One of the most fascinating epics in American history is the overland migrations across the western United States 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. This extraordinary saga ranks as the largest voluntary, overland mass migration in the history of the world.
Exploration of the West began in the early nineteenth century with the Corp of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The three principle trails which crossed the West were the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California. The Santa Fe Trail, which began 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. Still others went west to pursue religious freedom, like the Mormons who traveled to Utah beginning in 1846. Together, these 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 three of the western trails. Founded in 1827, the town first became the eastern terminus for the Santa Fe Trail, and later as an outfitting post for emigrants heading to Oregon and California 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 the site of the 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.
In the 1830s, a small gristmill, utilizing water from the public spring, was in operation just to the north of the museum. Peter Waggoner purchased the mill and operated it until he passed it to his son, William Waggoner, who converted 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.