Visiting Independence Rock A Trip to Remember

By Janet Wragge, Oregon Trail School, Casper WY

The best way to record thoughts, ideas and discoveries at Independence Rock (and Devil’s Gate and Martin’s Cove if you go there) is to keep a journal.  Students can record reactions to the following prompt ideas – choose what fits your students, modifying when needed.

During the ride to the rock:

  • Read diary entries from the Covered Wagon Women series about the trip to Independence Rock, or from the list of resources and links on the Oregon Trail education page.  How would you feel if you couldn’t have water for most of 2 whole days while walking in the heat and wind?
  • Notice the time it takes to get out there.  Keep in mind the hour drive for us from Casper took 2 full, hard days for them.  Try to imagine what that is like.
  • If possible, stop at Bessemer Bend on the North Platte River; there is an interpretive site there.  Note the water levels and width of the river.  Remember that this river was not controlled by dams back in the time of the pioneers.  Imagine what it would be like to cross in a wagon.  Read some of the entries about crossing here.  It’s at this point that the emigrants left the Platte and headed for the Sweetwater.  This was a 58 mile trip over 2 days with only one clean water site, at Willow Springs. 
  • As you make your way past Bessemer Bend, you will drive through “the narrows,” the reason the pioneers were unable to follow the Platte any farther.  This is where the highway goes through a tight passage between Bessemer and Coal Mountain.  Why couldn’t a wagon go through this spot?
  • As you begin to get closer to the site, watch for Steamboat Rock, the alkali lake, trail markers.  Watch for Devil’s Gate, it will be visible before Independence Rock is.  Imagine what it’s like to see those landmarks hours before you’ll ever arrive. 

Arriving at the Rock:

  • What is your first impression?  Looking at the rock, where does the best place to climb it appear to be? What is the plant life like around the rock?  Would there be enough to feed thousands of animals?  What about fuel for fires?  What can you see that the pioneers can burn to cook their meals?
  • Walk around the perimeter to get a sense of the distance.
  • Follow the paths to the rock on the walk around to see the various signatures.  In addition to the engraved signatures, look for the ones written in tar (west side where there are big overhanging ledges).  Look for “ghost” signatures – these are where the pioneers wrote on the rock in tar over the lichen, and as the lichen died, the outline of the signature remains. 
  • Note the names and dates.  What are some interesting characteristics of the signatures?  Note any special people who signed (soldiers, etc.).  What do you think of the modern people who put their names on the rock?
  • See if you can find the cave on the south end.  It’s near the river where a large rock sits separate from the main rock.  What are the signatures made with? 
  • Check on the river at the south end of the rock.  What is the water level like? ( It varies depending upon time of year and amount of run-off.) How would you like crossing it?  Compare it to the North Platte River – how are they the same?  How are they different? 
  • Climb onto the rock – there is a low saddle on the east side that’s easy to climb, but it’s harder to get to the best signatures at the front (north) end of the rock.  It’s an easy climb if you come up from the front east side past the fence.   
  • On top, look all directions.  What do you see?  How do you think your view is different from the view of the pioneers?  Look to the west – note the next landmark on the trail.  Describe it from the pioneers’ points of view. 
  • Imagine the entire landscape filled with wagon trains. What would that do to the land?  How do you think that affected the various Indian tribes in the area?  What do you think they were thinking as they watched thousands of people coming through this area? 
  • Find the trail from the top – note its path.  Remember that there are various lines – look for the white markers to help you. 
  • Examine the signatures – note the dates.  What was the most common date/year you found?  What was the reason the pioneers were here around that time of year?

Back home:

  • Imagine you’re a pioneer on the trail who arrived at Independence Rock on Independence Day.  Write a journal or diary entry describing what you saw and did at Independence Rock.  Use all your senses and feelings to describe the experience.  You can include pictures of what you’ve seen.
  • Newspapers sent artists out to draw pictures of the sites on the trail.  Pretend you’re one of those artists.  Draw what you saw at Independence Rock in a way that allows you to “tell the story” of that place to people back east.
  • Pretend you’re a soldier stationed at Sweetwater Station, a small outpost a mile east of Independence Rock, in the mid 1860’s. Soldiers at the station protected the telegraph line, and ran a small bridge that people could pay to use to cross the Sweetwater River.  Write a letter home describing what life is like at your station when all the pioneers start showing up each year.
  • The area around Independence Rock was the home to tribes of American Indians.  Find out what tribes may have been there.  Pretend you are a member of one of these tribes.  Do a hide drawing to tell the story of how life changed for your tribe after white people began arriving (and even staying).

Pre-Visit Activities: Living on the Trail

Materials needed:

  • Trail letters and diaries
  • Emigrant guides

There was a wide variety of people who either traveled, or lived, along the various trail routes.  The main groups are:

  • Native Americans
  • Farmers
  • Mormons
  • Gold miners
  • Missionaries
  • Soldiers

Find the following information about each group:

  • What type of people make up this group?  (age, gender, work, place of origin)
  • What is their reason for being on the trail?  Why are they moving, or why are they already there?
  • What are the long-term goals or plans for each group?  Are they going to stay?  Why or why not?
  • What route did they choose?

Of the people in the groups, find out what daily life on the trails would be like.  Things to look for are:

  • Daily routine
  • Possible disruptions in the routine
  • Each person’s role or the jobs they may have done
  • How jobs were divided
  • Hardships or difficulties they experienced along the way
  • Things they did for fun

What supplies did they bring?  What was essential, and what was just extra stuff?  Categories of things they needed include:

  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Tools
  • Equipment
  • Bedding
  • Household items

Each group of people had to have whatever supplies they needed with them.  Find out the following information:

  • What did they use to haul their belongings? 
  • What were their options for pulling/pushing/carrying whatever they used to haul it?  (animal power, people power, other power)
  • How did they pack their belongings?  (how much (weight), containers, organization)

Write either a series of letters or a journal describing your life as a member of one of the groups of people along the trail.  You need a minimum of 5 – spread them out along the trail.  Include descriptions of: 

  • Your daily life, especially unusual or interesting things you’ve seen or done during the day. 
  • Landmarks you’ve seen, and what you did when you were there.
  • Other groups of people you encountered along the way and how they were different.
  • Feelings and emotions you experienced along the way. 

Create a chapter for your own guidebook.  You’ll have to decide how you would organize your book.  Some things you could advise your readers on:

  • What to pack
  • What they’ll see
  • Where to find good camp sites
  • What to watch out for
  • Mileage
  • Anything else you think would be important

Create a brochure or newspaper advertisement encouraging people to make the journey west.  Include both pictures and information.  You will have to decide what you’ll include to persuade people to make the big decision to leave home and head to a new life.