During the great migration of emigrating pioneers across the America’s western frontier, certain towns became the primary staging and supply points for settlers, wagon trains, stagecoaches, cattle drives, and communications. These trailhead towns were key to the development of the nation between the Mississippi River on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west.
Some trailhead towns grew into mighty metropolitan areas (i.e. St. Louis and Sacramento – both notably are also navigable river cities), others became secondary suburbs of newly arising cities (i.e. Independence and Leavenworth as suburbs of Kansas City and Council Bluffs as a suburb of Omaha), while other have tended to fade from their mid-19th century glory days (Atchison, Nauvoo, Fort Laramie, and Abilene).
Below is a list of the primary frontier trailhead towns of America’s Old West during the mid-19th century (with weblinks provided for most):
- Abilene, Kansas – Chisholm Trail (cattle drive railhead)
- Atchison, Kansas – Overland (Stage) Trail (for both the Overland Stage Company and Wells Fargo) and the Smoky Hill Trail
- Council Bluffs, Iowa – California Trail (branch) and Mormon Trail
- San Antonio, Texas – Chisholm Trail (cattle drive trailhead)
- Fort Laramie, Wyoming – Bozeman Trail
- Fort Smith, Arkansas – Fort Smith-Santa Fe Trail
- Independence, Missouri – California Trail, Oregon Trail, and Santa Fe Trail
- Leavenworth, Kansas – Santa Fe Trail (branch)
- Nauvoo, Illinois – Mormon Pioneer Trail
- Sacramento, California – Pony Express Trail (eastward)
- St. Joseph, Missouri – Pony Express Trail (westward)
- St. Louis, Missouri – Butterfield Overland Mail Trail
If I missed any key trails or trailhead towns associated with America’s westward expansion, please let me know and I will gladly add them. I purposely did not include the Lewis and Clark Trail as it was a trail of exploration and not an emigration or communications route.