Westerns are unfashionable, that much I do know. Hollywood isn't filming them, and the story of thousands of mostly white Americans storming west, usurping land from Indians and Mexicans in the process, is a fraught one in these divided times. But, despite all this, as you may note from an earlier blog entry, I have become fascinated by those who traveled west, and especially those women who went with the Gold Rush migration. More than that, westward migration is too big, too resonant, too American for me to believe that it's a story without 21st century appeal. What was it like to be an immigrant risking your life to cross a vast desert, and to knowingly trespass on others' lands? Were you truly a resilient individual, facing a perilous journey alone, or did your community, and even the federal government, have your back? What happened when your American dream met disappointment and death?
My husband and I have come to Kansas City to follow the wagon trains, almost 200 years too late. We begin at Independence, MO, from which traders left for New Mexico (and returned) on the Santa Fe trail, and migrants prepared for their wagon journey to Oregon or California, most never to head "back east" again.
Our wagon is a rented Toyota Corolla. Our tent is a series of comfortable hotels. Our food is whatever we can forage on the trail from a succession of cheap restaurants, although we have stocked up with supplies for the journey here in Missouri: trail mix, sparkling water, and chocolate.
We started with high expectations, but like the migrants--like America itself--we quickly began to "see the elephant". The phrase was used by the 19th century migrants to mean getting terribly excited about an experience (in the migrants' case, going west) only to suffer a reality check in the form of disappointment and disaster.
After excitedly anticipating museums and original sites leading us west, our elephant immediately appeared to us in the Kansas City area.
Massive development in the postwar era has meant that the westward migrant trails and campsites have been largely obliterated. Scant respect has been paid to the survivals in recent years: The film at the National Frontier Trails Museum (funded by the City of Independence) hasn't been updated since 1990. The Rice-Tremonti House, an important site where migrants once camped and resupplied, was closed for a wedding (without notice) when we visited. The museum at the Barnes Enclosure--Cave Spring (another migrant campsite) is only open 10-2 on weekdays, and clearly runs on volunteer enthusiasm and funding fumes. The poor Hart Grove Campground, where migrants reported coming off a ridge they had followed since Independence, and where the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party took a rest on their way to horror in the Sierras, is hemmed in by bland recent development, a lost chance to preserve green space in a city blighted by sprawl. It's only a matter of time, we reckon, before the Hart Grove Campground is presented to visitors as an enclosed square foot of grass:
Our experience is best summed up in the swales. Kansas City area locals love to boast of "swales", depressions in the ground that are all that is left of the grassed-over original wagon trails. The first swales we saw were a couple of hundred yards from the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence: all the signage has been stolen, and we really couldn't tell what was a swale, and what was a lawnmower mark in the grass. The Wieduwilt Swales and the swales in Minor Park were much clearer, although they amounted only to fragments of trail:
But what could have turned into a depressing start to our journey has been enlivened by the determined efforts of locals: At the evidently unfunded Trailside Center (a sort of city meeting room that doubles (triples?) as a 70s-style amateur museum and welcome center) cheery volunteer and my namesake Annette pressed loads of leaflets upon us. The work of David Jackson to create an app of all the westward trails sites in the Kansas City area, under a now-defunct grant for community development, has not been in vain: We have used every bit of it. The first-person interpreter at the National Frontier Trails Museum, whose name I shamefully did not obtain (I would love to meet her as herself!) gave a superb portrayal of an enslaved woman brought from West Virginia to Independence, a reminder that westward migration was in stages, and that people of color were among the migrants.
Thanks to the underappreciated and (let me repeat that) underfunded efforts of people from local to federal government, the wagon trains roll once again, and I am following them. Follow me on Twitter by searching the hashtag #AnnetteGoesWest.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com