A Journey to the Past in Independence, MO
Discover pioneer ancestors at the start of the Oregon Trail
By Jackie Tucker
My obsession with genealogy started early, though I didn't realize that's what it was at the time. As a young girl, I would spend rainy Oregon afternoons thumbing through my grandmother's old black-and-white photos. She would explain who each person in the photo was, and I would beg her to tell me stories about their lives. She was born during the Great Depression and held down the home front with two children when my grandfather was overseas during WWII. So her stories were rich with a history that captured my attention.
When my grandmother passed away last year, my mother and I began tracing the steps of our family through these faded images. On the back of each photo, in Gram's graceful, looped handwriting, were the details of who was in the picture and when and where each shot was taken. Her colorful stories from when I was young and the descriptions on each photo made it easy to start the search into our family's past and find our roots.
Retracing our steps
Thanks in large part to Gram's meticulous documentation along with a bit of online research, my mom and I were able to determine that our ancestors had come out West on the Oregon Trail. So my mom and I headed to Independence, MO, where the Oregon Trail began.
Our first stop was at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, where we were hoping to find records that could tell us more about our ancestors and the start of their pioneer journey. When we first arrived at the center, I was in awe. With 52,000 square feet of resources for people like me researching their family history, it is the largest free-standing public genealogy library in the United States. We could've spent months going through all of the documents, but thankfully the knowledgeable staff was on hand and eager to help.
"I don't know why I'm so emotional," my mom said as we scanned through microfilm that contained the 1840-1850 census. The staff suggested starting with that date range, since 1843 was the beginning of the period of heaviest travel of wagon trains headed west on the Oregon Trail. It took a little digging, but when we finally found the last name we were looking for, both my mom and I got a little choked up. We had found our ancestor, Samuel. His name was right there in blurry black and white. He had been a farmer with a wife and four children and was not listed in an earlier census of the area. The staff member suggested that this likely implied he moved to Independence with the intention of heading west.
This was a delightful discovery, but we wanted to know more. What would he and his family have experienced in Independence? What was it like to pack up your family and all of your belongings in a covered wagon, not knowing for sure what joys or dangers would greet you along the way?
Following the trail
The lovely staff at the Midwest Genealogy Center sent us over to the National Frontier Trails Museum to learn more. And learn more we did! First, we picked up where we left off in their vast research area, the Merrill J. Mattes Research Library. Named for well-known trail scholar Mattes after his collection came to the library, the collection contains more than 3,500 volumes of rare books, 200 cubic feet of manuscripts, 2,000 maps, hundreds of periodicals, and a plethora of old drawings, photographs and microfilm.
I went straight for the drawings and microfilm. I knew the odds of finding my ancestors was slim, but browsing through the images and imagining that one of these wagon trains or makeshift tents might have sheltered my great-great-great-great-grandfather was plenty fun enough. My mom and I only wished my grandmother could have been there to enjoy it with us. She would have loved it.
After getting our fill of history through images, we traced the Oregon Trail on the maps and followed our ancestor's journey from Independence to Oregon. Then we moved into the main part of the museum to get a better idea of what it would've really been like on the trail.
"Forty-seven years ago it was a serious thing to say goodbye to all that was nearest and dearest. To uproot ourselves from home and go forth into the wilderness and into many unknown dangers." This quote from pioneer, Lavinia Honeyman Porter, was written as she reflected back on her own departure from her family as she, her husband and child headed west on April 14, 1859. I wondered if my own ancestors had a similar experience. How difficult that must have been!
We watched an award-winning short film that gave us a glimpse into the life of a pioneer and whet our appetites for the rest of the exhibits in the museum. As we walked through the museum, reading more excerpts from diaries and journals of the pioneers, I began to really appreciate the strength of character my ancestors must have had. I imagined the chaos and excitement around the town of Independence as wagon trains were organized and purchases were made for the journey.
Then there was the journey itself, the unknown. They faced dangers as they wound their way through the rugged terrain with nothing but a thin canvas over the wagon to protect them from elements like raging storms, choking dust and wild animals, all in the search for a new life, a better opportunity. I admire their bravery and ambition.
Continuing the journey
My mom and I gathered all of the notes we had taken-in handwriting less graceful than Gram's-and added them to the copies of images and documents in the massive file we had brought with us. We were overjoyed with this new information and so incredibly grateful for the kind people at the Midwest Genealogy Center and the National Frontier Trails Museum, who had graciously spent extra time with us helping us uncover this bit of our family history.
I have always had a thirst for exploration and adventure, and after learning about the bold spirits of my ancestors, I now know where that desire comes from. It makes me feel close to them. I may have never met them, but no amount of time and distance can limit the ties of kinship and heritage. And I have a much deeper appreciation for the adventurous spirit that permeates my life even today.
Plan your visit to Independence for a journey in self-discovery.