California/Oregon Trail

Visiting the Trailheads

James A. Pritchard, April 22, 1849 – “Independence is a handsome flourishing town with a high situation…. The Emegrants [sic] were encamped in every direction for miles around the place awaiting the time to come for their departure. Such were the crowded condition of the Streets of Ind by long trains of Ox teams mule teams men with stock for Sale and men there to purchase stock that it was all most impossible to pass along….”

It seems almost too good to be true, but the rest of our camping experience actually went…fine. Perhaps third time’s a charm? If you have no idea what I am talking about, see either of my previous camping experience posts. 😊 Now, because I have to complain about something, I must mention…the spiders. Oh my gosh, the spiders! SO MANY. And not just normal spider, but, like, super creepy ones! With huge pincers, or see through, or reflective, or…**shudder**. Just creepy. The bathrooms were pretty nice…except that there were at any point like five spiders around the door, and every time I went in, I saw anywhere from one to three spiders crawling around inside as well. And it wasn’t even an outhouse! Also, within five minutes of setting up the tent, one had already made a web on it. Like, seriously. I swear, these spiders are studying to create their own Mirkwood.

Anyway, despite their best efforts, I’m sure, they didn’t make it into the tent, and after a short bout of insomnia, I slept surprisingly well for how cold it was, and we took our time packing up and getting out of there, first enjoying some coffee and breakfast while I took notes on camping sensations to implement into my book. Originally, we were in a hurry to get going, but, much to my disappointment, one of my most desired stops in Independence, MO is still closed for COVID. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We drove straight from Arrow Rock to Independence, Missouri, which was, of course, the most popular jumping off point during the time period of the overland trail. At least for the first ten years or so. After that, while still popular, it became more common to use Westport, St. Joseph, Weston, and Council Bluffs. However, I will always have a soft spot for Independence because that is where I always read about people starting their journey. It is also, therefore, where I have my family in my book start their trip, despite the fact they are traveling in 1859, when the other jumping off locations would have been more popular. My internal reasoning is that Mark, the father, wanted to go to CA during the gold rush and, denied that opportunity, his mind is still set in Independence where he would have started from had he been able to. I don’t clarify that in the book, at least in this draft, because I figure my readers can draw their own conclusions.

Our first stop was the National Frontier Trails Center, which is the stop I referred to earlier. Now, I have been there once before—I swung by during a work trip once, but didn’t get to spend nearly as much time as I wished, and I was so excited to be able to meander my way through it. But, as mentioned, it was still closed. Which I technically knew, but there was a little part of me was hoping they simply hadn’t updated the website and it would be open anyway. We ran into another couple who were starting in Independence in their RV and following the Oregon Trail! They were dressed in [almost] period costume, and it was pretty cool – they were even more devastated than we were that it wasn’t open because apparently they’ve been planning this trip for two years and only discovered last night that it still wasn’t open. But they took pictures with some of the statues outside, and I wish I had thought to get a picture of them!

So then we drove around Independence itself, but literally everything was closed because it was Sunday. Why didn’t I realize that would be a problem, after my weeks/months of research into this trip? Ah, well. I was so excited, though, when I got to stop by Independence Square, a.k.a., the Courthouse, which was the closest thing to an official starting point to the trails in existence, and got to take a picture with a memorial stone declaring it as such.

From there, we did a little more research and threw in an extra stop. Wayne’s Landing, which is the overlook for where the emigrants landed when coming from steamboat. From there, they had to walk and haul their belongings up the steep hill and into Independence to the square. Considering it was like a ten minute drive, I cannot even imagine how long that took! I think I need to do more research into how exactly that was accomplished. Did they all walk? How long did it take? Could they have hired someone to bring them? How did they haul their belongings coming off of a steamship? If only there was a guide there to answer all my questions!!

We did meet yet another couple also just starting on the Oregon Trail, and this time I thought to get a picture of them!

From there, we headed to Westport. As Traveling the Oregon Trail noted, “…some emigrants bypassed Independence in favor of Westport Landing, 8 miles farther up the Missouri River.” We made several stops, including the following [quotes from the Kansas City Parks Website]:

Pioneer Park, which contains a sculpture of Alexander Majors who “was linked to many great endeavors including the Pony Express and overland stagecoach lines to Denver and Salt Lake City…and [is] looking to the west where many of his interests were located”, John Calvin McCoy who “was a surveyor who laid out the original plat of the city of Westport, Missouri around his trading post…and was also the first postmaster of Westport”, and James Bridger, who was “a famed mountain man…discovered the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains in 1827…and the Great Salt Lake in 1834. In 1843, he founded Fort Bridge [and] in 1866, he purchased Chouteau’s Store at 504 Westport Road which is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Westport.”

The Boone Store is technically “Kelly’s” now, and, based on my very quick glimpse inside, is just a bar. I almost went in for a drink to toast the store it used to be, but we decided our money was better spent later on the trail. So we settled for a picture, and moved on.

We intended to explore the Alexander Majors house, but apparently an employee decided not to show up that day because when we arrived, it was not open, and when I called the number on the website, the person who answered was just as surprised as we were that no one was there. She quickly assured us, however, that another antebellum house, the Wornall House, was just down the street and that was certainly open because she was actually working that one. Only slightly disappointed, we changed routes and explored the Wornall house instead. It has been restored to how it likely would have looked in 1858, and was used as a field hospital during the civil war. Also, the owner of that home – John Wornall – almost died like a dozen times. Like, seriously – through the most random things. Like, once someone commandeered the house intending to kill him and his family, but was so impressed by their hospitality that instead he paid them for the damages he caused. Another time bushwackers pretending to be union soldiers broke in and demanded money and, angry he didn’t have it with him, were about to hang him when actual union soldiers arrived and stopped them. And those were just two instances! Man, God must have really wanted that man alive.

Up next was Cave Spring Park, an occasional camping spot for emigrants, and thence to Harmon Park which still contains wagon ruts!

Cave Spring Park was a pretty place, with a couple randomly placed items as a tribute to the emigrants who camped there, but we didn’t have much time, so if there were any cool memorials we didn’t see them. I liked just looking at it and knowing that emigrants once camped there, though.

Unexpectedly, I think the ruts at Harmon Park ended up being the highlight for both of us! I underestimated just how extraordinary it would feel to look out over the park and see actual depressions from wagon ruts, and then go STAND IN THEM! Knowing that a couple hundred years ago, thousands of wagons had passed that very spot, with nothing but the prairie around them. A stark contrast to the two huge parties going on in the pavilions on either side of us and the men who were annoyed, waiting for us to leave because we were in the way of their frisbee game.

So, that was our day. Now we are headed down to Oklahoma to spend a couple of days with Daniel’s family to celebrate his dad’s birthday! I am still hoping to have something to write about, but don’t expect much of a post if I do one, since we won’t actually be on the trail again until June 2nd, when we head back to Independence for a scheduled tour! 😊

“You and your family should turn around and go back where you came from.” The woman named Reese addressed herself to Breanna. “You don’t belong on a trail like this.” She cast a meaningful glance back at Elizabeth, who was now studying her nails, apparently trying to remove a speck of dirt. “You and your family are gonna to be a danger to the rest of the train.” She assessed Breanna’s stomach, which showed the slightest sign of a bump. “And the trail is no place for a baby.”

A Picture of the Past – In Independence

2 thoughts on “Visiting the Trailheads

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