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Discover Mid-America — March 2008

No other collection
like it in the world

by Terri Baumgardner
photography by Ron Johnson

The three westward trails that carved pathways across the American frontier reveal stories of mankind's endurance, courage and belief in a better life.

The tales of the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails are unmatched in international history and still capture people's fascination. A United States Presidential candidate has referenced the historic journeys in speeches to American voters during the 2008 primary elections.

Not surprisingly, the artifacts from the pioneers' westward migration are prized collectibles. And to family members from later generations some relics of the past are priceless.

Such is the case with Discover Mid-America's advertising and marketing representative, Al Hedrick. His great-grandfather, Thomas McKee Stuart, kept a diary.

The original diary of Thomas McKee Stuart tells the story of time spent on the trail.

"He traveled up the Missouri River from St. Louis to a town near Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the Mormon trail started; it was a major trail along with the Oregon and California," Hedrick said. "There, they bought wagons, oxen, geared up in late April, about 1853, and went across Nebraska, Wyoming and into Utah. In the diary, he talked about things he saw like Chimney Rock, Independence Rock, Devil's Gate and in the fall, early October, they arrived in Salt Lake. They averaged 15 miles per day."

Eventually, Stuart became disillusioned with the Mormon Church, and he left "in the dark of night" to return to an area near Leavenworth and Atchison, KS. The diary documents the “Brighams” (Mormons) in Utah, President Abraham Lincoln's assassination as well as the beginning of The Civil War.

"The diary was passed from family member to family member," Hedrick said. "I went out in the ‘80s and followed his trail to Salt Lake, and saw the things he wrote about."

The diary encompasses about ten journals, which Hedrick's mother, Doris Ratterree typed into a book format. Hedrick gathered up family photos and created an heirloom for members of the family.

"Of course, there are days he didn't write much," Hedrick said. "But he always discussed weather, lots of politics and church events. I think it is unusual because it is one man's history."

Diaries and letters are not only family heirlooms. Such recordings serve as historical documents.

And there is no collection in the world that is as rich as the National Frontier Trails Museum and Merrill J. Mattes Research Library in Independence, MO.

Historic Tourism

In the 1800s, pioneers from the East and Midwest converged upon Independence, MO where they began their journey west into the untamed frontier.

John Mark Lambertson, the National Frontier Trails Center director and archivist, reveals a letter from one of the first women to cross the country on the trails west.

Today, nearly 18,000 people a year, from across the United States, England, Japan, Russia, Madagascar, Brazil and more than 30 other countries, still journey to Independence. Their goal is to recount America’s three trails history at the National Frontier Trails Museum and Merrill J. Mattes Research Library located in the town’s historic district.

"We get visitors from all 50 states, and about 35 countries because, and I always emphasize this, because they more fully understand and appreciate what a truly unique story this is in world history," said John Mark Lambertson, the National Frontier Trails Center director and archivist.

"In thousands and thousands of years in world history, there is no story like this in which approximately 400,000 people voluntarily moved in an overland mass migration for 2,000 plus miles to establish homes for themselves. And, they did it because there was opportunity, doors were opening to them to improve their status in life."

Melody Miyamoto, an assistant professor of history at Iowa's Coe College, has made several visits to the museum and library. She was so impressed that she's coming back this spring with a group of students.

"I want them to get a view of Independence, Missouri," said the Cedar Rapids professor. "What the Missouri River looks like, what the emigrants would have seen when they started on the trail. And, you can see the wagon ruts, and the actual trails they went on."

Located in a neighborhood steeped in three trails history, the museum and library are housed in a historic flourmill that was in production during the time pioneers were launching their westward journeys.

"This is one of the warehouses of the old flour mill," Lambertson said. "The railroad spur used to come up right outside, that's where they would load sacks of flour. It was called The Queen of the Pantry Flour. The Waggoner-Gates Milling Company was in operation here for about a century. And, Mr. Waggoner had the house across the street, that's the Bingham-Waggoner home.

“Mr. Gates' house is still standing, but it is known as the Truman home because George Gates was Bess Truman's maternal grandfather. So after Harry and Bess were married, he moved into his mother-in-law's house. Through the years, it became known as the summer White House and the Truman Home."

The mill was in operation from the 1830s until after World War II. The museum opened in the old mill in 1990, a joint effort by the state of Missouri and city of Independence.

Just north of the historic building is the remnant of a spring, a public watering hole where the pioneers would fill their canisters for the journey.

"It was laid out by the city founders in 1827 as a public spring, and so that was undoubtedly used as a water source for the emigrants coming through," Lambertson said.

The National Frontier Trails Museum offers an array of activities, including exhibits, films, programs, tours of trail swales from the westward migration and covered wagon rides.

The Three Trails Museum

The museum features exhibits on American history from about 1800 to 1880, including stories of Lewis and Clark, the transcontinental railroad and the three trails beginning with displays of fur trappers.

The Trails Library has a unique look, showing the columns and brick of the old warehouse that the library now calls home.

"One of the stories that gets overlooked is the fur trappers and traders, they were really important," Lambertson said. "This map shows all the different routes the trappers not only explored, but documented. Their maps were the routes, how to get through, where there was good grass and where there was water. They were extremely important, they were the ones who knew the West and that's why they ended up being guides for early wagon trains."

Meandering through the museum's exhibits, visitors will encounter exhibits of wagon trains, artifacts and stories of first-hand accounts of pioneers' journeys westward.

"Typically, they left in April and May," Lambertson said. "Usually it took about five months, whether you were going to Oregon or California. Some took a little longer; certainly the Donner party was a group that got delayed. They got caught in a freak early snowstorm in October of 1846. They weren't rescued until February of 1847. By that time, half of their party had died. There were some people that went through on pack animals, hurried along and got through in as little as three months."

Two covered wagons are on display; the larger wagon was used to carry freight. The smaller wagon illustrates a typical wagon families would have packed their belongings in to travel west.

"You had to pack for yourself, your family, for five or six months in a wagon this size with teams to pull it," Lambertson said. "Most people walked or rode a horse along the way. Because of the need for provisions, there wasn't room for people to ride in the wagon. And, you tried to keep wagons as lightweight as possible or you'd wear out your oxen. A lot of this terrain was difficult, animals tended to fall by the wayside and die by the time you were getting to your destination."

One exhibit features tools and other possessions the pioneers tossed aside the trails in an effort to lighten the weight of their wagon. One such artifact is a woman's rolling pin.

"We have a quote from a girl's recollection of the journey," Lambertson said. "She remembered vividly how a grown man stood there, holding his mother's rolling pin when he was ordered to throw it to lighten the load. She remembered this man had tears in his eyes as he said it was his mother's, and she made some mighty fine biscuits with it. It may be the only thing (of hers) he had left."

Indeed, the museums exhibits are highlighted with stories of people who blazed their own way westward across the rugged American frontier with excerpts of their diaries and letters.

The Crown Jewell of the Westward Trails

The Merrill J. Mattes Research Library holds about 3,500 of books, some of which are rare publications. It also houses manuscripts, photographs, periodicals, drawings and 2,000 maps of the American frontier.

The writing in this diary drops off when it is believed that the person owning it drowned on their journey. The diary was carried by the brother and kept in the family until being donated to the museum.

As a researcher, Miyamoto believes the library is second to none.

"The Mattes Library is the only one with a focus on trail diaries," Miyamoto said.

Indeed, the library also has acquired about 2,500 trail diaries and letters.

"To our knowledge, it is the largest collection of first-person accounts of the overland trail experience anywhere," Lambertson said.

With gloved hands, Lambertson delicately opens a box of letters and diaries, most of which are rarely seen by the public.

"This is the jewels of the collection," he said. "Obviously, it's encapsulated for preservation purposes."

Gently unfolding an antiqued letter, Lambertson explains that in the 1800s, notes were written on one sheet of paper, which was folded into an envelope and sealed with wax.

"This is a special one," Lambertson said. "This is a letter written by one of the first American women to cross the North American continent. This was a missionary woman who traveled with her husband and two other couples in 1840. The letter describes the second half of their journey, after they'd gone from Wyoming. It is a rare piece as far as documenting one of the earliest women's accounts of the crossing.

“They were going on horseback, they'd gotten lost because there really wasn't a trail yet. They were being led out by fur trappers. At one point, she's describing how they got to a campground on a Saturday night, and thought this is a beautiful, ideal place...'We're going to stay here and honor the Sabbath the next day'...because otherwise they were traveling seven days a week.

“The fur trappers said okay, see ya later, catch up,” Lambertson continued, “So they honored their Sabbath, and on Monday, headed out to catch up with them. They were never able to catch up with their guides. As a result, they got lost...She talked about getting over the mountains, and looking up, seeing the next range of mountains and thinking, 'How are we ever going to do this?'"

The letter was purchased from the owner just before the antiquity was put up for sale on eBay.

The author was from Illinois, who traveled through St. Louis to Independence to depart on a path that would later become the Oregon Trail. The letter was penned in ink, most likely with a quill or metal-tipped pen.

Her letter, sent to her husband, left a fort that would have been in present day Washington state to be delivered to an Illinois minister who had married her earlier.

"From research, we think this letter took a year to get from where she was, way out in the western wilderness, carried by boat downstream, down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver," Lambertson said. "From there, we don't know. There's speculation it may have gone to the Hawaiian Islands before it was carried around the tip of South America by ship, brought up to Philadelphia, there's a Philadelphia postmark on it. Then, it had to go over land half way across the continent to the Mississippi River to Illinois."

Letters were rare because there was no mail delivery or post offices in the western wilderness. Letters were either dropped at U.S. government military forts or sent back with trappers and other travelers going east.

"Because there weren't any other outposts," Lambertson said. "They could, if they came across people that were returning, coming back, they could hurriedly write a note, say, 'We've made it this far, all's well, cousin Joe died' and get that into the pouch of the people heading back east."

And in those days, there were no stamps.

"No stamps, usually it's written on the outside as to how much the cost was going to be," Lambertson said. "And the standard was that the people who were receiving the letter would pay for it. So if you found out you had a letter at the post office, those were real rare and you were eager to get it but you also had to have the money to get it."

Even more rare are letters that would have been written and sent from Wyoming to California or Oregon.

Most trail letters were written in April or May from towns that today border on Missouri's western state line such as Independence or St. Joseph as pioneers departed on their journey trails.

A few examples of what people would take with them on a journey across the country. Often these things did not make the entire trip, abandoned because of weight considerations.

"This letter was written in March," said Lambertson, as he pulls another antiquity from the box with gloved hands. "This is much later, 1866. It was kept by a teenage girl. Here's another Gold Rush letter, a 49er, written in St. Joseph, Missouri in April. Here's one from Fort 'Larryma', Saturday, June first. They're a month down the road, this is done in pencil. It's very quickly written, there's a ‘10’ stamped on there, that's how much it would have cost. But, that's all there is, the rest is wasted paper because they were in a hurry. He's just writing back to let family know they've made it this far, and he sits down and says, 'My knee for my table, the earth for my chair, I write you.' He was writing quickly to get on the road."

All letters and diaries must be authenticated by the library before they accept the acquisition. The library does purchase letters from people who collect postmarks and from individuals, be it family members of the author or private collectors. However, some people donate such historical artifacts — letters and diaries — to the library.

Some original materials are on display in glass cases. Otherwise, original documents are held under lock and key. On rare occasions, approved individuals or family members are granted access to original documents. Researchers can have access to typed transcripts of original letters and diaries.

The standard trail diary measures about 2.5 by 5 inches, with a leather cover and tab that inserts into a slot for safekeeping. Diaries typically have a daily entry, or room for the pioneer to write a short passage of each day's experience.

"People knew when they were going out on the trail this was going to be a life changing experience," Lambertson said. "And it was huge, so many of them did keep diaries.''

In recent years, one out-of-state family toured the museum and library, after which, they donated an original diary.

"Their understanding is that it had been kept by their great, great, great grandfather William Stoughton from Pennsylvania, he went out to California in 1853," Lambertson said. "What they discovered right before they sent it to us was that it was not in his handwriting, which perplexed them because all these years, that the was the story that went along with it.

A wagon in the museum shows how a typical frontier set-up might have looked for someone going west.

“The family story was that William and his brother, Seth went out to California and when they had all most got there, within sight of the Sierra Nevada's, Seth allegedly drown in the Humboldt River. What is interesting is this diary was faithfully kept the whole distance until they get to a place on the river, which isn't much of a river, it's a marsh. The last entry is from Aug. 22, 1853, the person is writing about how they have to keep working the cattle back and forth through the marsh to get them to better grass and then it ends abruptly."

The last entry in the 155-year-old diary reads: "Left camp at six o'clock a.m., went down to Humboldt 22 miles to the big meadows and camped on a running slue. Here we've put our cattle to grass, had to wade in water up to our waist for one quarter of a mile."

The library conducted their research of the diary to document its historical account and solve the family mystery.

"Our best guess is that this was written by the brother, Seth" Lambertson said. "And that he probably drowned the next day. And their grandfather carried it on with him to California."

After having been passed through the hands of five generations, the sixth generation donated the diary to the library so that the two brothers' journey became historical record for generations to come.

Terri Baumgardner is a Blue Springs, MO freelance writer. She can be contacted at

Contact Info

The National Frontier Trails Museum and
Merrill J. Mattes Research Library

318 W Pacific Street
Independence, MO 64050

The museum is typically open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 12:30 to 4:30 Sundays. Those doing research are requested to schedule appointments in advance.

Upcoming programs include:

March: Blazing the Way West, an account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Mountain Men

May: Manifest Destiny - Who Went West and Why: Was it the Manifest Destiny of the United States to spread American values and form of government from sea to shining sea?

July: Women on the Trails - Explore the lives of women who took to the trails.

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