Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff on
the Oregon Trail
It was through this landscape that the
pioneers passed while taking the Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff, July, 2008, Kathy
"It was a desolate, dismal
scenery. Up or down the valley as far as the eye could reach or across the
mountains and into the dim distance the same unvarying mass of black rock.
Not a shrub, bird nor insect seemed to live near it. Great must have been
the relief of the volcano, powerful the emetic, that poured such a mass of
-- Julius Caesar Merrill, a
pioneer traveling the Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff in 1864
One can only imagine what thoughts ran
through the minds of those tens of thousands of emigrants who passed
the wide array of sights along the
Oregon Trail, but of those who
chose to take the Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff, they just might have thought
they had entered hell.
The cutoff was a 230
mile-long northern alternate to the main
Oregon Trail that followed
the Snake River about 100 miles south of what is today the Craters of
the Moon National Monument. However, after 1863, most emigrants used
the Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff in an effort to avoid hostilities with
Indians, which were escalating along the main trail.
The trail was
actually first promoted as early as 1852 by John Jeffrey who traced
Shoshone migration routes and wanted to generate
business for his ferry at the mouth of the Blackfoot River. Although
the cutoff received some use from 1852 to 1854, it was not until a
decade later that a large percentage of
Oregon Trail traffic began to
travel the desolate route.
By 1862, the Northern
Shoshone and Bannock tribes were beginning to resist the intrusion of
settlers into their homeland along the traditional
Oregon Trail and in
August, 1862 Bannock Indians ambushed a wagon train at
killing 10 people. The growing Indian hostility along the trail
resulted in increased demand for a safe alternative and that same year
an emigrant party asked guide, Tim Goodale, to lead them west from
Fort Hall on the cutoff pioneered by Jeffrey. They not only hoped to
find less Indian resistance on the alternate trail, but also thought
the cut-off would enable them to reach the Salmon River gold fields
more quickly. Goodale succeeded in leading the group of 1,095 people,
338 wagons, and 2,900 head of stock safely from Fort Hall to Boise. It
took this enormous wagon train -- the largest to travel any section of
Oregon Trail -- over 3 hours to get into or out of camp.
By the following year, seven out of every
ten wagons en route from Fort Hall to Boise took the cut-off instead
of the main
Oregon Trail. When emigrants began to take their
west-bound wagons along an old Indian and trapper’s trail past the
lava, they had to develop a wild and winding road. In many spots, they
barely had enough space to get by and could not avoid the lava
stretches. However, they slowly crept along, leaving the path strewn
with parts of broken wagons.
The 230-mile spur headed
north from Fort Hall toward Big Southern Butte, a conspicuous landmark on
the Snake River Plain. From there it passed near the present-day town of
Arco, wound through the northern part of Craters of the Moon National
Monument, went southwest to Camas Prairie, and ended at Fort Boise. This
journey typically took two to three weeks.
"At one place, we were
obliged to drive over a huge rock just a little wider than the wagon. Had
we gone a foot to the right or to the left the wagon would have rolled
-- J.C. Merrill, pioneer
traveler of the cutoff, 1864
A rocky section of the old trail east of Fourmile
Creek, courtesy Idaho
Chapter Oregon-California Trails Association.
The cutoff took its toll
on the travelers and their wagons. The rugged lava restricted travel to
one lane and the path along the edge of the lava flows was circuitous,
making progress was slow. Typically passing through the area in late July,
Wood dried out in the desert air and shrank, causing wheels and boxes to
come apart. For years, pioneers traveling through the area would find the
trail littered with pieces of broken wagons.
For nearly 50 years,
westward-bound pioneers used the Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff. Later, miners
moving ore to railroad depots and stagecoaches carrying passengers to the
towns of southern
the route. But the advent of the railroad and automobile led to the demise
of the wagon route.
Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff Map, courtesy National Park Service.
Today, the trail can
still be seen along Highway 20/26/93 between Craters of the Moon National
Monument and Carey. It winds through the northern end of the monument out
of sight of the road and intersects the highway 3.5 miles west of the
Craters of the Moon National Monument Visitor Center. From that point on,
watch for the dirt road as it follows the edge of the lava flows north of
the highway. The cutoff is particularly easy to pick out 5.7 miles west of
the visitor center, where the road drops down a steep incline.
On a ranch not far from the monument, a small
mound of rocks sits in the middle of a pasture. The loose stones look like
they were piled up to make it easier for tractors to pass. But long-time
residents of the ranch say the rocks mark the site of a 100 year old
grave. During those long ago times, the pioneers endured extreme hardship;
and some – like the grave of this little girl – never made it. According
to the tale, the little girl, who was walking behind a wagon, was bitten
by a rattlesnake and died two days later.
Craters of the
Moon National Monument
18 miles W of Arco on Hwy 20/26/93
P.O. Box 29
Primary Source: National Park
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