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Independence, Queen City of the Trails

The Examiner

When President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803, it effectively doubled the size of the United States.

Prior to that transaction the American border was the Mississippi River. The whole country turned and looked westward.

Settlers by the tens of thousands got supplies and headed West from Independence.

There were only two so-called cities to speak of in the area of the Louisiana Purchase, St. Louis and New Orleans. It was nearly impossible to travel west out of New Orleans, because if the alligators didn’t get you, you most likely would have gotten lost in the swamps, so everyone headed for St. Louis. Now Missouri was no bargain either, because it was grown up in trees, underbrush and tall grass. It was nearly impassable.

You know how fast the grass grows in your backyard. Think of what it must have been like before they invented the lawnmower. The grass upon the Missouri plains was taller than a man’s head and so thick you couldn’t walk through it. There were some 20,000 Indians living in what is today the state of Missouri, so there were many shadowy Indian paths crisscrossing the territory.

Ted Stillwell

A man could walk down those Indian paths if you had enough nerve, or maybe ride a horse, but they were just that, a path. No way could you ever think of taking a wagon team down one. So, the Missouri River was the highway. Wagons were loaded on boats and either rowed or pulled up stream across the state.

Shortly after Missouri gained statehood, Independence became the first settlement of any consequence on the 19th century western frontier. It wasn’t difficult to determine where to locate the new town, because on this hill – we call the Square – less than three miles from the Missouri River were 16 major fresh-water springs, the staff of life.

The old Indian Trace passed over the hill and many Indians stopped for water. Some Shawnee and the Kaw tribes wintered in the area because of the tall forest, abundant food, and water supply.

With statehood in 1821, and the mapping of the Santa Fe Trail out of Fort Osage passing through in 1825. Independence was soon named the county seat when Jackson County was formed in 1826. 

The Santa Fe Trail originally began in the early 1820s downriver at Franklin, a small town across the Missouri River from Boonville. But a raging flood removed the town, causing the trailhead to move upstream to Independence.

The Santa Fe Trail was the highway to another country. Santa Fe, today part of New Mexico, at the time was still a part of the Republic of Mexico.

The westward movement, which has been called the largest voluntary migration of people in the history of the world, funneled through the streets of Independence. The Santa Fe Trail ran from the newest city on the map to one of the oldest cities on the North American continent – Santa Fe. 

Two river ports were soon built to transport supplies and people. Near Sugar Creek was Wayne’s City Landing, and Blue Mills Landing was on downriver below Missouri 291 near Atherton.

Missouri was a way station to the West, but while many of the people moved on to points farther west, a great many settled in Jackson County and called it home. The majority of those pioneers were Southerners, people from Kentucky, Tennessee and the Virginias, but the town’s folks and merchants came from everywhere. Independence became the launching pad for not only the Santa Fe Trail but the California and Oregon Trails as well.

Reference: “Jackson County Pioneers,” by Pearl Wilcox.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.