“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

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High up on the north fork of the Platte River, in far western Nebraska, the monotonous drone of the prairie landscape at last begins to shift and change. A menagerie of enormous natural forms, monolithic clay and sandstone shapes, rises up along the south bank of the river, the first fanciful intimations of larger upthrustings to come.

 

Emigrants greeted the change in landscape with enormous relief. “We … saw an elevated rock,” Edwin Bryant remarked on June 21, 1846, “its appearance was not unlike that of the capitol at Washington. This, I believe, has been named by emigrants the Court-house. … Its walls so nearly resemble masonry, and its shape an architectural design, that if seen in an inhabited country, it would be supposed some colossal edifice, deserted and partially in ruins.” Bryant, who wanted to touch as well as see this geological curiosity, rode for hours toward the formation without seeming to get any closer, then turned back. “A remarkable peculiarity in the atmosphere,” Jesse Quinn Thornton suggested, “made it impossible to judge with any tolerable degree of accuracy as to the distance of objects.”

Beyond Courthouse Rock other, greater wonders loomed up from the plain: Chimney Rock, the shaft of its inverted funnel sticking in the air like an ancient ensign too cryptic to be deciphered; Castle Rock; Dome Rock; and finally the great saddle-shaped edifice of Scotts Bluff itself, named for a fur trader, Hiram Scott, who had crawled off to die there under mysterious circumstances in 1828. These great natural formations worked on the minds of the emigrants like a talisman or drug. Virtually every passing diarist took note of them, and for most it inspired a kind of metaphoric rapture. “The traveller,” Bryant wrote, “imagines himself in the midst of the desolate and deserted ruins of vast cities, to which Nineveh, Thebes, and Babylon were pigmies in grandeur and magnificence.” Father Pierre-Jean de Smet wrote in 1840, “From a little distance one can hardly persuade himself that art is not mingled in them with the fantasies of nature.”

These mute shapes must have touched something deep in the imaginations of vulnerable travelers who were very far from home by now and who were beginning to understand, as a later age would have it, that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.

And they weren’t. They were in western Nebraska, though they wouldn’t have called it that, and they were about to plunge up into the high sage country of Wyoming, though they wouldn’t have called it that either. From the top of Robidoux Pass, south and a little west of Scotts Bluff, the emigrants of 1846 could just make out Laramie Peak, a hundred miles away. It was their first sight of the Rocky Mountains. For those, like the families of George and Jacob Donner and James Reed, who found themselves at the tail end of the emigration, there was reason to be worried about time. June was running out, and there were still thirteen hundred miles to go. They hurried on toward Fort Laramie, the old rendezvous point of the American Fur Company, high up on the North Platte.

Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger

Six hundred and twenty miles out of Independence the Oregon Trail crosses the Nebraska-Wyoming border and continues to slope steadily northwest along the south bank of the North Platte. Thirty miles into Wyoming, near the confluence of the North Platte and Laramie rivers, it reaches Fort Laramie—the last way station on the Oregon Trail before the Rockies and the point of no return for emigrants on their way to the Far West. Established in 1834 as a trading post for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, the fort was taken over two years later by the rival American Fur Company, which in 1841 erected a large adobe-walled structure. By 1846 it had become a welcome sight to thousands of weary overlanders, who streamed in to make repairs, purchase supplies, post letters home, and rest.

 
Near Guernsey, traffic wore a groove six feet into solid rock; today you can stand there shoulder-deep.

On June 26, 1846, Fort Laramie was the scene of a remarkable convocation of Americans. Six thousand Sioux Indians were camped peaceably around the fort, trading with the overlanders and preparing for war with the Crows. The trading post was brimming with emigrants, including Lillburn Boggs and several of Daniel Boone’s grandsons and William Russell, recently deposed as captain of the wagon train that included the families of George Donner and Jacob Donner and James Reed—who could be found there too, along with Francis Parkman. Parkman, as usual, had nothing nice to say about the overlanders: “June 26. Emigrants crossing the river, and thronging into the fort—a part of Russell’s company, which becoming dissatisfied with their pragmatic, stump-orator leader, has split into half a dozen pieces. Passed along the line of waggons, conversing with the women, etc. These people are very ignorant, and suspicious for this reason—no wonder—they are grossly imposed on at the store.”