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Many tourists have stopped to read roadside markers commemorating old trails or noticed old road signs on their journeys west of the Mississippi. On a recent six-week road trip west from St. Louis, I was often reminded of the early pioneers who used St. Louis, the “gateway to the West,” and other nearby towns in Missouri as “jumping off points.” Lured by gold, free land and adventure, they were hoping for a better life in the new frontier. Many were encouraged by the stories of trappers and traders that promised easy passage through the mountains, and they thought they could find their future by way of the Oregon, Santa Fe or Overland Trails. Actual traces of the old trails or roads that followed them and towns that developed as a result of the trails can be enjoyed by today’s travelers.
In 1851, John Soule, an editor for the Terre Haute Express, coined the “Go west, young man!” phrase which remains part of America’s vocabulary. Although Lewis & Clark had completed their journey earlier in the 19th century, no transcontinental railroad yet existed. On average, it took about four to six months for a family to get from Missouri to Oregon or California by wagon train. About seven years after Soule’s article in 1858, the first non-stop stagecoach left St. Louis for Los Angeles. That 2,600-mile journey took twenty days. The transcontinental railroad was not competed until 1869 and quickly made wagon train and stagecoach travel obsolete.
Lewis and Clark had made a successful journey to the Pacific in the early 1800’s although it took them several months longer than they had planned. False reports of an easy passage through mountains which members described “as steep as the roof of a house” as well as deep snow and lack of food caused their delay. Once there, they encountered buckets and buckets of continuous rainfall. In a quintessential American moment they decided to vote on where to spend the winter allowing all the members of the party, including blacks, Indians, and women, to participate in the decision. They elected the south side of the Columbia River but still complained that they had only elk to eat and continual rain, and they didn’t like the salmon. They began the return journey in March, and arrived in St. Louis in September where they were welcomed as heroes. Many Native Americans had helped them and only a few, like the Blackfoot, had hindered them when they found out that they might be trading with their enemies.
Lewis and Clark had begun their journey in May of 1804 and returned in September of 1806. They had travelled a total of 4,162 miles, and had documented 122 new species of animals and 178 plants that had never before been described. More important at the time was their fulfillment of President Thomas Jefferson’s dream of opening up the West for the United States
Interesting evidence of their journey can be seen in Cairo, Illinois where there is a marker entitled, “Preceeding On.” Cairo is located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It is somewhat of a ghost town now although it was once a much grander city as its architecture and wide streets attest. The marker read:
In November, 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and their growing contingent of “Corps of Discovery” men, spent five days here teaching each other celestial navigation and surveying skills. Using a sextant, octant, artificial horizon, and reference tables, they successfully obtained the first longitude and latitude data that they would use during the Expedition. Subsequent maps of the northern and western portions of the United States, prepared using Lewis and Clark’s data, began at the confluence of these great rivers which, in 1803, was located just south of 2nd Street in present-day Cairo.
The Spanish had many trails of their own, and were in competition with the United States to claim the western territories. They had tried to intercept Lewis and Clark on the plains, but were unable to find them. The Old Spanish National Historic Trail is still on the map in Colorado, New Mexico and in Utah and was an historical trade route which connected northern New Mexico settlements near Santa Fe with those of Los Angeles and southern California. Approximately 1,200 miles long, it ran through areas of high mountains, arid deserts, and deep canyons. It is considered one of the most arduous of all trade routes ever established in the United States and was explored, in part, by Spanish explorers as early as the late 1500s. The trail saw extensive use by pack trains from about 1830 until the mid-1850s.
Today’s travelers also can see traces of the old Santa Fe Trail, the eastern end of which was in the central Missouri town of Franklin on the north bank of the Missouri River. The route across Missouri first used by Becknell, a trader, followed portions of the existing Osage Trace and the Medicine Trails. West of Franklin, the trail crossed the Missouri near Arrow Rock, after which it followed roughly the route of present-day U.S. Route 24. It passed north of Marshall, through Lexington to Fort Osage, then to Independence, also one of the historic “jumping off points” for the Oregon and California Trails.
Before Lewis and Clark and the Spanish explorers and even the French trappers, Native Americans had settled and traveled the West. Tourists can visit sites such as Aztec National Monument, Chaco Canyon, Gallup, the Hubbell Trading Post and Chinle and the Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation to name a few. Aztec Ruins lies near the banks of the “River of Lost Souls” named by a Spanish exploration party in 1776. They noted many ancestral Pueblo ruins as they crossed the Animas River valley looking for California. For thousands of years, Native Americans took to the trails for purposes of the harvest, the hunt, commerce, plunder, warfare, religious fervor and celebration. They may have forged trails at least as far back as some eight or nine millennia ago including thousands of miles of interconnecting trails extending from Texas’ westward to California’s Pacific Coast and from Mexico northward.
While most Native American trails were for traveling, others served uncertain purposes, for instance, the puzzling 400-mile network of “roads” which radiate from the famed Chaco Canyon Anasazi Puebloan complex, the early second millennium “Rome” of northwestern New Mexico. These roads had long straight segments, sometimes 30 feet wide, with curbing, border walls, berms and small road-side “motels.” They usually connected Chaco Canyon, the region’s commercial and religious capital, with outlying communities. Some archaeologists think that they were for trade while others think they were ceremonial, but their purpose remains a mystery.
Although many intersections of Native American culture and pioneer culture resulted in conflict or bloodshed, a happy exception was the Hubbell Trading Post. It still remains much as it was originally and has been declared a National Historic Site. The first established use of the old wagon trail route was the Dominguez-Escalante expedition in 1776.
John Lorenzo Hubbell purchased the trading post in 1878; ten years after the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland from their terrible exile at Bosque Redondo, Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. During the four years spent at Bosque Redondo, Navajos were introduced to many new items. Traders like Hubbell supplied those items once they returned home.
Hubbell had an enduring influence on Navajo rug weaving and silversmithing, for he consistently demanded and promoted excellence in craftsmanship. He built a trading empire that included stage and freight lines as well as several trading posts. Beyond question, he was the foremost Navajo trader of his time. Hubbell family members operated the trading post until it was sold to the National Park Service in 1967. The trading post is still active, and operated by a non-profit organization.
Religious and ethnic persecution also caused groups to take trails west. The Trail of Tears and the Navajo Long Walk are examples of ethnic persecution leading to enforced migration, while the Mormons sought escape from religious persecution. In 1846 the Navajo were offered peace by the U.S., but in 1863 Col. Kit Carson began a brutal campaign against the Navajo. The Navajo used Canyon de Chelly as a refuge, hiding in the rock alcoves. They stockpiled food and water. Despite these precautions, Carson’s troops entered the eastern end of Canyon de Chelly and pushed the Navajo toward the mouth. Most were captured or killed. The troops destroyed hogans, orchards and sheep. Then the survivors were forced to march over 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. Many died on the way and suffered from poor food and shelter and disease in the Fort. In 1868 they were finally allowed to return to their homes. Trading posts like Hubbell helped the Navajo survive. Today the Dine thrive in Chinle and around Canyon de Chelly. As a Navajo Nation leader once said, “We will be like a rock a river has to go around.” (Ailema Benally, Navajo)
The Mormons were driven out of both Missouri and Illinois and were forced to make the journey west by way of the Mormon Trail. It extended from Nauvoo, Illinois, which was the principal settlement of the Latter Day Saints from 1839 to 1846, to Salt Lake City, Utah, which was settled by Brigham Young and his followers beginning in 1847. From Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, the trail follows much the same route as the Oregon Trail and the California Trail; these trails are collectively known as the Emigrant Trail.
In 1856, the church inaugurated a system of handcart companies in order to enable poor European emigrants to make the trek more cheaply. Handcarts, two-wheeled carts that were pulled by emigrants, instead of draft animals, were sometimes used as an alternate means of transportation from 1856 to 1860. They were seen as a faster, easier, and cheaper way to bring European converts to Salt Lake City. Hard stretches of the trail were littered with piles of “leeverites,” items the emigrants had to “leave ‘er right here” to lighten their wagons. In later years, the Mormons made a cottage industry of salvaging the leeverites and selling them back to emigrants passing through the Salt Lake Valley.
Although most of the handcart groups made it through, a few groups had large numbers of casualties. Two groups started their journey dangerously late and were caught by heavy snow and severe temperatures in central Wyoming. One of the groups made it to Fort Laramie in hopes of replenishing their food supplies, but food was scarce there also. Despite a dramatic rescue effort, more than 210 of the 980 pioneers in these two companies died along the way. John Chislett, a survivor, wrote, “Many a father pulled his cart, with his little children on it, until the day preceding his death.” Trail enthusiasts will enjoy visiting Laramie which was near the Overland Stage route and on the Union Pacific portion of the first railroad.
If you are traveling in June, the “Mormon Miracle Pageant”, performed each June at Temple Hill in Manti, Utah is a fascinating historical reenactment. It involves the entire community, and retells the remarkable story of how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded and of the Mormon pioneers who colonized the West.
About a year before the Latter-day Saint emigrants, the Reed-Donner wagon train carved the first trail through the final geographic obstacle between Big Mountain and the Salt Lake Valley. About half way through, the group changed course and went up and around the final constriction near the valley’s mouth. The resulting brutal climb over rock and sage most likely contributed to their historic tragedy by delaying them for several days. When an advance team from the Latter-day Saint vanguard company came through the same area, it chose to stick to the valley floor and hacked its way through to the bench overlooking the Great Salt Lake basin in less than four hours. Lansford Hastings who had suggested the alternate route received death threats. An emigrant confronted Hastings about the difficulties they had encountered saying, “Of course he could say nothing but that he was very sorry, and that he meant well”. Historians have described the episode as one of the most spectacular tragedies in California history and in the record of western migration. Travelers through the Wasatch Mountains can see the marker saying the Donner Party had passed there. One can almost sense their presence, and they seem to be memorialized by the many beautiful wildflowers that adorn the trail.
As Douglas Adams once wrote, “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.” Some of the early settlers and more recent historians have blamed the leaders like Brigham Young or George Donner for these tragedies, but the pioneers themselves were so anxious to travel west for a better life that probably no one specific person is really to blame. They were not aware of or chose to ignore the size of the vast wilderness in proportion to their small wagon or hand cart. Of the approximately 360,000 people who traveled west on the Oregon Trail before the Transcontinental Railroad, about ten percent or 20,000 to 30,000 people died. This number is smaller than might be expected, considering the odds against them including weather, large bodies of water, deserts, mountains, lack of food and disease. Ironically some sick people believed the journey would cure them. Medicine kits the pioneers carried to treat diseases and wounds included patent medicine “physicing” pills, castor oil, rum or whiskey, peppermint oil, quinine for malaria, hartshorn for snakebite, citric acid for scurvy, opium, laudanum, morphine, calomel, and tincture of camphor. It’s a wonder that only one in every ten emigrants died along the way. Contrary to popular belief Native Americans did not cause a major threat to these pioneers.
Boredom was another problem that modern travelers don’t often think about. One pioneer said it was so boring, that he welcomed Indian attacks (although they were few). Children were known to amuse themselves by bouncing off a bloated buffalo like a trampoline. Toys and pets often occupied children while adults amused themselves with songs, dances, and stories. There were well-known rendezvous spots for celebrations at designated times of the year, and inns, taverns, and trading posts along the way eased the monotony. Women often had a much longer day than the men who amused themselves by hunting and fishing while the women taught children, cooked, washed and mended clothing, and engaged in a variety of tedious tasks.
On the return trip to St. Louis travelers can follow the old highways such as U.S. 40, the old national road which was previously the national trail. It runs parallel to and alongside Interstate 70 for much of the way back to St. Louis. Arrow Rock is an interesting stop. This flint-bearing, high limestone bluff first appeared on a 1732 French map as “pierre a fleche,” literally translated as “rock of arrows.” Archaeological evidence shows that for nearly 12,000 years indigenous cultures used the Arrow Rock bluff as a manufacturing site for flint tools and weapons.
In the 1820s, the earliest travelers on what became the Santa Fe Trail crossed the river on the Arrow Rock ferry and filled their water barrels with fresh water at “the Big Spring” before heading west. While the village is small, it remains a vital community. In 1963, the entire town was designated a National Historic Landmark because of its association with the Westward Expansion. Arrow Rock, Missouri is also a certified site on the Lewis & Clark and Santa Fe Trails.
Back in St. Louis travelers should cross the Mississippi to Illinois to see Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, is a great center of Mississippian indigenous culture. Cahokia’s location near three major rivers and four ecosystems made it a perfect place for the rise of an agricultural center. In A.D. 1250 it was larger than London was. But the knowledge gained from previous inhabitants going back to 10,000 B. C. allowed these people to be so successful. They also profited from traveling vast distances along trade routes already established by the Woodland Indians. They got copper, mica and sea shells and also incorporated aspects of other cultures into their own. We benefit from some of their trails today.
Learning more about the old trails and the groups that took them adds a “time travel” dimension to a trip and significantly enhances visits to history sites and museums. Today travelers no longer have to worry about taking the wrong mountain pass or the myriad of other difficulties suffered in earlier times but can experience the journey in comfort. Following in the footsteps of the pioneers provides an opportunity to travel on trails to the past.
Note: Thanks to the Oregon-California Trails Association which is the nation’s largest and most influential organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of overland emigrant trails and the emigrant experience.
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write by Taylor