This was the spark that ignited one of
America's most colorful periods, The Westward Movement. What had
previously been a trickle of fur trappers who first opened this
route now became a deluge of ordinary citizens.
The trails west became the interstates of
their time. Some of the travelers were seeking land, some
dreamed of gold and silver, and for the Mormons, the quest was
for religious freedom.
were aware of the hardships they would face as they journeyed
west. Many of the pioneers would never live to reach their
The jumping off
point was Independence Missouri. After that civilization was
behind and ahead only the unknown. The Trails Museum has
exhibits showing what the journey westward was like.
Having moved a lot, one exhibit that I can
relate to is the one showing all the items thrown out along the
trails west. It was often necessary to part with precious
possessions to lighten the load enough for a chance to reach the
Museum link click here )
Three of the major trails, The Mormon, The
Oregon Trail and The California Trail passed through what is now the state of Nebraska along the path of the North
Platte River. While it was not the most difficult portion of the
trail, it was the test for a traveler to see if he had what it
took to complete the trek westward.
By the time travelers had
transverse this first portion of the trail, most had seen the
elephant, a term coined around that time that came to mean the pioneer had encountered
the bitter realities of
such a long and arduous journey.
Murphy or Studerbaker type of Wagon
Transportation on the Trail
When we think of the pioneers setting out
to reach the West,
we think of the Conestoga Wagon or Prairie Schooner. In reality,
just as we have different makes of car to travel to Nebraska
many different kinds of wagons that traversed the California,
Oregon and Mormon Trails. Three of these were the most commonly
The Conestoga was the choice of freight
companies shipping goods out West. The normal size was 17 feet
long and 11 feet high. It had a curved bed to help hold freight
in the center and avoid shifting and breakage. It also has a
double cover, usually canvas, sailcloth or hemp, and the cover
angled out farther in back to protect the cargo from the
elements. The company also made a smaller version that was often
used by families.
Murphy Wagons began making wagons for the
fur trade and then for the emigrants. A Murphy Wagon was 12 feet
long and nine high. Their maximum load was 2,200. You went over
that at your peril.
Studebaker began as a component maker and
blacksmith. They branched out into the wagon trade making a
smaller narrower wagon when they saw a golden opportunity. Most
of the wagons on the trails had at least a few of the Studebaker
parts. The quality of their wagons carried them over into the
All of the wagons required at least two
teams of two oxen. Some families used mules but horses were
never a viable choice. Four animals were needed at a minimum and many families
hitched a team behind the wagon to spell the other oxen. Sort of
like carrying a spare tire today.
If your oxen died or became disabled you
were reduced to the other means of transport across the prairie,
the handcart. They were usually referred to as "Mormon Handcart"
as the new converts were often poor and limited in what they
were allowed to bring to Salt Lake City.
| A Mormon handcart
A handcart was three feet wide and four
feet long, all wood with four feet wheels. They had shallow beds
and a crossbar across the front to allow pushing or pulling. A
few had a canvas top making them appear like small covered
wagons. Their maximum load was a few hundred pounds. They were cranky and subject to
breakdowns but over ten companies sold them to over 3,000
Mormons between 1856 and 1860.
For the modern day traveler, the trip is a
lark. We enjoyed many of the trails' most memorable points in
Nebraska via air conditioned vans. Today, there are lots of
restaurants of all kinds and lodgings ranging from primitive
campgrounds to upscale hotels along the route. We did not "see
the elephant." Here are some of the sights we did see:
Vegetation on the trails
One of the most interesting things I noted
was the land itself; the stark buttes, wide bluffs, miles of
treeless countryside and the unique vegetation. Being from the
South and used to more lush landscapes, I was surprised at the
number of wildflowers growing in what appeared to be plain sand.
I felt that deserved a feature of itself so
click here for Scenic Roads and the
wildflowers of Nebraska's Platt River area.
Windlass Hill at Ash Hollow
Highway 26 more or less followers the
Oregon, California and Mormon Trails through Nebraska today. A
century and a half ago, there was only rutted wagon tracks to
follow and for the earliest emigrants not even that. When they
reached the present day location of Ash Hollow State Park
about a mile and a half southeast of Lewellen, Nebraska.
Here they braved their first real geographic trial since leaving
Missouri. They had to descend to the North Platte River Valley.
Another factor made this
the advisable place to descend. The good drinking water and
firewood made it worth the travelers effort to brave the steep
hill. It was a strain. they had to use ropes to ease the ease
the wagons down the incline as it was too steep for the oxen to
pull down. They would have been run over by the wagons had they
tried. Windlass Hill claimed many lives and some families
left the encampment minus a member or two. Rachel Pattison, an
18 year old bride of just three months from Illinois and headed
for Oregon, was one of the few casualties to have a marked grave
along the trail. She died of cholera in 1849 and is buried in
Ash Hill Cemetery just a half mile west of the park entrance.
|Example of a soddie (sod house)
at Windlass Hill
From the top of Windlass Hill, you can
still see remnants of the covered wagon train ruts left by those
iron shod wheels as they descended Windlass Hill. Today,
a paved path leads you
to the top of the hill. As you walk the sometimes steep incline,
imagine what it felt like as a only a foot worn dirt path when
exhausted pioneers traversed down it. I was panting and
exhausted going up and had to brace myself on the way down. The
view makes it worth it.
Near the entrance of the park there is a
very authentic sod house. Step inside and get the feeling of
what it felt like to live in one of these early homes the
settlers literally carved out of the earth.
You can revisit life on the Oregon Trail on
Father’s Day weekend annually at the Ash
Hollow Pageant, an outdoor performance based on diaries
and music of the emigrants. The rest of the year, rely on the
exhibits in the park's
Center. Beginning with the bones of prehistoric rhinoceros,
mammoths, and mastodons and taking you through the Pioneer
Courthouse and Jail Rocks
As the pioneers progressed farther west,
the butts and rock formations became more distinctive. One of
the first of these natural landmarks they reached was Courthouse
Rock. It rises 340 feet above the valley floor and was called
"Castle" by some and "Courthouse" by emigrants coming through
from Missouri because it looked like an the courthouse in St.
Louis, Missouri. The name Courthouse Rock stuck and because
of that, the nearby smaller formation came to be called
Jail. After all, when you have a courthouse, a jail has to be
|Courthouse and Jail Rocks
The Pioneer Trails Museum
nearby in North Bridgeport offers a glimpse into the life
of the pioneers. Owner, Bern Miller, is a great source of
knowledge about the two formations as well as trails and Native
American history. He explained, "Where you are standing, is
sacred ground for the Native Americans. Lots of battles fought
here. They camped here a lot. This was a good place to be away
from your enemies because you could put lookouts up top."
These rocks are the eastern most portion
of the Wildcat Hills.
These strange shapes created both inspiration and fear for the
emigrants. They were dazzled by the stark beauty but realized
that these monoliths were a harbinger of the even fiercer
landscape yet to be passed if they were to reach their
Defying the forces of wind, rain and
erosion for eons, Chimney Rock stands like a lone sentry towering 325 feet above the plains,
Chimney Rock is the most noted landscape feature
in the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails diaries and
accounts. No wonder. The travelers had been viewing this single
outcropping for days. No words or picture can describe the
majesty of this pinnacle. It's one you must see to fully
appreciate. Because of the number of sketches and pictures
created of this
monolith, it had become an icon of the opening of the American
Chimney Rock is a National Historic Site
since August 9, 1956, and is maintained and operated by the
Nebraska State Historical Society. The Ethel and Christopher J.
Abbott Visitor Center houses museum exhibits including one the
kids will love called "Pack Your Wagon." It has a mini-wagon
with a set of lights telling you when you have reached the
maximum weigh. This is a museum for the entire family. It covers
natural, cultural and historic exhibits. It's filled with
sketches, paintings and excerpts from diaries of the emigrants.
There are lots of Native American artifacts.
You could spend just a hour or so or all day depending
how deeply you wanted to delve into the story it tells of the
By now, the weary
travelers had become accustom the totally different landscape.
The rugged countryside was unlike anything they had ever seen in
the East. Some of the huge buttes and bluffs were mentioned in
pioneer dairies and became landmarks for future travelers along
the trails west.
Scotts Bluff was one such
landmark. Because of its size, 800 feet plus in the late 19th
century, it was visible to the approaching settlers for days
before they reached it. When they did they could still see
Chimney Rock behind them. They knew from earlier accounts that
they had accomplished about a third of their journey when they
reached Scotts Bluff if they were going all the way to Oregon.
western lore, there's an interesting story about how Scotts
Bluff got its name. A man named Hiram Scott worked as a clerk
for the American Fur Company from 1826 to 1828. By this time,
fur companies had realized it was more economical to trade with
the Indians for the furs than use trappers. They organized
rendezvous where the company men loaded with manufactured goods
like pots and pans, cloth, and assorted weapons like knives,
axes, and firearms. Scott's duties as a clerk would have been
keeping track of transactions which were at the rendezvous,
handling payrolls and keeping an inventories of the trade goods
brought in and the furs acquired. Scott was returning from the
rendezvous at Bear Lake, Utah to St. Louis after the 1828
rendezvous when he took ill and died near the then unnamed
bare bones facts of the matter, the story grew somewhat
Ferris, traveling the same area in 1830, stated Scott had become
too ill to walk and his two companions put him in a bull boat
and transported him downstream but eventually abandoned him on
the north bank of the Platte River. The following spring,
Scott's skeleton was found across the river near the bluffs
where he finally died.
The story was
retold again and again each time, Scott had managed to travel
much farther before dying near the bluffs. From that time on,
the bluffs were known as "Scott's Bluffs."
|Cooking biscuits pioneer style
over a buffalo chips fire
are actually several separate bluffs known today as Dome Rock,
Crown Rock, Sentinel Rock, Eagle Rock, Saddle Rock and
the largest outcropping
is known as Scotts Bluff. It's still a landmark for travelers.
Today it's the place to stop and visit the museum at Scotts
Bluff National Monument Visitor Center.
miss it. Luckily for intrepid modern travelers, the area was
never "improved." No McDonalds or mini-malls blocking the
magnificent view. The topography surrounding the bluffs is still
in a very original state.
On the "trail" directly in front of Eagle Rock, you will
see examples of some of the wagons used in the westward trek.
Looking closely you can see a resemblance to an eagle in the
One of the
most interesting things I saw there was the costumed
interpreters. The intrepid pair of "pioneers" demonstrated life
on the trail.
"camped out" behind a wagon with a canvas fly for shelter and
offered us a share of their hardtack. Let me just say, if you
ever see hardtack on a restaurant menu, run, don't walk to the
nearest exit and dine elsewhere. Still it was an experience just
tasting the rock hard tasteless crackers and realizing how often
the pioneers on the trails had to eat that stuff. The
interpreters explained that they could be soaked in coffee, milk
or just about any liquid you had. Couldn't hurt.
|Some of the art depicting trail
life at the museum
there were few or no trees on the plains.
explained, "You were limited to about 2500 pounds. You only had
four oxen if you piled on more than that, they died and you
didn't make it to Oregon This is not Hollywood, you did not ride
in the wagon. If you're in there with 2500 pounds of goods
with no springs on those wagons, you're in deep do-do you
have all kinds of things falling on you breaking bones. They
slept under the wagons. There was no room in the wagons for
anything but goods."
interpreter, who was busy making us some biscuits on a buffalo
chip fire in a cast iron pan, tried to pass around a dried
buffalo chip but got no handlers. She told us.
"Women, if they could make bread on the trail, were
considered good cooks. They would go out and gather dried
buffalo chips which made a very good hot fire."
Visitor Center, I was thrilled by the exhibits. They offer video
and a range of both cultural and natural. One particularly
impressive one was the collection of art by William Henry
Jackson depicting trail life. Jackson was a former Union soldier
who worked on the wagon trains that traveled the trails as a
"bullwacker." Originally Jackson caught his subjects with
sketches and camera but in his later years he learned to paint
as well. After his death, Jackson's work found its way to the
Scotts Bluff Museum.
The museum is
just about to be revamped which will keep the best of the
current exhibits and add some newer ones.
west are where our country's destiny was forged. All Americans
and anyone who wishes to understand what America is today needs
to revisit this pivotal point it our history. The hardships our
ancestors braved on the westward trails give meaning to those
stirring words in our national anthem, "From sea to shining
For more on western Nebraska
click here and