The 42nd Annual Santa-Cali-Gon Days Festival this weekend on the Independence Square is a celebration of our city's roots as this was the highway for the “Opening of the West.” The years following the Louisiana Purchase, the entire nation turned and faced westward. Soon there were thousands upon thousands of immigrants heading out West in search of their fortunes, or at least a better way of life. This great transition has sometimes been called the largest voluntary migration of people in the history of the world.
Independence soon became the last outpost of any size on the 19th century frontier and the jumping off point for anyone heading westward. This was where they disembarked from the steamboats and it was the launching pad for Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails. Independence immediately became a wide open, noisy, and busy place of commerce, the final outfitting post for the thousands of people on the move.
Many of the wagons and prairie schooners had to be manufactured locally, outfitted and stocked with the necessary supplies to get them to their destinations. Overwhelmed by its sudden wealth and importance, the young town behaved like any spoiled child. “It went wild.” With the Opening of the West, Independence became the first of the “Wild West Towns,” the kind of town that cowboy folklore was built around.
All conditions of mankind poured across the square in all costumes: Shawnee, Wyandot and Kanza Indians from the Kansas Territory and wanderers of many other Native Tribes, blanketed, painted, and wearing their Presidential medals; Mexicans in bells, slashed pantaloons, and primary colors, speaking in strange tongue and smoking shuck rolled cigarettes; mountain men in buckskins preparing for their summer trade or offering their services as guides to the immigrant wagon trains.
The case-hardened bullwhackers of the Santa Fe Trail in boots and with Bowie knives who were coming back in from the Southwest or preparing to go out again proclaimed Independence as the “Paradise of the Frontier.” There were river men and roustabouts celebrating dry land, Negro stevedores, and soldiers from Fort Leavenworth. There were even drifters whose only motive was to see the elephant wherever the elephant might be.
Freight poured in from the steamboat landings and the great wagons lumbered through the streets. Day by day the freshet of movers came and went. The bellowing of herds polluted over the town, the smithies and wagon shops rang with iron as whooping riders galloped their ponies through the mud. Saloons were on every corner selling everything from “skull varnish” to the finest import wines from back East and abroad. Many folks on the move scuffled with each other, loved, and some even died in the muddy streets of Independence.
The square owed much of its success to two phenomena: The Santa Fe trade and its status as headquarters of government mail service to the Far West.
Famous names like Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Joseph Walker, Joseph Smith, Daniel Morgan Boone, George Caleb Bingham, Frank and Jessie James, Cole Younger, William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson all left their mark on Independence and Eastern Jackson County. A century later, even a man named Truman.
In 1849, right in the middle of the rip roaring trail days, gold was discovered in California. The whole country was struck with gold fever, and men scrambled from everywhere, heading to make their fortune in the gold fields. Some found the gold, and some were never heard from again. The majority of those 49’ers trampled through Independence streets heading out the California Trail.
Those times all came to an end with the beginning of the Civil War and the coming of the railroads. Those two events changed everything.
Reference: “Independence Square, A Convenient Guide to the Past for Today’s Pioneers” by William Patrick O’Brien and various City Boards.
• Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school groups.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 816-252-9909.