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Scotts Bluff

For thousands of years, the valley cut by the North Platte River through the plains of Nebraska and Wyoming has been a pathway through the prairie. Native Americans came to the area following the bison herds. At one point in the valley, a huge bluff rose some 800 feet above the valley floor. The sheer size of the bluff, and its proximity to nearby badlands earned it the Indian name Me-a-pa-te, which means “hill that is hard to go around.”

In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase opened the area to other hunters as well. Trappers and traders ventured into the land in search of “soft gold,” the hides of the fur-bearing animals that inhabited the mountains and valleys from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest. The first whites to happen into the valley of the North Platte were employees of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, who reached Me-a-pa-te on Christmas Day 1812. For the next decade the bluff was a familiar landmark to traders in wagon trains headed west toward the Rockies. One fur company clerk, Hiram Scott, died near the bluff in 1828. The area has borne his name since.

In addition to the profits the traders made for their companies, the trail that they established through the mountains would play a major role in Westward Expansion. Their old trade route became the Oregon Trail, the 2,000-mile pathway to the west.

The rugged terrain immediately surrounding Scotts Bluff proved daunting to the early wagon trains passing through the area, and they came to favor an easier route further to the south. During the days of the California Gold Rush, however, an increasing number of travelers chose the recently improved route through Mitchell Pass to the immediate south of the Bluff. This new route reduced travel by as much as 8 miles, or roughly 1 day.

By the early 1860s the Oregon Trail was the most heavily traveled of the westward trails. Now the emigrants on the trail were sharing it with mail and freight wagons, military units, stage-lines, and riders for the Pony Express. Travelers rarely encountered hostile parties of Plains Indians, but the few times they did lead to the establishment of Fort Mitchell in 1864. The fort was built two and one-half miles northwest of Scotts Bluff, and was an outpost of Fort Laramie.

 Scotts Bluff Entrance
photo ©2003 R. Lachowsky
Entrance to Scotts Bluff National Monument at Gering, NE.

 Covered Wagon
photo ©2003 E. Jeffers
A covered wagon sits in the ruts of the Oregon Trail at the Scotts Bluff Visitor Center.

 Oregon Trail Tracks
photo ©2003 R. Lachowsky
Ruts of the numerous wagons that passed by Scotts Bluff are easily visible from the end of Summit Trail.

 Oregon Trail Monument
photo ©2003 R. Lachowsky
This monument to those who traveled on the Oregon Trail is located along highway 92 outside the monument boundary.

 Oxen
photo ©2003 R. Lachowsky
One of the displays in the Visitor Center is this yoke of oxen. Most emigrants could not afford horses or mules, so they used oxen that proved just as hearty as other draft animals.

 Pony Express Plaque
photo ©2003 E. Jeffers
During the short 19 months it was in existence, the Pony Express had a regular stop at Scotts Bluff as this monument attests.

 

By 1869 emigrant traffic along the Oregon Trail had begun to decline, and the Army abandoned Fort Mitchell. Telegraph lines had been completed from coast-to-coast, and replaced overland mail service. 1869 also saw the completion of the first transcontinental railroad when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines met at Promontory, Utah. The Oregon Trail fell into disuse as the main route across the continent.

During the 1870s, Scotts Bluff came to represent the past for most groups of emigrants, but others saw their future there. This new wave of emigration was carried not by covered wagon, but by train car. These groups of emigrants were not just passing through Scotts Bluff they came to stay.

Oregon Trail Trivia

Reasons for going west: land, wealth, religious freedom, “pioneer” lifestyle.

Number of people who used westward trails: 350, 000 between the years 1841 and 1869.

Average size of a canvas-topped wagon: 10 feet by 4 feet.

Average weight of goods carried in a wagon: one and one-half tons.

Dangers faced on the trail: unpredictable weather, violent winds, quicksand, floods, disease, buffalo stampedes, Indian attacks (rare).

Thoughts About Scotts Bluff

As the skyline along the North Platte began to change, it offered emigrants assurances that the first third, and easiest part, of their journey west was behind them. Certain large formations on the horizon were visible for days before the wagon trains reached them. Scotts Bluff was one of these formations. Its citadel-like appearance enkindled the imaginations of passersby. Some of the travelers nicknamed it “a Nebraska Gibraltar,” while others likened it to “a Mausoleum which the mightiest of earth might covet.” One went so far as to state, “I could die here, certain of being not far from heaven.” Yet with all the imagery the formation inspired, few spent time at the bluff itself. Cautious of being caught on the trail when winter set in, they moved onward, grateful that at least one-third of their journey was behind them.

Links

Legend of Hiram Scott
www.jackson.k12.mo.us/WestLane/schneider/wwho/legend_of_hiram_scott.htm
www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/hh/28/hh28e.htm

Oregon Trail
http://www.americanwest.com/trails/pages/oretrail.htm

http://www.ohwy.com/or/o/oregontr.htm

http://www.tcfn.org/tctour/parks/OregonTrail.html

Trans-continental Telegraph

http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/jb/civil/telegrap_1

http://www.xphomestation.com/telegraph.html

http://historytogo.utah.gov/telegraph.htm

http://www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center/milestones_photos/t_telegraph.html

First Transcontinental Railroad

http://www.linecamp.com/museums/americanwest/western_clubs/union_pacific_railroad/union_pacific_railroad.html

http://cprr.org/

http://www.mindspring.com/~jjlanham/trcc1.htm

http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Transcontinental_Railroad

National Monument

Scotts Bluff National Monument was established in 1919 by Presidential Proclamation due to its historical significance and unique geological features. The area’s natural history played an integral part in the human history that occurred in the region. The monument preserves 3,000 acres in what once was a mostly uninterrupted expanse in an area of Nebraska’s mixed-grass and short grass prairie, within the western Great Plains. During westward expansion, this area was an important landmark for those traveling on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. In importance as a landmark, Scotts Bluff is second only to Chimney Rock, which lies to the east. The bluff stands 800 feet above the North Platte River, and could be seen several days before travelers actually reached the area. Scotts Bluff is situated at the west end of a group of bluffs and hills that stretch for approximately 35 miles through the area. An area of badlands lies between the north base of Scotts Bluff and the North Platte River. Emigrants named the area “Scotts Bluff.” Today this area is known as Wildcat Hills. Scotts Bluff is mentioned in many emigrant diaries written during the time of westward migration. Only Chimney Rock is mentioned more often.

Geologic History

Geologically, the bluffs are composed of layers of siltstone and sandstone lying below layers of limestone and volcanic ash. The lower layers, being softer than the upper layers, weather and erode slightly each day. Extreme fluctuations in temperature along with wind, rain, and the expansion and contraction of ice in cracks in the bluff, cause rocks to be loosened and fall. Rockslides are generally small, and rarely noticed unless they occur along one of the major trails through the Monument. Some significant slides have occurred, however, including one in 2000 that was estimated to be 3,000 tons. That slide closed Saddle Rock Trail for several months.

Scotts Bluff
photo ©2003 R. Lachowsky

Site designed by Richard Lachowsky


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