Throughout the Show-Me State, much of the Old West still exists—from rodeos and railroads to ghost towns and guest ranches—for those who want to immerse themselves in Western culture and lore.
Missouri’s undisputed place in the exploration and settlement of the American West is written in the trails and wagon swales carved by the pioneers of the early 1800s. Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition set out from Missouri, as did those who traveled the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe Trails. Missouri was also headquarters for Russell, Majors & Waddell, famous early-day freighters and founders of the short-lived Pony Express. Mormon leader John Smith designated Independence, Missouri as the site for his new Church of Zion until he and his followers faced religious persecution and fled to Illinois. Missouri also witnessed many of the legendary crimes of the famous gun-slinging outlaw, Jesse James, who was born in western Missouri. Frontiersmen Daniel Boone and John C. Fremont also lived parts of their lives here. Missourians played such a pivotal part in America’s westward expansion, it is estimated that by 1848, still early in the western migration, some 12,000 people had settled in Oregon, and one in four of them was born in Missouri.
Today, the spirit of Missouri’s Wild West heritage lives on throughout the state, and modern day adventurers can recapture the pioneering spirit at the state’s many attractions and festivals. Cowboy-poet gatherings, historical re-enactments, operating dude ranches and chuck wagon races will capture the imagination of children of all ages. More than a dozen rodeo competitions are held annually throughout the state, and Kansas City’s mouth-watering barbecue, born from the campfire experience of cowboys fresh from cattle drives and combined with the slow-cooking styles of Appalachia- and Carolina-pioneers, is ready for the taking.
Much of the state’s history directly related to western expansion can be found along the Missouri River, though the entire state is rich with Wild West heritage.
Let’s focus on Missouri’s most famous outlaw, Jesse James, whose trail can be followed through visiting the following sites:
Meramec Caverns, located south of St. Louis in Stanton, chronicles more than 400-million years of natural and American history. In the early 1870s, Jesse James and his gang returned to the cavern on numerous occasions because it afforded a good hideout for their men and horses after train and bank robberies. Today, the caverns are open to the public for guided tours. www.americascave.com
The 1859 Marshal’s Home and Jail Museum, also located in Independence, housed thousands of famous 19th century prisoners including the legendary Frank James, brother of outlaw Jesse James. Both the museum and the home have been restored to look as they did in the 1800s and feature a superb historical collection.
In Liberty, northeast of Kansas City, The Jesse James Bank Museum was the site of the nation’s first successful daylight bank robbery during peacetime. While the villains were never caught, the crime was attributed to the James Gang. Built in 1858 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the bank is the oldest building still remaining on the square. The bank office and vault appear much as they did on the day of the robbery in 1866. Photographs and letters recounting tales of the 1866 bank robbery and other James gang exploits are also on display.
Jesse James Farm & Museum in Kearney, includes the restored family home where Frank and Jesse James grew up. The museum boasts the world’s largest collection of James family memorabilia, including Jesse’s guns, boots and personal letters. In addition to the museum, visitors can stroll past Jesse and Frank’s childhood swimming hole and visit Jesse’s original gravesite. The James family smokehouse, water well and reconstructed slave cabin are also located within a short distance of the home. www.jessejames.org
The Jesse James Home is where bank robber, living under the name of Mr. Howard, was shot and killed in 1882 by a recently recruited member of the James Gang. The James Home sits on the grounds of the Patee House Museum, the luxury hotel that later became the Pony Express headquarters. www.stjomo.com
For a full overview of all Western life and history in Missouri, log on at www.VisitMO.com