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
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
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 difficultywe 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 roadThe bellowing of the Ox which
reverberated along the bluffand 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.