The Oregon, Mormon Pioneer and California trails all cross Wyoming in the central and most popular corridor of the transcontinental migration of the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. The trails followed the North Platte and Sweetwater rivers west to South Pass, after which they divided into various routes bound for Oregon, Utah or California. As many as half a million people may have traveled this corridor in the 19th century. To many, the environments of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and Great Basin seemed like another planet, full of strange and alien landscapes.
Emigration routes were scouted by trappers, traders, the military and early pioneers in the 1810s-1840s. As the West was settled, destinations multiplied, necessitating a complex network of routes. Emigrants sought out better routes as the immense traffic on the main routes strained natural resources of the fragile steppes and desert. Isolated wagon tracks across the West quickly grew into a far-reaching capillary system.
The Oregon/Mormon Pioneer/California Trails have been studied and assessed according to the National Trails System Act of 1968 and have been designated as National Historic Trails. Designation as a National Historic Trail (NHT) is essentially an honorary distinction, providing little protection for any of the routes. However, this identification does expressly recognize the national significance of these routes and allows the federal government to assist with studying and educating the public about these important places. The act further allows the federal government limited authority to acquire portions of these trails from willing sellers.
Fort Laramie began as a fur-trade post in 1834 near the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers. Soon it changed into a post for the trade in buffalo robes, and for supplying emigrants bound west on the Oregon/California/Mormon Trail. In 1849 the post was purchased by the U.S. Army, and became an important supply, logistics and communications center for the Indian Wars campaigns of the next four decades. In recent decades the post has been carefully restored, and today is a National Historic Site.
Register Cliff, near present Guernsey, Wyo., is one of three large “registers of the desert” in Wyoming where Oregon-, California- and Utah-bound emigrants carved their names on rock. Many of the inscriptions are from the peak years of Oregon Trail travel in the 1840s and 1850s. The area close to Register Cliff was the first night’s camp west of Fort Laramie. Today, this site is a National Historic Site.
Ruts carved two to six feet deep in a sandstone ridge on the south side of the North Platte River about a half mile south of Guernsey, Wyo., provide striking physical evidence of the route followed by hundreds of thousands of westbound emigrants the Oregon Trail during the years 1841-1869.
John Richard’s bridge across the North Platte River near present Casper, Wyo. eased the way for thousands of those who traveled the Oregon, California and Mormon trails during the years 1852-1866. Because Richard spoke with a French accent, many people thought his name was Reshaw and began referring to the bridge as Reshaw’s Bridge. A number of diarists, including world traveler Sir Richard Burton, recorded their experiences and descriptions of the bridge and the mixed-race community that thrived at the nearby trading post.
The U.S. Army established Platte Bridge Station in 1862 to protect the Oregon/California/Mormon Trail crossing of the North Platte River and the new transcontinental telegraph. After Lt. Caspar Collins was killed there by Cheyenne and Lakota Indians in 1865, the post was renamed Fort Casper, misspelling his first name. The fort was abandoned two years later, but reconstructed in 1936—and renamed Fort Caspar—with funds from the Works Progress Administration. Fort grounds and a museum are open to the public.
People have been leaving carvings and images on Independence Rock in central Wyoming since prehistoric times. When Father De Smet visited in 1841, so many names had already been carved, painted or smeared on the landmark in buffalo grease and gunpowder that he named it the “Great Register of the Desert.” The rock may have been the best-known spot on the emigrant trails, and it remains an enduring symbol of Wyoming's contribution to our nation's heritage and highest ideals.
In August 1856, more than 1,000 Mormon emigrants in the Willie and Martin handcart companies left Florence, Nebraska Territory, with plans of reaching Salt Lake City and the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before winter. Their late start, substandard equipment and lack of sufficient supplies had disastrous consequences when they were hit by winter storms. Hundreds died on the journey across what’s now Wyoming and into Utah. Images of emigrant families pulling handcarts have since become an LDS Church icon of the triumph of faith over adversity.
Devil’s Gate on the Sweetwater River became an important landmark for emigrants on the Oregon/California/Mormon trails. Trader Charles Lajeunesse ran a post there in the 1850s, not long before a Mormon handcart company sought shelter from a blizzard at nearby Matins Cove. Later, the famous Sun Ranch was headquartered there for 125 years.
Award-winning historian Will Bagley explains that without South Pass and the easy grade it offered to early transcontinental travelers, the history of the United States would have been much different. Hundreds of thousands of people made the crossing in the mid-1800s, following the trail blazed in 1812 by Robert Stuart and the Astorians. In 1836, missionaries Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding became the first women to travel across South Pass. Today, markers at the summit commemorate the pioneers, the wide expanse of land and sky looks much as it did in pioneer times and “the West,” as Bagley notes, still “opens up for anyone who stands at South Pass.”
Established by mountain men Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez in 1843, Fort Bridger was an important rest and re-supply spot for emigrants bound to Utah, California and Oregon. Mormons acquired the site in the mid-1850s, and burned it in 1857 as the U.S. Army approached during the bloodless Utah War. The following year the Army took over, and garrisoned the fort until 1890. Today it is a state historic site.
In 1857, the U.S. Congress passed the Pacific Wagon Road Act, allowing the survey and construction of wagon roads. A segment of the first such national road built in the West is the Lander Trail, a section 229 miles in length between a point near present-day South Pass, Wyo., and Fort Hall, Idaho. The route saved travelers 60 miles compared to the more traditional route of the Oregon-California Trail through Fort Bridger. The Lander Trail was named for Frederick William Lander, chief engineer and later superintendent for the project—a volatile but effective leader who was nationally famous in his day.
On a jittery night in 1864, a lone warrior stole three horses from a California-bound wagon train west of present Glenrock, Wyo. Early next morning, emigrant Martin Ringo died from an accidental gunshot. His grave is still there, on private land. Johnny Ringo, his son, was later a famous outlaw.
Many Oregon Trail diarists noted the distinctive, conical shape of 70-foot-high Knob Hill, southwest of present Douglas, Wyo., and compared it to a sugar loaf; others whetted their knives on rocks at its base. British travel writer Richard Burton was skeptical of the tale that Brigham Young had preached a sermon there.
In 1988, following extensive research regarding her identity, 1852 Oregon Trail traveler Quintina Snodderly’s remains were re-interred where they had been found in 1974 on private land east of present Casper, Wyo., as part of the Oregon-California Trails Association project to preserve graves of trail travelers.
Three-year-old Ada Magill of Kansas, died of dysentery in 1864 on the Oregon Trail west of present Glenrock, Wyo. The Magills were bound for Oregon. In 1912, road surveyor L. C. Bishop moved the grave to a site nearby, where it is now marked by the Oregon-California Trails Association.
About 70 miles northwest of Fort Laramie, the Oregon Trail crossed La Prele Creek, flowing north from the Laramie Range toward the North Platte River a few miles away. On a high bluff above the creek mouth the U.S. Army in 1867 would build Fort Fetterman, which became an important supply base in the wars with the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux in the following decade.
The amazing sight of Ayres Natural Bridge, a natural limestone arch across La Prele Creek near Douglas, Wyo., inspired numerous Oregon Trail emigrants to comment in their diaries. California-bound Cephas Arms on July 4, 1849, described it as “one of the wildest scenes I ever beheld.”
Early Oregon Trail travelers were enchanted by clear, cold water at Willow Spring, halfway between the North Platte and Independence Rock. But after traffic boomed with the 1849 gold rush, they were more often disappointed: Pioneers had cut down trees; livestock had eaten all the grass and muddied the water.
Poetry, shouts and song—year after year, reactions were similar when Oregon Trail emigrants managed the steep climb up Prospect Hill, also called Ryan Hill, on the road from the North Platte to Independence Rock. The sight of range after range of mountains greeted them—a sweeping view of new country.
Fifteen miles from Prospect Hill, Oregon Trail emigrants as they neared Independence Rock began passing shallow, sometimes dry lakes. If dry, the lake floors were encrusted with snow-white alkali—essentially baking soda—which the pioneers called saleratus. It worked well for raising bread baked over sagebrush campfires.
Oregon Trail emigrants faced high risks crossing the North Platte River near present Casper, Wyo. River crossings were extremely dangerous; operators of commercial ferries and bridges charged steep prices. Until bridges were built, many people and animals drowned in the swift, deep, shockingly cold water of the Platte.
Westbound wagon-train emigrants got their first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains when they first saw the blue cone of Laramie Peak, 85 miles away. Snowcapped in early summer, the mountain stayed in sight for a week or more, dominating many diarists’ accounts and foreshadowing drier, more difficult country ahead.