Scotts Bluff – Towering over the Nebraska Plains

Wagon Train

Wagon Train

More than 70,000 Mormons crossed Nebraska’s North Platte River Valley seeking religious freedom in the West. In 1846, following the murder of their founder Joseph Smith, the Mormons were driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois. Led by Brigham Young, who became the president of the Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after Joseph Smith’s death, the group found refuge in the Salt Lake City area, in modern-day Utah. Mormon converts continued to move into the Salt Lake Valley over the next few decades. At first, the Mormon Church created an emigration fund to assist those who had difficulty making the dangerous and costly journey due to illness or poverty. As thousands of Mormons utilized the aid, however, funds became scarce, and Young decided to provide less expensive handcarts instead of wagons.

As a result, many of those on the Mormon Trail, who could not obtain a wagon, went all the way to Salt Lake on foot, pushing carts laden with their possessions. The Mormon handcart migration continued until the advent of the railroad in the late 1860s.

In 1849, the largest wave of migration to the West began. In 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold in California at Sutter’s Mill. Tens of thousands of “forty-niners,” named for the first year of the gold rush, joined the exodus to California to seek their fortunes. Unlike settlers who were headed to Oregon, who often traveled in family units, most “forty-niners” were young men, either unmarried or unaccompanied by wives. The most commonly used route to the California goldmines followed the Oregon Trail west through the Scotts Bluff area and turned southwest toward California at Fort Hall, Idaho. The gold rush became the largest overland trail migration in American history. In 1850 alone, nearly 55,000 emigrants passed through the Platte Valley, most headed to California. By 1853, the gold rush slowed as easily accessible gold deposits ran dry, and most emigrants traveling along the trail were once again homesteaders and not gold-seekers.

Courthouse Rock on the Oregon Trail in Nebraska

Courthouse Rock on the Oregon Trail in Nebraska

Geographical landmarks, often huge rock formations, were important to overland travelers and often used as benchmarks of the journey. Scotts Bluff was well known to travelers of the trail. Many of the westward pioneers romanticized the grandeur of Scotts Bluff in their diaries. The landmark was a welcome sight after miles and miles of flat prairie land, and only Chimney Rock was mentioned more often. Other nearby recognizable rock formations included Courthouse and Jail Rocks, near modern-day Bridgeport.

Besides being a visual landmark, Scotts Bluff was a physical obstacle to emigrants. The imposing bluffs blocked travelers from following directly along the banks of the North Platte River as they had done in earlier parts of the journey. Two historic paths passed through the bluffs. Gold rushers utilized the Robidoux Pass, south of the river. First used in the 1820s and 1830s by fur traders, Robidoux Pass continued to serve travelers well into the 1850s. Once through the pass, travelers headed west toward Fort Laramie, Wyoming. About 1851, with the opening of Mitchell Pass, Robidoux Pass began to fall into disuse. Troops from Fort Laramie were perhaps the first to take wagons through Mitchell Pass, possibly engineering the pass to be wider and less steep, thus making it passable for wagon trains. Before long, most homesteaders were using Mitchell Pass because it was a more direct route and had easier access to water. Established in 1864, Fort Mitchell was an important center of commerce for the emigrants.

Events of the 1860s transformed Scotts Bluff and the West as a whole. Because of population growth and business concerns on the frontier, businessmen sought a way to ensure faster communication between the East and the West. The first attempt at an efficient, transcontinental mail-route was the Pony Express, which began on April 3, 1860. The Pony Express delivered mail on horseback, with carriers riding from station to station. The operation only ran until October of 1861, when the Pacific Telegraph, which went through Mitchell Pass, was completed. Although short-lived and a financial failure, the Pony Express demonstrated the feasibility of fast transcontinental communication. Located near Courthouse Rock, the Mud Springs Pony Express Station served as a stagecoach station and a telegraph station over the years in addition to being a Pony Express station. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1867, when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah, marked the end of widespread use of the Oregon Trail. Train travel was safer, more reliable, and quicker than travel by wagon.

Scotts Bluff, Nebraska

Scotts Bluff, Nebraska

Early in the 20th century, local and state interests devoted themselves to promoting Scotts Bluff as a symbol of the nation’s pioneering past. Following an intense lobbying effort, Scotts Bluff became a National Monument on December 12, 1919. Despite the widespread public interest, the bluffs saw little change, save for foot trails and picnic areas, until the 1930s. At that time government employment programs such as the Civil Works Administration (CWA), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began to construct Summit Road with its three tunnels and parking lot and State Highway 92, for many years the major roadway to the site. They also built the Scotts Bluff National Monument Visitors Center and Museum, which now houses the world’s largest collection of original William Henry Jackson sketches, paintings, and photographs. Many are on display in the Visitor Center at Scotts Bluff.

In addition to visiting the museum, visitors can hike the Saddle Rock Trail, drive to the summit, and relive life on the Oregon Trail during special Living History program on weekends during the summer.

Contact Information:

Scotts Bluff National Monument
PO Box 27
190276 Old Oregon Trail
Gering, Nebraska   69341

Oregon Trail Memorial Cemetery near Scotts Bluff, Nebraska

Oregon Trail Memorial Cemetery near Scotts Bluff, Nebraska

Compiled by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2019.

Also See:

Nebraska – The Cornhusker State

Oregon Trail – Pathway to the West

Oregon Trail Through the Platte River Valley, Nebraska

William Henry Jackson – Recording the Old West

Primary Source: National Park Service

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