As Independence celebrates its trails history, it’s fitting to explore the important role that the city’s favorite son, Harry S. Truman, played in honoring and promoting that history.
Throughout his long life, Truman remained connected with the history of trails in Independence and elsewhere in the United States. A student of history, he was keenly aware of their importance in westward expansion and in shaping America’s identity and social and economic development. The Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails all passed through or originated in Independence in the 19th century.
In 1926, Truman was elected president of the National Old Trails Road Association. Historian Richard Kirkendall noted that it “gathered information about the location of trails used by pioneers, placed monuments at places along the routes pioneers had used, and promoted road building.”
As president, Truman traveled extensively and was involved in dedicating “Madonnas of the Trails,” large commemorative statues of pioneer women and their children, throughout the eastern U.S. Truman’s work with the National Old Trails Road Association was important to him. For example, he did not attend the dedication of the almost completed Liberty Memorial on Nov. 11, 1926; he was in Hutchinson, Kansas, attending National Old Trails Road Association meetings. (He had attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Liberty Memorial in 1921.) In a letter he wrote to his wife Bess from Wheeling, West Virginia, he proudly reported that “the National Old Trails Highway Association is a national organization indeed and in fact.”
Truman’s appreciation of historic trails surely encouraged his interest in a comprehensive roads program for Jackson County during the 1920s, when he was presiding judge of the county. In an oral history interview, N.T. Veatch, an engineer and co-founder of the engineering firm Black & Veatch, said, “I discovered that [Truman] had traveled a lot of roads. … He had worked for this organization, for roads out in this area, and I think he pretty well covered the entire country. … He was active in it and he was really a scholar, a ‘road scholar’ – not a ‘Rhodes scholar.’”
Edgar Hinde, who served with Truman in World War I, said in his oral history interview that Truman “was pretty well known all over the state. He was very active in this Old Trails association thing. He went all over the state on that.” That connection likely aided him in his successful run for the U.S. Senate in 1934. In 1941, Sen. Truman told a correspondent that “I am just as interested in the National Old Trails as I ever was.”
On June 28, 1945, as president, Truman returned home for a visit. In his remarks, he observed that the world was increasingly connected, and he compared the age of flight with the age of wagon trains. His flight from Salt Lake City to Kansas City had taken 3 1/2 hours; it had taken his grandfather Solomon Young three months to transport freight from Jackson County to Salt Lake City and another three months for his return home during the 1846-1870 period.
During the 1948 presidential campaign, Truman stopped in Richmond, Indiana, where he noted, “I came here once as President of the National Old Trails Road Association and helped the Daughters of the American Revolution set up a monument in one of your parks to the pioneer mother.”
In the late 1950s, Truman commissioned artist Thomas Hart Benton to paint a large mural in the main lobby of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. After extensive discussions, Truman and Benton agreed that the mural’s theme would be “Independence and the Opening of the West.”
Still, Truman could be critical of the city’s handling of its trails history. In a letter to Bess, dated 1927, he complained about Independence’s lack of care for its trails history. (He didn’t specify what he meant; perhaps it was the demolition of Robert Weston’s blacksmith shop at Kansas and Liberty in 1921.) Surely, however, Truman applauded the city’s saving of the 1827 log cabin, and he likely would have commended the city for its creation of the National Frontier Trails Museum in 1990.
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.