Sunday, August 20, 2006

Representations of Indians and US Army along the Oregon Trail: Independence

And so begins my project to blog my findings concerning my trip along the Great Plains section of the Oregon Trail. I set out to examine interpretations of the US Army and Indians from the time of the trail. The geographical journey begins in the same town where the trail first started: Independence, Missouri.

Independence was founded in 1827 near the banks of the Missouri River. It served primarily as a trading town and shipping port. Many Indian groups which were forced into Kansas (at that time Kansas was dumping ground for Indian tribes from the Eastern states) went to Independence to trade. In 1831, Joseph Smith Junior led the Mormons to the town. He claimed he had received a vision in which God told him the third temple of New Jerusalem would be located just west of the Jackson County Court House. The town steadily grew in size with the influx of Mormon and frontiersmen.

Also in 1831 an event occurred which would herald the greatest intranational migration in American history. Four Flatheads Indians passed through Independence on their way to Missouri to request medicine men and their religion. The call was issued forth by both Protestants and Catholics that the Indians desired to have the Christian religion. One of the people who answered the call was Marcus Whitman. He, his wife, and some other missionaries left Independence in 1836 for Oregon Territory. The importance of their journey was that they proved a wagon could travel the "Great American Desert." Another important person to answer the call was Father Pierre-Jean De Smet. De Smet was a Belgium-born Jesuit Priest who would play a great role not only with the Oregon Trail but also American history.

The Oregon Trail started in earnest in 1843. Wagons and people would arrive at Independence landing. Supplies would be bought from the local stores. Men would gather in the court house square to discuss the formation of wagon trains. Because of its history as the start of the Oregon and other trails Independence is known as the "Queen City of the Trails."

In Court House Square there are plaques to the start of the Oregon and Santa Fe Trail. The place to go for history is the National Frontier Trails Museum. The Museum has displays showing the many aspects of western expansion via the trails.

While the museum is a very nice place and very informative it lacks some necessary interpretation. The only depiction of the military is concerning the Mexican-American War. No solid mentioning of the famous forts of Kearny or Laramie. There is a section dedicated to Indians. However; all encounters are written accounts by the emigrants. The museum does a good job showing the wide range of opinions the emigrants had. Having something from the Indian's point-of-view would have been nice however. The museum has a variety of paintings of the trails. The majority of paintings which depicting Indians had them in the background as the wagon trains (progress) marched onwards. It felt like the part of the Passion "... and John looks on." Relegated to background noise.

At Jackson County Courthouse Square there is a store, operated by Indians, which sales a variety of overpriced Indian trinkets. Most of the things were from tribes from the Southwest or Upper Midwest. The logo for the store is an Indian Chief with a huge feather headdress. The stereotype of Midwestern Indians being the model of all Indians is alive and well- a trend which will continue.

No where to be found in the rest of the city were any more interpretations of Indians or US Army from the time of the Oregon Trail. I surmise the lack of Army representation was because Missouri was already a state at the trail's time and the counties had their own militias to keep the peace. The lack of Indian representations is a little bit more shocking. Osage Indians had created the path ways which would become the roads of Independence and Kansas City hundreds of years before any whites were in Missouri. I am NOT a "revisionist" historian/geographer but give the people some credit!

One of the oldest churches in town is Saint Mary’s Catholic Church which was founded as an Indian mission. Only a small marker tells of its past. Nothing inside the church could be found discussing its past. Why does the church not take pride with its past?

It is time to leave Independence and Missouri. 700 miles and many more places separate us from the end of the Great Plains section at Fort Laramie.

Category: Oregon Trail

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