Pioneer Path

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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.  Few were aware of the hardships they would face as they journeyed west. Many of the pioneers would never live to reach their "promised land."




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 trails end.  (Trails 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.  

The Conestoga 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 today,there were many different kinds of wagons that traversed the California, Oregon and Mormon Trails. Three of these were the most commonly used.

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 automotive age.

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.

 A Mormon handcart 
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 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

Example of a soddie (sod house) at Windlass Hill
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.

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  Visitor Center. Beginning with the bones of prehistoric rhinoceros, mammoths, and mastodons and taking you through the Pioneer history era.

Courthouse and Jail Rocks

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 nearby.

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 destination.

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock

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 West.

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 Westward Movement.

Scotts Bluff

Scotts Bluff
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.

Like much 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 bluff. 

After this bare bones facts of the matter, the story grew somewhat mythical.

Warren A. 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

The bluffs 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.

You can't 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 towering bluff.

One of the most interesting things I saw there was the costumed interpreters. The intrepid pair of "pioneers" demonstrated life on the trail.  They were "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

Remember there were few or no trees on the plains.  Our interpreter 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."

The female 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."

Inside the 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.

The trails 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 sea."

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