The opening of the western half of America was a critical period in our history. That process of emigration and settlement, beginning in earnest in the 1830s and 1840s, doubled the country's geographical size and expanded our global perspective to include the Pacific rim nations.

This momentous westward movement of thousands of people, primarily over the historic Oregon, California and Santa Fe Trails, began in the Heart of America. Specifically, the Trails began in the then-frontier Missouri towns of Independence and Westport later part of Kansas City). Today, fascinating evidence of outfitting for the epic overland journeys west, and the unusual breed of men and women who made those journeys, can still be found in the metropolitan area.

Several important organizations, including the national Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA), are preserving these trails and their associated landmarks by actively researching the history of the trails and their locations; educating the public with tours, presentations and historical markers; and preserving important locations through grassroots efforts.

Kansas City's Trails Head Chapter of OCTA actively preserves the trails in the metro area, and is acting as host to OCTA's national convention in August 2000. Visit their webpage for information about available trail tours, lectures and special events. New members are always welcome, so become a part of protecting our valuable history today! Trails Head members are quite enthusastic and conversant about the trails and are an excellent resource for anyone interested in knowing more.


The Oregon and California Trails were traveled by people seeking new opportunities and new homes. Many were farmers and shopkeepers who were hit by the hard economic times that began around 1837. They gathered belongings and family, and probably started their way west on a riverboat from St. Louis to Independence or Westport landing. At Independence or Westport, they joined a wagon train heading for the free land available in the lush Willamette Valley of Oregon Territory or the free land available in the Mexican province of California.

These seekers of a better life became a part of what many historians consider the greatest overland emigration of history. They risked all on the 2,000-mile journey, and despite storms, illness, hair-raising river crossings, occasional Indian raids, and equipment breakdowns such as fractured wagon axles and broken wheels, more than 90% of the approximately 250,000 people who started completed their journey.

The Santa Fe Trail was different. It was a two-way, commercial route that grew from the need of Mexican settlers in Santa Fe for reliable sources of supplies. For many years, the settlers relied on tortuous routes between Santa Fe and Chihuahua City and Mexico City, 1,000 miles to the south. But in 1821, an American frontiersman, William Becknell, rode west from Missouri, ostensibly to trade with the Indians. He and four or five companions wound up in Santa Fe, where they, and their trade goods, were greeted enthusiastically. Soon the approximately 750-mile long Santa Fe Trail was carrying freight and traders between the Missouri frontier and Santa Fe. Profit, not homesteading, was the primary motivation.


Fortunately, intriguing remnants of the starting points of the Oregon-California and Santa Fe Trails have survived for those interested in learning about one of America's most dramatic chapters. A fine interpretive center about these historic trails is the National Frontier Trails Center, 318 W. Pacific, Independence, Missouri (see map).

The Frontier Trails Center was opened in 1990 in a restored mill that dates from the mid-1800s. One of the features of the Center is a 12-minute film that introduces the visitor to the visually spectacular geography, and incredible achievement, involved in traveling the Oregon-California and Santa Fe Trails. Heart-tugging trail diaries, actual wagons, tools, clothing and other artifacts illuminate the sometimes frightening, always fascinating, experiences of America's great second wave of pioneers.

The Frontier Trails Center also houses the Merrill J. Mattes Research Library. The Library contains a more than 3,000-volume collection of books, periodicals, maps and photographs that are available to those doing historical research on America's westward emigration. There also are highly evocative trail diaries, letters and other first hand descriptions of the journeys west. Director and Archivist of the Center, John Mark Lambertson, emphasizes the human side of the many stories: "Perhaps the most important function of the Center is to help us understand the incredible combination of hope, fear, excitement and confusion involved in starting west." He also links the human drama to our national character: "To grasp what it took to simply get started on that journey is to understand an important part of the American spirit."

Another very special reminder of where-literally-America's West began has been preserved at William Minor Park, east of Holmes on Red Bridge Road (see map), at the southern edge of Kansas City. Here, in a quiet setting, an actual section of the Santa Fe Trail has been preserved. You can stand in the middle of the Trail, look towards a simple but eloquent monument placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and see the Trail rising over a hill, towards the West. Trail ruts and interpretive markers are visible in Harmon Park, 78th and Mission Road in Prairie Village (see map) a National Park Service Certified site.

The Kansas City Museum at 3218 Gladstone Blvd. (see map), has a Regional History Exhibit that contains a wagon, artifacts and extracts from first-person descriptions of emigrants' experiences. The Museum also provides background on the American Indians of the area, who were, notwithstanding some deadly encounters, much less of a threat than was generally anticipated.


It's been written about those who traveled the trails westward: "These pioneers changed forever the size, shape and destiny of America." And so they did. How it all happened, and the character of the people who made it happen, are important parts of our national heritage. Knowledge of those events and people also are an important part of understanding what Americans are as a people. Luckily, the evidence of the how and the who is still here for us to see.

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