One of the most fascinating epics in American history is 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 severe weather, accidents, 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 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 split 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, 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, public spring once located just 100 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 our 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 National Frontier Trails Museum today 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.