With statehood in 1821, and the mapping of the Santa Fe Trail out of Fort Osage passing through in 1825, Independence soon became the most important outpost this far out on the 19th century western frontier. The people and commerce immediately began to pour in.
The westward movement has been called the largest voluntary migration of people in the history of the world, and many of them funneled across the Independence Square. The Santa Fe Trail passed through the newest city and ran all the way to one of the oldest cities on the North American continent, Santa Fe.
While many of the people moved on to points farther west, a great many of them settled in Jackson County and called it home. The majority of the farmers were Southerners from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, but the town’s folks and merchants came from absolutely everywhere.
Independence also became the launching pad or starting point for the California and Oregon Trails. Most of the covered wagons and prairie schooners were built in Independence, outfitted and stocked with the necessary supplies to get them to their destinations. Overwhelmed by its sudden wealth and importance, the young town went wild. With the opening of the west, Independence became the first of the Wild West towns, the kind of town that cowboy movies were built around.
The area around the courthouse square was little more than a collection of hastily built wagon-outfitting shops, trading posts, blacksmith shops and saloons. Early spring was especially chaotic. This was the time of year the wagon caravans formed for their journey westward. Covered wagons were lined for miles up and down Liberty Street all the way out to Raytown awaiting for the grass out West to get green enough to graze their livestock so they could begin their long overland journeys.
So, while they waited, fur trappers, traders, teamsters, pioneers and homesteaders, gamblers, Indians, fancy dressed Mexicans, African-American servants and slaves, soldiers and just plain tourists all mixed together, drank together, loved and even killed each other in the muddy streets of the Independence Square.
On top of that, 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 absolutely everywhere, heading to make their fortune in the gold fields. Many of those ’49ers (as they were called), trampled through streets of Independence, heading out the California Trail.
The Santa Fe Trail was the highway to another country. Santa Fe was not part of the United States in those days. It was still a part of Mexico, some 795 miles from Independence.
The United States merchants traded goods and merchandise to Mexico in exchange for Mexican products. They traded for a lot of gold and silver, and little gray donkeys. Sometimes, they would return herding hundreds of donkeys and mules across the Independence Square.
The Oregon Trail began in the 1840s. It was nearly 2,000 miles from Independence to Oregon and took nearly six months for a covered wagon train to travel that distance. Thousands upon thousands of pioneers, traveled from here to California and Oregon over a 20-year period. Those times all came to an end, however, with the beginning of the Civil War and the coming of the railroads.
Reference: “Jackson County Pioneers,” by Pearl Wilcox.