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Published: March 13th 2012
The Pennsylvania wagon settlers used to cross the west
I spent today in Independence, Missouri
Independence likes to promote itself as the hometown of Harry Truman
That it is, but more important for me it was the starting point of all three major overland trails in the 1830s, the Oregon
, Santa Fe
, and California
of the pioneer families who made the trek, and the hazards they encountered, are told in a museum called the National Frontier Trails Museum
Deciding to Migrate West
The museum opens with a display on the reasons people went west.
Most went looking for better land to farm.
Some, like fur trappers, went looking for adventure.
Miners went to California looking for a fortune.
A few went west to escape legal problems back home.
A few more desired to turn the landscape into art
Women and children mostly went because their husbands had decided to go.
The next section discusses equipment
for the journey.
The main component, of course, was a wagon to carry supplies.
Most chose the Conestoga wagon
because it could handle a large variety of terrain, was relatively easy to repair, and the slanted floor meant goods were less likely to fall out.
A tiny sample of the supplies needed to survive the Oregon trail
this wagon that is such a symbol of western migration was actually invented in Pennsylvania.
After the wagon, pioneer families needed animals to pull it.
Oxen and mules were chosen over horses due to their endurance.
Oxen were stronger and easier to control but they were much slower and needed more feed.
Finally, migrants needed supplies.
Food that would not spoil was the most important, followed by pots, rifles, and repair tools.
Farming tools to use at the destination were obviously needed as well.
Most families also included one or two family heirlooms, which lead to difficult decisions about what to keep and leave behind.
The museum has excerpts from diaries
discussing the decision to move west, and supply lists.
One thing most people don’t realize is just how much of a financial gamble
people had to take when they hit the trail.
Life on the Pioneer Trails
The next part is life
on the trails.
This part is illustrated with maps, pictures, diary entries
, and artifacts.
The first part of the journey was across the plains.
Even here, people discovered that
One man's treasure is later trash
A sample of (reconstructed) things families abandoned on the Oregon Trail near South Pass.
life had changed.
Cooking at a campsite was very different to cooking at home, for instance.
Much of the time was very dull.
Children in particular had to find ways to keep themselves entertained.
Families were fortunate to make ten miles in a day, a distance most people now cross on an Interstate in roughly eight minutes.
Once in the Rocky Mountains, things got much harder.
The oxen or mules now needed to pull the carts up rather steep hills.
The pass over the continental divide, South Pass
, was wide enough to barely notice it was a pass, but the going was still rough.
Many things that people deemed essential when initially packing, such as furniture, were jettisoned at this point.
Later travelers commented that this part of the trail looked like a junk yard.
A few of them foraged in the trash for stuff to bring back east and sell!
After the continental divide, the trails split.
Farmers and settlers headed northwest to Oregon, while miners and adventurers headed southwest to California.
Both faced a difficult challenge near the end of
Tools from Oregon pioneers. Life was often as tough as back home
Oregon settlers had to float their wagons down the Columbia through multiple sets of rapids.
In 1845, Sam Barlow
built a land route around Mount Hood that was little better (and he charged a steep toll for it)
California migrants needed to cross the snowy and steep Sierra Nevada.
More supplies were lost at this stage than anywhere else on the trail.
The California section briefly discusses the Donner Party
, which has become part of western folklore.
They were trying to reach California in 1846.
They ran late through Utah.
The Sierra Nevada had an early snow that year and were impassible by the time the group arrived.
They set up primitive cabins near the pass now named for them and tried to wait out the winter.
The winter was brutal.
Many people died before a relief party finally reached the camps.
The display does NOT mention the reason the party is so (in)famous: the survivors did so by resorting to cannibalism
after food supplies ran out.
Settling a New Land
The next part deals with what migrants faced after arriving at
Tribute to Ezra Meeker
Ezra Meeker, the pioneer who did more than any other person to preserve the trail he once travelled.
the end of the trail.
Many were forced to live out of their wagon while they set up permanent shelter.
As the diaries note, many found the reality of Oregon to be very different to the golden land they envisioned when they started out.
Most became subsistence farmers, just as they were back east.
In the gold camps, it was another story. Gold mining
was the ultimate lottery.
A few became incredibly rich.
Others made at least enough to survive.
Most were forced to go home penniless.
Somewhat ironically, the people who made out the best were the merchants who sold the miners supplies, and the gold dealers.
The last part of this very through museum talks about the end of the trails.
They effectively closed after the transcontinental railroad
People could now travel in days what had taken months before.
An important era was over.
One of the original pioneers, Ezra Meeker (who had travelled the Oregon trail as a youth) eventually began a preservation movement
, which led to the establishment of several important trails sites including the museum.
Swale from Oregon Trail pioneers. Look for the depression in the upper center, near the overhanging tree.
Near the museum is one of the most precious historic artifacts in Missouri.
The roads of Independence at the time were all dirt, which meant they were really mud.
Pioneer families did not want to schlep through this and deal with regular street traffic.
Since fences were rare at the time, many of them went straight through people’s farms instead!
With repeated use, their wagon ruts deepened into swales.
Virtually all swales east of the Rocky Mountains have been buried at this point, but one set still remains.
They are located on the land of what was once a private estate.
A signboard along the road explains what they are and the significance.
This is a good thing because the swales otherwise look like the erosion gullies familiar to any trail hiker.
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