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.
Civil engineer, librarian, athlete, professor and historian, Grace Hebard gained early power at the University of Wyoming, serving on its board of trustees and later its faculty over a 40-year career. Though many scholars now question her scholarship, she remains best known for her books on Wyoming’s past.
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.”
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.
On Wyoming’s border with Nebraska, Goshen County and its economy have long been stabilized by farming and ranching. Today, sugar beets and cattle are the main products. The area is traversed by the Oregon Trail and the North Platte River, is the home of Fort Laramie, and was well known to Euro-Americans by the 1830s. The Burlington Railroad arrived in 1900 and a Union Pacific line in the early 1920s, both providing impetus to the birth of many small towns, a few of which survive and thrive. Goshen County now supports a population of about 13,500.
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.
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.
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.
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.