The Lure of the West

Monday, August 19, 2013

Can you name the longest river in North America? No, it isn’t the Mississippi. The correct answer is the Missouri. It starts on the western edge of Montana and flows east partway through North Dakota before turning south. It continues south through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa; cuts through the north-east corner of Kansas; and flows east again through Missouri before joining the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis.

The Missouri River is deep and wide and makes a great road for river travel. No wonder Lewis and Clark chose to follow it on their way west.

The picture at the top of this post shows the Missouri River at Fort Osage, which was one of the sites we saw while on vacation. The original fort was built under the direction of William Clark. (Yes, that’s the Clark from Lewis and Clark. He noticed the location while on his expedition west and thought it would be a good place for an outpost.) The fort functioned as both a military compound to foster good relations with the Indians and a trading post between 1808 and 1827. The second picture shows the current buildings, which are a reproduction.

River travel wasn’t the only way west, of course. Another of our sightseeing stops was at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri, which is dedicated to the three overland trails that began at or near Independence: the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail, and the Oregon Trail.

Heading west meant leaving extended family and friends behind, and the parting at journey’s beginning was often the last time they saw each other. But that didn’t mean the pioneers forgot the people they left behind, and they made use of every opportunity to send or receive letters. How those letters arrived changed over time, but for a year and a half (from April 1860 to October 1861), they travelled by Pony Express.

St. Joseph, Missouri, has a Pony Express Museum located in the original Pony Express stable (partially reconstructed after a fire). There were Pony Express stations all along the way where riders changed horses several times before they handed the mail pouch off to another rider.

The Pony Express service was inaugurated with a race between mail heading west and mail heading east. Both left on April 3, 1860 and took ten days, but the westbound mail arrived in Sacramento before the eastbound mail arrived in St. Joseph. They didn’t leave at the same time, however, so I’m not sure who actually won.

The last two pictures show the Pony Express Museum/Stable and a tableau of the start of the race from St. Joseph.

I may be a Midwestern girl at heart, but I'm still fascinated by the lure of the West.

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