The first indication of a great transcontinental trek through Scotts Bluff and over the Rocky Mountains to Oregon was the Nez Perce or Flathead deputation (1831), which came to St. Louis and asked that missionaries be sent to their country. Although the Catholics paid no heed at this time, the "Christian Advocate" gave this request publicity in 1833, and in 1834 the Methodists sent out Jason Lee and his nephew, Daniel Lee.1 These men traveled west with Wyeth.
In the following year the Presbyterians sent out the Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman, who accompanied the American Fur Company trapper, Lucien Fontenelle, over the north side of the North Platte route. In 1836 the Rev. Henry Spalding, Dr. Marcus Whitman (who had returned to the East in the winter of 1835), and their wives (the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains), and Rev. William Gray made the long trip westward. They were guided up the Platte north bank route by Thomas Fitzpatrick and Moses Harris. The Rev. Cushing Eells' party went through in 1838. In 1841, Methodist Rev. Joseph Williams and Jesuit Father De Smet and his associates (the first Catholic missionaries to enter the Northwest, outside of a brief visit by De Smet in 1840), journeyed along the Overland Trail with the Bidwell-Bartleson party. This was the fist California-Oregon emigration train (with Thomas Fitzpatrick and Jim Baker as guides) to pass Scotts Bluff. The next year Methodist Dr. Elijah White, on his way to Oregon, passed through Ohio and picked up young Lansford Hastings, who was to write one of the first guides for western emigrants. By this time the missionary pioneering in the Oregon country was well under way, and secular migration was increasing rapidly.2
Secular settlement in Oregon actually began with John Ball, who accompanied Wyeth, in 1832, to become the first permanent settler in the Oregon country who had come via the Overland Route. Ball represented the first fruit of the many years of propagandizing for Oregon, carried on by Hall Kelley.3 The exhortations of Kelley and the glowing reports from the Oregon missionaries soon attracted an increasing number of settlers, but there was no migration of any size until the Great Migration of 1843, which was the first to go through all the way to the Pacific Coast with wagons. Earlier than this, Rev. Eells' small party of 1838 had counted in its number Captain John Sutter, who later was to become famous in California. (James Marshall, the actual discoverer of California gold, likewise passed by Scotts Bluff, in 1844). The Bidwell-Bartleson party of 1841, mentioned above, had started for California -- upon the eloquent representations of a trader, Robidoux -- but the party divided at Ft. Hall, half going on to California and the remainder striking on to Oregon. This split was caused by the uncertainty regarding the trail to California, which these 32 bold pioneers safely reached via Carson Sink and the Stanislaus river, to be the first Overland party into the state.4
In the meantime, while emigrants were increasing in number with every year (1832-1843), the fur business continued to decline. As related previously, buffalo robes replaced beaver skins as the staple of business; trading posts increased in number until the rendezvous was abandoned after the 16th one, held in 1840; and trappers and traders turned more and more into servants of the great emigration through guide and supply service. The old mountaineer days were coming to an end, and the majestic heights of Scotts Bluff soon were to become one of the most noted landmarks of the entire transcontinental route. Its peaceful days were numbered.
Scientific exploration now also entered the field. A few careful observers, such as Bonneville, Townsend, Parker, and Wislizenus, had recorded brief notes on the Overland Route; but it remained for Lt. John Fremont (the "Pathfinder," but more properly the "Mapmaker") to scientifically observe, map, and record along the great Overland corridor that passed by Scotts Bluff. The reconnaissance of 1842 (recorded in Published form in 1843) gave the emigrants their great emigration "guidebook." In rapid succession there appeared publications by Hastings, Johnson and Winter, Palmer, Clayton, Bryant, and Ware that served as Baedeckers for the increasing throngs of westward-pushing pioneers.5
Not only were maps and guidebooks produced, but critical comments on the geology, paleontology, etc., of the country all along the Overland Route began to appear. One of the first comments (1843) on the paleontology of western Nebraska is incorporated in Overton Johnson's statement:
Parker, Wislizenus, Palmer, and Sage wrote frequently of the geology of the country, as did Stansbury somewhat later. Stansbury's report of his reconnaissance trip to the Rocky Mountains in 1849 is one of the classics in American geography.7
Along the Overland Route, or Great Platte Route, as it was known to the mountaineers, there were a number of outstanding landmarks which included Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff, along the south side of the North Platte. Chimney Rock received its name earlier than did the other natural landmarks, and was perhaps the most noted. This towering natural monument, visible from Scotts Bluff, lost a considerable portion of its height sometime between 1841 and 1849. Bidwell, in his "First Emigrant Train to California," comments that about 50 feet fell of Chimney Rock sometime after their passage in 1841. Stansbury (op. cit., p. 51) quotes Jim Bridger that it was reduced in height "by lightning, or some other sudden catastrophe, as he found it broken on his return from one of his trips to St. Louis, though he had passed it uninjured on his way down." Albert Dickson recorded in his journal of 1864 that "We are told that some years earlier a company of soldiers out on target practice had turned a small cannon upon it, breaking off about thirty feet."8 This story is not improbable, as cannons were moved along the North Platte by U. S. soldiers in 1845 and thereafter.
As emigration increased along the Great Platte route, trading stations, ferries, and "guideposts" increased number. The varied destinations of the emigrants caused a multiplicity of names to be attached to the route which led from numerous points along the Missouri river but attained approximate unity along the Platte river near Ft. Kearny. The route had been merely "Platte Trail" or "Great Platte Trail" for the trappers. In the period 1834-1848 it was known as the "Emigrant Road," "Road to Oregon," "Oregon Trace," "Oregon and California Trail," "Great Medicine Road of the Whites," "White-Topped Wagon Road," "Mormon Trail," and "Great Salt Lake Trail." Later on, events would introduce the terms "Overland Trail," "Central Route to the Pacific," "Pony Express Trail," "Overland Mail Route," etc.9
Beginning with the emigration of 1841, which saw some 80 people pass along the North Platte corridor of the Oregon Trail, the numbers increased by leaps and bounds. Although 1842 had only 110 overland emigrants, the Great Emigration of 1843 counted over 1,000 souls. In 1844 some 1,200 passed Ft. Laramie, and the count exceeded 3,000 in 1845. The year 1846 saw an emigration of perhaps 1,7000 (the diminution due, in part, to the troubles with Mexico), of whom perhaps 300 went to California -- the largest percentage yet to reach that region. This year also saw the United States obtaining clear title from England to the Oregon Country, June 17, 1846. These first six years of organized Oregon-California migration were the real years of the Oregon Trail, as the great majority of the emigrants settled in Oregon.10
Great changes in travel conditions along the Platte were brought about by the large numbers of emigrant trains -- mainly composed of great lumbering wagons, canvas-topped, and drawn by four to ten yokes of oxen -- that wound along the overland traces. The buffalo that formerly had infested the Platte region, between the forks and the Laramie plains, in herds of thousands, had been frightened away from the emigration routes and were now divided into two great herds -- one north and the other south of the Platte river. Not only did the emigration thus make food for man rather scarce, but the endless flow of wagon trains in the spring and summer caused a serious shortage in forage for the draft animals. Some of the smaller springs, such as that at Scotts Bluff, were unable to supply the demand and many emigrants sickened from drinking alkali water.
The pleasures and privations of these Oregon-California emigrants have been recorded in numerous journals and diaries, many of which have been published. They paint a picture of mingled romance and tragedy. Courtships ripened into marriages, and the gay tunes of "Zip Coon," "Buffalo Gals," "Old Dan Tucker," "Lucy Neal," and the other favorites of the Forties were often fiddled to dancers within the evening circular encampment of wagons. Hunting, card-playing, and argumentation provided recreation for the soberer spirits. Occasionally, Indians (Pawnees, Dakotas, or Cheyennes, usually) would swoop down, run off all the livestock possible, and perhaps leave death and grief in the caravan. However, the Indian depredations did not become excessive until the Sixties. Bad water, quicksand fordings of treacherous rivers, buffalo stampedes, breakdowns of wagons or livestock, and thirst and starvation all played grim roles that commenced the great unmarked graveyard of the Overland Route that totaled perhaps 20,000 inmates during the period 1830-1870.11
One of the outstanding events of the period 1841-1846 was the march of Colonel Kearny with 250 men, Thomas Fitzpatrick as guide, from Ft. Leavenworth to South Pass and return in 1846. This trip, made to reconnoitre the country and intimidate the Indians, was the first advance of the United States Army into the Upper Platte country. Scotts Bluff was passed June 12, on the up trip.12 Lt. Fremont's expedition of 1842 (on which Kit Carson was one of the guides) was a scientific rather than a military movement, and the same is true for his later expeditions insofar as they affected the Platte country. Of morbid interest is the passage past Scotts Bluff of the Donners. The outstanding tragedy of the entire early history of the Overland Trail was the Donner disaster of 1846. These poor souls took a little-known cut-off to California, became snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas, and had a high mortality from starvation and cannibalism.13
Among other noted Oregon-California parties -- more fortunate, however -- were those of Cornelius Gilliam, John Thorp, Elisha Stephens, and Nathaniel Ford in 1844. These and other parties of the period were under the guidance of such mountain men as Moses Harris, Thomas Fitzpatrick, John Gautt, William Sublette, Joseph Walker, Stephen Meeks, and James Clyman. The roster of emigrants included such men as Peter Burnett (first governor of California), James Nesmath (to become a senator from Oregon, Jesse Applegate, John Minto, Joseph Chiles, Joel Palmer, Edwin Bryant, and William Case. The Thorp party was unique in following the north bank of the Platte as far as Ft. Laramie. This route had scarcely been used since the small parties of Oregon missionaries had moved over it. Soon, however, it was to be the route for thousands of wagons.
9An excellent discussion of the various trail ramifications along the Platte will be found in Archer Butler Hulbert: The Crown Collection of American Maps, Series IV, Vol. 1, The Platte River Routes: Vol. 2, North and South Platte Routes (1925), especially Vol. 2, plates 14 and 15, for Scotts Bluff area. J. Sterling Morton: Illustrated History of Nebraska (1906), Vol. 2, note on pp. 73-78, gives a minute locating of the old emigrant roads in Nebraska. Ledyard, in Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 4-6 (1931-1933) discusses the leading western American posts. Critical comments on fur trading posts are to be found in Chittenden, op. cit., especially pp. 457-482. Among the best maps showing the Platte routes are:
G. R. Hebard: The Pathbuckers from River to Ocean, 6th ed. (1932), contains an excellent series of illustrations from paintings by W. H. Jackson.
P. St. G. Cooke: Scenes and Adventures in the Army, pp. 328-329.