Voices From the Trail
January 8, 2009
Voices From the Trails
Selected Quotes from
the National Frontier Trails Museum
"We knew that more and more, year after year, the trains of emigrant wagons would creep in slow procession towards barbarous Oregon or wild and distant California. But we did not dream how commerce and gold would breed nations along the Pacific."
- Francis Parkman,
reflecting in 1872.
America was settled by people who dreamed of starting over in a new place. In the middle of the 19th century, Americans still possessed this unique opportunity – the chance to occupy free unspoiled land and build a new life. All they had to do was get there.
For the critical decade from 1840-1850, the town of Independence, Missouri, was the spot where, for most American “emigrants,” the adventure of starting over first touched reality. Each spring Independence became a rendezvous for the cosmopolitan medley of strangers ready to undertake an up to six-month journey into the unknown. Located on the edge of the American frontier, the town was the trailhead for covered wagons heading across the plains for the dreamed-of and unsettled lands of Oregon and California.
The westward movement had, of course, begun much earlier. President Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the vast Louisiana Territory established America’s claim to lands between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains in 1803. The journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark found a northern route to the Pacific Ocean. In 1806 Lt. Zebulon Pike, after following the Arkansas River westward, reached Santa Fe, and in 1820 American Army officer Stephen Long conducted an expedition across the plains, or what he called the “Great American Desert.” But competing claims to these lands existed as well, including those of the inhabiting bands of Indians who knew no other homeland.
The economic value of the West had not been lost on the British, whose network of fur trade outposts stretched far south of what became the Canadian border. Similarly, Mexico, freed from Spanish control by 1820, occupied much of the present Southwestern United States. Traders and mountain men blazed the first trails from the American settlements across these territories, and in 1821 trader William Becknell led a successful caravan into Santa Fe.
When Independence was founded in 1827, it became the American depot for a lucrative trade back and forth across the Santa Fe Trail. As pressure grew to colonize the West, the town emerged as the first port of embarkation for the Oregon and California trails as well.
The first chapter in one of the most inspiring, and sometimes tragic, human dramas in history – the expansion of the United States from the Mississippi to the Pacific – was written here in Independence, Missouri, the “Queen City of the Trails.”
"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 open spots near the bank, on their way to the common rendezvous at Independence."
Francis Parkman (1846)
Voices from the Trails – Although cameras did not exist to record the progress of the early Emigrants, many of them kept diaries, wrote letters or dictated reminiscences that vividly convey the excitement and drama of their journey. These diaries, letters, journals, and reminiscences are the lasting legacies of thousands who traveled west. The quotes on the following pages are taken from a few of the more than 2,300 diaries, letters, and reminiscences in our growing collection.
The Way Across Missouri – A quarter of a century after achieving statehood in 1821, Missouri’s chief artery of travel from east to west was still the winding Missouri River. Towns like Independence that sprang up near the river’s banks became busy jumping off points for travel and exploration of the beckoning West.
Josiah Gregg (1844):
“People who reside at a distance, and especially at the North, have generally considered St. Louis as the emporium of the Santa Fe trade, but that city, in truth, has never been a place of rendezvous, nor even of outfit . . . . The town of Franklin on the Missouri River, over 150 miles further to the westward, seems truly to have been the cradle of our trade . . . .
"But as the navigation of the Missouri River had considerably advanced towards the year 1831, and the advantages of some point of debarkation nearer the western frontier were very evident, whereby upwards of 100 miles of troublesome land-carriage, over unimproved and often miry roads, might be avoided, the new town of INDEPENDENCE, but 12 miles from the Indian border and two or three south of the Missouri River, being the most eligible point, soon began to take the lead as a place of debarkation, outfit, and departure, which, in spite of all opposition, it has ever since maintained." [Gregg: 12-13]
Francis Parkman (1846):
“Last spring . . . was a busy season in the city of St. Louis. Not only were emigrants from every part of the country preparing for the journey to Oregon and California, but an unusual number of traders were making ready their wagons and outfits for Santa Fe . . . . Steamboats were leaving the levee and passing up the Missouri, crowded with passengers on their way to the frontier. . . .
“One of these, the ‘Radnor’. . . was loaded until the water broke alternately over her guards. Her upper deck was covered with large wagons of a peculiar form, for the Santa Fe trade, and her hold was crammed with goods for the same destination . . . . In her cabin were Santa Fe traders, gamblers, speculators, and adventurers of various descriptions." [Parkman: 1-2]
Josiah Gregg (1844):
“The wagons now most in use upon the prairies are manufactured in Pittsburgh and are usually drawn by eight mules or the same number of oxen. Of late years, however, I have seen much larger vehicles employed, with ten or twelve mules harnessed to each, and a cargo of goods of about 5000 pounds in weight. . . .
“Oxen having been employed by Major Riley for the baggage wagons of the escort which was furnished the caravan of 1829, they were found, to the surprise of the traders, to perform almost equal to the mules. Since that time upon an average of half of the wagons in these expeditions have been drawn by oxen." [Gregg: 14]
James Webb (July 1844):
"I bought about $1200 worth of goods and left St. Louis about the 15th for Independence, with money enough to pay my freight and passage up the river and hotel bill at Independence.
"I applied to Colonel Samuel C. Owens for an outfit on credit and was met with that kindness and liberality which was his custom to extend to Santa Fe traders. . . . He furnished me with a wagon that cost $100, four yoke of oxen that cost $28 per yoke, and other advances to the amount of about $100. . . Colonel Owens was also fitting up a train, and it was agreed that we should rendezvous at Council Grove." [Webb: 42-46]
The Best Place to Fit Out Is at Independence – Independence, Missouri grew with the lucrative Santa Fe trade, but in the 1840's it also served as the “last rest stop” in the United States for emigrants traveling to Oregon and California as well.
Richard Wilson (1842):
"This is the great rendezvous of the Santa Fe and mountain traders, a wild and daring troop. . . with eyes full of intelligence and hearts full of feeling--all is life and bustle--packing and purchasing--lengthening girths and loading wagons--parting words and stirrup-cups--jabbering in Dutch, higgling in Spanish, swearing in bad French, anathematizing some refractory mule in good, long-drawn Yankee--shouts and execrations--laughing and singing in tones unknown till Babel cleft the tong