The Western Missouri town of Independence was the place overlanders often stepped off the steamboats from St. Louis, ready to embark upon a trail to the West. These pioneers were "setting sail" in wagons commonly called "prairie schooners" that were covered with cloth of light colors for protection. Generally, the wagons were pulled by oxen and weighed around 2,500 pounds with contents. Independence was the overlanders last contact with civilization, and last chance to purchase necessary goods. Thus, the prices of goods were very high in Independence.
Overlander Josiah Gregg described the vastness of the land. "In the last day of our departure from Independence, we passed the last human abode on our route: from the borders of Missouri to those of New Mexico not even an Indian settlement greeted our eyes."
The mass migration of settlers to the West occurred on the Oregon Trail, originating at Independence, already an important terminus for the Santa Fe Trail. From 1843 to 1869, over 300,000 overlanders made the passage under extreme conditions along this route and other western trails. The Oregon Territory offered stories of rich farmland and unlimited opportunities. The California gold fields were opened in 1849, also resulting in a large migration coming through Independence.
Overlanders had to pack carefully so they would have enough to eat, yet they could not pack food that would spoil. Food for the trip consisted of bacon, salt pork, beef, flour, corn meal, hardtack, and rice. Other staples were dried beans, honey, fruit, tea, and coffee.
Tools were necessary for repairs along the trail and farming when they arrived at their destination, including plows, scythes, picks, and shovels. Household items included feather or straw tick beds, soap, lanterns, washtubs, and towels. Each family usually had a valued possession carefully packed, sometimes the family Bible or perhaps china or a clock which was to be the centerpiece of their new home.
Dress was simple for both men and women. Men wore boots with trousers of wool or cotton held by leather suspenders. They owned flannel or cotton shirts and a heavy wool coat. Their wide-brimmed felt hat was invaluable to them since it protected their head and face from the elements.
Women wore dresses of calico or flannel cotton, a day cap to keep hair clean from the dust of the trail, and a bonnet or hat. Shawls were worn on cool days and heavy overcoats worn in winter. Women wore dresses hemmed higher than the fashion (normally to the ankle) so the dress would not interfere with rough travel. Very fine clothing was packed and not worn until their destination was reached.
Independence Square was the center of the wagon train organizations. Pioneers knew large groups meant safety, and in long lines they would depart at sunup. They would make camp, usually in a corral formation, at sundown. They continued daily travel until they arrived at their destination, often unknown until they reached it.
William Thompson observed that "As we wended our way up the valley of the Platte one could look back for miles and miles...with vari-colored wagon covers resembling a great serpent crawling and wriggling up the valley."
The overlanders frequently met with near-disasters. Overlander J.G. Bruff wrote that the journey greeted them with "Steep, winding roads, deep dust and volcanic stones and rocks," and the result was a trail of "Broken wheels, capsized wagons, tire hubs, broken wagons strewn the way down..." Many animals and people died along the trail of disease or accident. Sacrifices were made, tears were shed, yet elation surfaced as destinations were claimed. The journey's worthiness was expressed by overlander J.P. Taylor, "All this we have overcome, and are in the golden land."
Did You Know?
In 1846, a slave named Dred Scott sued for his freedom at the St. Louis Courthouse. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the verdict set the stage for the Civil War. Today, the Old Courthouse is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Click to learn more about Dred Scott. More...