Although it was not our intention, we followed much of the Oregon Trail across Wyoming. The Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, California Trail and Pony Express Route all pass along the same basic path in Wyoming. In Nebraska, the trails basically follow I-80, and you know how we feel about Interstates, so I don’t think we would ever deliberately choose following it as a plan.
South Pass is the low spot in the Rockies at the south end of the Wind River Mountains. Passing through it, emigrants crossed the continental divide to the Pacific side, so it was a major landmark. However, it is a rolling valley almost twenty miles wide, so often they didn’t know of their achievement. Various websites have different altitudes, but the official Wyoming map places the pass at 7660 feet.
The first Europeans to “discover” the pass were an 1812 fur-trading
group taking messages back to John Jacob Astor; Jedediah Smith went over the pass in 1824; William Sublette took wagons as far as the pass in 1828; and the Benjamin Bonneville party took wagons over in 1832; but it wasn’t until Lt. John Fremont publicized the trail in 1842, that it became a regular emigrant and prospector route.
There are a number of signs about the trail on route 28 near South Pass City, but one doesn’t actually cross it until later. So on our day exploring South Pass City and Atlantic City, we did not find the marker we remembered from our visit in the 1980s.
However, we did decide to follow a dirt road back toward the mining area on Rock Creek. We missed a turn on a rutty, muddy road [the Jeep earned its reputation again] and did not find the dredged mines [we later found they were still private, so we couldn’t get to them anyway], but we had an interesting ride on the actual trail marked with both concrete and wood posts.
We also found ourselves at Rock Creek Hollow, a lovely spot for a picnic apparently maintained by the Mormons. After eating, we took a short walk to the “Willies Handcart Site.” Captain James Willie was leading a group of Mormons pulling handcarts when they reached this point at the end of October 1856. They started on the trail late and were caught by the snow. Before rescue parties reached them, thirteen froze to death in a single night and were buried here. Ultimately, 77 of the party of 404 perished. We hadn’t found our old monument, but these graves were the ultimate marker that we were on the actual trail.
Leaving Wyoming the next day, we did find the spot we had seen before, and later we drove more dirt roads out to the actual high point on South Pass. There we found a marker that had been placed in 1906 by Ezra Meeker who had actually crossed the trail in 1852. Close to it, was a 1916 marker memorializing Narcissa Whitman and Elisa Spaulding who on July 4, 1836 were the first Caucasian women to cross the trail. [See May 2012 for more about Narcissa and her husband.]
Sailing along our modern highways, it is hard to imagine the difficulties those early emigrants faced. We read they were relieved to get over the pass, sometimes not knowing some of the hardest deserts and mountains were yet to be faced before they reached their ultimate goal.