Oregon Trail Through the Platte River Valley, Nebraska

Oregon Trail in the Platte River Valley, Nebraska Map

Oregon Trail in the Platte River Valley, Nebraska Map

Reproduction vintage Oregon Trail Poster Map

Reproduction vintage Oregon Trail Poster Map. Available at Legends’ General Store

Ash Hollow-Windlass Hill

Ash Hollow State Park, Nebraska

Ash Hollow State Park, Nebraska

After negotiating the climb up California Hill, the emigrants along the Oregon-California Trail traveled 18 miles across the high tableland between the South and North Platte Rivers before descending Windlass Hill into the North Platte River Valley.

This was a favorite campsite for emigrants because it offered wood, pure water, and grass for the stock. Wagons descended the 25-degree slope of Windlass Hill for about 300 feet; subsequent erosion of the tracks worn by rough-locking the wheels has left at least five scars of trail ruts run down its side. From the top of the hill, trail ruts can be followed south until they disappear into a wheat field at the top of the plateau.

The source of the name is unknown as emigrants were not known to have referred to it as Windlass Hill. One pioneer named Howard Stansbury, who passed through Ash Hollow on July 3, 1852, commented:

“Here we were obliged, from the steepness of the road, to let the wagons down by ropes… The bottom of Ash Creek is tolerably well wooded, principally with ash and some dwarf cedars… traces of the great tide of emigration… plainly visible in remains of campfires, in blazed trees covered with innumerable names… total absence of all herbage.”

The site became a Nebraska state park in 1962. Another historic site, located about 2 ½ miles from Windlass Hill is also contained within the park. Ash Hollow Cave was created by a spring long ago and became an attractive site for human habitation. At least four distinct cultures used the cave as a base camp for hunting and food collecting for more than 1,500 years. Archaeological explorations have revealed that indigenous people used the cave as early as 1000 B.C. in the Late Archaic Period to about 1675-1725 when it was used by the Apache tribe.

The State Historic Park also includes the grave of Rachel Pattison, an 18-year-old newlywed who lost her life on the trail. A Visitor Center overlooking the canyon contains interpretive exhibits. The 40-acre Ash Hollow site also looks over the site of the Battle of Ash Hollow which took place in August 1855 between U.S. Soldiers and the Sioux Indians.

Contact Information:

Ash Hollow State Historical Park
P.O. Box A
Lewellen, Nebraska 69147
308-778-5651

Courthouse and Jail Rocks

Courthouse Rock on the Oregon Trail in Nebraska

Courthouse and Jail Rocks on the Oregon Trail in Nebraska

Located near present-day Bridgeport, Nebraska, Courthouse and Jail Rocks are the erosional remnants of an ancient plateau that bisected the North Platte River. The rocks sit at over 4,050 feet above sea level and rise more than 240 feet above nearby Pumpkin Creek. Like Chimney Rock, these rock structures have long been recognized by pioneers as prominent landmarks on the transcontinental journey west. These sites were the first monumental rock features that emigrants would encounter heading west. The rocks also served as an important crossroads, where two major trunks of the Oregon and California Trails merged.

Like Chimney Rock, Courthouse and Jail Rocks went by a series of names before arriving at their current designations. Because of Courthouse Rock’s grand and imposing appearance, many emigrants described the rock in terms of a large public building, naming it the Castle or the Courthouse. When viewed at distance from the east, the Courthouse and Jail Rocks appear to merge into a large, single unit, and descriptions sometimes referred to them as a single formation — the Solitary Tower or the Lonely Tower. Once travelers approached Courthouse Rock, however, the second, smaller escarpment, the Jail Rock, became visually distinct. Though travelers applied various titles to both features, by the 1840s, most people used the names Courthouse and Jail Rocks.

Apart from their historical significance as landmarks on overland trails during the 19th century, the northwest side of the rock complex boasts a Dismal River archeological site. Dismal River archeological sites have been found throughout western Nebraska. Artifacts obtained from the sites have helped archeologists document American Indians who are believed to have migrated into western Nebraska in about 1675. The remains of the Courthouse Pony Express Station, the first station west of Mud Springs, lie on the southwest corner.

Courthouse and Jail Rocks are located two miles south of Bridgeport, Nebraska on Highway 88.

Mud Springs Pony Express Station Site

Pony Express Route

Pony Express Route

Mud Springs Station, a Pony Express site from 1860 to 1861, was located near present-day Dalton in Cheyenne County, Nebraska. Archeological evidence found at Mud Springs and the surrounding area suggests that Native Americans have occupied the region for centuries. It derived its name from the springs that come to the surface at the mouth of a long canyon between the Lodgepole Creek and North Platte River Valleys. When the pioneers arrived at these springs after a long drive over the high, dusty plateau they often found the springs muddy from the trampling feet of buffalo.

First surveyed in 1856, the town served overland travelers on the Julesburg cutoff by connecting Lodgepole Creek to the Oregon Trail. The springs represented the first significant opportunity for obtaining water in a 24-mile stretch of barren overland trail.

Buildings at Mud Springs were erected of sod in 1859, the roofs constructed of poles, brush, and earth with a layer of coarse gravel sprinkled overall to keep the wind from blowing the earth and brush away. In 1860, the Pony Express established a line along the Jules cutoff and created a station at Mud Springs. The place also had a stage station for coaches carrying passengers, freight, and mail. A stage passenger in the 1860s referred to the place as a “dirty hovel, serving tough antelope steaks, fried on a filthy stove, with wooden boxes serving as chairs at a bench like table.” In 1861, shortly before the Pony Express operations ended, a transcontinental telegraph station was positioned at Mud Springs, along with a daily stagecoach service.

In 1865, Sioux and Cheyenne Indians attacked the Mud Springs station. Having recently laid siege to the small town of Julesburg, Colorado to the south in retaliation for a massacre of Cheyenne at Sand Creek, Colorado, the Indians intended to deliver the same fate to Mud Springs. A quick-thinking telegrapher, however, sent a distress signal to Fort Mitchell, Nebraska and Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Within a day, U.S. troops were in place at Mud Springs to stave off any further attacks.

The Mud Springs Telegraph Station continued operations until the 1876 rerouting of telegraph lines that made the Mud Springs Station unnecessary. The area has had a vibrant history intimately tied to the Old West—as a station of the Pony Express, as a road ranch for weary westward travelers, and, finally, as a telegraph station.

No buildings or structures are still standing at the site, which a private owner donated to the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1939. A stone marker and signpost have been erected at the site to commemorate the station. The native-stone monument at the site has a bronze Pony Express symbol and plaque.

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock in Nebraska, Kathy Weiser.

Chimney Rock in Nebraska, Kathy Weiser.

Designated the Chimney Rock National Historic Site, Chimney Rock is one of the most famous and recognizable landmarks for pioneer travelers on the Oregon California, and Mormon Trails, a symbol of the great western migration. Located approximately four miles south of present-day Bayard in Millard County, at the south edge of the North Platte River Valley, Chimney Rock is a natural geologic formation, a remnant of the erosion of the bluffs at the edge of the North Platte Valley. A slender spire rises 325 feet from a conical base. The imposing formation, composed of layers of volcanic ash and brule clay dating back to the Oligocene Age (34 million to 23 million years ago), towers 480 feet above the North Platte River Valley.

Though the origins of the name of the rock are obscure, the title “Chimney Rock” probably originated with the first fur traders in the region. In the early 19th century, however, travelers referred to it by a variety of other names, including Chimley Rock, Chimney Tower, and Elk Peak, but Chimney Rock had become the most commonly used name by the 1840s.

After examining over 300 journal accounts of settlers moving west along the Platte River Road, historian Merrill Mattes concluded that Chimney Rock was by far the most mentioned landmark. Mattes notes that although no special events took place at the rock, it held center-stage in the minds of the overland trail travelers. For many, the geological marker was an optical illusion. Some claimed that Chimney Rock could be seen upwards of 30 miles away, and though one traveled toward the rock-spire, Chimney Rock always appeared to be off in the distance—unapproachable.

Because of this optical effect, early travel accounts varied in their description of the rock. Some travelers believed that the rock spire may have been upwards of 30 feet higher than its current height, suggesting that wind, erosion, or a lightning strike had caused the top part of the spire to break off. Throughout the ages, the rock spire has continued to capture the imaginations and the romantic fascinations of travelers heading west.

Chimney Rock and its surrounding environs today look much as they did when the first settlers passed through in the mid-1800s. Erected on the southeast edge of the base in 1940, a small stone monument commemorates a gift from the Frank Durnal family to the Nebraska State Historical Society of approximately 80 acres of land, including Chimney Rock. The plot of land that the State owns provides a buffer zone to protect the historic landmark from modern encroachment. The only modern developments are Chimney Rock Cemetery, located approximately one-quarter mile southeast, and the visitor center nearby. Chimney Rock was designated a National Historic Site in 1956. The visitor center provides information on the history of the Overland Trails and Chimney Rock.

The Chimney Rock Visitor Center is located 1.5 miles south of Highway 92 on Chimney Rock Road near the town of Bayard. The center houses museum exhibits, media presentations, and other educational materials concerning life on the overland trails, and a museum shop. It is open daily with a small admission charge.

Fort Mitchell

Fort Mitchell, Nebraska by William Henry Jackson

Fort Mitchell, Nebraska by William Henry Jackson

An important stop along the Oregon Trail during its later days, Fort Mitchell was built and manned in the fall of 1864 by Company “H” of the Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry under Captain J. S. Shuman. It was named in honor of General Robert B. Mitchell, who ordered the establishment of several sub-stations along the Great Platte River Road between Julesburg, Colorado and South Pass, Wyoming. The post was surrounded by a stockade with a sally-port, firing loop-holes, and a sentinel tower. A nearby “road ranch” served as Scott’s Bluff stage station. In February 1865 they helped defend Mud Springs Station against an attack by the Cheyenne. In June 1865 they rescued Fort Laramie troops ambushed by Sioux Indians near Horse Creek. Fort Mitchell was abandoned after the Fort Laramie peace conference of 1867. Today, there are no remains of the fort located about ½ mile south of the junction of Highways 92 and 29 east of Mitchell, Nebraska. See more HERE!

Robidoux Pass

One of two historic passes travelers used to traverse the Wildcat Hills range, it is located south of the North Platte Valley near the present-day town of Gering, Nebraska. This narrow pass carried thousands of emigrants traveling the Oregon-California Trail between 1843 and 1851 and offered a good supply of spring water and wood—both essential on the journey. The trail crossed through a narrow valley at the base of the pass, then wound its way west to the summit, providing travelers with their first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains

Reconstructed Robidoux Trading Post near Gering, Nebraska

Reconstructed Robidoux Trading Post near Gering, Nebraska

The earliest travelers to use the pass were probably fur traders and missionaries in the 1820s and ’30s. The first transcontinental wagon train through the pass was the Bidwell-Bartleson Expedition, comprised of 80 emigrants bound for Oregon with the Catholic missionary Father De Smet in 1841. East of the pass lies the site of a trading post established by a Frenchman, either Joseph or Antoine Robidoux, in the late 1840s. Robidoux sold a variety of goods and provided blacksmithing services for travelers.

One emigrant described the post as a log shanty with a blacksmith’s forge on one end and a grog shop on the other. Other trading posts are known to have existed near the pass at that time, including one owned by the American Fur Company, but Robidoux’s is most often mentioned in diaries. The heaviest use of the pass was during the Oregon Migration and the California Gold Rush of the 1840s. Following the opening of Mitchell Pass in 1851, which provided a shorter trail, Robidoux Pass, and the trading posts fell into disuse.

Today, there are no remains of the historic buildings at Robidoux Pass, but, wagon ruts and several markers show the original path of the trail. Early accounts of the trip through this area note several burials at the pass, two of which can still be seen today. Tools, wagon implements, bullets, and other materials have also been found in this area, helping to pinpoint the location of the trading post and the blacksmith shop.

Robidoux Pass, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark, is located south of Scotts Bluff National Monument, ½ mile south and eight miles west of Gering, Nebraska off Highway 71 on Robidoux Road.

A life-size reconstruction of the Robidoux Trading Post can be found in Carter Canyon, located one mile south of Gering on Highway 71 and eight miles west along Carter Canyon Road. Visitors wishing to explore both Robidoux Pass and the reconstructed Robidoux Trading Post can access both sites by driving to Robidoux Pass then following Rifle Site Pass Road south to Carter Canyon Road. The site is open to visitors who can take self-guided tours.

Scott's Bluff, Nebraska on the Oregon Trail

Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska on the Oregon Trail

Scotts Bluff National Monument – The National Park Service administers Scotts Bluff National Monument to protect 3,000 acres of unusual land formations that rise over the otherwise flat Nebraska prairie land. Scotts Bluff itself is an ancient landmark that was once part of the ancient High Plains. In addition to being a prominent geological feature, Scotts Bluff was a major landmark to travelers in the North Platte Valley who were part of the great westward overland migration during the 19th century. American Indians lived in the area for many years prior. The vast herds of buffalo that inhabited the region made Scotts Bluff a major hunting ground of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. An Indian name for the bluff is Me-a-pa-te or “the-hill-that-is-hard-to-go-around.” The bluff takes its name from a fur trapper, Hiram Scott, who died in the vicinity in 1828. See full article HERE!

Horse Creek Treaty Grounds – From all directions, they came in September 1851 — Plains Indian tribes, summoned by government officials so their chiefs could smoke the peace pipe and sign a treaty with representatives of “The Great Father.” Never before had so many American Indians assembled to parley with the white man.

Thomas Fitzpatrick, a fur trader and Indian agent to the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, organized the council, which was originally planned to take place at Fort Laramie, Wyoming However, the size of the crowd and a shortage of forage for the thousands of horses caused the parley to be moved downstream to Horse Creek, a tributary of the North Platte River near the Nebraska-Wyoming border.

Horse Creek Treaty Grounds, Nebraska

Horse Creek Treaty Grounds, Nebraska

Among others who helped to put the council together were David D. Mitchell, superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis, Missouri; Jesuit missionary, Father Peter De Smet; and mountain man and trailblazer Jim Bridger

Coordination took some time as most Indian camps were widely spaced as some tribes had been at war for generations. Estimates of the number of Indians gathered range from 8,000 to 12,000. Present were Oglala and Brule Sioux Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara, Assiniboine, Mandan, Gros Ventre, and Shoshone It was perhaps history’s most dramatic demonstration of the Plains tribes ‘ desire to live at peace with the whites.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 outlined each tribe’s territory, and they agreed to no longer fight each other. They also recognized the right of the government to build roads and forts on their lands in exchange for the Army’s protection of the tribes from white depredations. About 270 soldiers were present to help keep the peace; however, during the gathering, a spirit of friendliness prevailed.

With the exception of hostilities following the Grattan Massacre in 1854, tribes along the trail remained peaceful until the Indian War of 1864. Near here on the Wyoming-Nebraska line is the site of the first Red Cloud Agency, established for the Oglala Sioux in 1871.

Historical markers are located four miles west of Morrill, Nebraska on Highway 26 that tells the story of the Horse Creek Treaty.

Continue your journey along the Oregon Trail into Wyoming, with more fascinating stops at Fort Laramie, Register Cliff, Guernsey Ruts, and more.

Covered wagon at Chimney Rock, Nebraska

Covered wagon at Chimney Rock, Nebraska

Compiled by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March 2020.

Primary Source: National Park Service

Also See:

Oregon-California Trail

Oregon Trail

Nebraska

Pony Express Stations

Scotts Bluff National Monument

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