Tuesday, July 4, 2017

National Frontier Trails Museum, Independence, MO


A large covered wagon stands ready to be loaded at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri

          “Go West, young man,” a phrase popularly credited to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, was actually said by John Soule, a newspaper reporter from Indiana. 

          What Greeley really said was: “This migration to Oregon wears an aspect of insanity.  We do not believe 9/10 of them will ever reach the Columbia alive.” Greeley was wrong—9/10 of the 250,000 emigrants did make it to the Columbia River.

          This was the first thing we learned when we recently visited the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, “The Queen City of the Trails, ” the “jumping-off” point in the 1840s for the Santa Fe and Oregon trails.

           We felt like we had discovered the mother lode of pioneer lore.  Here are housed over 2,300 overland trail diaries, letters and first person recollections that are available for visitors including those conducting research.  The library is the largest in the world on experiences on the overland trails and focuses particularly on the years between 1820 and 1870.

            Our personal library includes at least 80 books on frontier and pioneer life west of the Mississippi, most of them written by women as diaries, letters home and reminiscences.   Without women’s need to communicate what life was like on the frontier we would know little about what problems were overcome in settling the West. 

            We were given a personally guided tour by Director/Archivist John Mark Lambertson, who pointed out that American visitors often don’t stop to thoroughly sample the excerpts from letters and diaries that are the core of the exhibits, but that visitors from foreign countries such as Germany and England are enchanted by the opportunity to study the personal experiences of the people involved in this great expansion.  Last year tourists from 35 foreign countries were among the 20,000 who visited.

A statue in honor of pioneer women stands outside of the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri

          Fourth and eighth grade teachers also find this a rich source of material on Western expansion for their American history classes; 6000 students attended last year. 

          For the more casual visitor many quotes from primary sources are displayed throughout this small, but important museum. For example, historian Francis Parkman wrote in 1846: “But let the emigrant be as enthusiastic as he may, he will find enough to damp his ardor.  His wagons will stick in the mud; his horses will break loose; harness will give way; and axletrees prove unsound. His bed will be a soft one, consisting often of black mud of the richest consistency… The wolves will entertain him with a concert at night, and skulk around him by day, just beyond rifle shot; his horse will step into badger holes… A profusion of snakes will glide away from under his horse’s feet, or quietly visit him in his tent at night; while the pertinacious humming of unnumbered mosquitoes will banish sleep from his eyelids.”  

          An award-winning film introduces visitors to the importance of the trails that had their starting points here.   Traders used the 900 mile Santa Fe Trail begun in 1821 for swapping goods between the U.S. and Mexico.  The 2000 mile Oregon Trail heavily traveled by 1843 was used by settlers seeking Oregon on the Northern route and for adventurers seeking gold in California on the equally long and treacherous Southern route.

           The film also shows the landmarks along the way and rivers that needed to be followed by emigrants to find the green grass, water and mountain passes.  At the free public spring west of the museum emigrants used to wash themselves and water their livestock before setting out.  “Swales,’” or grassed over wagon ruts still exist south of the museum.

          After the film the tour begins with a display of accounts of why people went West.  The usual reasons were free land, to escape from the law, trading, and to find gold, and a more unusual reason was to go fishing.

           The trails used had originally been discovered by trappers and traders; maps made by the mountain men were invaluable in discovering the best routes west.  One small interesting display allowed us to feel the types of furs those trappers were hunting: fox, bobcat, beaver, mink and otter.  The huge demand for the stylish beaver hats greatly stimulated exploration.

          Lambertson said an often overlooked point is the tremendous impact of the trails that started here in the process of the U.S. obtaining a third of its land.  Otherwise Canada and Mexico would be occupying much of our West.  Oregon, Washington, Idaho and part of Montana originally belonged to England, but our government kept giving our citizens land grants in the area, so that when England came to take it back we in fact owned it.

          The same thing happened to the southern part which originally belonged to Mexico, but we settled it and then took over the immense area that is now California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. 

          A small mill was started on the museum site in 1840, which grew into the large Waggoner-Gates Milling Company which closed in 1957.  In 1967 most of the building was destroyed by an explosion.  The State of Missouri in 1989 used what remained of the mill to build the National Frontier Trails Museum. 

          If visitors read the quotations from letters and diaries throughout the museum, they will gain an emotional feel for what our ancestors experienced when travel was at best 15 miles a day, wagons broke down, cherished family heirlooms had to be abandoned, and children died suddenly of strange maladies.

           They will also learn more about our westward expansion which many historians consider to be the greatest voluntary, mass migration overland in the history of the world.  For more information go to htpp://frontiertrailsmuseum.org.


The smaller covered wagon that was used by most settlers on their way to the west.

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