Oregon City is home to The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. We live near the Cowlitz Trail extension of the Oregon Trail. But until last month, I’d never been to the end of another significant route for pioneers — the Santa Fe Trail.

Many westward pioneers launched their journeys from Missouri, but while those headed to the Pacific Northwest followed the 2,170-mile Oregon Trail, others took a southern route 870 miles through what today are the states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico. The end of the trail is at Santa Fe.

When we recently visited Taos, N.M., we toured the Kit Carson Home and Museum in an adobe structure built about 1825 that the famous frontiersman bought for his third wife, Josefa Jaramillo. Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson was born in Kentucky in 1809. His dad, Lindsay Carson, who fathered 15 children, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

When Kit was a year old, the family moved west to the Boone’s Lick area of Howard County, Missouri. That’s the same area where the famous frontier explorer Daniel Boone lived in his later years—and the place where Nicholas Koontz, Lewis County pioneer Matilda Jackson’s first husband, grew up and where his father operated a waystation and tavern. It’s possible that Kit and Nicholas, who was born in 1812, knew each other as children. Maybe Matilda did too.

Carson left Missouri at the age of 16 and headed southwest along the Santa Fe Trail. He earned a reputation as a fur trapper, wilderness guide, and mountain man. He was also an Indian agent and U.S. Army officer.

My first introduction to Carson took place when I was living in a small southeastern Colorado town called Las Animas. For my eighth-grade social studies class, a friend and I researched Bent’s Old Fort, a quite dilapidated relic 15 miles west of town toward La Junta. The old adobe fort, built in 1833 by brothers William and Charles Bent as a post to trade with Native Americans and trappers, is a National Historic Site that was reconstructed in the late 1970s.

My friend and I recreated the footprint of the fort using sugar cubes glued to a wooden board, which we spray-painted brown. I wrote a script recreating the history of the fort featuring the Bent brothers and mountain man Kit Carson, who was hired in 1841 to hunt for Bent’s Fort.

Our teacher was so impressed with our project she asked if we would donate the fort and tape recording to the local museum.

That was my first of many ventures delving into the past. Although I hated much about the year we lived in Las Animas, where junior high boys tackled girls in football or snowball fights only to snatch their breasts, I finally recognized gems from that little community — the teachers.

My social studies teacher who encouraged us in our project. My English teacher who taught me more about diagramming sentences and parts of speech than I ever learned in college. My Spanish teacher who videotaped us with a big box camera giving weather reports about Peru and performing fairy tales in Spanish for local grade schoolers.

After our trip to Colorado and New Mexico, we arrived at Sea-Tac Saturday night, enjoyed dinner with my daughter and her friend at Southcenter, and drove home. As we approached Lewis County, I kept thinking about the mantra we always hear about encouraging growth in our community for jobs, jobs, jobs.

But after driving in Seattle (725,000), Denver (620,000), Colorado Springs (465,000), and even Santa Fe (nearing 90,000), I loved the freedom of flying down the uncongested freeway onto the rural roads of Lewis County, where our entire population of 78,200 is spread across 2,436 square miles.

It’s great to see other places, but it’s always nice to return home.

•••

Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at chaptersoflife1999@gmail.com.

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