By Victor Block
Beginning around 1810, trappers and fur traders traveled by foot and horseback over a trail, which connected the Missouri River valley to present-day Oregon. They were followed by farmers, ranchers and others who were moving west to seek a better life.
Wagon trains joined the migration and the deep ruts they made in the ground are visible at some places along the route.
Today, you may relive those pioneer days following sections of the storied Oregon Trail, walking where history was made. There’s a long list of other routes throughout the country where chapters of the past come alive. They offer opportunities to combine a bit of exercise with a stroll down memory lane.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to survey land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail recalls that journey and invites those who wish to do so to follow in the men’s footsteps. The route stretches 4,900 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Oregon, passing through 16 states.
Daniel Boone also helped pave the way for settlement of largely overlooked areas. In the 1700s, he passed through what now comprises the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, which straddles the borders between Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Stories of settlers who followed his path are recounted at the park in the Cumberland Gap, a natural break in the Appalachian Mountain range.
Those who prefer to walk where horses once trod may check out the Pony Express National Historic Trail, which traverses five western states. Men on horseback rode this route to deliver mail in the 1860s, and museums and interpretive sites along the route add to the experience today.
Mules, not horses, pulled barges loaded with coal, lumber and agricultural produce along the C&O Canal, which for nearly 100 years (1831-1924) served as a lifeline for communities along the Potomac River from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland. The animals walked beside the canal and hikers today pass the original locks, aqueducts and other structures.
Civil War locations also await exploration by foot. Part of the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia, brings aspects of the past to life in West Virginia. It traverses Harper’s Ferry, where the abolitionist John Brown led a raid in 1859, which was intended to launch a battle to free all slaves. Ruins of the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and armory are reminders of that incident.
Numerous Civil War-related sites are found in Virginia, where more battles took place than in any other state. Battlefields are laced with trails, which introduce visitors to the clashes that occurred there.
A 4.3-mile hike in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park recalls the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. More than 3,000 Confederate troops were captured, the largest apprehension of forces during the entire Civil War.
Another conflict is recalled along the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, which meanders through where the War of 1812 was waged in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC. That struggle pitted the Unites States against the United Kingdom.
There also are places that delve further back in the past. The Little Bluffs Mounds Trail in Wisconsin leads to a sacred spot where people of the Native American Mississippian culture lived. During their heyday (1000-1550 AD), they constructed large earthen platform mounds, and an interpretive trail tells their story and that of the knolls they built.
Rock art is the big attraction along Hieroglyphic Trail 101 in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. The images date back more than 1,500 years, to when the Hohokam People lived there. The name of the tribe is Native American for “those who have vanished.”
Fortunately, evidence of the United States’ past remains. It’s located throughout the country and awaits exploration by foot.