Sunday, September 6, 2009

Nebraska History - The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail was established in 1843 and for the next 25 years an estimated half a million pioneers traveled the route, settling the western half of the United States. The trail was a 2000 mile trip from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon taking about four months. The States of Utah, California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Idaho may not have been settled had it not been for the Oregon Trail.

The trail entered what is now Nebraska in the southeast part of the State, in Jefferson County. It went northwest to Ft. Kearney, now Kearney, and followed the bank of the South Platte River across Nebraska into Wyoming.

The settlers packed their belongings in 10’ x 4’ wagons called Prairie Schooners, generally pulled by oxen. Oxen were less expensive and heartier than horses. The more familiar bigger Conestoga Wagons were too large and cumbersome to make the rugged trip.

A good day’s travel was 15 – 16 miles and it took a month to cross Nebraska. It was hard and dangerous and about 1 in 10 died along the way. Contrary to movies and novels the biggest cause of death was disease and accidents, not Indian raids. Overall, the Indians were friendly and helped the pioneers until the buffalo was almost eliminated and they were pushed off their land.

One can see and realize what the pioneers experienced by following the Oregon Trail through Nebraska. The landmarks they described in diaries and journals have been preserved to explore and enjoy.

Rock Creek Station, in Jefferson County, was established for the Pony Express and stagecoach, but wagons stopped there for supplies. The owner, of Rock Creek Station, had a toll bridge he charged up to 50 cents to cross, depending on what the traffic would bear. Today, next to the station is a 40 acre campground where ruts from the wagon wheels still can be seen.

Ft. Kearney was established to protect settlers traveling the Oregon Trail. Supplies and mail service were available and in some months as many as 2000 people per day passed by the fort. Today, alongside I80, it is a recreation area and some of the original buildings have been restored through archeological digs.

Further west, outside Lewellen, is found Ash Hollow. Ash Hollow must have been like heaven because it had fresh water and trees. The pioneers had been using muddy water from the Platte River for about three weeks and hadn’t seen any shade trees. The problem was, as the name suggests, Ash Hollow was surrounded by a steep hill. It was man against nature getting the wagons down the hill, but the reward was worth it. The visitor center at scenic Ash Hollow has all the historical information you need, and 100 year old wagon wheel ruts are still visible.

Continuing west outside Bridgeport is Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock. These two geographical structures majestically rise from the flat plains, alone, just the two of them. They were a sightseeing trip for the settlers as they were several miles off the Oregon Trail. Although wind and erosion have erased them diaries and journals tell of the settlers carving their names in the sandstone sides and at the top. Today, if you’re diligent you may still find an arrowhead or piece of flint from that era.

A few more miles west you see Chimney Rock, the most familiar landmark on the Oregon Trail. This landmark was a duel edged sword for the pioneers. On the good side it meant they were nearing the end of the endless prairie of what is now Nebraska, but on the bad side it meant they were nearing the treacherous venture of getting over the mountains. More than one family decided to homestead in this area and the visitor center is an encyclopedia of this historic spot.

Before the settlers left the Nebraska territory they passed by what is now called Scott’s Bluff, the namesake of the nearby town of Scottsbluff. It rises over 800 feet into the air and wagon train scouts used the top as a lookout as to what lay ahead.

Scott’s Bluff was named after a trapper, Hiram Scott, who was hurt and couldn’t travel with his fellow trappers. They left him and he didn’t make it. His body was found the next year in the vicinity of the monument. Today, Scott’s Bluff is a National Monument and you can either drive or walk to the top. The visitor’s center houses a museum and a camp ground is available.

If you enjoy history you will enjoy Nebraska, and the old Oregon Trail is just the beginning of the history Nebraska offers.

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