Friday, June 02, 2023

Landmarks Along the Oregon Trail

As hopeful travelers set out on their journey across the overland trails in the 1840s and 50s, they looked forward to the fertile farmland of Oregon and the start of a new life. Although their eyes were focused on their goal, they experienced hardships and saw landmarks that lived in their memories for the rest of their lives.

Those who started their overland journey near Independence, Missouri, followed the old Santa Fe Trail for about 40 miles until the Oregon Trail branched off to the northwest. They crossed small rivers, including the Big Blue, near a lovely camp called Alcove Spring in Kansas. Edwin Bryant recorded in 1846 that the water was “as cold and pure as if it had just been melted from ice.” The area was beautifully covered with tall grass and wildflowers but swarmed with mosquitoes, which some travelers, with typical exaggeration, insisted were as large as turkeys.


  1. That was a good article. I've read quite a bit about the trail in the last few years. One thing I'd never knew was that over half the banks failed in the mid-eighteen hundreds. A lot of people traveling west, from all walks of life, had lost everything.

  2. What a great way to go down the rabbit hole!

  3. Good read. I was in Oregon last year and this helped connect the dots.

  4. I live here in Kansas and have been to the Alcove Spring. There is some signage there describing the history of the area. Yeah, it was a pretty important stopping point for folks heading west. It is not an actual park now, but it is maintained to some degree. Nice area. On the way getting down there, there are some really awesome old stone buildings that are now ruins. From around 1870, so a bit later than the time of the Santa Fe Trail travelers.

  5. Well now I have to play Oregon trail.

  6. CW McCall Wrote a fantastic ballad about the Oregon trail

    1. That tune went through my head the entire time I was on the site.

  7. I've seen a few of those landmarks on cross-country trips I've taken with The Smarter Half. This article has me perusing maps for our next Road Trip. Thanks.

  8. I've visited many of the places mentioned in the article so here's a bit of an update and a few places the article missed that are worth a visit. (At least they were for me)

    Alcove Springs - You can still see the ruts the wagons left in the surrounding area to this day.

    Courthouse and Jail rocks - You gotta pay attention. They are not the notable features at 70 miles an hour as they once were at ten miles a day. I also think that those of us from the west, used to the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, are not quite as impressed by a hillock in Nebraska as a flat lander might have been 175 years ago.

    Chimney Rock - There's a nice visitor's center here. However, it's not on the main highway so you can easily miss it if you don't make a point of a visit.

    On the main road and just south of Scott's Bluff, Nebraska is the grave of Rebecca Winters, one of the only still marked graves along the Oregon/Mormon/California trails. She died of cholera in in 1852 and her grave was marked by a wagon rim. The grave was rediscovered by surveyors for the Burlington railroad (now Burlington Northern) who moved the railbed a few feet west so as not to disturb her remains. The grave is now in a tiny city park.

    Scott's Bluff - There is a very nice visitor's center and you can now drive instead of climb to the top of the bluffs.

    Fort Laramie - The fort is looking good and there's a lot to see there. (As an aside, my gg grandfather first visited the fort in 1847 headed east from California, having served there during the Mexican War.)

    Near Fort Laramie are two other things to see near the town of Guernsey, Wyoming. Register Cliffs, where many travelers carved their names into the cliff face is sorta interesting. The Guernsey Ruts are amazing. Almost every wagon headed west had to go over the sandstone here to avoid the Platte River. In some spots the ruts are five feet deep.

    Casper, Wyoming is where the trail crossed the Platte River for the last time. There is a museum in Casper commemorating the trails and emigrants.

    Independence Rock - Still an impressive rock and one you can climb over to your heart's content.

    Devil's Gate - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a visitor center nearby for Martin's Cove honoring a handcart company trapped there in the winter of 1857. The parking lot gives you the easiest access to Devil's Gate.

    Halfway between Martin's Cove and Sixth Crossing, the last crossing of the Sweetwater River, is Ice Slough also known as Ice Springs. Emigrants could find ice ten inches or so deep here even in late summer.

    More marked pioneer graves can be found in South Pass at Rock Creek Hollow, southeast of Atlantic City, Wyoming. There is one mass grave of thirteen and two single graves for the men who dug the mass grave. 1857 was a tough year on emigrants.

    Just west of the Continental Divide on highway 28 is a turnout/marker for South Pass. A dirt road starting there takes you to Pacific Springs. This is the first water west of the divide and was an indicator that the pioneers had crossed over.

    Just a few miles from Pacific Springs on another couple of dirt roads is a marker commemorating Narcissa Whitman and Elizabeth Spalding, the first white women to cross South Pass, in July 1836. Those same roads give you access to the Oregon Buttes, another trail landmark and the beginning of what was considered Oregon Territory.

    Sublette Cutoff - A good map and a couple of dirt roads can take you to the place where the trails parted. Not much to see except wagon ruts headed off in two directions. You can also say you were there.

    At the western end of Wyoming 28 is the Green River Crossing. This is where wagons had to cross the Green River. There is a recreation of a ferry (an Eagle Scout project) at this location. (My wife's family ran the ferry here for a while in the early 1860s. We are still looking for the grave of a mother and child buried here during that time.)

    Fort Hall - is now an Indian casino.

    I need to see more of the western portion of the trail someday.

  9. My great grandparents on Dad's side came across the trail. I guess I'm 4th generation Oregon born. At one time, I was proud of the state. At one time. Disgusts me now. But the struggle for something better was their driving force. The numbers that died, buried in unmarked graves, so many children, yet they went on. Their strength and endurance of hardships, an unknown quality today. I wish I could have at least said 'thank you'..

  10. A really cool stop is Arrow Rock, Missouri. There was a portage on the Missouri River and it was the first stop to feed and water horses and resupply. The whole town is pretty much a tourist spot.


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