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The great trails from Missouri were the settlers’ ‘Way out West’

Posted in America, Geography, Historical articles, History on Monday, 30 September 2013

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This edited article about the United States of America originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 413 published on 13 December 1969.

Santa Fe Trail, picture, image, illustration

The Santa Fe Trail by Ron Embleton

Missouri’s nickname, the Gateway to the West, was particularly apt in the mid 19th century. The great trails westwards, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and the Santa Fe Trail all started in the state.

From the 1830s to the 1850s, the small town of Independence was one of the most important spots in the world. It was the “jumping off place of the American Frontier,” where traders and trappers, rogues and murderers, and thousands of ordinary men, women and children assembled to cross the prairies and mountains, and face scalding heat, freezing cold, Indian attacks, starvation, thirst and exhaustion in search of a new homeland in the West. Oregon was more than 2,000 miles away – and the California Trail branched off the Oregon route. The Santa Fe Trail, used mainly by trappers and traders, went to the South-West.

The first great trek on the Oregon Trail reached its destination in 1842, while the Santa Fe Trail had been used since the 1820s. However, they both started from Missouri. At first horses were used, but later emigrants found oxen tougher. Local traders and blacksmiths did a roaring trade. Independence had thirty stores, two large hotels, many boarding houses, blacksmiths and wagon shops. The streets were thronged with men, horses, mules and oxen. And a motley collection they were. When the historian, Francis Parkman, visited the town, he described how fine families set out along with the “vilest outcasts in the country.”

However, the epic journeys across untamed America must have been great levellers. In the face of countless hardships, the unconquerable spirit alone mattered, and the early pioneers showed that they had that in plenty. Their story is one of America’s finest.

Missouri, their starting point, was named after an Indian tribe which lived near the mouth of the Missouri River when the first French explorers came south from Canada in the 17th century. The word means “the people of the long canoes.”

It would be in about 1735 that the first French settlement was built there, while St. Louis, the second settlement, was founded in 1764. Soon after that, Spain took control of the area and held sway there from 1770 until 1804, when Missouri became American. After becoming a state in 1821, it became the centre of bitter controversy in the question of how far north slavery was to be permitted. Missouri became a slave-owning state, and in the 1850s Missourians even invaded Kansas to try to make that a slave area too – a subject that will be developed in the episode about Kansas. During the Civil War, Missourians were deeply divided. Over 1,000 skirmishes took place in the state and many of its inhabitants lived in continual terror. However, after the war, railroads wrecked in the fighting were rebuilt and gradually the state became more prosperous.

Besides being called the Gateway to the West, the Mother of the West, and the Centre State, because of its position, Missouri is most famously known as the Show-Me State. This originated in 1899 when Congressman William D. Vandiver said, “I come from a country that raises corn, cotton, cockleburrs, and Democrats. I’m from Missouri, and you’ve got to show me.” “Show-me” therefore means “I don’t believe anything without proof” – which seems rather a tough, business-like motto for hospitable Missourians.

Covering 69,686 square miles, Missouri has maize, livestock, coal and iron among its key industries. Though its capital is Jefferson City, its largest city is St. Louis, an important industrial centre, which lies just below the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Among the state’s more famous citizens was the great humorous writer, Mark Twain, who was born and grew up in Hannibal, Missouri. Another very distinguished Missourian is ex-President Harry S. Truman, whose home town was Independence.

With Arkansas, Missouri shares a popular holiday region – the Ozark Mountains. An area of rivers, lakes and hills, it is still as primitive in some places as the hill country of Kentucky and Tennessee. The same type of people settled in the area – English, Scots and Irishmen, toting guns, quoting the Bible and singing beautiful traditional ballads.

Arkansas was first visited by Spaniards as early as 1541. But then came the French, who took possession of the Mississippi Valley and held on to it until it became American as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Mainly it was settled by Southerners and, not surprisingly, joined the South in the Civil War, after becoming a state in 1836. During the war, many battles and guerrilla skirmishes took place in the state, but by 1864 the Union forces had more or less subdued the area. Readmitted to the Union in 1868, Arkansas benefited from the growth of railroads in the 1880s and 1890s which helped bring prosperity to its people.

Once known as the Bear State and the Wonder State, it is now usually called the Land of Opportunity. It gets its actual name from the name of an Indian Tribe, the Quapaw, originally the Ugakhpah, the “downstream people.”

In area 53,104 square miles, Arkansas (usually pronounced Arkansaw) is a mainly agricultural state, though it does produce coal, bauxite, petroleum and natural gas, and has the only diamond mine in the U.S.A. There are also large forest areas, and water is abundant enough to be converted into hydro-electric power. The capital and largest city of the state is Little Rock.

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