Overland Trails

Overland Trails and Westward Migration

Three dimensional, pictorial color map of the Oregon Trail
Three dimensional, pictorial color map of the Oregon Trail


Missouri became the “Gateway to the West” for half a million emigrants seeking a better life, quick wealth, or adventure on the frontier. Independence, Westport, and St. Joseph developed into bustling outfitting posts for the  three major trails headed west: Oregon, California, and Santa Fe. The first true emigrant train left Missouri in 1841 guided by Thomas Fitzpatrick, and the first major migration to Oregon passed through the area in 1843.

Caravans left Independence in the early spring on the road to West Port. The California, Oregon and Santa Fe Trails were, it should be noted, one and the same along this route. It was after they left West Port that they divided and took on their respective, singular names. (Lee, F. (1980, May). Historic Westport: The Trails and how they passed through Westport. Westport. 6. MVSC Q 977.8411 W537).
Of those who set out in the spring of 1850 was a large party among whose members was Rev. Robert James, the father then of two little prattling boys, who afterwards became the noted bandits, Frank and Jesse. En route Mr. James wrote one letter to the Liberty Tribune, which is still preserved in the files of that paper. Not long after his arrival in California, Rev. James died. (History of Clay and Platte Counties. (1885). St. Louis, MO: National Historical Co., pg. 153. MVSC 977.816 C62-2).

Rev. James wrote from Fort Laramie, May 18, 1850:

"We hold tent worship nightly in some one of our tents and every Sabbath evening prayer meetings. Many of the emigrants are in great distress. Some are going badly prepared for the trip. One man is going through with a wheel barrow, who out travels our mule teams … May the blessings of God rest on us until we shall have completed our expedition and return home safely to our families and friends." (James, R. (1850, May 18). [Letter to Liberty Tribune]. Fort Laramie, WY. Liberty (MO) Tribune Papers (SC34).

This letter is now in the Missouri Valley Special Collections Liberty (Mo.) Tribune Papers (SC34). Another letter written to the Liberty Tribune, this one by N. P. Carpenter from Sacramento City, California, Dec. 9, 1849, advises only "able-bodied" men to venture on the trail.

"I would not advise any man, who is engaged in business that will yield him a decent support, to come and risk his fortunes here---A young, stout, able-bodied man, who is willing to undergo a great deal of hard labor, had, perhaps, better come. All lazy people had better stay away." (Carpenter, N. P. (1849, December 9). [Letter to Liberty Tribune]. Sacramento City, California. Liberty (MO) Tribune Papers (SC34).


Selected overland trails and westward expansion resources

Diaries and journals
Chase, G. M. (1860). George M. Chase Diary. SC31-2.
Gass, P. (1807). 1807 Patrick Gass Journal. MVSC X 917.8 G25J 1807.
Hines, M. E. (1958). Diary of Mary Everard Hines. Manuscript file: Hines, Mary Everard.
Skinner, H. A. (1849). Hugh Alexander Skinner’s Overland Diary to California, 1849. Manuscript file: Skinner, Hugh Alexander
Manuscript files
Carpenter, D. (1847-1913). Dan Carpenter’s [Journal] 1847-1848, 1850-1851. 
Chambers, A. J. (1845). Crossing the Plains in 1845.
Cox, M. C. (1953). James Hyatt McGee.
Map of an Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842. (1845). SC117, Series 5: Rolled #17
Map of California, Oregon, Texas, and the Territories Adjoining with Routes Etc. (1849). SC117, Series 3-12: U.S. & States #13.
Pioneer Map of Jackson County, Missouri. (1934). SC117, Series 3-8: Jackson County & Independence, Missouri #11.
Vertical Files
Boone, Daniel Morgan
Fremont, John C.
Pioneer Reminiscences