“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

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In 1840, 13 intrepid pioneers made it over the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley. In 1841, 58 more settlers arrived in Oregon and California, and a year later 125 more. In 1843, the year of Fremont’s Report , 913 American emigrants went West—in 1845, 2,760. By 1846 more than 5,000 Americans had walked overland to Oregon and California, and that year thousands more were on the move again.

Independence

April 28, 1846. Independence. The wagons that have passed through since I have been here—and they are numerous—are all for California! It is truly astonishing to notice the enthusiasm that has seized upon people, from all parts of the country. The word is California. I have seen but one wagon for Oregon. —George L. Curry

 

By 1846 Independence had become the principal outfitting point for traders on the Santa Fe Trail and for the increasingly numerous emigrants bound for Oregon and California. By late April of that year, thousands of emigrants were converging on the bustling frontier town, which sat at the extreme western edge of the formally constituted territories of the United States.

 

An emigrant named Jesse Quinn Thornton, on his way to California that year, called Independence “a great Babel upon the border of the wilderness.” The unpaved streets were jammed with emigrants, Santa Fe traders, Kansas Indians, black slaves, Spaniards, Mexicans, Frenchmen, merchants, stevedores, drifters, gamblers, hunters, mountain men, adventurers, speculators, and teamsters, and an endless cavalcade of wagons, oxen, horses, and mules.

Adding to the cacophony and hubbub that spring was a disproportionate number of literary men and scribblers: newspapermen come out to cover the great migration, emigrant littérateurs engaged to correspond from the trail, and a patrician Harvard graduate, determined to see the Indian tribes before the tide of civilization swept their cultures from the Great Plains.

“I have often perplexed myself,” Francis Parkman wrote, surveying the crowd of emigrants thronging Independence that spring, “to divine the various motives that give impulse to this strange migration; but whatever they may be, whether an insane hope of a better condition in life, or a desire of shaking off restraints of law and society, or mere restlessness, certain it is, that multitudes bitterly repent the journey, and after they have reached the land of promise, are happy enough to escape from it.”

It’s a wonderful irony, often remarked, that the greatest historian of the Oregon Trail—a man equipped not just with the intellect and literary skill for the job but with the reporter’s luck to find himself out on the trail during the critical year, 1846—had no real interest in the great migration taking place all around him and little empathy for the migrators themselves. Dismayed by the vulgarity of the emigrant crowd, Parkman pitched his tent as far as he could from the overlanders and kept to himself.

 
Every passing diarist took note of these formations, and for most they inspired a kind of metaphoric rapture.

A thousand people lived in Independence in 1846. Today the town is part of an extended prairie metropolis that includes Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, and holds a combined population of more than a million. The quondam frontier outpost lies buried in the heart of the country, and the old emigrant highways that once went in and out of town were long ago lost amid the concrete congeries of streets and sewers and sidewalks and buildings.

Today few tangible links connect the past and present in Independence. You can overlook the Missouri River where the Radnor docked and disgorged its motley human cargo, young Francis Parkman among them, but Independence Landing itself is long gone. You can stand at the intersection of Liberty and Lexington streets, on the southwest corner of Courthouse Square, taken to be the origin, ground zero, of the Oregon Trail. The courthouse that was there in 1846 was pulled down years ago, and the one erected to stand in its place survives, with embellishments. It is still worth pausing for a moment where a fair fraction of the half-million overland emigrants started their long journey West.

Then it’s time to grab your maps and head west out onto the prairie, where by early May of 1846 the huge, chaotic crush of emigrants and animals and wagons was beginning to organize itself into trains for the long journey. “We were joined to-day,” Edwin Bryant wrote on May 19, “by nine wagons from Illinois belonging to Mr. Reed and Messrs. Donner, highly respectable and intelligent gentlemen with interesting families. They were received into the company by a unanimous vote.”