As hopeful travelers set out on their journey across the overland trails in the 1840s and 50s, they looked forward to the fertile farmland of Oregon and the start of a new life. Although their eyes were focused on their goal, they experienced hardships and saw landmarks which lived in their memories for the rest of their lives.
Those who started on their overland journey near Independence, Missouri followed the old Santa Fe Trail for about 40 miles until the Oregon Trail branched off to the northwest. They crossed small rivers, including the Big Blue, situated near a lovely camp called Alcove Spring in Kansas. As Edwin Bryant recorded in 1846, the water was “as cold and pure as if it had just been melted from ice.” The area was beautifully covered with tall grass and wild flowers, but swarmed with mosquitoes, which some travelers, with typical exaggeration, insisted were as large as turkeys.
The emigrants followed the Little Blue River until they reached the Platte River in Nebraska. After 1848, they stopped for a short time at Fort Kearny, the first of several forts they encountered along the trail. Although the fort was merely a group of rugged adobe buildings, it was a place of great importance where emigrants purchased supplies, shod animals and mailed letters. As the wagons rolled out along the Platte, the emigrants noted its unusual qualities. It was often over a mile wide, yet only a few feet in depth. The word “Platte,” which is derived from the word “flat,” perfectly described the terrain the overlanders encountered.
After crossing the South Platte River, they began heading toward the North Platte, traveling down the steep slope now called Windlass Hill. To one emigrant, this slope seemed “a little past perpendicular.” It was so treacherous, in fact, that it claimed many wagons; travelers tried to slow their vehicles down any way that they could. Although they apparently used no windlasses, they often chained the wheels, and locked or tied a small tree behind the wagon for resistance. Some even chose to travel an extra 16 to 17 miles to avoid the hill altogether.
A few miles further along the trail, emigrants began to see awesome rock formations. Almost every journal took note of these great landmarks, the first of which was Courthouse Rock, a large butte which reminded emigrants of courthouse buildings in numerous hometowns across the Midwest. A smaller rock beside this formation was named Jail Rock. Rock formations so enthused the emigrants that many traveled several miles off the trail to take a closer look and inscribe their names upon them.
A bit farther along the trail, emigrants encountered Chimney Rock. “The only way I can describe it” wrote S.E. Hardy in 1850, “is it looks like a big sweet potato hill with a pile of rocks on top something like a chimney.” The tip of the rock could be seen as early as three days before arriving at it. By keeping an eye on Chimney Rock, a traveler could see that progress, though slow, was being made. Chimney Rock was about 425 feet tall (50 feet higher than it stands today) and consisted of loose clay and volcanic
Further along the North Platte River, emigrants came upon a large hill known as Scott’s Bluff, which blocked their path. This bluff received its name from early fur traders in the area. As the story goes, in 1828 or 1829, a trader named Hiram Scott became deathly ill and was abandoned by his companions, traveling 60 miles before dying. His skeleton was found at the foot of the bluff a few months later. Before 1851, wagon trains had to veer several miles to the South by way of Robidoux Pass. After the army improved the way, Mitchell Pass became the route of choice.
Beyond, one could see the faint purple shadows of the Rocky Mountains on the horizon to the West; Fort Laramie was just around the bend. This fort, originally called Fort William, was built by the fur trader William Sublette in 1834 to trade with the Indians. The American Fur Company purchased it two years later, enlarged the structure with adobe and named it Fort John. The post was most often referred to as Fort Laramie, however, after a French-Canadian trapper named Jacques LaRames, and this was the name which stuck. Like several forts along the Oregon Trail, it was purchased by the army in 1849 and converted into a military outpost. The one thing that emigrants remembered most about the fort was the incredible prices that were charged for supplies. Tobacco, which might cost 5 cents in St. Louis, cost a full dollar at Fort Laramie!
Leaving the fort, emigrants set out across present day Wyoming, entering a land poisoned with alkali. Oxen had to be beaten away from the deadly water, and many lost their animals along this stretch. The emigrants reached potable water at the Sweetwater River.
Independence Rock was soon sighted, which “at a distance looks like a huge whale,” noted J. Goldsborough Bruff in 1849. “It is painted and marked in every way, all over, with names, dates, initials, Ec.” Independence Rock, 128 feet high and one-quarter mile long, was covered with over 5,000 names from early travelers, enough to earn it the nickname “Great Desert Register.”
Names were chiseled, scratched, or painted on the white feldspar and granite with wagon grease and gunpowder. Some entrepreneurs charged as much as 5 dollars to create “autographs” for the illiterate. How Independence Rock originally obtained its name is not known. It may have been due to the fact that it stands alone and independent from other formations, or because early trappers celebrated the 4th of July there. Overlanders tried to arrive at the rock by July 4th, to insure that they would make it through the mountains before the winter snows.