The Bureau of Land Management’s Red Buttes interpretive site is located on a picturesque bend of the North Platte River west Casper, Wyo. Follow CY Avenue west from Casper. From the intersection with Wyoming Boulevard, continue west on CY Avenue/Wyoming Highway 220 for 7.9 miles. Near mile marker 106, turn right on County Road 308/Bessemer Bend Road. In 1.5 miles, the road turns 90 degrees to the right onto “Bessemer Bend South.” Continue around the curve to the left and cross the river. The BLM interpretive site is on the right just after you cross the river.
At Red Buttes, west of present Casper, Wyo., the North Platte River narrows, swings to the south and runs between thick, sandstone beds of a deep, brick red. Here, westbound travelers on the Oregon Trail left the Platte and struck out southwest for the Sweetwater River and the Continental Divide. This dramatic spot quickly became a well-known landmark both for its beauty and for the fact that it marked the end of one stage of the journey and the start of another.
Long before Euro-Americans had begun arriving, however, the buttes were an important boundary marker, dividing some tribes’ customary territories from others.
At the foot of the buttes the trail forded the river. This was the primary crossing point of the upper North Platte during the fur-trade era through the mid-1840s. High water came in late June. By late July, the river was much shallower and crossing was much easier.
“We recrossed the Platte again,” fur trapper and diarist Warren Ferris wrote in June 1830, “on the eleventh, at the Red Hills, —these are two high cherry-red points of rock, separated by the river, which here turns away to the southward. On the next day we left the Platte … and pursued our never-varying course, westward, through a sandy plain, covered with sage, and at evening encamped near a fine spring.”
Lt. John C. Frémont of the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers was more precise in his description than most travelers. “There was two hundred feet breadth of water at this time in the bed,” he wrote of his July 29, 1842, crossing, “which has a variable width of eight to fifteen hundred feet. The channels were generally three feet deep, and there were large angular rocks on the bottom, which made the ford in some places a little difficult. Even at its low stages this river can not be crossed at random, and this has always been used as the best ford.”
During those early years of trail travel, emigrants often noted the good grazing to be had nearby for their draft animals, and often reported big herds of bison as well.
Already by 1846, however, trails traffic was growing steadily.
Former mountain man Jim Clyman, a veteran traveler, was headed east on the trail in June 1846 when he found the Red Buttes crossing congested with emigrants: “[W]hen we came in sight of N. Platte we had the Pleasant sight of Beholding the valy to a greate distance dotted with Peopl Horses cattle wagons and Tents their being 30 wagons all Busily engaged in crossing the River which was found not to be fordable and with the poor material they had to make rafts of it took two trips to carry over one wagon with its lading we however ware not long in crossing as we threw our baggage on the returning rafts and swam our animals over and encamped once more in the Buisy humm of our own Language.”
As Clyman may be implying, Red Buttes was not just a river-crossing point for emigrants; it was already a crossroads for cultures. By Frémont’s time, the Buttes were well understood as a western boundary of Lakota Sioux power and an eastern boundary of Shoshone power.
William Carter, on his way to becoming sutler—head storekeeper—at Fort Bridger and later one of territorial Wyoming’s most prominent politicians and landowners, was more specific when he passed in 1857: “The Red Buttes … serve as the corner of the territories of several tribes of Indians who often meet here on their hunting expeditions,” he wrote. “The Cheyenne and the Arapahoes, a number of whom we saw at Reshaw’s [Bridge, 10 miles downstream], owning the south side of the river. The Sioux owning the north of the river up as high as the Red Buttes, and the Crow and Snakes [Shoshone] west of them.”
Few of the emigrants, however, were as aware as Carter of distinctions among the tribes. Many, when they got to Red Buttes, probably felt much like Rebecca Ketchum did in June 1853.
“I believe we have left the Platte River for good,” she wrote in her diary, “and I am glad indeed. We have been so long on it.” Most emigrants by this point had been following the Platte and the North Platte for 500 miles or more. “There is so little beauty about it, and we are so much afraid to drink it on account of its being unhealthy that I have grown heartily sick of it.” To the west, though, lay less water, lots more sagebrush, mountains, many more dangerous river crossings—and Oregon.
- Carter, William A. “Diary of Judge William A. Carter Describes Life on the Trail in 1857.” Annals of Wyoming 11, no. 2 (April 1939): 75–113.
- Clyman, James. James Clyman, Frontiersman [1844, 1848]. Charles L. Camp, ed. Portland, Ore.: The Champoeg Press, 1960.
- Ferris, Warren Angus. Life in the Rocky Mountains: A Diary of Wanderings on the Sources of the Rivers Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado, 1830–1835, rev. ed. LeRoy Hafen and Paul C. Phillips, eds. Denver, Colo.: Fred A. Rosenstock and The Old West Publishing Company, 1983.
- Frémont, John Charles. Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843–44. Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press. 1996.
- Ketcham, Rebecca. “From Ithaca to Clatsop Plains: Miss Ketcham’s Journal of Travel .” Leo M. Kaiser and Priscilla Knuth, eds. Parts 1 and 2. Oregon Historical Quarterly 62 (September–December 1961): vols. 3-4. (Part I, vol. 3:237–87; Part II, vol. 4:337– 402.)
- National Park Service. National Historic Trails: Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Across Wyoming. Salt Lake City: National Park Service, National Trails System, Intermountain Region, 2007. Accessed Jan. 8, 2015 at http://www.nps.gov/cali/planyourvisit/upload/WY_ATRIG%20Web.pdf.
- U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Land Management. “The Oregon, California, Mormon Pioneer and Pony Express Trails—Tour the Trails in Wyoming.” Accessed Jan. 8, 2016, at http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/programs/nlcs/Historic_Trails/trails_tour.html.
- Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office. “The Red Buttes.” Emigrant Trails throughout Wyoming. Accessed Jan. 8, 2016 at http://wyoshpo.state.wy.us/trailsdemo/redbuttes256k.htm.
- The photo of Red Buttes is by Tom Rea.
The former site of Bessemer is located approximately 12 miles southwest of Casper. From Highway 220, turn west onto Natrona County Road 311 and head west toward the North Platte River. The town site was about half a mile west of the west end of the bridge. No original buildings remain, and most of the land is privately owned. An interpretive site at the Speck-Bessemer Float Access Area features a short trail and signs about the general history of the area.
A replica of Reshaw’s bridge—it does not cross the North Platte River—has been built near its original site in the town of Evansville, Wyo. on the east side of Casper. From Interstate 25, take Exit 182 and head north through Evansville on Curtis St., which becomes the Oregon Trail Cemetery Road. Turn left just before coming to the river into Reshaw’s Park. The park is free and open every day from dawn to dusk.
The Town of Evansville also maintains a free Reshaw exhibit in the Evansville Community Center, 71 Curtis St., Evansville, open Monday through Friday from 11:00 am-1:00 pm or by appointment for groups. Call the Evansville Town Hall 234-6530 for an appointment.
A similar replica of Guinard’s bridge, and of a ferry similar to those used by early-day travelers crossing the North Platte River, are on display at the Fort Caspar Museum. Fort Caspar is located just off Wyoming Boulevard on the west side of the city of Casper, Wyo. From I-25, take Exit 188 B and follow the signs.
Visitors interested in learning more about the trails across Wyoming should visit the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center at 1501 North Poplar Street, Casper, Wyo. This site, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, offers outstanding interpretation of the trails system and its history, and the staff is happy to offer detailed directions on how best to visit Wyoming’s historic trails on foot and by car. Phone the Trails Center at 307-261-7780 for hours, directions, and exhibit information, or click here for a video tour of the center with volunteer Bruce Berst, produced by C-SPAN in the summer of 2014.
For a free, handy guidebook to the trails across Wyoming, complete with historic background, modern color photos and a good, fold-out map, order a copy of “National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Across Wyoming,” from the National Park Service, National Trails System—Intermountain Region, 324 South State Street, Suite 200, Box 30, Salt Lake City, Utah, 801-741-1012, email firstname.lastname@example.org. See also the Park Service’s websites for each of the trails, at www.nps.gov/oreg, www.nps.gov/poex, www.nps.gov/cali and www.nps.gov/mopi.
Independence Rock is a large granite dome where Indians and pioneers left their marks over the centuries and where Father De Smet carved his name in 1840. The Wyoming Knights of Columbus dedicated a plaque honoring Father De Smet at the Rock on July 4, 1930. It lies on the southeast side of Wyoming Highway 220, about 55 miles southwest of Casper and 20 miles northeast of Muddy Gap. It’s a state rest area, open all year, with restrooms, picnic grounds, telephone, drinking water, exhibits on the historic trails, and trailer sanitary station.
There is a footpath all the way around the rock, and climbing on the rock is permitted. High winds are likely at the top at all times of year.
For more information visit http://www.wyomingtourism.org/overview/Independence-Rock-State-Historic-Site/3337 or call (307) 577-5150.
For a good view of the Martin’s Cove visitor center, the former Sun Ranch headquarters and the reconstructed Fort Seminoe, visit the Bureau of Land Management’s interpretive Devil’s Gate turnout near mile marker 57 on Wyoming Highway 220, about 60 miles southwest of Casper or 12 miles northeast of Muddy Gap. The turnout, on the north side of the highway 5.8 miles southwest of Independence Rock, offers a magnificent view of the Sweetwater Valley and a paved walking trail with interpretive panels about the vivid and well-documented history of the area. Emigrant trail ruts are visible from the pathway.
Due to a quirk of topography, however, Devil’s Gate itself is not visible from the turnout. To see the gate—or to climb it and view the many carved pioneer inscriptions, especially on the east side of the gate—ask for directions at the Martin’s Cove visitor center. Devil’s Gate is located on Wyoming state land and is always open to the public.
The Mormon Handcart Visitors Center at Martin's Cove is located on Wyoming Highway 220 near Devil’s Gate, about 60 miles southwest of Casper and 55 miles north of Rawlins. Visitors can walk trails, tour a small museum, read interpretive signs and push handcarts on their own when weather permits to get a sense of pioneer experiences. For hours of operation and more information, call (307) 328-2953 or visit http://www.lds.org/church/places-to-visit/mormon-handcart-historic-site.
The Oregon, Mormon Pioneer and California trails all cross Wyoming in the central and most popular corridor of the transcontinental migration of the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. 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.