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Ree Indian attack
Ree Indian attack on General Ashley's trappers.
Original sketch in Oregon Trail Museum.

Rediscovery of the Central Overland Route

Stuart's journal was not published until many years later, and the tremendous import of his geographical discovery—a central route across the continent—was lost amid preoccupation with the War of 1812 and the seizure of Astoria by the British forces. For the next decade the fur traders, operating out of St. Louis, concentrated on sending expeditions up the Missouri River, persisting in their notion that this was the only logical route westward. Manual Lisa, William Ashley, Andrew Henry, and Joshua Pilcher were among the leaders of numerous invasions of the Upper Missouri country. Beaver pelts were plentiful, but the Blackfoot, Ree, Gros Ventre, and other Indian tribes were unfriendly. A series of disastrous encounters with these Indians reached a crisis in 1823, when a large fur brigade under William Ashley was treacherously attacked above Grand River by the Rees, the same who had blocked the path of the Astorians 11 years before. An appeal for military aid resulted in an expedition from Fort Atkinson (above present Omaha) under Col. Henry Leavenworth. The Indian villages were besieged but the results were indecisive. Thereupon Ashley and his men abandoned their efforts on the Upper Missouri, and struck out overland to the mountains. This decision led to the discovery of the rich beaver valleys of the central Rockies, and the rediscovery of South Pass and the Great Platte route. It ushered in the historic Rocky Mountain fur trade, and opened a new chapter in the history of Scotts Bluff.

Among the enterprising young men employed by Ashley, who received their baptism of fire at the Ree villages, were several destined to achieve great fame in the annals of the West. Conspicuous among them were Jim Bridger and Etienne Provost, who soon discovered the Great Salt Lake; Jedediah Smith, who led a band of trappers across the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains to explore the headwaters of the Green and Snake Rivers, and to become the first American to challenge the supremacy of British fur traders in the Oregon country; William Sublette, who became the founder of Fort William on the Laramie River; Thomas Fitzpatrick, noted "mountain man," emigrant guide, and Indian agent; and Hiram Scott, one of Ashley's clerks who would soon die tragically near the bluff which now bears his name.

If any white men traveled by Scotts Bluff in the decade following the downstream passage of the returning Astorians, they left no distinct record. It is surmised that Canadian half-breeds roamed and trapped in this region during this period since several geographic names of French origin seem to have survived from the earliest days of the fur trade. Laramie or "La Ramee" River and Goshen or "Goche's" Hole, both in nearby Wyoming, tell of early trappers about whom there survive only the haziest traditions. We can only say that the second group of white men in the North Platte Valley who can be positively identified were four of Ashley's trappers who, in the spring of 1824, attempted to bring their beaver pelts down the Platte River. With this event, Scotts Bluff once more emerges on the pages of history.

Following a successful harvest of beaver, Jedediah Smith delegated Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Clyman, and two others to transport the pelts to Fort Atkinson. This led directly to the rediscovery of the strategic Platte route and the beginning of a half century during which Scotts Bluff became one of the great landmarks of that historic route. Fitzpatrick failed in his effort to transport the furs down the Sweetwater by bullboat (Indian boat made from buffalo hides stretched over a frame of green willow boughs) and, lacking horses, was compelled to cache them near Independence Rock. He and his companions were subsequently scattered by marauding Indians, but they all arrived safely at Fort Atkinson. Fitzpatrick promptly took horses back to Independence Rock to retrieve his furs, and so passed Scotts Bluff three times in 1824.

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