on-line book icon

table of contents

National Monument
NPS logo

freighters at Independence Rock
Freighters at Independence Rock.
Original sketch in Oregon Trail Museum.

Coming of the Bullwhackers

The Grattan massacre of 1854 and retaliation by Harney's forces in 1855 were prologues to the inevitable showdown with the Plains Indians discussed later. New posts were built, garrisons were strengthened, and expeditions were launched. In 1857 troops had to be sent to Utah to quell the rebellious Mormons; at the same time the Cheyennes staged an outbreak. It became necessary for the Government to move huge quantities of equipment and provisions westward up the Platte Valley, and the freighting contractors came into the picture. Notable among these was the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell of Kansas City (old Westport).

The army freight moved in huge Conestoga wagons drawn by 6 to 8 teams of oxen. A new profession arose known as "bullwhacker" and we can well imagine the bedlam that accompanied the passage of a "bulltrain" or the process of yoking up the bellowing animals in the morning after the nightly encampment in the wagon compound. The experience of taking a bulltrain through Mitchell Pass is vividly described by T. S. Kenderdine in 1858:

Passing over a dreary country, which barely furnished enough of grass for our famished animals, we arrived at Scott's Bluffs on the afternoon of the 25th. This is a bold escarpment of sand and clay, about a half a mile in length and near a thousand feet in height, extending southward from the river and rising like a gigantic barrier to obstruct our way. It was for a long time visible, and at a distance seemed impossible to be surmounted. The road forks before we reach the bluffs, one trail passing around its southern end and re-joining the main road at some distance beyond it, the other passing directly over its summit. The latter is the worse road of the two, but it being the shorter, we chose it. We were detained some time at the foot of the bluff by the breaking of one of our wagons, but we at last got under way, and commenced our toilsome journey over it. The ascent was easy and gradual, until we came to a deep gorge, which intersected our road at the foot of the main bluff. Crossing this at the imminent risk of being run over by the teams as they plunged headlong to the bottom, we came to a series of steep hills and narrow, deep and sandy defiles, through which there was barely room for a wagon to pass. So squarely hewn were some of these passes, that one could hardly believe that art had not a hand in their formation. After a vast deal of exertion we at last reached the summit, when we commenced the still more dangerous descent. Tumbling pell-mell down narrow passages, slowly crawling over abrupt ascents, we at length reached the bottom, and in two miles struck the river and encamped, but not till long after dark.

In 1857, the year of the Utah War, there was quite a crop of Scotts Bluff enthusiasts. Cornelius Conway, a freighter with the Utah Expedition, went into raptures over the scenery. He refers to Mitchell Pass as "Devil's Gap," because of its tortuous passage. Capt. Jesse A. Gove tells of passing through "the celebrated Scott's Bluff, a cut of some 7 miles from the old road." Being rear guard, he had time to "sketch the notch." In 1857, according to Capt. Randolph Marcy's guidebook, The Prairie Traveller, from the pass "the road descends the mountain, at the foot of which is the Platte and a mail station."

William A. Carter, civilian trader bound for Fort Bridger with a U. S. Army contingent, noted the "gigantic mass" of Scotts Bluff, which split the trail. The old road to the left was taken by the troops, but Carter himself was advised

. . . to take the straight forward road leading through the chain of Bluffs and descending by a nearer rout to the Platt again. This, we afterwards regretted as we got through the pass with great difficulty—we found a large freight [wagon] stopped in the pass, the mud being very deep. The axle of one wagon was broken and a dying ox lying crippled in the road—The bellowing of the Ox which reverberated along the bluff—and the croaking of the thousands of Ravens that were hovering over, had a gloomy and ominous sound. This pass is truly a wonder. The bluffs here form a semi circle and on each side rise up into huge towers which make the head dizzy to look up at. The passage through is level, but has been cut into deep ravines by the torrents which run down the sides of the Bluffs.

The mystic spell that Scotts Bluff seemed to weave about early travelers continued unbroken during the following decade. Perhaps the high point in romantic imagination was reached in 1860 by the English adventurer, Richard Burton:

. . . In the dull uniformity of the prairies, it is a striking and attractive object, far excelling the castled crag of Drachenfels or any of the beauties of romantic Rhine. . . . As you approach within four or five miles, a massive medieval city gradually defines itself, clustering, with a wonderful fullness of detail, round a colossal fortress, and crowned with a royal castle. . . . At a nearer aspect again, the quaint illusion vanishes. The lines of masonry become yellow layers of boulder and pebble imbedded in a mass of stiff, tamped, bald, marly clay; the curtains and angles change to the gashings of the rain of ages, and the warriors are metamorphosed into dwarf cedars and dense shrubs, scattered singly over the surfac. . . ."

The Sioux uprising of the 1860's kept pleasure travel to a minimum, but even U. S. soldiers, intent on hammering the redskins, gave pause to express wonder at "the Gibraltar of the Plains." For the first time we have evidence of travelers clambering up the sloping side to the summit of the bluff, to survey the countryside. In 1862 Burlingame described the view as "a scene seldom vouchsafed to mortals." The following year A. B. Ostrander, a drummer boy with the volunteer infantry, laboriously scaled the cliffs, then scrambled hastily down again to catch up with his regiment when he thought he saw Indians.

Also in 1863 Benjamin M. Connor made note of the wind wailing dismally through the gap, which he erroneously called "Marshall's Pass, for a captain of my company." Guide Jim Bridger, who had been one of the first white men to see Scotts Bluff back in the 1820's, told Connor that the bluff "was named for a man who saved his life from pursuing Indians by taking refuge in the cliffs." Bridger, who had been an associate of Hiram Scott, must have known better.

Previous Next

top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Sat, Dec 9 2000 10:00:00 am PDT

ParkNet Home