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Museum - Forts and Trails

Many trails crisscrossed Kansas in the 19th century. The two most traveled were the Oregon and Santa Fe trails.

The Oregon-California Trail began at the Missouri River and passed through northeastern Kansas. More than 250,000 people traveled west on this trail from the early 1840s into the 1860s. Some died on the 2,000-mile journey; others became discouraged and turned back. Most pushed on, trying to capture the promise of the American West.

Oregon Trail tombstoneWhile families traveled the Oregon-California Trail, the Santa Fe Trail was used mainly by freighters and traders. It crossed the state diagonally from northeast to southwest. Opened in 1821, the trail was an important two-way avenue for commerce and cultural exchange between Santa Fe and the rest of the United States for more than 60 years.

The opening of the Santa Fe Trail brought many teamsters and traders to Kansas. This met with opposition from the native peoples, and forts were built to protect commerce along the trail. The primary role of western forts was to maintain peace among tribes, as well as between Native Americans and White immigrants. These outposts played an important role in the U.S. government's Indian policy.

Kansas hosted eight major forts during American's westward expansion. Today, some trail ruts and the remains of forts can still be seen on the Kansas landscape. Fort Hays is now a State Historic Site. Fort Leavenworth is still in operation, the oldest U.S. Army fort in continuous existence west of the Mississippi River.

May 9 . . . [We] met a man that was going back he had buried his Wife this morning She died from the effects of measels we have come ten miles today encamped on a small stream called Vermillion creek Wood and water plenty Their are as many as fifty waggons on this stream and some thousand head of stock It looks like a village the tents and waggons extend as much as a mile . . .
—Lydia Allen Budd, Oregon Trail Diary, 1852