THE earliest ways of travel in this western country were called trails. These
trails did not follow a straight course, but followed the line of least resistance and usually kept to the ridges, going around ravines where possible, and only crossing streams when inevitable. These trails had a starting place and naturally had an objective.|
It is thought by some that the French trappers from St. Louis were the first to mark the Oregon Trail. By some this is doubted. Doctor Say, zoologist of Major Long's expedition, endeavored to find a short cut from Fort Osage, in Jackson county, Missouri, to the Platte river in 1819. It is not thought any trapper made the trip over this trail before 1825 or 1826. Doctor Say followed up the Kaw river to the Big Blue, then up this stream for several miles, where he was attacked by Pawnee Indians. They stole all his horses and he was compelled to return.
General Ashley, who was associated with Major Long in the fur business, claimed to have taken a two-wheel cannon over this trail to the mountains and to have made the first wheel tracks on what afterwards became that great transcontinental trail, the Oregon Trail, in 1826.
Jedediah Strong Smith, William Sublette and David E. Jackson, Ashley's
great lieutenants and mountain pathfinders, bought Ashley's fur business in July, 1826. It is positively known, from their report to the secretary of war, that William Sublette, of this firm, with eighty-one men mounted on mules, ten loaded wagons each drawn by five mule teams, two Dearborn buggies, a milk cow and twelve head of steers, left St. Louis on July 10, 1830, for Wind river, in the Rocky Mountains, over this natural road, soon after to be known as the Oregon Trail.
The wagons and buggies brought out by Sublette were the first to reach the mountains by this route. Up to this time goods had been carried on pack mules and horses. This first use of wheeled vehicles was regarded as one of
W. E. SMITH, of Wamego.the most remarkable events in the history of the trail, and worthy of a report to the secretary of war.
Captain Bonneville's expedition to the Columbia river passed over this trail in 1832. It is immortalized in Washington Irving's "Adventures of Captain Bonneville."
Elijah White, with his party of one hundred twenty persons, passed through Pottawatomie county in 1842. They are said to have been the first band of homeseeking Oregon immigrants. Following close behind them came John C. Fremont with his company of twenty-eight men, including his scout, Kit Carson. In 1843 great caravans of immigrants traveled over this route to Oregon. Elijah Whitman piloted a company consisting of two hundred wagons. That and many other companies passed through Pottawatomie county in the month of May. In 1844 over seven thousand persons passed through Pottawatomie county bound for Oregon. In 1846 the number of
immigrants passing through Pottawatomie county bound for Utah, Oregon and California, has become historic. The Mormon pilgrimage to Salt Lake valley, the people in wagons, on horseback, and afoot, pushing and pulling handcarts containing all their earthly possessions, used this trail.
The Donner party, the first immigrants from Illinois to California, was caught in the snow of the Sierra Nevada mountains near the present town of Truckee. There they were hemmed in for the winter of 1846-'47, forty-two out of ninety dying from starvation and cold. The remainder barely kept alive by subsisting on human flesh. About the time this party reached Pottawatomie county they were taken in by Colonel Russell and his party. They combined for mutual protection. In the latter party was Edward Bryant, the grandson of Daniel Boone, and John Q. Thornton. Both were educated men and afterwards became leaders in the political and literary life in California. The former wrote a history of California and the latter wrote a history of Oregon.
This combined company camped in Pottawatomie county May 23, 1846, probably upon the Vermillion river where the trail crossed the Vieux ford. While in camp a dispute arose between two men, partners, one of whom owned the oxen and the other the wagon in which was carried their goods. The owner of the oxen threatened to take them from the wagon; the other contended he had no right to do so. A few days later the quarrel came to a crisis, when the owner of the oxen took them from the wagon, leaving the other man with his wagon minus oxen to make his way to California as best he could.
The Oregon Trail was the first route across the plains to the Pacific slope While the eastern terminus was St. Louis, the real starting point was at first Independence, Jackson county, Missouri. Later it was Westport. Still later Leavenworth, Atchison and St Joseph, Mo., became outfitting places.
This trail was 2,000 miles long. The Indian tribes were greatly alarmed by the ceaseless movement of the white men into their country, and for many years they attacked straggling bands of immigrants. A greater scourge than Indians fell upon the Oregon Trail. This was the cholera. It ascended the Missouri river, and was carried out by early travelers in the years of 1849-'50. Increasing the exposures and hardships of the journey, it is estimated that over 4,000 died of this disease and lie to-day in unmarked graves along the first four hundred miles of this old highway.
The discovery of gold at Pike's Peak in 1850 caused another great rush of humanity. Even greater than the California rush of 1849-'50. This movement kept a steady volume until the late sixties. Then followed a gradual falling off of travel. This, coupled with the invasion and use of railways, caused the abandonment of the trail in the early seventies.
INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI.The old Weston blacksmith shop, which is still standing on the southwest corner of Liberty and Kansas streets, at Independence, Mo., was built in 1827, the year that Jackson county was organized. It was erected by Samuel Weston, whose real name was Samuel McCutchen. He came from Ireland to aid the United States against Great Britain in the War of 1812. He changed his
name upon landing in America and enlisted in the army of the United States. Upon his death he bequeathed this shop and lot to Robert Weston, his son. Perhaps the greatest movement ever witnessed in front of this old shop was the California rush of 1849. The old building, which was constructed at the early date of 1827, still stands. Across from it, defaced by storms of many years, is still discernible the old sign, "Weston's Wagon Shop." It is to-day used as a shop for welding and repairing, and until recently was used as a blacksmith shop.
It was in this shop that wagons were made and repaired and oxen shod, oxen that drew these prairie schooners across the western plains and over the perilous trails of the mountains.
THE WESTON BLACKSMITH SHOP, OF INDEPENDENCE, MO.
Robert Weston, son of the builder of this shop, lived for seventy-five years
in Independence, from 1824 to the end of the century. This shop was the
starting point for trappers, traders and troops that fared their way across the
plains over the three trails that led to the Far West, the Southwest and the
Northwest -- to wit: The California, the Oregon, and the Santa. Fe Trails.
It was here that steamboat travel ended and overland travel began. Armies
and detachments of troops, on their marches into the wilderness, received
their final preparations at Weston's shop. It is said that Robert Weston never
joined an excursion into New Mexico or California or Oregon, but was content
at home, with his anvil. He died in 1899. For the history of this old shop
I am indebted to W. L. Webb, of Independence, Mo.
This exploration of 1542 by Fremont seemed to fix very definitely in literature the course of the Oregon Trail through Kansas. There was a sort of notoriety or reputation attaching to the exploration of Fremont which it is hard to understand at this day. The South Pass had been discovered nearly twenty years when Fremont set out on his first expedition.
Women had ridden horseback through it nearly ten years before and just ten years previous to his passage through it Captain Bonneville had driven his park of wagons through it and far beyond it. Yet Fremont was later credited in the popular mind with having discovered the South Pass. This probably arose from the fact that his reports and maps were promptly published by the government, and they carried the first definite information of the Oregon trail to the people at large." -- Connelly's "History of Kansas," vol. I
|page 5||The Oregon Trail.|
With this expedition was the famous scout, Kit Carson. They followed west
on the south side of the Kansas river and reached the ford on the Kansas
river late in the afternoon of June 14. Here the river was 230 yards wide.
Fremont wrote, "By our route, the ford was 100 miles to the mouth of the
Kansas river. He followed the Santa Fe Trail from Choteau's landing, near
the mouth of the Kansas river, to about where the town of Gardner now
stands. Thence he passed along the Oregon Trail to the ford. This ford referred to by Fremont was near Topeka. Somewhere I have read that the
trail crossed the Kansas river in the vicinity of the Rock Island bridge in
Topeka. However, I am unable to give the reference now. Dawson also
gives the distance from Westport to the Kansas river crossing as being seventy miles.|
A great deal of difficulty was experienced in making the crossing. A rubber boat was used, which capsized. This boat was twenty feet in length and five feet broad. On it were placed the body and wheels of a cart with its load. Also three men with paddles. Two of the men came near drowning. The expedition remained in camp on the north side of the Kansas river until the 18th of June. Then it traveled west, following the foot of the hills which bordered the Kansas valley -- usually about three miles wide. After entering what is now Pottawatomie county he wrote:
"I rode for some miles to the left, attracted by the appearance of a cluster of huts near the mouth of the Vermillion. It was a large but deserted Kansas village, scattered in an open wood along the margin of the stream on a spot chosen with the customary Indian fondness for beauty of scenery. The Pawnees had attacked it in the early spring. Some of the houses were burned and others blackened with smoke; the weeds were already getting possession of the cleared places. Riding up the Vermillion river I reached the ford in time to meet the carts, and crossing, encamped on the western side."
This refers to the Louis Vieux ford.
"We breakfasted the next morning at half past five, and left our encampment early. Quitting the river bottom I rode along the uplands over the rolling country, generally in view of the Kansas, from eight to twelve miles distant. Many large boulders of a very compact sandstone, of various shades of red, some of them four or five tons in weight, were scattered along the hills. We traveled nineteen miles and pitched our tents at evening on the headwaters of a small creek, now nearly dry, but having in its bed many fine springs. The morning of the 20th was fine with a southerly breeze and a bright sky. The country to-day was rather more broken, rising still, and covered everywhere with fragments of siliceous limestone, particularly on the summits, where they were small and as thickly strewed as pebbles on the shore of the sea. We crossed at 10 a. m. the Big Vermillion. Making our usual halt at noon, after a half day's march of twenty-four miles we reached the Big Blue."
This is the substance of John C. Fremont's report of his expedition crossing Pottawatomie county.
The Indian village referred to is located on the east side of the Vermillion river and one mile north of U. S. highway No. 40. This farm was allotted
|page 6||Kansas State Historical Society.|
to Nah-nim-nuk-skuk and purchased from him by Ben Huey, and is now owned
by Henry Shortt, of Topeka. It is described as the south one-half of the
northwest one-fourth of section 32, township 9, range 11 east of the sixth
principal meridian, in Pottawatomie county, Kansas. (Report of the exploring
expedition to the Rocky Mountains, 1842, by Capt. John C. Fremont.)
Many people have said that John C. Fremont did not cross the Kansas river until he was near the town of Wamego, Kan. That there he built a cairn on the south side of the Kansas river in Wabaunsee county, on Femont's Peak, as a marker and guide. Also that he buried one of his men by this cairn.
His report as given above seems to indicate that he crossed the Kansas river near the north side of Topeka and that he did not cross to the south side of the river again. Neither does he mention in his report the loss of any men from the mouth of the Kansas river until he crossed what is now Pottawatomie county.
I do not know how he measured distances. But he speaks of its being one hundred miles to the crossing. Dawson says it was seventy miles to the crossing.
Again Fremont states that after leaving camp at the Louis Vieux ford on the Vermillion river, "we traveled 19 miles and pitched our tents at evening on the headwaters of a small creek, now nearly dry, having in its bed many fine springs." Again it appears that he may be in error as to distance traveled (nineteen miles), because the next morning he crossed the Big Vermillion in Marshall county at 10 o'clock. I do not know what creek he referred to, with so many fine springs in it, unless it is Spring creek, in Spring Creek township. This, in all probability, would be a day's drive from the Louis Vieux ford, or twenty-five miles. From there he could easily reach the Big Vermillion in Marshall county by 10 o'clock a. m.
The length of the trail across Pottawatomie county is approximately forty-five miles. From the point where the trail enters St. Marys township to the Louis Vieux ford would be approximately fifteen miles. So that Fremont would still have had twenty-five miles to travel in Pottawatomie county, instead of nineteen. If he traveled but nineteen miles he probably camped at the Scott spring at the bridge over Rock creek at Westmoreland. This was a famous camping place on the old trail.
The trail in Pottawatomie county passes through the following section; townships and ranges: Sections 14, 10, 9, 4, 5, 6, 31 and the east half of 38, in St. Marys township; range 12 east. The west half of section 36, 35, 26: 27, 28, 21, 20 and 19 in Belvue township, range 11 east. Sections 24, 28, 14, 15, 10, 9, 4 and 5 in Louisville township, range 10 east. Sections 32, 30, 25, 24, 14 and 11 in Union township, range 10 east. Sections 10, 3, 4, Pottawatomie township, range 9 east. Sections 33, 28, 21, 16, 17, 8, 5 Rock Creek township, range 9 east. Sections 32, 29, 20, 17, 8, 5 Clear Creek township, where the trail left Pottawatomie county and entered Marshall county.