Towering eight hundred feet above the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff has been culturally and historically significant for centuries. First serving as a landmark for Native Americans the bluff was such a prominent focal point that more than 50 pre-contact archeological sites lie within its shadow. Later, it served as a pathmark for the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who traveled westward on the Oregon, California, Mormon Trails; as well as the riders of the Pony Express.
Scotts Bluff National Monument preserves 3,000 acres of unusual land formations which rise over the otherwise flat prairie land below. Sitting at 4,659 feet above sea level, Scotts Bluff, the adjoining Wildcat Hills, and nearby Chimney Rock, Courthouse and Jail Rock, have been and continues to be weathered out of geologic deposits.
Wind and stream deposits of sand and mud, wind deposits of volcanic ash, and supersaturated groundwater rich in lime formed the layers of sandstone, siltstone, volcanic ash and limestone that now comprise Scotts Bluff’s steep elevation, ridges, and the broad alluvial fans at its base. The geological deposits then began to gradually erode away, except at certain locations that were protected by a caprock of hard limestone that was more resistant to erosion. This caprock covers the tops of the bluffs in the area, slowing their rate of erosion, which resulted in the area’s unique geologic features.
Much of the West including the Scotts Bluff area remained essentially unknown to white men until the early decades of the 19th century, when trappers, traders, missionaries, gold-seekers, soldiers, homesteaders, and others came to the region. Before this time, however, many Indian tribes made their homes in the region, including the Arapaho, Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow, Hidatsa, Kiowa, Mandan, Pawnee, Ponca, and Shoshone, among others. Later, beginning in about 1685, the Sioux tribes began to push into the area from the Great Lakes region and by the late 1800’s, dominated the area from Minnesota to Yellowstone.
Although Spain and France claimed portions of what is now the American West prior to the 19th century, they left much of it unexplored. When President Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, white exploration of the West began in earnest. The early reports from government-sponsored expeditions, such as those of Lewis and Clark (1803 to 1806) and Zebulon Pike (1806 to 1807), testified to the bounty of natural resources that lay in the West, from which trappers and traders soon began to profit.
The first fur trappers passed through the Scotts Bluff region as part of the Astorian Expedition in 1811-1813. This expedition traveled to the Pacific Coast taking a route that would later become the Oregon Trail. In 1828, a fur trapper named Hiram Scott lost his life at the bluff. Apparently, too ill to travel, he was abandoned by his companions. His bones were found the following year many miles from where he had been deserted. The bluff is named for this forgotten mountain man. Hundreds of trappers and traders followed the
Astorian/Oregon route along the Platte River until the 1830’s when fur trapping reached its peak.
In the 1840s, emigrants replaced trappers on the westward trails. In 1841, the first group of emigrants, a wagon train of 80 people known as the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, passed through the Scotts Bluff region on their way to settle in the fertile farmland of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Accompanying the party was well known Catholic missionary, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet. Missionaries had long traveled throughout the western wilderness seeking American Indians converts and were among some of the first travelers along the Oregon Trail. As homesteaders sent positive reports of the Oregon territory back east, interest in the region spread and more settlers embarked on the arduous journey.
The number of emigrants using the trail reached its peak in 1852 when more than 70,000 emigrants headed west, most of whom traveled through the North Platte River Valley on their 2,000-mile trek west. Most of the pioneers bound for Oregon were families seeking farms. Wagon trains, usually comprised of multiple families, embarked in late April or early May, each guided by a train leader. Emigrants had three primary needs on their journey: food for their company; grazing lands for their animals; and good, safe campsites. With wagons pulled by oxen, the trains could travel 15 to 20 miles a day across the plains but made significantly fewer miles in the mountains. The trek took up to six months.
The journey west was not for the faint of heart. Difficulties ranged from the relatively minor, such as boredom or the irritation of the dust kicked up by the feet of hundreds of oxen, to more threatening environmental disasters.
Greater threats included starvation, dehydration, exhaustion, and disease; cholera alone killed thousands of travelers. Out of a total of roughly 350,000 emigrants, about 20,000 people died during their journey.
Violence resulting from tensions between settlers and travelers and the Plains Indians was also a danger. At night, the wagon convoys formed into protective circles, as bulwarks against possible Indian attack. White travelers and settlers reduced the number of buffalo, encouraging intertribal war over hunting grounds, which in turn caused more danger to settlers. White travelers also brought new diseases with them, wiping out large numbers of Great Plains Indians. The ever-increasing number and size of homesteads on the plains and irrigation projects for farming further threatened buffalo populations, as well as Indian territory.
In addition, settlers often established homesteads or towns on land set aside for Indians by the United States Government. The tensions often erupted into wars throughout the 19th century, when circumstances provoked both sides to attack in a series of bloody confrontations and massacres throughout the West.