independence,
Missouri, 64050. Telephone: (816) 325-7575.