THE STORY OF SCOTTS BLUFF
Bonneville's journal, through the pen of the gifted Irving, also
preserved for posterity the name and garbled history of Hiram Scott --
one of the hundreds who sacrificed their lives in the search for the
animal wealth of the mountains. According to Bonneville's account (pp.
"On the 21st (June, 1832) they (Bonneville's party) encamped amid
high high and beetling cliffs of indurated clay and sandstone, bearing
the semblance of towers, castles, churches, and fortified cities. At a
distance it was scarcely possible to persuade one's self that the works
of art were not mingled with these fantastic freaks of nature. They have
received the name of Scott's Bluffs from a melancholy circumstance. A
number of years since, a party were descending the upper part of the
river in canoes, when their frail barks were overturned, and all their
powder spoiled. Their rifles being thus rendered useless, they were
unable to procure food by hunting, and had to depend upon roots and wild
fruits for subsistence. After suffering extremely from hunger, they
arrived at Laramie's fork, a small tributary of the north branch of the
Nebraska, about sixty miles above the cliffs just mentioned. Here one
of the party, by the name of Scott, was taken ill; and his companions
came to a halt, until he should recover health and strength sufficient
to proceed. While they were searching around in quest of edible roots
they discovered a fresh trail of white men, who had evidently but
recently preceded them. What was to be done? By a forced march they
might overtake this party, and thus be able to reach the settlements in
safety. Should they linger they might all perish of famine and
exhaustion. Scott, however, was incapable of moving; they were too
feeble to aid him forward, and dreaded that such a clog would prevent
their coming up with the advance party. They determined, therefore, to
abandon him to his fate. Accordingly, under pretence of seeking food,
and such simples as might be efficacious in his malady, they deserted
him and hastened forward upon the trail. They succeeded in overtaking
the party of which were in quest, but concealed their faithless
desertion of Scott; alleging that he had died of disease.
"On the ensuing summer, these very individuals visiting these parts
in company with others, came suddenly upon the grinning skull of a human
skeleton, which, by certain signs they recognized for the remains of
Scott. This was sixty long miles from the place where they had
abandoned him; and it appeared that the wretched man had crawled that
immense distance before death put an end to his miseries. The wild and
picturesque bluffs in the neighborhood of his lonely grave have ever
since borne his name."
This is the first notice that we have of this tragic event, although
the individual involved has been identified with the Hiram Scott (one of
Ashley's men) who served as a captain under Colonel Leavenworth in the
August, 1823, attack upon the Arikara.1
According to William A. Ferris, (who served as a clerk for the American
Fur Company from 1830-35), in his series of articles entitled "Life in
the Rocky Mountains," which were published in the "Western Literary
Messenger," Scott was a clerk of the American Fur Company.
While returning from the mountains he fell ill, and the leader of the
party was compelled to leave him in order to push on and overhaul
another party. The leader agreed to wait at these bluffs until Scott
should come along. He left Scott with two men to be brought down in a
bullboat, but the boat was soon wrecked and lost with everything in it,
even the arms and ammunition. The two men then forsook their companion
and overtook the main party several days later. The leader had not
stopped where he agreed. Scott's bones were found the following spring
near the agreed place of waiting.2
Townsend, who accompanied Wyeth on his 1834 expedition, differed
little from the accounts given by Bonneville and Ferris, who were in the
region at approximately the same time. He states that
"These are called 'Scott's Bluffs'; so named from an unfortunate
trader, who perished here from disease and hunger, many years ago. He
was deserted by his companions; and the year following, his crumbling
bones were found in this spot."3
Townsend's only disagreement is in placing the event "many years
ago," when writing in the period 1834-9.
Romantic Sage, who traversed the region in 1841, built up a very
"This lovely valley had before this witnessed the death-scene of one
who left his bones to blanch within its limits. His name was Scott,
from whom the neighboring eminences derive their present appellation.
Attracted by the enchanting beauty of the place and the great abundance
of game the vicinity afforded, he wandered higher alone and made it his
temporary residence. While thus enjoying the varied streets of
solitude, he became the prey of sickness and gasped his life away;- and
none was there to watch over him, but the sun by day and the stars by
night; or fan his fevered brow, save the kindly breezes; or bemoan his
hapless fate, other than the gurgling stream that sighed its passing
sympathy beside the couch of death!"4
Johnson, who followed the Platte route in 1843, eliminated the
traditional wandering of the sick Scott from near the Laramie River
mouth. In his accounts:
"They receive their name from a melancholy circumstance, which
happened at them, several years ago. A small party of trappers were
returning from the mountains to their home in Missouri. Owing to the
hostility of the Indians who inhabited the country, (the Sioux) it was
necessary for their safety, that they should not be seen. To prevent
this, required the greatest precaution in their movements. A few days
before they reached this place, one of their number, named Scott, was
taken sick and continued to grow worse, until he was unable to proceed.
His companions carried him to these bluffs, and supposing that he could
not recover, they left him. Others passing that way, some years after,
found his bones a short distance from where he had been left. From this
circumstance, these hills have been called, since that time, after the
name of that unfortunate adventurer."5
Palmer, who passed Scotts Bluff in 1845, also reduced the mileage
traveled by the sick man, and blamed the Indians for the party's loss of
"A melancholy tradition accounts for the name of this spot. A party
who had been trading with the Indians were returning to the States and
encountering a band of hostile savages, were robbed of their peltries
and food. As they struggled homeward, one of their number, named Scott,
fell sick and could not travel. The others remained with him, until the
sufferer, despairing of ever beholding his home, prevailed on his
companions to abandon him. They left him alone in the wilderness,
several miles from this spot. Here human bones were afterwards found;
and, supposing he had crawled here and died, the subsequent travelers
have given his name to the neighboring bluff."6
Edwin Bryant, on his way to California in 1846, obtained an account
which is perhaps as authentic as any:
"A party of some five or six trappers, in the employment of the
American Fur Company, were returning to the 'settlements,' under the
command of a man -- a noted mountaineer -- named Scott. They attempted
to perform the journey in boats, down the Platte. The current of the
river became so shallow that they could not navigate it. Scott seized
with a disease which rendered him helpless. The men with him left him
in the boat, and when they returned to their employers, reported that
Scott had died on the journey, and that they had buried him on the banks
of the Platte. The next year a party of hunters, traversing this
region, discovered a human skeleton wrapped in blankets, which from the
clothing and papers found upon it, was immediately recognized as being
the remains of Scott. He had been deserted by his men, but afterwards
recovering his strength sufficiently to leave the boat, he had wandered
into the bluffs where he died, where his bones were found, and which now
bears his name."7
Later versions of Scott's story ring the changes on the above-related
seven, which were written by men who visited the area prior to 1847, and
whose accounts were all published before 1849. Among variations
introduced by later writers are:
That he was taken sick and put ashore ("Journal of Joseph
Hackney, 1849," in Elizabeth Page: Wagons West, p. 142).
That he was a solitary trapper who had lost his way, and died of
starvation (William Kelly: Across the Rocky Mountains, p. 112.)
That he was left, at his own request, to perish alone (Franklin
Langworthy: Scenery of the Plains, Mountains, and Mines, pp.
That Scott was put ashore by his boat's crew, who had a grudge
against him (R. F. Burton: The City of the Saints, p. 78).
That, about 1825, a party wrecked on the Sweetwater wandered past
the bluffs where the ill Scott was abandoned at his request (W. S.
Brackett: "Bonneville and Bridger," pp. 180-181, in Contrib. to the
Hist. Soc. Montana, Vol. 3).
That Hiram Scott, 1828, was one of the founders of the 2nd
Northwestern Fur Company (R. F. Wilson: Out of the West, p. 86 -- source
The date of Scott's demise is uncertain, although usually given as
1828. The first published account is that of Captain Bonneville (op.
cit.) in 1837. No published map showed Scotts Bluff until Robert
Greenhow's "Memoir, Historical and Political, on the Northwest Coast of
North America" appeared in 1840.8 This map
compiled in 1840, shows Scotts Bluff down stream from Chimney Rock. The
map in Lt. Fremont's report of 18439 has
Scots Bluff in correct position. This map and report were basic for
most of the western maps and guides that appeared in the next few years.
The form of the name is varied, appearing as: Scottsbluff, Scott's
Bluff, Scott's Bluffs, Scotts Bluff, and Scotts Bluffs. It has even
appeared, through a printer's mistake, as Scotch Bluff.
1Recorded by Dale, op. cit., p. 79,
from Col. Leavenworth's official report of Oct. 20, in "Missouri
Intelligencer," December 2, 1823.
2Abstracted from Ferris by Chittenden,
op. cit., pp. 468-9. Chittenden gives a brief history of Ferris
on p. 395.
3Townsend: Narrative of a Journey Across
the Rocky Mountains, pp. 178-9.
4Rufus B. Sage: Wild Scenes in Kansas and
Nebraska, p. 63.
5Overton Johnson and Wm. H. Winter: Route
Across the Rocky Mountains, p. 13.
6Joel Palmer's Journal of Travels over the
Rocky Mountains, p. 57.
7Edwin Bryant: What I Saw in California,
8Senate Document 174, 26th Congress, 1st
9Senate Document 243, 27th Congress, 3rd