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rut of the Oregon Trail
Rut of the Oregon Trail at Scotts Bluff.

Migration to Oregon

The era of the transcontinental covered wagon migrations began in 1841, for in that year came the initial band of 80 Oregon homeseekers, guided by Thomas Fitzpatrick and accompanied by Father De Smet on his second western journey. John Bidwell was the historian of this expedition. Another traveler was Joseph Williams, an elderly but energetic Methodist preacher, who described the building of Fort John (the second Fort Laramie). Although the beaver trade had declined, a brisk trade with the Indians for buffalo robes continued, and the American Fur Company would occupy Laramie's Fork for eight more years.

Dr. Elijah White, the new agent for the Oregon Indians, lead a party of 112 westward in 1842. Among them was Medorem Crawford, who described Scotts Bluff as "the most romantic scenery I ever saw." Lansford W. Hastings, who was to write one of the first emigrant guidebooks, was also of this party. Lt. John C. Fremont's first expedition to the Rocky Mountains traveled up the Platte in 1842; his official report would likewise become a standard reference. He described Scotts Bluff as "an escarpment on the river of about 900 yards in length" which "forces the road to make a considerable circuit over the uplands." He found the plain between the bluffs and Chimney Rock almost entirely covered with driftwood, testifying to a recent flood.

In 1843 Scotts Bluff witnessed the first mass migration to Oregon; it was promoted by Marcus Whitman. In May more than 1,000 persons, including 130 women and 610 children, left Independence, Mo., for the long trek overland. This well-organized expedition, with military rules to ensure protection, an elected captain, and division into companies, set the pattern for the hundreds of emigrant trains to follow. The elected captain was Peter Burnett who was to become the first Governor of California in 1850. The "Cow Column," the last and slowest of the 1843 companies, has achieved fame through the writings of Jesse Applegate. Overton Johnson relates that the train reached camp "by a fine Spring, at the foot of Scott's Bluffs" on July 9.

Close behind the emigrant families came an elaborate hunting party, led by Sir William Stewart and William Sublette, making their farewell visit to the mountains. Baptiste Charbonneau, the infant son who had been carried by Sacajawea on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was hired as a driver. William Clark Kennerly's reminiscences of this journey tells of a frightening incident that occurred near Scotts Bluff:

Far out on the Platte one morning, while making preparations for our daily hunt, we descried coming toward us a herd, which I can state without any exageration must have numbered a million. The pounding of their hooves on the hard prairie sounded like the roaring of a mighty ocean, surging over the land and sweeping everything before it. Here was more game than we bargained for, and the predicament in which we now found ourselves gave us much cause for alarm. On they came, and as we were directly in their path and on the bank of the river, there was great danger of our being swept over. This danger was averted only by our exerting every effort to turn them off in another direction; and as it took the herd two entire days to pass, even at quite a rapid gait, we were kept busy placing guards of shouting, gesticulating men in the daytime and building huge bonfires at night.

Oregon Trail
(click on image for larger size)

. . . encamped in the midtst of Scotts blufs By a cool spring in a romantic & picturisque vally surounded except to the E. by high & allmost impassably steep clay cliffs of all immagenary shapes & forms supped on a most dlecious piece of venison from the loin of a fat Black taild Buck and I must not omit to mention that I took my rifle and (and) walked out in the deep ravin to guard a Beautifull covey of young Ladies & misses while they gathered wild currants & choke chirries which grow in great perfusion in this region and of the finerst kind.

The trek to Oregon in 1845 dwarfed all that had gone before. An informal count at Fort Laramie revealed that 5,000 people and 500 ox-drawn wagons were on the march. The charms of Scotts Bluff, and the tragic tale of its namesake, were not lost on the many diarists, among them Joel Palmer, who credits "Scott's Bluffs" with a good spring and an abundance of wood and grass. Below the bluffs, says Palmer,

We met a company of mountaineers from Fort Laramie, who had started for the settlements early in the season, with flat-boats loaded with buffalo robes, and other articles of Indian traffic. The river became so low, that they were obliged to lay by; part of the company had returned to the fort for teams; others were at the boat landing, while fifteen of the party were footing their way to the States. They were a jolly set of fellows. . . .

In this same big year the United States Government sent its first military expedition up the Platte. Guided by Fitzpatrick, Col. S. W. Kearny led five companies of the First Dragoons to South Pass. A few days ahead of the Oregon Trek, on June 11 they encamped "below Scotts Bluffs, and directly opposite a large village of Dacotah [Sioux] Indians."

. . . that immense and celebrated pile, called "Scott's Bluffs," advances across the plain nearly to the water's edge. If one could increase the size of the Alhambra of Grenada, or the Castle of Heidelberg, which Professor Longfellow has so poetically and so graphically described,—twenty fold in every way but in height,—he could form some idea of the magnitude and splendor of this chef d'oeuvre of Nature at Palace-Building.

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