01. September 2011 · Comments Off on The Jumping-Off Places · Categories: Uncategorized

 These were the places where the trails all began: the trails that lead to Oregon, to the Mormon colonies in Utah, to California, and before them, into the fur-trapping wildernesses in the Great Basin of the Rocky Mountains, and the commercial trade to Santa Fe.

 Five towns, all along a 200-mile stretch of the Missouri River;  many of which have long-since outgrown their original footprint as a river-boat landing on the edge between civilization and wilderness, leaving only the smallest traces here and there among a century and a half of building up and sprawling outwards. The modern towns of Kansas City, Weston-Leavenworth, St. Joseph, Nebraska City and Council Bluffs-Omaha, were the places where the journey began. They were once rowdy, muddy, enormously crowded in those months when the emigrant, exploring, or trading parties were preparing to set out. Primitive,  bursting with excitement, overrun with emigrants and stock pens, the crossroads where merchants sold everything necessary for the great journey, the very crossroads of the west; Indians and mountain men, Santa Fe merchants and soldiers, emigrants, missionaries and foreigners passed each other in the spaces between buildings that did duty as streets. This was the inland coast, from which the emigrants looked out upon the sea of grass and made preparations.

 Greater Kansas City encompasses no less than four locations from which these voyages into the wilderness were launched: Ft. Osage, established by the US government in 1808, was the oldest. The fur-trading Chouteau Brothers of St. Louis established a trading post at the mouth of the Kaw, or Kansas River. Known variously as Chouteau’s Landing, Kanzasmouth or Westport Landing, it is now somewhere underneath the business district of Kansas City. Captain Bonneville launched his three-year exploration from the successor to Ft. Osage. Sublette and Fremont’s expeditions in the 1830ies and 1840ies departed from Westport Landing. In turn, they were overshadowed by Independence, the springboard for the growing Santa Fe trade, which served in turn the Oregon migration in the 40ies, and was swamped by the ’49 Gold Rush Argonauts. An arrival in that year noted the presence of a daguerreotype gallery… and the appalling noise of teams and animals. There were but two public houses in the city, crammed to capacity, with everyone else having to board with local residents or camp out in their wagons. The last was Westport, a little south and a little way down the Santa Fe Trail; begun as a mission and trading post for the Indians. Francis Parkman passed through Westport in 1846.

 It eventually dawned on emigrants for Oregon and California,  that going farther north along the Missouri shortened the distance they need travel towards the Platte, that great river road to the west.  Ft. Leavenworth was established in the 1820ies, with an eye towards intimidating the Indians, and it became the locus for a number of ’49 Argonauts. They looked to avoid congestion at Independence and St. Joseph, farther upstream, and departed from the town of Weston, the ‘Ville (established by a veteran of Army service at Ft.Leavenworth) across the river from it. Weston was built on a series of steep hills; Argonauts coming from Central Europe called it “Little Switzerland”.  John Bidwell, of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party of 1841, claimed to have organized the first wagon party for California from Weston. (They arrived safely for the most, but without their wagons.) It was necessary to ferry wagons and emigrants across the river at Weston, and the town thrived for a number of years, until being sidelined by the railroad boom in the 1860ies.

 The fur-trader, Joseph Robidoux saw into the future; he saw that more and more settlers would come. A trail that began two more days farther up the river by steamboat would save two weeks on the journey to the Platte River, the great highway into the west. He called his little planned city after his patron saint, Saint Joseph, but mostly they called it Saint Joe, or Robidoux’ Landing. By 1844, according to a west-ward bound emigrant that year, it had two or three stores and one hotel. Five years later, it was the major jumping-off point for the Gold Rush; two ferries ran, day and night, and the town was crowded to bursting with emigrants that outnumbered residents four or five times over. The Pony Express ran its 10-day service from St Joseph to Sacramento for one glorious year starting in 1860. The Pony Express was the brain-child of the Russell, Majors & Waddell freighting service, which already held contracts to deliver to military establishments in that era.

 There were a number of minor crossings between Saint Joe and the Council Bluffs area, most of them utilized during the years of extreme congestion following the Gold Rush. One of the popular crossings was near the site of Old Fort Kearney, on the Missouri. A town, Nebraska City rose on the site of the old fort, and boomed in the 1850ies, supplying the Army, and those seeking riches in later gold and silver rushes to Pike’s Peak and Virginia City.

 Finally, there was Council Bluffs, the name given by Lewis and Clark to the site of their parley with the Tribes in 1804.  This was the name for the general district, which covered a number of smaller communities in existence at various times in the neighborhood of present-day Omaha.  A small fort which became a mission under the direction of Father DeSmet ministered to the Potawatomi, until 1841. Five years later, Mormon refugees from Illinois arrived nearby. They crossed the river, and established the Winter Camp, the staging area for the great migration to Salt Lake.  The area was popular with emigrants from the northern states; Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri. It fed emigrant traffic  into the so-called Mormon Trail along the northern side of the Platte River. Prior to the Gold Rush and the Mormon exodus, other Oregon and California-bound parties departed from Council Bluffs, notably the Stephens-Townsend party of 1844.  Construction of the Union Pacific railroad began at Omaha in 1864, foreshadowing the end of the jumping-off places for emigrants and wagon trains, departing from along the Missouri River. After the coming of the railroads to the West, venturing into it would no longer mean a journey of six months, dependent solely on the travelers’ own resources, and the strength and good health of their team animals.

(I originally wrote this as part of the background for my first novel, To Truckee’s Trail … which is now being prepared for release as a second edition in mid-October. The Kindle and Nook editions of the first edition will be available until then.)

Comments closed.