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Historic Medallion Unveiled

JUNE 7, 2016 -

When his wagon train formed outside the Jackson County Courthouse, James A. Pritchard anxiously anticipated the great adventure that lay before him as he prepared to head out onto the Oregon Trail. Like thousands of other settlers before him, he was "ready now to bid adieu to homes, friends and... the abodes of Civilization, its peace, comeforts [sic] and its safety."

 (The Overland Diary - James A. Pritchard, 1849)



Some 167 years after Pritchard went west to seek his fortune during the California Gold Rush, Jackson County Executive Frank White, Jr. joined National Historic Trails Superintendent Aaron Mahr to unveil a historic marker commemorating Independence Square as the "jumping off" point for three iconic trails — the Oregon, California and Santa Fe. The Historic Truman Courthouse, which has entombed within its walls the original courthouse Pritchard would have seen in 1849, is now adored with the bronze Old Oregon Trail medallion that renowned sculptor Avard Tennyson Fairbanks created in 1924.

The artist's son, Dr. David Fairbanks of Bethesda, Maryland, donated the medallion, noting, during the unveiling ceremony Tuesday afternoon, that it captured the "action and vigor" of 19th Century pioneers. The same artwork appears on monuments at Chimney Rock in Nebraska and other key points along the Oregon Trail. 

"And now it's at the beginning of the trail, here in Independence," Dr. Fairbanks said. "I know my father would be pleased."


County Executive Frank White, Jr. and Dr. David Fairbanks shake hands after the unveiling of the medallion.

Where The Trails Started

The medallion belongs on Independence Square, emphasized Oregon-California Trails Associate (OCTA) Manager Travis Boley, to signify that the westward settlement of the United States began "right where we are standing."

"We are very proud to have this medallion on permanent display here at the Truman Courthouse in Independence, Missouri," said County Executive White, "to recognize and commemorate this community's vital role in the history of the American West.

"This is where a lot of our forefathers left to go west."

Mahr pointed out that he has walked nearly every mile of all three historic trails, from the Kansas prairies to the Oregon Blue Mountains. But he stressed, "If you really want to understand the trails, if you really want to understand those places along the trails, you need to come here to Independence. You need to come here where they all began."

As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, Mahr encouraged those at the unveiling — they included more than 100 participants in the Partnership for the National Trails System's biennial Historic Trails Workshop, being held this week in Independence — to "find their park."

"Come here," he said. "Bring your kids here and help them understand why Independence is so important to our shared history."

Jackson County Legislators Garry J. Baker (1st District At-Large), Tony Miller (3rd District At-Large) and Theresa Galvin (6th District) also attended the ceremony, along with Independence Mayor Eileen Weir and Sugar Creek Mayor Matt Mallinson.

Being There

The medallion has found a fitting home on the lawn of a building named after Harry S. Truman, according to Boley, because the "historic trails ran deep in Harry Truman's veins." The former president's grandfather, Solomon Young, traded with many of the settlers about to leave on the trails as they passed through his farm, now William M. Klein Park (a.k.a. "Cave Springs") near Raytown.

Truman also served as the Missouri Chapter President of the American Pioneer Trails Association.

All told, Avard Fairbanks designed more than 100 monuments, many of them, like the Old Oregon Trail medallion, dedicated to the pioneering spirit of the approximately 500,000 people who set out on the three trails from Independence. His father's art, Dr. Fairbanks said, allows him to imagine being a settler like James A. Prtichard about to pull away from Independence Square in a wagon loaded down with provisions.

"These were hearty people," Dr. Fairbanks said. "Looking at my father's sculpture, I'm there. I'm breathing those clouds of dust. I'm seeing the perils these people will be facing."

He added, "May we never forget the courage of those people who put their lives at risk to open up and settle the west in this great land of ours."


(L-R) County Executive Frank White, Jr., Independence Mayor Eileen Weir, Sugar Creek Mayor Matt Mallinson,  National Historic Trails Superintendent Aaron Mahr, Oregon-Trails Association Manager Travis Boley and Dr. David Fairbanks.

Go West!

Start In Independence

Throughout the first half of the 19th Century, pioneers, eager to follow in Lewis & Clark’s footsteps, converged on Independence, Missouri. Every spring the tiny town’s population, featuring only a few hundred permanent residents, would temporarily swell into the thousands as these "emigrants" stocked their wagons and prepared to "go west."

The Jackson County Courthouse, built in the heart of Independence in the late 1820s, soon became the popular "jumping off" point for wagon trains venturing out onto the Oregon, California and Santa Fe trails. In a jovial atmosphere all around "Courthouse Square," settlers embarked on their great journeys — hopeful they'd complete the arduous, often times hazardous trek before the onset of winter. 

By 1846, Independence had become what one settler, J. Quinn Thornton, called a “great Babel of… profane and dust-laden bullwhackers going to and from Santa Fe with their immense wagons and emigrant families bound for the Pacific, all cheerful and intent on their embarkation upon the great prairie wilderness.”

Independence made quite a lively impression on another man about to head off into the western frontier three years later. James A. Pritchard wrote this entry in his diary dated April 22, 1849 (punctuated as originally written):

“Independence is a handsome flourishing town with a high situation, three miles from the Missouri River on the South side and Surrounded by one of the most beautiful & Fertile countries of any Town in the Nation.... Emigrants were encamped in every direction for miles around the place awaiting the time to come for their departure. Such were the crowded condition of the Streets of [Independence] by long trains of Ox teams, mule teams, men there with stock for Sale and men there to purchase stock that it was all most impossible to pass along.” 


Independence Square circa 1850


County Legislator Tony Miller, County Executive Frank White, Jr., County Legislator Garry Baker, County Legislator Theresa Galvin, National Historic Trails Superintendent Aaron Mahr, Oregon-Trails Association Manager Travis Boley and Dr. David Fairbanks.

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