Rivers, mountains, springs, trading posts. There were many mileposts pioneers used to track their journey on the Oregon Trail.
Three days’ travel out of Independence, the untried, greenhorn Oregon Trail pioneers came upon a hill rising from the flat grassland around it. Blue Mound seemed strangely out of place in the midst of the prairie. Eager emigrants climbed it to get a look at what lay ahead. Officers and guides urging the parties to move on allowed the curious only a quick glance.
As the wagon trains crossed Kansas and Nebraska, the mileposts were obstacles in the form of rivers that had to be crossed: the Blue, Wakarusa, Kansas, Vermilion, Big Blue, and Little Blue. Steep banks and high water during May were common problems. Some rivers could be forded, but for rivers deeper than four feet or so, a pair of canoes would be lashed together, a wagon rolled on crossways, and the resulting ferry poled across. Some smaller creeks had toll bridges built by entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the emigrant traffic.
Dotting the length of the Trail from Missouri to Oregon are numerous springs with names of explorers, descriptive names such as Cold or Cottonwood, or names reflecting pioneer determination such as Faith or Charity. Alcove Springs has a twelve-foot fall of water that provided much-needed relief for man and beast. The Donner Party carved the words Alcove Springs in eight inch letters on a nearby rock that could be read for over a century (recent travelers report that part of the inscription has broken away from the rock face, apparently through natural weathering). Two days away at Fremont Springs, similar graffiti can be seen displaying the names of 1842 scouts John C. Fremont and Kit Carson.
Later emigrants saw Pony Express stations and stagecoach stops about every fifteen miles from Hollenberg’s Ranch House to Fort Bridger. The first one, Hollenberg’s, was built in 1857 and is the only one left today in its more-or-less original state. Rock Creek Station in Nebraska was the site of the 1861 shootout involving David McCanles and James Butler Hickok, which gave Hickok his “Wild Bill” reputation.
Where the Oregon Trail out of Independence met the Platte River, the first of many forts was built to protect plains emigrants. Forts operated by the US Army usually had post offices where emigrants could send home letters, and eastbound riders headed back to the United States were sometimes willing to take along letters from westbound emigrants. The Platte River itself was another major obstacle, as in June it consisted mostly of shallow, stagnant pools separated by mud flats, sandbars, and a three foot deep main channel that meandered from bank to bank. It was too wide to be bridged and too shallow to for a ferry. Crossing the Platte from the northern Council Bluffs Road (the Mormon Trail) to the Oregon Trail on the Platte’s south shore required a risky trek following a path of willow poles set out to mark stable sandbars that would support the weight of wagon.
The Oregon Trail had to eventually cross the South Platte River to gain access to the North Platte River, which overlanders followed all the way to the area of present-day Casper, Wyoming. This was done at California Crossing, named for the gold rushers of 1849. Before then it had been known as Brule Crossing. The Pony Express used another crossing twenty miles upstream and also called it California Crossing, so the Oregon Trail ford became known as the Old or Lower California Crossing.
Once across the South Platte, there was a steep grade as the Trail climbed up California Hill to a high plateau. Deep ruts are still visible there today. Then it was back down the other side on Windlass Hill, so named because it seemed impossible to descend safely without the aid of a windlass (legend has it that there actually was a windlass set up there for a time, but there is no evidence to support this). All available men and women held on to ropes to slow wagons making the descent.
At the bottom was Ash Hollow on the North Platte River, a sylvan glade with clean, cool springs which served as an oasis for the weary adventurers who had just struggled down from atop Windlass Hill. In her journal entry for June 5, 1852, Esther Belle Hanna described the great profusion of wild roses in full bloom to be found there.
Along the banks of the North Platte River is a profusion of massive sandstone features rising majestically from the plains. The first, Courthouse and Jail Rocks, could be seen for forty miles or three days away. Next came Chimney Rock. For two days before arriving its solitary finger looked like “an old ruin, then a very sharp cone, more the shape of a chimney than anything else.” (A.J. McCall, June 13, 1849) Scotts Bluff was named for fur trapper Hiram Scott, who was purportedly abandoned for dead sixty miles away and crawled to that spot to die. The legend is retold in many emigrant diaries, the overlanders having heard it at local trading posts and forts.
The emigrants passed several fur trading posts beyond Scotts Bluff. The oldest, dating back to 1834, was William Sublette’s post at LaRemay’s River, later called Fort Laramie. Beyond Fort Laramie, Oregon Trail pioneers crossed a number of rivers flowing out of what the emigrants called the Black Hills, today known as the Laramie Mountains. There were crossings of the Laramie River, Horse, Cottonwood, LaBonte, Box Elder, and Deer Creeks, the North Platte itself, and as many as nine crossings of the Sweetwater River. Many of these crossings were made with the benefit of ferries or bridges. Most of the streams were clear-flowing water up to 100 yards wide with banks littered with driftwood.
Emigrant diaries mention several prominent landmarks beyond Fort Laramie. One was Register Cliff, a soft sandstone formation that served as a message board for the emigrants. One interesting section of the cliff is that claimed by the Unthank family. Above the other names is written “A.H. Unthank, 1850” — the family patriarch, Alva inscribed his name just one week before dying of cholera. Below it is “O.N. Unthank, 1869,” Alva’s nephew. Below them is “O.B. Unthank, 1931,” Alva’s great-grandson.
Farther up the trail are the spectacular ruts at Guernsey, Wyoming. The Oregon Trail at this point had to go over more soft sandstone, and the wagon wheels gradually carved a depression five feet deep. Nearby is the grave of Joel Hembree, a six year old boy with the Applegate company who was killed July 18, 1843, when he fell under a wagon. This is believed to be the oldest marked grave on the Oregon Trail, and it was seen by all who followed.
The abundance of grass next to Independence Rock made it a welcome stopping point for every train. The goal was to arrive here by the 4th of July to be sure of beating the winter snows to Oregon. Independence Rock is a large, low granite mass resembling a giant turtle and covering about five acres of prairie. It is the most often noted landmark west of Fort Laramie. Emigrants found many fur trappers’ names already drawn on the rock and added their own names. Axle grease made of pine tar and hog fat was used to paint some names, and a handful are still visible in sheltered nooks and crannies. Some emigrants carved their names, dates, or initials, but this was much harder work than doing so in the sandstone of Register Cliff. The Mormons, in one of their many entrepreneurial ventures, had men who would inscribe names for up to five dollars each. In 1860 Sir Richard Burton calculated that there were between forty and fifty thousand names written in one way or another on Independence Rock.
Within sight of Independence Rock is Devil’s Gate, where the Sweetwater River shoots through a crack in the granite. The Trail went around the feature, as it was entirely too narrow and steep-sided to allow a wagon road to be blazed, but emigrants would stop and climb to the top to peer over the edge. At least one young overlander fell to her death doing just that.
The next milepost was Ice Slough, a shallow basin at the 6000 foot level just before South Pass. Ponds and springs here were covered with turf. Ice from the previous winter was insulated under the turf and could be dug out during the hot summer months. The surface water was alkaline, but the ice was clear and good: “We dug down in the earth about 12 inches, and found chinks of ice. We carried it along till about noon, and made some lemonade for dinner. It relished first rate.” (George Belshaw, July 4, 1853)
South Pass marks the halfway point of the Oregon Trail, a powerful symbolic landmark that lacked any distinguishing feature which we would actually think of as a landmark. Here, the emigrants crossed the Continental Divide and the eastern boundary of Oregon Territory. Before 1849, it was at this point that emigrants left the territory controlled (more or less) by the United States.
Expecting a narrow alpine pass, emigrants were surprised by the gradual approach leading to a broad, flat plain some twenty miles wide. The descent was steeper, but still not a bad stretch of road. About 3 miles into the plain is Pacific Springs, a marshy prairie bog fed by springs which was distinguished solely by being the first body of water the pioneers encountered that drained into the Pacific Ocean.
Most river crossings in Wyoming were difficult due to the considerable amount of snowmelt in July and August. The emigrants always arrived during this period of high water and had to cross rivers on submerged gravel bars — a risky proposition at best. Straying from the marked course by even a few feet could mean disaster for people, wagons, and livestock. A ferry was eventually established at the Green River crossing, but other crossings remained dangerous.
Fort Bridger was a palisaded trading post and blacksmith shop established in 1842 by Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez to capitalize on the overland trade and the need for blacksmithing services. Worn out animals could often be exchanged there for fresher ones.
Sublette’s Cutoff was a fifty mile trek across desolate, hostile land that cut 46 miles, or about 3 days, off the journey. The waterless landscape crossed by Sublette’s Cutoff was arguably the worst stretch of the Trail. Not popular until the gold rush of 1849, it called for a decision whether to save time or risk the death of animals. Some emigrants chose to travel the Cutoff by night, breaking camp at 2 AM and navigating by “head lights” — lanterns carried by boys walking ahead of the wagons. Day or night, the wagons stirred up gritty, alkaline dust, and they generally traveled side by side in a broad front up to a mile across in order to avoid each other’s dust.
Heading northwest towards the Snake River, the Oregon Trail emigrants passed through the lava lands, an otherworldly landscape dotted by cones, craters, springs, geysers, and waterfalls. Steamboat Springs, the principal feature of a group of mineral springs collectively known as Soda Springs, was a three-foot geyser that emitted a high-pitched whistle that reminded emigrants of the steamboats they had seen or ridden on the Missouri River. The area has been geologically active since before recorded human history, and some of the springs ran hot, others warm or cold. Some were white in color, others gray, buff, or red. Some tasted to the pioneers like soda water, others like metal or beer. One minister proclaimed that, “Hell is not more than a mile from this place.”
Now traveling in territory worked by the early fur trappers and mountain men, the emigrants arrived at forts older than the Trail itself. Fort Hall was established by Nathaniel Wyeth in 1834 and later sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company. After Oregon became a United States Territory in 1849, the HBC departed and the post served the emigrant trade exclusively. Many emigrants here tasted Pacific salmon for the first time.
The Snake River flows through the bottom of a deep chasm, and it was all but inaccessible to the emigrants much of the time. The rumble of American Falls, Shoshone Falls, and Twin Falls could be heard for miles. At Thousand Springs, a series of streams burst out from under the lava rimrock into the Snake River. Since these falls were on the other side of the river, this landmark was only of interest to the pioneers as a milepost.
The Snake River briefly escaped from its high walls at what is today known as Three Island Crossing, allowing parched wagon trains a chance to cross to the north side and travel to the lush, green Boise River Valley. During the pioneer era, there were only two islands at the crossing; the third was formed years later when the river scoured out a new channel during a flood. The river was six to eight feet deep, but its clarity was deceptive, making it appear shallower. Combined with its swift current, this was generally considered the most treacherous river crossing on the entire Trail. Guidebooks went into great detail on how to use the two islands to avoid mishaps. Still, wagons capsized and men and animals drowned. Many emigrants chose an alternate route, staying on the dry south bank of the Snake rather than risk fording the river.
Beyond Fort Boise (and after 1859) the Oregon Trail entered the State of Oregon. Past Farewell Bend, where the overlanders left the Snake River behind, the next milepost was the Blue Mountains. This heavily timbered expanse was full of steep grades that tried the weary emigrants and their animals. Many overlanders recorded their astonishment at the sight of 200 foot tall trees. From the crest could be seen the great volcanoes of the Cascade range. Nights in the Blue Mountains are often chilly in late August and September, and the cool, alpine nights reminded the emigrants that the mountains ahead were even higher.
For five years, this stretch of the Trail went past the Whitman Mission. The mission provided food, medical attention, and blacksmithing services. Following the November 29, 1847, murders of the Whitmans, the mission closed down and was bypassed, shaving a few miles off the journey. At Fort Walla Walla, needy emigrants could often travel to Fort Vancouver in HBC boats.
Several tributaries of the Columbia River had to be crossed between the Blues and the Cascades. The Umatilla River was crossed at Echo, where emigrants saw the first frame house since leaving Missouri. The John Day River had a swift current and a solid bed of round stones. The Deschutes River was a difficult ford until a ferry was established.
The Dalles was the terminus of overland traffic in the earliest years of the Oregon Trail. Starting in 1846, the Barlow Road was open, allowing wagons to skirt the south shoulder of Mount Hood before descending into the Willamette Valley from the east. Emigrants taking the Columbia River route from The Dalles stopped over at Fort Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and regional headquarters established in 1825. For many emigrants it was here, for the first time since Missouri, that they ate at a table or slept in a house.
The end of the Oregon Trail was Oregon City, not quite 2000 miles from Independence. Those arriving by river landed near Governor George Abernethy’s house and proceeded to Abernethy Green, a large meadow behind Abernethy’s house. The Barlow Road travelers entered Abernethy Green from the east. Here was the final campground.