| WYOBRASKA HISTORY |
Visitors to Western Nebraska often find themselves on dirt paths. These paths are often the remnants of the Oregon, California, Mormon, or Bozeman Trails converted into roads, most often dirt roads, that lead into the distant prairie of the Great Northern Plains, each with its own unique story. Unfortunately, we only know a few of them.
It’s on these dirt roads that the history of western Nebraska (WyoBraska) can most often be found. The roads closely follow or have been built on top of, the original Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails used by immigrants during the mass migration of peoples traveling to the Pacific Coast during the Western Expansion.
Originally established as an active, passable, trail in 1835, the first immigrant wagon train left Independence, Missouri in 1836 passing into northeastern Kansas, continuing northwest into Nebraska territory following the Little Blue River and meeting up with the Platte, and North Platte Rivers. From Gurney, Wyoming the trails continued northwest toward Douglas and Casper Wyoming then passed into Idaho and terminated in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Over 400,000 farmers, settlers, miners, business owners, and their families, used the trail from the mid-1830s through 1869 with over 35,000 lives lost to hazardous river crossings, accidents, or illness, including mental illness. If evenly spaced along the length of the Oregon Trail, there would be a grave every 80 yards (less than the length of a football field, or 240 feet) from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon. If you’re standing on the actual remnants of the Oregon Trail, and you walk 240 feet in either direction, chances are pretty good that you’re passing close to, possibly standing on, someone’s unmarked grave; death on the trails occurred that often.
When a person passed away on the immigrant trails or a person was found deceased alongside the trail, the wagon train would stop and a shallow grave was prepared by volunteers. Services were performed according to the customs of the attendees’ denomination and a marker was fashioned from a stone or valuable wood. Some family members chose to bury their departed in the middle of the trail to protect against the scavenging of the corpse by animals. Most often a small marker like a branch or a small pile of rocks was all the travelers had to offer the deceased as a memorial, or none at all, which is why the Oregon Trail has been labeled as “the nation’s longest graveyard” with less than a quarter of the graves memorialized.
Due to the limited amount of time, and resources, most burials were performed quickly under threat of Indian attack, weather, or the need to make up distances needed to travel on a given day. The travelers wasted little time getting the wagon train moving again after internment as the immigrants covered an average of fifteen miles per day (averaging 2.5 to 3 miles per hour) before having to stop and set camp for the night.
Detailed records were not kept regarding the number of deaths occurring during the journeys on the Oregon, and California Trails. The best, and most reliable, documentation modern historians have detailing the number of deaths on the trails comes from personal diaries of witnesses, or family members, who survived the 2,170-plus mile trip.
| FLEMING DUNN
Fleming Dunn was a 26-year-old man moving west in a wagon train on the Oregon Trail who lost his life, probably to Cholera, on June 13, 1849. Members of his wagon train marked the gravesite with a stone headstone. Local Scottsbluff historian Thomas L. Green wrote that the original headstone, and gravesite, still existed as late as the mid-1920s, but the stone disappeared soon thereafter.
Green recorded that the location of the actual gravesite was near the current boundary fence and fifteen or twenty feet down the slope from the trail, about 540 feet south-southeast from the site of this marker.
The current concrete cross with the wooden plaque near the county road denoting it as the Dunn grave was placed in the 1980s and has become accepted as the exact site of the grave. It is not.
WyoBraska Expeditions is currently on assignment to locate the exact spot of the Fleming Dunn grave and record it with the Nebraska Historical Society.
| REBECCA WINTERS
Rebecca Winters’s story is almost horrifying. The persecution she, and her family, endured while living among Christians who didn’t follow the Mormon preachings lead her, and her family, to take the long journey across the Mormon Trail to Utah where she succumb to disease and passed away on August 15, 1852, 7 miles northeast of Scotts Bluff National Monument, near what is now HWY 26, from cholera.
Graves were often dug directly in the roadway (trail). After burial family members would drive their wagons over repeatedly to obscure all signs of it. This was to reduce the possibility that the grave might be disturbed by animals. Rebecca Winters was purposely laid very near the Mormon Trail and not in it- a testament to the love and honor bestowed upon her in life, and death.
The discovery of her grave by the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1899 marked a new beginning for Rebecca Winters as she became a cherished member of the Scottsbluff community, and remains so even today.
The National parks Service has acquired more information about Mrs. Winters. Read more:
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National Parks Service (N.P.S.) https://www.nps.gov/people/rebecca-winters.htm
Story by: Hawk Buckman