It began in earnest in 1841, when the first group, with a serious intent to emigrate, left the banks of the Missouri River near Independence. With oxen-drawn wagons, packed with carefully chosen cargo, they headed out across the prairies of what is now Kansas, then Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho, and on to the Oregon Territory. The 2,170-mile journey took
At that time, the western boundaries of our country lay somewhere in the Rockies, roughly along the Continental Divide. Although three states existed west of the Mississippi, most of this country was still frontier. But then came the pioneers, wave after wave, more than 300,000 of them during the next 40 years.
Their primary route, the Oregon Trail, was not always a clearly defined track. In open areas the wagons passed in columns that might be hundreds of yards apart. In other terrain it was a single line, created by a dust-eating, follow-the-leader wagon train. But their days of travel always ended at common campsites, places that their predecessors
had found appealing — normally by a river, where there was shade and feed for their livestock.
A sandstone cliff in close proximity made for an especially rewarding campsite, as its flat side was often used as a bulletin board. There, the emigrants found the names of people who had passed ahead of them, often people they knew. And they could scratch in their names, dates and hometowns, or even messages for those who followed.
Perhaps the most famous of these “message centers” is Register Cliff, where several thousand names were carved. Hundreds are still legible. I was headed for perhaps the least famous of the “register rocks,” from which the town of Glenrock gets its name. It’s just off Interstate 25, some 25 miles east of Casper.
At the edge of Glenrock is a development called Oregon Trail Estates — houses, duplexes, small apartments and a school. Part of the school is a paleontology lab, housing bones from a nearby dinosaur dig. Surrounded by homes and asphalt is an open area for kids to play. Next to it, enclosed by split rails, is a 20-foot stretch of “untouched desert” showing wagon tracks of the Trail. The ruts are definitely out of context, but at least they saved a piece — a visible fragment of the
greatest human migration in American history.
Not to worry though: Wyoming still has huge stretches of the Trail where swales in the desert made by thousands of wagon wheels are clearly visible. You can walk it and experience the country much as they did.
Glenrock began as a pioneer and Indian trading post in the 1850s, and later a relay terminal for the Overland Stage system. To thousands of emigrants who camped here, it was known as the Rock in the Glen. In 1860, it was a “home station” for the Pony Express. The town boomed early in the last century with the discovery of oil and gas. Now it
lives on memories, tourists and jobs in Casper.
I spent the night here and got up early to climb the Rock in the Glen at dawn. There was no particular reason to be there so early, just that it’s cooler. The day before, temperatures reached the 90s.
This gray, dome-like rock was a landmark, first for the fur trappers who used this route along the North Platt in 1812. By the mid-1820s, Mountain Men were regularly packing supplies by here on mule and horseback. Then came the thousands of pioneers who walked and rode this trail with their families every day during the summer. These were
frustrated farmers and merchants, along with some adventurers and missionaries, leaving hard times in the Midwest for the Oregon Territory.
In 1847, the Mormon faithful, the followers of Brigham Young, camped here bound for a new life in the Salt Lake Valley.
Then with the discovery of gold in California, the trail erupted into a veritable flood of the frenzied 49ers.
A path leads from the road to the base of the rock and trails around to its south side, where an uncounted number of pioneers cut their names in its flat face. The rough hands that laboriously carved those names were the hands of brave souls. Although Lewis and Clark and others drew the maps of the West, it was these common folks who risked
everything to fill them in. They were true American heroes. Unfortunately, time has erased much of what they wrote here.
Cut deep in the rock, obviously with a hammer and chisel, was “Rick & Laura 1995.” My first reaction: “Really tacky … how dare they deface this historic place.”
But who am I to pass judgment on Rick and Laura or “Jake 1998.” Carving their names in this rock — giving them a shot at immortality — was probably equally important to Rick, Laura and Jake as it was to those passing here in 1843. This rock in Wyoming belongs as much to their generation of Americans as it does to earlier ones — or any other.
Is there a difference? The names of those who made that arduous journey across the continent are important to us because of what they did. Although leaving their names for us today was probably the last thing on their minds, they not only built the West, they established our country’s claim to it.
As for Rick, Laura and Jake, who can say? A century or two from now, maybe someone will answer that.
Welcome to America’s Outback.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]