Documenting the Historic Buildings of the Santa Fe Trail in Missouri

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Highland Avenue Historic District, Lexington, Missouri

From 2012 through 2015, the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) partnered with the National Trails Intermountain Region of the National Park Service on a nine-state survey to document buildings associated with the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. This year, we have joined together again and turned our attention west to survey buildings associated with another one of our nation’s historic trails: The Santa Fe Trail.

From 1821 to 1880, the Santa Fe Trail, nicknamed the “Great Prairie Highway,” served as an important trade route spanning approximately 900 miles from western Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Over the next year, we will survey historic buildings along the 130 miles of trail in Missouri, beginning at the trail’s original eastern terminus in Franklin and ending in Kansas City.

Last month, we packed our bags and headed to Missouri to start fieldwork for the project, retracing the trail and documenting more than 200 of its extant historic buildings. Most of the buildings are concentrated in Arrow Rock, Lexington, and Independence, all of which served as major trail hubs or outfitting points at one time. Other buildings are located in more rural areas along the trail or small communities, such as Dover and Waverly. Dwellings account for the majority of buildings documented; however, former stores, taverns, churches, courthouses, and even a jail are part of the trail’s extant built environment in Missouri.

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J. Huston Tavern, Arrow Rock (left); Lafayette County Courthouse, Lexington (right)

Some of these buildings even share ties to some of our nation’s other national historic trails. Homes associated with the founders of the Russell, Majors & Waddell freighting firm, for example, are still standing along the Santa Fe Trail in Lexington and Kansas City. The firm, headquartered in Lexington, held a government freighting contract to supply army posts along the Santa Fe Trail. William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell also gained fame for founding the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, a horseback relay mail service from Missouri to California more commonly known as the Pony Express. The Pony Express is not the only national historic trail with ties to the Santa Fe Trail in Missouri, though. Independence, Missouri, served as a nucleus for trade and emigrant routes to the west. The Santa Fe Trail’s route from Independence to New Santa Fe, Missouri, was also shared by emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail and the California Trail. Therefore, buildings such as the Rice-Tremonti House bore witness to those traveling all three national historic trails.

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After the Civil War, William B. Waddell purchased this home (left), originally built in the late 1840s, on South Avenue in Lexington for his son Robert and his wife Emma. He acquired an additional residence for himself on South Avenue in 1869, which underwent extensive alterations in the early twentieth century. The Alexander Majors House (right) in Kansas City was built in 1856 and is open seasonally on the weekends for tours.

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The Rice-Tremonti House in Baytown was built in 1844 and is a certified site on the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California National Historic Trails.

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Potawatomi Trail of Death marker, Lexington.

The Santa Fe Trail has ties to another significant trail, offering an important reminder that not all those who traveled on portions of this route did so voluntarily or for trade. In 1838, approximately 859 Potawatomis were forcibly removed from their homeland near Plymouth, Indiana, to present-day Osawatomie, Kansas. Their forced march took them on parts of the Santa Fe Trail in Missouri. Today, Potawatomi Trail of Death Regional Historic Trail markers can be seen along the Santa Fe Trail in Missouri, commemorating this forced removal and offering us from the CHP a reminder of our own work on interpreting and preserving Cherokee removal sites across the Southeast.

We look forward to exploring more of the Santa Fe Trail’s history and resources in Missouri throughout the year. Stay tuned for additional blog posts on our work to document this important transportation route.

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