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Oregon-California Trail

Oregon Trail ferry crossing, Kansas RiverIt is estimated that 300,000 people traveled to the West Coast during the 20 years after the first caravan went to Oregon in 1841. Almost all of these people traveled through northeast Kansas along what became known as the Oregon Trail. This road, also called the Oregon-California Trail, was a 2,000-mile route beginning at Independence, Missouri, and continuing west and north to the Columbia River Valley in Oregon or west then south to the gold fields of California.

Kansas was the gathering point for wagon trains. The main trail entered the state at Kansas City, but other branches crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph and later at Atchison and Leavenworth. Trail junctions and other landmarks in Kansas became assembly places where caravans were formed for the long trek west.

Wagon trains journeying from Independence usually spent the first or second night at Lone Elm campground in Johnson County. A few miles to the west there was an important junction: One road turned southwest toward Santa Fe, the other went northwest toward Oregon. Parties bound for the Northwest found that the steep banks of the Wakarusa and Vermillion Rivers made crossing difficult. At Topeka there were two ferries across the Kansas River, one operated by the Pappan brothers near present-day downtown Topeka, the other by Sidney Smith west of the city. At the Red Vermillion crossing in Pottawatomie County, Louis Vieux built a toll bridge. Charging one dollar per wagon he made as much as $300 in a day.

The Potawatomi Baptist Mission at Topeka, the Catholic mission at St. Marys, and Scott Spring near Westmoreland were popular stopping places, but the most prominent Kansas site was Alcove Spring. An early traveler described it as "a beautiful cascade of water. . .altogether one of the most romantic stops I ever saw." The spring hosted John C. Frémont, Marcus Whitman, Mormons, gold-seekers, and the ill-fated Donner party. One member of that group, Sarah Keyes, was buried nearby.

Near Alcove Spring is Independence Crossing, where thousands of wagons forded the Big Blue River. North of Marysville, the road from St. Joseph joined the main trail.

Because Kansas was not open to settlement during the heyday of the Oregon Trail, few who traveled across this area ever lived here. Many, however, wrote of the beauty and fertility of the land. Their descriptions of the Kansas and Blue River valleys helped dispel the myth of the "Great American Desert" and encouraged others later to settle in Kansas.

Entry: Oregon-California Trail

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2004

Date Modified: February 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.