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sketch of Scotts Bluff
The earliest known sketch of Scotts Bluff, drawing by Alfred J. Miller in 1837.
Original in Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore.

Traders, Missionaries, and Adventurers

The year 1834 was a lively one along the trappers' trail up the North Platte. This was the year that Robert Campbell and William Sublette halted their caravan at the mouth of Laramie's Fork, some 60 miles above Scotts Bluff, to establish log-palisaded Fort William, the first of a succession of trading posts, and later a military post, which became the great way-station on the Oregon Trail, called Fort Laramie. A few days behind Sublette, Nathaniel Wyeth led a caravan upriver to establish rival Fort Hall in Idaho. With Wyeth were Thomas Nuttall and John Townsend, the first men of scientific attainments to follow the trail, and Jason and Daniel Lee, first Methodist missionaries to Oregon.

In 1835, when the American Fur Company emerged as the dominant trading concern, it took over Fort William on the Laramie and placed Lucien Fontenelle in charge there. That year Presbyterian missionaries Samuel Parker and Marcus Whitman accompanied Fontenelle and the traders' caravan to the rendezvous on the Green River, then went on to scout the Oregon country.

Impressed by what he saw, Marcus Whitman quickly returned to the States to organize more missionaries. In 1836 he brought his wife, Narcissa, and the Rev. Henry Spalding and his wife, Elizabeth, westward to Oregon. These two white women, the first ever to see Scotts Bluff and the first to reach Oregon, were well guarded on their journey by the veteran Thomas Fitzpatrick and his swarthy crew.

At Scotts Bluff the Whitman party met company employees from Fort Laramie, descending the Platte River in fur-laden bullboats. This was to become a common method of transporting furs to St. Louis, although the shallow Platte was poorly suited to navigation, and the boats often came to grief on sandbars. The trips could only be made during the June rise of the Platte. Since travelers from the States usually arrived at Scotts Bluff by mid-June, the trappers' boats were often reported in this vicinity.

It was in 1837 that Scotts Bluff, the martial sentinel of the North Platte Valley, stood for its first portrait. The magnificent sketch, now preserved in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, was the work of Alfred J. Miller, a talented artist who accompanied Sir William Drummond Stewart and William Sublette to the Green River rendezvous. Miller's notes on Scotts Bluff reflect the same awe and imagination that inspired countless later emigrants. He writes, "At a distance as we approached it the appearance was that of an immense fortification with bastions, towers, battlements, embrazures, scarps and counterscarps." He records also that this neighborhood abounded in delicious "Rocky Mountain pheasant," and in jack rabbits, antelope, and bighorn.

The supply train of 1838, led by Andrew Drips, was accompanied by another missionary party, including the journalist Myra F. Eells, who commented on the "grand scenery" of the bluffs, and the Swiss fortune hunter, August Johann Sutter, on whose California ranch the discovery of gold 10 years later would precipitate the most famous migration in American history.

In 1839, Dr. Frederick Wislizenus from St. Louis, traveling to Fort Laramie with the caravan led by Moses Harris, described the bluff:

. . . We traveled somewhat away from the river, toward the left, and enjoyed a picturesque landscape. All about were rocks piled up by Nature in merry mood, giving full scope to fancy in the variety of their shapes. Some were perfect cones; others flat round tops; others, owing to their crenulated projections, resembled fortresses; others old castles, porticos, etc. Most of them were sparsely covered with pine and cedar. The scenery has obvious resemblance to several places in Saxon Switzerland.

The last of the traditional rendezvous was held in 1840 on the Green River. This year's expedition was led by Andrew Drips, and it was made notable by two parties who accompanied it. One was the Joel Walker family, the first avowed Oregon emigrants; the others were Jesuit priests headed by Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, who would become one of the West's most prodigious travelers and reporters. Like many others, De Smet, impressed by the scenery of the North Platte, wrote:

. . . In the neighborhood of this wonder [Chimney Rock], all the hills present a singular aspect; some have the appearance of towers, castles and fortified cities. From a little distance, one can hardly persuade himself that art is not mingled in them with the fantasies of nature. Bands of the ashata, an animal called also grosse-corne, or bighorn, have their abode in the midst of these bad lands. . . . [Scotts Bluff ], with its castles and fantastic cities, forms the termination of a high ridge, which runs from south to north. We found a narrow passage through between two perpendicular cliffs 300 feet in height [Mitchell Pass].

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