History in the heartland
Presidential hometowns and westward migration landmarks are just a couple prime pit stops for exploring America’s history in the Midwest. From small towns to St. Louis to national monuments, hit the road to celebrate independence in the heart of the country.
Kick it off with a stop in Canton, where a monument to the assassinated President McKinley shares ground with an interactive science center and planetarium at the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum. Head over to the First Ladies’ National Historic Site next to honor some of the women of the White House. Here, museum workers costumed as first ladies dish on their husbands and life in the capital.
Where Abraham Lincoln spent much of his life, Springfield holds several history-filled sites to learn about Honest Abe. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is a solid first stop — you’ll find a recreation of his one-room cabin among other exhibits. Learn more about his life at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, a recreation of the 1830s town where he lived 20 miles outside Springfield, complete with costumed interpreters and timbered houses. Bring it full circle at the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site, where you can learn about the deaths and burials of Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their four children on a free tour.
St. Louis, MO
The Gateway to the West for early settlers, the striking stainless-steel Gateway Arch represents Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the country extending from Atlantic to Pacific. Take a tram to the top for some jaw-dropping views afforded by the arch’s 630 feet — the tallest manmade national monument in the country. When you descend, explore the surrounding Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, then head to the riverfront for a meal with a view.
It’s hard not to love a town named Independence, especially when celebrating freedom is the name of the game. Here, learn about mild-mannered President Truman’s roots. Start at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum to get a feel for Truman’s leadership style and beginnings. Then, separate from the museum, tour his home at the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. Finally, for a departure from Truman history, visit the National Frontier Trails Museum to get a closer look at pioneer life.
Homestead National Monument, NE
The Homestead Act of 1862 inspired a generation of American Dream-seekers to cultivate the frontier with the promise of 160 acres of public land for Western migrants. The Homestead National Monument brings this epoch to life with interactive exhibits at the Heritage Center and plenty of enticing trails to hike through tallgrass prairie.
Scotts Bluff, NE
A towering rock formation above North Platte River, Scotts Bluff has been a landmark for travelers from Native Americans to emigrants on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails to modern-day visitors. Hike one of the several lovely overlook trails and imagine yourself in the shoes of Oregon Trail pioneers (arguably an even more realistic setting than the 90s computer game).
Mount Rushmore, SD
Finish your trip at one of the nation’s most visited and most patriotic landmarks: Mount Rushmore. Marvel at the (much) larger-than-life busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved into the mountain in the starkly beautiful Black Hills region. It’s hard to find a more imposing or impressive homage to our nation’s leaders — a fitting end to a trip through the heartland’s history.