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Scotts Bluff And Fort Laramie: Is The Oregon Trail In Your Family History?

Scotts Bluff National Monument/Jim Stratton

Scotts Bluff National Monument in western Nebraska is surrounded by other monuments chronicling frontier life/Jim Stratton

Stratton family lore has my ancestors migrating west on the Oregon Trail. I’m not entirely sure if I believe it, since trail use greatly declined when the Transcontinental Railroad was finished in 1869 and my relatives didn’t arrive in Oregon until the 1880s.  But there are accounts of the trail being used through the 1890s, so it is possible. Either way, the Stratton clan ended up in eastern Oregon operating a stagecoach station on the road between John Day and Burns. 

It is awe-inspiring to imagine my great-great grandparents walking beside a wagon for 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon and passing by the very same iconic trail landmarks I was now visiting near Scotts Bluff in western Nebraska.  

My girlfriend Craig and I rolled into the town of Gering, Nebraska in mid-October on a beautiful sunny fall day.  It was a bit windy, as it often is on the Great Plains, when we set up our Alto travel trailer for a five day stay at the Robidoux RV park just a short two miles from Scotts Bluff National Monument and an easy drive to other Oregon Trail landmarks.  We were in the middle of a three-week trip to numerous national park sites in the Western plains, still working our way to visiting all 417.

Scotts Bluff, Western Landmark

Scotts Bluff rises over 800 feet above the surrounding short grass prairie and is located on the southern banks of the North Platte River.  The North Platte has been a major east/west travel corridor for thousands of years.  Archaeologists have dated the first human inhabitants here to 10,000 years ago.  The bluff’s geologic layer cake of sandstone and volcanic ash is capped by limestone, which inhibited erosion, leaving a large rock monolith.  This was the first major geologic landmark seen on the horizon as settlers worked their way west along the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, all of which passed by Scotts Bluff.  

While we often think of the Oregon Trail as a westerly migration, it was a two-way trail when people in the West, for a variety of reasons, needed to head back east.  In fact, the first European Americans to travel along the North Platte were fur trappers heading east to St. Louis in 1812 after spending a year in Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. The route they pioneered was essentially the same used over the ensuing 60 years.  The first wagons to head west along the North Platte in 1827 belonged to fur companies transiting goods to trade for beaver pelts at what became annual fur rendezvous gatherings at various locations in the Rocky Mountains.

It was a rendezvous that led to the naming of Scotts Bluff. Hiram Scott was an employee of the American Fur Company and after the 1828 rendezvous in Wyoming he was headed back to St. Louis with a load of beaver when he fell ill.  There are numerous accounts of what exactly happened, but the gist is he was too sick to travel and was left near the bluff to die.  The following year, his bleached bones were found near the bluff that now bears his name.

The fur trade was short lived and as it started to significantly decline in the late 1830s, families coincidently became interested in moving west for farmland.  The first organized wagon train to Oregon went by Scotts Bluff in 1841.  Over the next 30 years or so, over a half million people mostly walked beside their wagons from Missouri to the west coast and Utah on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails, all of which went by Scotts Bluff.  For the purpose of this little essay, I’ll just refer to this collective route as the Oregon Trail.  By 1850, unknown laborers improved the route over Mitchell Pass, which is directly south of Scotts Bluff, and that became the primary path through the hills along this section of the trail.

This same route is now "M Street" heading west out of Gering and is the road we took to the 1930s era park visitor center where we got oriented for our visit to this Oregon Trail landmark. Local interest in creating a national monument at Scotts Bluff caused President Woodrow Wilson to use the Antiquities Act to create it in 1919.  By 1935, when the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived, several picnic areas had been locally developed along with a trail to the top. The CCC brought a whole new level of construction that included the visitor center and a road to the top.  

The visitor center was getting an internal facelift while we were there. The historic nature of the building itself was a nice change from the modern visitor centers of many parks and it looks to be in really good shape. However inside all we saw were decades-old empty glass cases with dim lighting as the interpretive displays, save those that talked about and displayed paintings by William Henry Jackson, had been removed. The park staff told us the entire interpretive story was being replaced with a much more modern and, we assume, interactive interpretive presentation. They hope to have the interpretation, as well as an expansion of the visitor center itself, completed by May 2019 in time for the park’s 100th birthday.

We didn’t drive the short 1.6-mile road to the top, opting instead to hike the 3.2 mile round-trip Saddle Rock Trail. The road passes through three small tunnels, which necessitates it being for cars only.  The Park Service does provide a shuttle for those driving RVs or pulling trailers. The trail winds its way across the short grass prairie before a 435-foot climb on a fairly gradual grade to the top. It took us about an hour.

Once you reach the summit, there are two paved hiking trails to overlooks with interpretive panels telling both geologic and human history stories. The panoramic views are great. (Believe the signs about rattlesnakes and stay on the trail. Even on the trail, Craig had a little prairie rattler lunge at her on the way back down!)

Chimney Rock National Monument/Jim Stratton

Chimney Rock National Monument is a short ride from Scotts Bluff NM/Jim Stratton

Visiting Chimney Rock

Scotts Bluff is not the only Nebraska geologic feature written about in diaries and other accounts of traveling the Oregon Trail. The No. 1 most-mentioned site is the 300-foot high Chimney Rock, about 20 miles east of Scotts Bluff on Nebraska 92. Chimney Rock National Historic Site has a small visitor center managed by the Nebraska State Historical Society and is an easy drive from Scotts Bluff. Visiting Chimney Rock is totally worth it to read the many accounts and perceptions of the rock recorded over the past 200 years.  One of the exhibits shares pioneers’ speculations about how long they think the rock will last. It is pretty fragile looking, and some thought it was only a matter of years before it eroded away…that was over 150 years ago.  

While down around Chimney Rock, I would also suggest checking out Courthouse and Jail Rocks, about a half-hour further down the road.  The same band of returning fur traders that spotted Scotts Bluff in 1812 also noted both Courthouse and Jail rocks, which to us really looked like castles. When you visit use your imagination! These rock formations are not developed, but there is a dirt road to the base, and we were able to hike all around both formations. They are also on the National Register of Historic Places and are part of the same long geologic feature that includes Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff.  

Late 19th century cavalry life is preserved at Fort Laramie National Historic Site/Jim Stratton

Fort Laramie, A Frontier Outpost

Furthering our Oregon Trail experience, we went west into Wyoming and spent most of a day visiting Fort Laramie National Historic Site, located about 60 miles from where we were camped in Gering. Fort Laramie started out in 1834 as Fort William, a fur trading post named after and owned by famous fur trapper William Sublette. By 1841, as the fur trade declined, it was rebuilt and renamed Fort John and became an important resupply and repair outpost for wagon trains heading west.The U.S. Government bought the fort in 1849 and renamed in Fort Laramie as part of the Army’s plan to establish a military presence along the Oregon Trail. It was soon one of the most important military outposts on the Northern Plains and was instrumental in both treaty negotiations with Northern Plains Indians and also a staging post for military campaigns against those same Indian tribes. The post closed in 1890.

The State of Wyoming bought the fort in 1937 to protect its historic importance, and it came under National Park Service ownership the following year. Since then National Park Service has restored many of the buildings, so a visit to the fort is much more than viewing old crumbling walls. There are numerous restored buildings onsite, our favorites being the Captain’s Quarters, Post Surgeon’s Quarters and the Cavalry Barracks.

Oregon Trail ruts at Guernsey, Wyoming/Jim Stratton

Oregon Trail wagon wheel ruts at Guernsey, Wyoming/Jim Stratton

Do not miss the upstairs of the cavalry barracks where the men slept and stored their gear. It is fully restored down to the names of the soldiers above the beds, and each man’s equipment hanging off the wall and stored around the room. It is like walking back in time. We spent several hours going through all the buildings, which are refurnished with period furniture and household items. The Park Service has done a fabulous job of making the fort look like it did 130 years ago.

And while in the neighborhood, don’t miss the Guernsey Ruts. Located a mere 15 minutes from Fort Laramie, these Oregon Trail ruts are five feet deep, created by the thousands of wagons that crept through the sandstone hills along this section of the trail. They are some of the best remaining wagon ruts anywhere in the country. The geography of the area near Guernsey caused all the wagon trains to use the same path resulting in the deeply cut ruts that are not to be missed.

Two miles from the ruts is Register Cliff, another easy-to-visit site that is rich in trail history. Hundreds of travelers carved their names and date they passed through into the same sandstone formations. It is fun to speculate about who these people were, where they came from, why they were heading west, and what happened to them once they got to the West Coast.

We thought a lot about what it would have been like to travel to Oregon by wagon train in the 1850s. With thousands of others on the same route, livestock would have eaten most of the grass, leaving us to walk a trail of dust and bare ground. Similarly, all the wood for fires would have been used up and all the game killed off. The impact of all those wagons, livestock and human traffic along and across the rivers and streams would have serious implications for water quality. People died and were buried along the trail, and a few of those gravesites are still marked today. The trail corridor was essentially a barren and dangerous highway with most of the resources depleted. It would not have been a pretty place.

The whole of the Oregon Trail experience has been recognized as a National Historic Trail and the associated National Park Service website is loaded with information about the entire route from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon. And while it is clear to me that this isn’t going to be our only Oregon Trail experience, the wealth of iconic sites along the Nebraska/Wyoming border is going to be hard to beat.

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