85th Street Swales, 85th and Manchester, Kansas City. Map Swales still exist today along the old trail routes.
Archibald Rice Farm, 8801 E. 66th St., Raytown. Map A 360-acre farm homesteaded in the late 1830’s and was a favorite stopping point along the trail.
Hart Grove Campground at Marion Park, just west of 96th and Elmwood, Kansas City. Map Famous campsite of the Donner Party and many others.
The square was a popular outfitting stop for trail travelers to pick up supplies while heading west.
Swales at crossing of the Blue River.
Interpretive museum and research library of the Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails.
The end of the United States and the beginning of Indian Territory until 1854. Located in Kansas City.
Schumacher Park, on 93rd St. east of Hillcrest Rd., Kansas City. Map Native prairie has been restored and provides a setting for visitors to experience the many diverse plant materials trail travelers saw along their journey.
Upper Independence Landing, beside LaFarge’s Cement Plant on Cement City Rd., Sugar Creek. Map Boarding location for steamboats.
“Eastward I go only by force, but westward I go free…”
-Henry David Thoreau
The Santa Fe Trail is arguably the most famous trail in the Americas. The romance and adventure played out on this dusty trace have fired the collective imaginations of generation after generation of Americans, from the moment the big wagons stopped rolling almost 120 years ago.
The Kansas City area is blessed with a singular and unique historical circumstance, not duplicated anywhere else in America: Here the Oregon Trail and California Trail follow the same course as the earlier established Santa Fe Trail, enriching and deepening the legacy of this great road to the frontier.
Surely it is a telling statement, that so many today feel compelled to seek out and capture, even for a brief moment, the romance of these great old historic trails.
“Steamboats were daily discharging large cargoes, warehouses were inadequate for storing the goods, wagons were held in readiness to load as soon as freight was landed from the boats”… “The magnitude of the overland trade is beyond the conception of anyone that was not a witness to it.”
– J. S. Chick, 1906
The Santa Fe Trail was founded in 1821, when William Becknell of Franklin, Missouri, led five men from the Missouri frontier to Santa Fe on a trading expedition. His timing was fortuitous, as Mexico had recently broken off from Spain, declaring their independence, and in the process, had thrown off decades of trade restrictions. Colonial Santa Fe welcomed Becknell and his little brigade, thus this trade route was opened between the two young nations.
The apocryphal ending of Becknells’ trip has him returning to the streets of Franklin and gutting a stiff saddlebag, to release the clatter and tinkle of Mexican silver on the stone gutters below, all to a mindful and eager audience. The very next year Becknell took the first wagons out over this virgin trace that he had blazed . . . three wagons loaded with trade goods for a commodity-starved Santa Fe, accompanied by almost two dozen men. From this moment on, the wagons never stopped rolling for almost sixty years.
The Santa Fe Trail saw mountain men, trappers and traders, soldiers and Indians, emigrants and gold seekers, all rush down its rutted course. But history would judge its most lasting legacy as a two-way trail of commerce.
“The vast prairie itself soon opened be for us in all its grandeur and beauty. I had never before beheld extensive scenery of this kind. The many descriptions of the prairies of the West had forestalled in some measure the first impressions produced by the magnificent landscape spread out before me as far as the eye could reach, bounded alone by the blue wall of the sky.”
-Edwin Bryant, 1846
The Oregon Trail was originally pioneered in 1827 by mountain man William Sublette, as a route to and through the Rocky Mountains to the rich fur trapping regions of the Northwest. Once again commerce was the motive, however not for trade, but to supply the ever spiraling demand that existed in the 1820’s and 1830’s for beaver felt hats. Sublette actually followed the Santa Fe Trail in this area before branching off to the northwest in present-day western Johnson County, to create “Sublettes Trace”, the forerunner of the great road of emigration to the West, the Oregon Trail.
By 1836 this route was being followed by missionaries to the Indians in Oregon Territory. By the end of the decade emigrants began to surge down the Oregon Trail, as the nations last great push to the Pacific got underway. By 1841 the first wagon train destined for California settlement was on its way from this area, the famous Bidwell-Bartleson group, a precursor to thousands of people who followed much of the Oregon Trail in that decade to a home in California.
Human drama played out in all its varied forms on the Oregon and California Trails . . . tragedy struck the trail in 1846, when the Donners met their fate on a snowy Sierra slope . . . euphoria fueled the masses on the trail in 1849, when the world rushed down this road for a chance to seek gold in California . . . even that icon of the American West, the stagecoach, saw service on this route in the twilight years of the trails’ use.
But it is the compelling image of families . . . barefoot children, gangly farmer of a father, mother in sunbonnet and calico. . seeking a new life in the West, that is seared into the collective consciousness of most Americans when they think of the Oregon and California Trails.
For almost four decades in this area, from the 1820’s to the dawn of the Civil War in 1860, countless thousands followed their destiny down this trail and into the West . . . this very trail that winds invisibly, ghost-like, thru fresh cut lawns and pin oaks, by the Cape Cods and Split-Levels, under the blacktop and near the schoolyards of this south Kansas City neighborhood.
Along this very route came many of the movers and shakers of the American West … Kit Carson, he of trailblazing fame himself, came thru here regularly . . . Susan Shelby Magoffin, the teenage bride whose adventures on the trail with her landed gentry husband have become an integral part of trail lore, came this way in 1846… James Beckwourth, the great black mountain man, knew this road … as did fellow trappers Jedidiah Smith and Jim Bridger. The peripatetic Josiah Gregg, author of Commerce of the Prairies, traveled this route with the traders caravans many times … Manuel Alvarez traveled this route as Mexican consul in 1841 … as did his fellow country-men Jose Leandro Perea and Juan Montoya later in the decade, leading their own trader’s caravans into Independence. Even the Donner party, who’s very name evokes an instant response, came down this road, and in fact camped at the “Heart Grove”, located near present day 96th and Elmwood, before moving on out and into the West for their particular rendezvous with destiny.
But perhaps the greatest tribute should be saved for the nameless thousands we don’t know, that carried their hopes and dreams out onto the plains and mountains.
That their hopes and dreams were much like ours today is a conceit we must allow ourselves, if we are to understand the passions that drove this great old road into the West.
Craig Crease, Trail Historian