WAGONS WEST!! EMIGRANT ROAD!!

Folks I know we’ve been havin’ a hog killin’ time at Fort Laramie, but Cookie has a bug to keep movin’.  So gals step away from all those soldiers and let’s move ‘em out!

Today we’re gonna be seein’ many landmarks and keepin’ our wagons rollin’ over the Emigrant Road!

The Emigrant Road over which the early pioneers of California, Oregon and Utah traveled was not a single road, but a number of paths. These paths ran at a parallel route from Fort Laramie to South Pass with wagons taking cutoffs depending upon where they were headed. These included the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, California Trail, and the Sublette Cutoff, as well as the Lander Cutoff and Cherokee Trail.

It is estimated from 1849 through 1860, some 275,000 people traveled through Wyoming on the trails. Therefore, Wyoming has been described as a place through which one passed on the way to someplace else.  Now we could take the more southern and faster Overland or Cherokee Trail, which is mainly used by the Concord stages, or the Greyhounds of the old west, or we could head off on the Sublette Cutoff, popular with emigrants not needing to go to Fort Bridger.

Let’s take a quick look at the trails we won’t be traveling. The Overland Trail Mail route was established and owned by Ben Holladay, the “Stagecoach King.” Sometimes confused with the Oregon or California Trail, which actually followed the North Platte Valley from Nebraska through Wyoming, the Overland Trail refers specifically to that portion of the mail and passenger route, established in 1862, that avoided the Indian uprisings that were occurring on the Oregon Trail farther north through central Wyoming along the Sweetwater-South Pass route. In July, the US Post Office Department ordered Ben Holladay, the Overland Stage Company, to officially relocate from the central Wyoming route, to a route which had been known, in part, as the Cherokee Trail. Not just a cutoff or a detour, it became for a while the only emigrant route on which the US Government would allow travel, and consequently was the principal corridor to the west from 1862 to 1868.

The Overland Trail ran westward from Atchison, Kansas, following the Oregon Trail with some diversions created by Ben Holladay. At Julesburg, Colorado, it essentially left the Oregon Trail, paralleling on the south side. At Latham (present day Greeley), one could travel south to the Cherry Creek settlement of Denver, or cross the river and loop north along the foothills, following the established Cherokee Trail.

Continuing north, the Overland Trail split into at least two separate routes between LaPorte and Virginia Dale. One route veered off to the east toward Fort Laramie, located about 50 miles north of present day Cheyenne; the other route took a bit more westerly route to the home station at Virginia Dale. The first station established in Wyoming was Willow Springs. From there the trail crossed the Laramie Plains and skirted the north side of Elk Mountain near Fort Halleck, and the Medicine Bow Mountains. Crossing the North Platte near the mouth of Sage Creek, it continued west, through Bridger’s Pass, roughly paralleling present day Highway I-80 and the Union Pacific Railroad through Wyoming, finally rejoining the Oregon Trail again in western Wyoming at Fort Bridger.

The Cherokee Trail was formed in 1849, when a group of whites and members of the Cherokee Nation from Washington County, Arkansas rendezvoused for the sole purpose of going to the California goldfields. Under the leadership of Captain Lewis Evans, they used the journals of John C. Fremont and became the first wagons over his trail. The White/Cherokee Pack Company followed a trail along the front range of Colorado then turned west along the Colorado/Wyoming Border toward Fort Davy Crockett and then on to Fort Bridger. They blazed the trail south of Elk Mountain in Wyoming and then across the Red Desert to Fort Bridger (this differed from Fremont’s trail as he had turned North toward the Oregon Trail).

In 1850, four separate wagons trains of Whites/Cherokees arrived at the South Platte in present Denver, crossed the South Platte and then proceeded north to LaPorte and onto the Laramie Plains and onto Fort Bridger.

The Overland and Cherokee Trails run parallel and became important stage routes while serving as secondary migration routes in the mid to late 1800s.

But since y’all are on my wagon train and Cookie hankers to take the slower more scenic route, and I hanker for a sure source of water, we’re gonna travel the central Emigrant Road following the Sweetwater to South Pass.  The travelin’ might be slow, and like most pioneers we’ll suffer from a bit of boredom, but I’ll point out some of the interesting sites so y’all won’t be like one pioneer who reported in his journal that he hoped Indians would attack to relieve the boredom.

First stop on the trail is Independence Rock. This is one of the most noted landmarks on the emigrant trails. It is said emigrants needed to reach this point by July Fourth, thereby giving it its name.  But pioneers arrived at this site throughout the traveling season. Another source states its name came from a party of fur trappers who camped here on July 4, 1824. And still another source states the rock was named by William Sublette in 1830, when his freight wagons reached the rock on the Fourth of July.

However, it got its name Independence Rock became a popular place for emigrants to inscribe their names on the sturdy granite.  The large granite outcropping is 1900 feet long and 700 feet wide, rising 128 feet. Many pioneers commented that it looked “like a huge whale” from a distance.  Over 5,000 names were placed on the Rock.

As early as 1842, a fur trapper, Rufus B. Sage noted the number of names “the surface is covered with names of travelers, traders, trappers, and emigrants, engraved upon it in almost every practicable part, for the distance of many feet above its base…”  Jesuit Priest, Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, called the Rock a “great registry of the desert, for on it may be read in large characters the names of the several travelers who have visited the Rocky Mountains…”

John C. Fremont commented on the names “many famous in the history of this country, and some well- known to science, are to be found mixed among those of the traders and travelers for pleasure and curiosity, and of missionaries among the savages…”  Like many travelers before and after him, Fremont made camp at Independence Rock. Upon leaving, Fremont left a cross at the rock.

 

Names were placed on the rock through engraving or by painting them with wagon grease, tar or a combination of buffalo grease and glue. Over time many of these names have flaked off or been obscured by lichens. Despite this, thousands of names remain to be enjoyed by those still traveling the trails.

For the emigrants a day’s travel west of Independence Rock, the wagons had to detour away from the Sweetwater where the river wends its way through a narrow gorge known as Devil’s Gate, a magnificent natural landmark. The cleft in the Sweetwater rocks is about 370 feet deep and 1500 feet long. The cleft is 30 feet wide at the base but nearly 300 feet at its top.

Although wagons were forced around the cleft, emigrants frequently stopped to hike around this feature and carve their names. Bighorn sheep could be seen climbing the hills. One Oregon-bound emigrant James Mathers wrote “…encamped above the pass of the river, between high rocks. This is the most interesting sight we have met with on our journey.” From journals it is believed nearly 20 emigrants are buried here, although only one known grave remains. The occurrence of several murders in this region led some emigrants to believe this truly was a bedeviled site.

The Shoshone and Arapahoe Indians attribute Devil’s Gate to the actions of an evil beast with enormous tusks that once roamed this area, preventing the Indians from hunting and camping in this region. Eventually, the Indians became disgusted and decided to kill the beast.  From the passes and ravines, the warriors shot the beast with a multitude of arrows. Enraged, the beast tore a hole in the mountains with his large tusks and escaped.

A popular stop on the trail a Pony Express station was established at Devil’s Gate and even later former Army scout Tom Sun place corrals for his ranch at the end of the gorge. Sun known for many things in this valley, the least noble concerned his role in the lynching of Ella “Cattle Kate” Watson.

To the west of Devil’s Gate, pioneers came across the “Ice Slough.” The Ice Slough is a small stream that flows into the Sweetwater River. In the Ice Slough the marshes soils and plants insulated the previous winter’s ice and it melted slowly throughout the summer. Under the marshes a thick mat of ice could be found late into June or early July.  The slough provided in the heat of summer unusual refreshment, and a way to preserve meat.  J. Goldsborough Bruff wrote “…by digging a couple of feet, ice is obtained. The surface is dug up all around by travelers, as much from curiosity as to obtain so desirable a luxury in a march so dry and thirsty…”  Captain George Belshaw of Indiana noted in his diary that lemonade was made with the ice and “it relished first rate.” Because of changes to the drainage wrought by irrigation, the sub-surface ice no longer forms.

We’ve traveled to two of three distinctive granite landmarks, Independence Rock and Devils Gate. The last of these is Split Rock. Split Rock, guided travelers for decades before the emigrants arrived. The distinctive “gun sight” notch in the Rattlesnake Range was visible for the better part of two days on the trail. Rising some 1000 feet above the prairie, Split Rock aimed the emigrants directly at South Pass, still more than 75 miles away.

 

Nearby along the river was established an early Pony Express Station know as Sweetwater Station. The original station lasted about a year and was replaced by the Split Rock station. Split Rock station was replaced by a fortified stage and telegraph station also known as Sweetwater Station.  A crude log structure and pole corral that were part of the station are now part of a private ranch homesite.  This area offered weary pioneers a short, and much needed, respite on their long journey.

So, like those who stayed here before us, we’re gonna hunker down here and make camp.  Let the young’uns run around a bit! So next time yer drivin’ through ol’ WYO on HWY 285 stop a spell at these here natural features and see what had the early pioneers talkin’ and jottin’ down notes in their journals.

See y’all next week on the trail where we’ll stop a piece at South Pass!

SOURCES:

Wyoming Tales and Trails. Oregon Trail. www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com

http://historicwyoming.org

http://wyoshpo.state.wy.us/

Jording, Mike.  “A Few Interested Residents: Wyoming Historical Markers & Monuments.” Helena, MT: Falcon Press, 1992.

 

4 thoughts on “WAGONS WEST!! EMIGRANT ROAD!!

  1. Hi Kirsten, I’ve heard so much about Independance Rock, it’s a place I’d love to visit someday. How symbolic that you mentioned it on Memorial Day.
    I also noticed you mentioned the Sweetwater Pony Express station. Three other authors and I are putting the finishing touches on a Pony Express book proposal. I’m wondering if this is the same Sweetwater Station where The Young Riders television show was set in.
    Hoping to reading more of your work someday.

    • Hi Debby! I hope you make it to Independence Rock, it’s amazing to see those names and know how long ago they were engraved there and think of the lives that passed by on the way to a new future. As far as the Sweetwater Station, I only know of one Sweetwater Station, so I’m pretty sure that would be the one. I hate to admit this, but about the time the Young Riders was on, I was going through my rock’n roll stage, not much interest in cowboys, so I don’t know much about the show. I guess the old saying familiarity breeds contempt was true for me at that time. :o)

      Your book proposal sounds like a great read if it’s a Pony Express story. Best of luck with it!

      Thanks for stopping by and hope to see you again soon on the trail!

      –Kirsten Lynn

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