Gering/Scotts Bluff, Nebraska
Oct 22, 2012
We arrived in Gering, Nebraska today where the weather was absolutely beautiful. Since we arrived late in the afternoon, we decided to get up early tomorrow and visit the Historical Landmarks of Scotts Bluff and Chimney Rock. When we got up, the fog was so thick it reminded us of home. We had to wait until around 11:00 before the fog lifted.
I (Debbie) was not really interested in history growing up so I didn’t really know anything about Scotts Bluff, Chimney Rock or the Oregon Trail. I was so in awe of these historical landmarks and the history behind the emigrants who made this 2,000 mile journey. This is what I learned about the Oregon Trail.
The Oregon Trail was much more than a pathway to the state of Oregon; it was the only practical corridor to the entire western United States. The places we now know as Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah would probably not be a part of the United States today were it not for the Oregon Trail. That's because the Trail was the only feasible way for settlers to get across the mountains.
The journey west on the Oregon Trail was exceptionally difficult by today's standards. One in 10 died along the way; many walked the entire two-thousand miles barefoot. The common misperception is that Native Americans were the emigrant's biggest problem en route, but the fact is that most native tribes were quite helpful to the emigrants. The real enemies of the pioneers were cholera, poor sanitation and--surprisingly--accidental gunshots.
The first emigrants to go to Oregon in a covered wagon were Marcus and Narcissa Whitman who made the trip in 1836. But the big wave of western migration did not start until 1843, when about a thousand pioneers made the journey.
That 1843 wagon train, dubbed "the great migration" kicked off a massive move west on the Oregon Trail. Over the next 25 years more than a half million people went west on the Trail. Some went all the way to Oregon's Willamette Valley in search of farmland--many more split off for California in search of gold. The glory years of the Oregon Trail finally ended in 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed.
Actual wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail still exist today in many parts of the American West; and many groups are working hard to preserve this national historic treasure.
We actually walked some of the Trail and saw the wagon ruts. In the museum we read many stories from the journals of some of the emigrants and one story stood out for me. Many, many animals also perished along the journey. An emigrant told the story of his dog who traveled with them and became sick from lack of food and water, laid down to die and started howling. The man gave his dog a little of his water ration and the dog was able to continue the journey for a while. Several times, the dog gave up, and laid down to die and each time the man gave him a little of his water. The dog miraculously completed the 2,000 mile journey.
So many other touching stories were read but, again, if it were not for these brave pioneers, the places we now know as Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah would not be a part of the United States today.
Designated the Chimney Rock National Historic Site, Chimney Rock was 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 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 travelled 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.
Scotts Bluff Towers 800 feet above the North Platte River and served as a landmark for peoples from Native Americans to emigrants on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails.
Whatever the reasons, in the years 1841-1869 some 350,000 people joined wagon trains that rallied at jumping-off points along the Missouri River and set out westward on the California and Oregon Trails.
Cramming up to a ton and a half of worldly goods into a 10 by 4 foot canvas-topped wagon, walking alongside to lighten the load for draft animals, emigrants faced unpredictable weather, violent winds, quicksand, floods, disease, buffalo stampedes, and, rarely, Indian attacks.
As the skyline along the Platte River began to reveal its strange scenery, emigrants knew for sure they were in western lands. Certain large formations might loom in the distance for days before the wagon trains reached them. Scotts Bluff was one such sight. Few emigrants spent time at the bluff, wary of being caught on the road when winter arrived, so they moved on, grateful at least that a third of the trail lay behind them.
In the next decades, Scotts Bluff symbolized the past for one group of settlers and the future for another. The new wave of emigrants arrived not in covered wagons but in railroad cars. And they were not just passing through the plains on their way somewhere else; they came to stay.
I purchased a book in the Visitors Center, “The Oregon Trail, Yesterday and Today," which is a book for the beginner reader and tells the story of the Oregon Trail in an interesting, easy to read manner. The book has a unique blend of, not only the history, but original maps, guides, emigrant diaries and journals, old drawings and paintings, together with recent photographs. It was so interesting and moving that I finished the book in a few hours.
The author William E. Hill sums up the history of the Oregon Trail in this paragraph;
The Oregon Trail started at Independence, Missouri and continued for approximately 2,000 miles until it reached Oregon City on the Willamette River. It would head west across the prairies of Kansas, northwest along the Little Blue into Nebraska, west through the Platte River Valley, and along the North Platte, crossing over to the Sweetwater River to the great South Pass, and then on across the valley of the Green River to the valley of the Bear River; up the Bear, crossing to the Snake River, along the Snake River, and finally leaving to cut over to the Columbia River, on to The Dales, and at last to the valley of the Willamette and Oregon City. Traveling about twenty miles a day, the journey would take most emigrants about five months. Many would die trying, while others would turn around. That most made it is a credit to the human will and spirit. . . .