Twelve miles to the west of Independence, Missouri, the vast undulating prairie began--unbroken to the seemingly impassable solid bulwark of the Rocky Mountains. This was Indian country, inhabited by Plains tribes, millions of buffalo, and a few hearty trappers and fur traders--the mountain men. As the Indians followed the buffalo and other game, the rivers became their highways. Traveling afoot or by canoe, a river could always be retraced to return to the starting point. The original trails to the West were the established Indian routes. At least as far back as 15,000 years ago, we can be certain that there were early inhabitants in the Rocky Mountain region. These early bands of Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Sioux were nomadic, traveling from one place to another in order to take advantage of the scattered resources and migrating bison on which they lived.
The most northerly of the Indian routes followed the Missouri River to its headwaters near what is now Yellowstone Park, crossed the Continental Divide, and wound its way to the Pacific by following the north fork of the Columbia River. The middle route, named the Big Medicine Trail, left the Missouri River south of Council Bluffs, and followed the Platte River into Wyoming where it picked up the Sweetwater River and crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. From there it traversed along the Green River Valley, and onto the Pacific by way of the southern fork of the Columbia. A southern route that the Indians used went by way of the Kansas River and its tributary, the Smoky Hill, then overland a few miles to the Arkansas, on to the Rio Grande to southern New Mexico. From there they followed the Gila River, and finally connected up with the Colorado River.
From the early 1820's until the Gold Rush to California began in 1849, the route used the heaviest by the American pioneer was the southern one--to the Spanish trading post at Sante Fe, New Mexico. Word spread quickly that the New Mexican frontier was wide open, and the prospect of attaining sudden riches trading with Mexican settlements was too hard to resist. By the late spring of 1825, it was apparent that the number of men engaging in trade to Santa Fe would be overwhelming, and nothing now would hold back the caravans carrying goods. This old Indian trail became the first permanent link between East to West.
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