State Historical Society, Columbia
Many families made the journey west in search of a new life.
Moving out west was a several month long, dangerous process, but that didn't stop those who were searching for adventure or a fresh start.
The Westward Migration of the 1800s was the largest voluntary overland migration of people in history.
Northwestern Missouri towns made their place in history as jumping off points for this great migration.
Rich in supplies, the economies of Independence, Westport, St. Joseph, and neighboring towns boomed from about 1840 through 1860 as around four hundred thousand emigrants passed through on their way to making new lives for themselves. They had hopes and dreams of striking gold, farming fertile land, and foreign trade.
The beginning of the Santa Fe Trail was in 1821 in Franklin. Mexico had just declared its independence from Spain and reversed the previous Spanish policy to resist foreign trade. This change in legislation led thousands of entrepreneurs to travel west to Santa Fe, Mexico, to make money in the business of foreign trade. John Mark Lambertson, director and archivist for the National Frontier Trails Museum, says the Santa Fe Trail was unique in American history because it was an overland foreign trade route.
This nine-hundred mile route was a two-way trail taken mostly by men. Missouri merchants took goods to Mexico, and Hispanics brought trade goods up and sold them to Independence. “The trade along the Santa Fe Trail was just a huge cash cow for Independence and the surrounding area, as well as the state,” John Mark says. Emigrants traveled this trail until 1880, when the building of a railroad to Santa Fe left the trail abandoned.
It took twenty years after the Santa Fe Trail opened for another trail to emerge. The California Trail started around 1841 by farmers looking for rich land to settle in the West. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in Coloma, California, which triggered the California Gold Rush. It was like the floodgates opened, John Mark says. More than 250,000 gold seekers seeking quick riches as well as farmers looking for land, took the two-thousand-mile trail. “Most of those men did not find the type of success they were looking for financially and ended up coming back disappointed.”
The Oregon Trail began in 1843, just two years after the California Trail. This two thousand-mile trail to Oregon City, Oregon, led settlers who wanted to make homes in the northwestern part of the country. “The motive was the federal government was giving away free land,” John Mark says. This trail attracted mostly families who were planning on living permanently in the Pacific Northwest. Some people also veered off of the Oregon Trail to the California Trail in hopes of striking gold.
Independence is the best-known starting gate for the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon trails. The bend in the Missouri River made it easy for emigrants to begin their journey. Also, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 moved most American Indians west of the Missouri River, meaning no towns or supply points could be established past the Missouri border.
Soon the jumping-off point at Independence moved to Westport. At Westport, emigrants were a little further west, which made the starting point more convenient. They also didn’t have to cross the treacherous Blue River.
Other northwestern Missouri towns were also pivotal in the migration west. Some emigrants traveled by steamboat about one hundred miles north to St. Joseph. When they arrived, they waited to be ferried across the Missouri River. The only problem was the limited access to the ferries. This left many emigrants waiting for days to leave or traveling thirteen miles north to catch the ferry at Savannah. St. Joseph’s population grew from 800 people in 1843 to 8,932 people in 1860.
In The Great Western Migration to the Gold Fields of California, 1849-1950, Robert J. Willoughby describes the advantages of beginning the journey farther west in towns like Weston and St. Joseph: “Weston and St. Joseph could rightfully boast that by staying aboard the steamers for another day of comfortable upriver travel the emigrants could save themselves a hundred miles and a week’s hard overland travel.”
John Mark says, “One of the biggest surprises I think people have is that people heading west on these trails, almost all of them, walked the entire distance.” They had to keep the wagons as lightweight as possible for the animals pulling it, so most people walked beside the wagon or rode on horseback.
The three overland trails and the ambitious settlers who traveled the rugged routes not only changed the face of America, but they also laid the foundation for Missouri towns to prosper and now celebrate their western heritage.