By Independence, Missouri,In 1951, the former president of the National Old Trails Road Association noted that there are many interesting things associated with the opening of the West that never grow old. When he said that, Harry Truman was president of the United States; he continued as the association's president while in the White House.
Early this month, some 400 members of the Oregon-California Trails Association, otherwise known as "rut nuts," converged on Truman country to learn more about Western trails. They also got a chance to take a look at Truman's hometown, Independence. Jackson County Sheriff Joseph Walker christened Independence in 1827, not long before he blazed the California Trail. Here, where the Missouri River turns north, freight wagons headed southwest to trade Kentucky rifles for New Mexican silver, and fur brigades set out for the Platte River and the Shining Mountains that lay beyond.
Ever since, the American West has begun at this thriving place. Indian Country stretched west from the Missouri border to Mexico and Oregon. The federal government had banished the tribes living east of the Mississippi River to a permanent home west of that border, the Permanent Indian Frontier. (It only remained permanent, of course, until 1854 when politicians figured out the land wasn't worthless.)
Independence was a crossroads where Shawnee and Kanza tribesmen rubbed shoulders with dragoons from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Missionaries in broadcloth from New England met Jesuit priests in cassocks from Belgium and Ireland. Overland emigrants who wanted to get their animals in shape for the 2,000-mile trek to the Pacific went to blacksmith Hiram Young, a free black whose hammer could make an anvil sing.
Small wonder Truman grew up with an appreciation of the American West and its past. During the 1920s, he helped dedicate twelve statues of the "Madonna of the Trail" to commemorate pioneer women. A devoted student of history, he was interested in all aspects of the human experience--he read Roman history in the original Latin--but America's trail history was in his blood. Truman's grandfather, Solomon Young, had made his fortune hauling freight on Western trails. His grandson recalled he "could do pretty much anything he put his mind to, and mostly he did." On treks like Solomon Young's, the saying went, the timid never started and the weak died along the way.
Young set out for California with 1,500 cattle in 1854. Only a thousand of them made it, but he traded the cows for land. When he returned home some three years later, his family didn't recognize him--but he was worth the phenomenal sum of $50,000. While campaigning in the West, Truman liked to say that his grandfather's wagon train had stopped in whatever town he was visiting. A reporter joked that if Young made as many stops as his grandson claimed, it was a wonder he got to Sacramento, California.
In August 1860, "Sam" Young arrived in Great Salt Lake City with forty wagons loaded with salt pork and trade goods for the U.S. Army. A corrupt army colonel refused to accept the consignment. Non-Mormons were not popular in Utah Territory at the time, and Solomon Young was not especially enthusiastic about religious matters. He liked to say that if you heard a man praying loudly, "you'd better go home and lock your smokehouse." But Truman recalled that his grandfather "made a deal with Brigham Young and came out whole on the matter."
A Salt Lake City newspaper noted a Solomon Young innovation: His wagons "were coupled together in pairs, one behind the other," hauled by six teams of oxen and loaded with three tons of goods. He proudly noted that despite the huge load, "he did not lose an ox by accident or otherwise during the trip." Next time you note a truck pulling three semi trailers, you know who to blame.