“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

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James Clyman was at Fort Laramie too, on his way back to Illinois from California. On the night of June 27, he camped with his old friend James Reed “and continued the conversation until a later hour … Mr. Reed, while we were camped at Laramie, was enquiring about the route. I told him to ‘take the regular wagon track, and never leave it—it is barely to get through if you follow it—and it may be impossible if you don’t.’ Reed replied, There is a nigher route, and it is of no use to take so much of a round-about course.’ I admitted the fact, but told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras, and that a straight route might turn out to be impracticable.”

In the end Clyman persuaded most of the emigrants he spoke with at Fort Laramie not to take the “shortcut” Lansford Hastings had been promoting up and down the Oregon Trail all summer. But James Reed, the Donner brothers, and a handful of other families could not be dissuaded. Once over the Continental Divide, they would leave the regular wagon track and take Hastings’s new way. Around a campfire at Fort Laramie, the seeds of what became the Donner Party disaster were sown.

Thirteen miles west of Fort Laramie the road comes to one of the most spectacular sights on the Oregon and California trails. A mile or so south of Guernsey, Wyoming, peculiarities of the terrain forced the emigrant wagons into single file as they passed over a low sandstone hill. Over the years the endless stream of traffic—thousands upon thousands of wagon wheels and millions of ironshod cattle feet—wore a groove six feet into the solid rock. Today you can stand shoulder-deep in the emigrant trail.

West of Casper, Wyoming, the Oregon Trail finally leaves the Platte, its companion of nearly five hundred miles, and joins the Sweetwater, a serpentine ribbon curling ever higher into the Rocky Mountains. As it ascends toward the Continental Divide, the emigrant road passes by a gallery of natural landmarks, the most celebrated of which is Independence Rock, the famous register of the trail: a long, turtle-shaped lozenge “covered all round,” Heinrich Lienhard wrote in 1846, “with names of emigrants and hunters who passed here.” Then, as now, passersby delighted in clambering over the rock and reading the names scrawled on and chipped into it. It was probably christened in 1824, when a party of fur trappers and explorers including Jedediah Smith, James Clyman, and Thomas Fitzpatrick stopped there on the Fourth of July. Ever after travelers were admonished to reach the place no later than Independence Day if they were to reach their destinations in Oregon or California without being trapped by the snow.

The Donners and the Reeds, for their part, reached Independence Rock on July 12, 1846, paused long enough to read some of the names inscribed on it, then quickly moved on, following the Sweetwater up through the cloven portal of Devil’s Gate, past a notched peak called Split Rock, working their way ever higher into the mountains.

Nine hundred and fourteen miles from Courthouse Square in Independence, Missouri, the Oregon and California trails reach the climax of their journey: the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains at South Pass. First seen by white men in 1812, rediscovered by the famous mountain man Jedediah Smith in 1824, popularized by John C. Frémont in 1843, South Pass—the gateway to “Oregon Country” and the approximate halfway point along the trail—was the key to the overland migrations.

The broad, shallow saddle of land—7,550 feet above sea level and 29 miles wide—surmounts the continent in a remarkably discreet, and even demure, fashion. “The ascent to the Pass is so gradual,” Edwin Bryant wrote on July 12, 1846, “that but for our geographical knowledge … we should not have been conscious that we had ascended to, and were standing upon the summit of the Rocky Mountains—the backbone , to use a forcible figure, of the North American continent.…

 
The “shortcut” turned out to be not only more treacherous than the older trail but 125 miles longer as well.

“Just before sunset, I ascended one of the highest elevations near our camp; and we took a farewell look of the scenery towards the Atlantic. The sun went down in splendor behind the horizon of the plain, which stretches its immeasurable and sterile surface to the west as far as the eye can reach. The Wind River Mountains lift their tower-shaped and hoary pinnacles to the north. To the east we can see only the tops of some of the highest mountain elevations. The scene is one of sublime and solemn solitude and desolation.”