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.”
Noted western historian Will Bagley, drawing on the work of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and conservationist Wallace Stegner, offers a passionate plea for the preservation of South Pass, a crucial site for the hundreds of thousands of people who traveled the Oregon, California and Mormon trails.
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.
Discovery of gold near South Pass in the 1860s led to the creation and settlement of short-lived South Pass City, Wyo. and other settlements nearby. The Carissa Mine was one of the richest, but between 1867 and 1869, 1500 lodes were located during the rush, and as many as 2,000 miners and others may have lived in the little town or on their claims. By the early 1870s, only a few hundred were left. Sporadic gold production has continued since, however, with systematic prospecting by an American subsidiary of a Canadian firm permitted as recently as 2006.
As the beaver trade waned in the 1830s, so did economic reasons for an American toehold in the Oregon country, still under joint British-American occupancy. Religion shifted the balance of power, however, when American Protestant missionaries crossed the Rocky Mountains with an eye toward converting the tribes of the Northwest. Soon these men brought their wives with them as well. In 1836, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were the first Euro-American women to cross South Pass, and these people became the vanguard of American settlement of Oregon.
Robert Stuart and partners and employees of the fur magnate John Jacob Astor, traveling east in 1812 from the Oregon coast to St. Louis, crossed “a handsome low gap” in the Rocky Mountains in October of that year, after receiving a tip months before about its existence from a Shoshone guide. This marked the discovery by European Americans of South Pass, destined in coming decades to become the main route of American expansion to the West.
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.