| SCIENCE / HISTORY |
The Scotts Bluff National Monument and the adjoining hills to the south and west are remnants of a vast inland sea which once covered much of western Nebraska. As one views the surrounding bluffs and hills you can see the array of sedimentary strata from the early inland sea as well as two volcanic ash layers which seem to divide the formations into thirds.
Article by: Jerald H. Lucas
Photography by: Hawk Buckman
Published February 18, 2020
The terrain of Western Nebraska as it exists today demonstrates the incredible power of the wind, water and nature’s elements on the design of the surrounding environment.
These hills and bluffs were, in part, the results of the extrusion and rise of the mountains to the west and the effect on the “sea” and the seabed. In the badlands at the northern foot of Scotts Bluff, between the bluff and the North Platte River, erosion has bared fossil remains of mammoth turtles, Miohippus (three-toed horse), Aepycamelus (Miocene camel), and various creatures from prehistoric times.
As one proceeds up the bluff, by either the roadway or the hiking trail, one can view the sediment layers of the seabed as well as find evidence of the early prehistoric life of the area. From viewing points at the summit one can experience awe inspiring sights in a panorama of the area. To the east one may easily see Chimney Rock a mere 26 miles away, 2 to 3 days by wagon for the pioneers.
To the west on very clear days one will see the impressive occasionally snowcapped summit of Laramie Peak, around 100 miles distance, or a week to a week and a half travel in the 1850’s. From the north overlook the view of the “badlands” area and the North Platte River are unbelievable sites.
The panoramic views from the summit of the valley’s towns, villages, and farms are something you must experience for yourself to truly appreciate.
Preceding the advent of the European invaders, these plains were home to an abundance of megafauna. Following these migrating herds of animals were the first human residents to the area. The earliest identified human cultures were the Clovis culture and Folsom tradition.
They were later joined by the Alberta people, Plains Cree and Blackfoot Confederacy tribes, who migrated 10,000 to 8,000 years ago crossing the Bering Strait and moving into Alaska. From Alaska they moved into Canada and then south into the plains.
These people and cultures were the predecessors of the people we know and identify as the modern Native Americans. These modern era societies, as we know them today, are the Dachota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Pawnee, and Kiowa among others.
These would be the people exploring and interacting with the migrating Europeans, coloring and influencing the events of our national history.
The first known white men to observe, record and use this landmark were the “Astorians” (a remnant of a trading company sent to the Pacific Northwest by John Jacob Astor) returning from the Pacific coast to St. Louis under command of Robert Stuart.
Stuart and his company in 1812 established a winter camp in the shadow of the great bluff, somewhere between present day Torrington, WY and Gering, NE.
It is presumed the camp was north and west of the bluff in a cottonwood grove on what may have been the north side of the river, and later may have become an island. A hand-forged axe assumed to have been used by the party was found buried in the sand near a third growth stand of cottonwoods. Stewart and his company remained in camp here from December 29, 1812, until March 9, 1813.
One may read Robert Stuarts account of his journey, and his time in the shadow of the bluff in the book The Discovery of the Oregon Trail authored by Robert Stuart, or Washington Irving’s ASTORIA; or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains. Much of the route from the Pacific to St. Louis followed by Stuart and his company would later become the famous Oregon Trail, including South Pass, a key feature for the emigrants heading west.
In 1824 General Ashley, of St. Louis, with a party of a hundred men, started on an expedition to the Rocky Mountains following the Platte River, which was known by the Otoe people as the neh-bras-ka or flat water. Ashley released his trappers from company trading restrictions and they became “Free Trappers.”
This meant trappers gathered hides and furs for themselves and could trade with any company, rather than a “home” company. This was the beginning of the rendezvous trading system.
At this time General Ashley had in his employ men whose names would become synonymous with exploration, expansion and discovery in the west, men the likes of the renowned adventurer Jedediah Smith, Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, William “Old Bill” Sublette and his brother Milton Sublette, David (Jackson Hole) Jackson, Christopher “Kit” Carson, the memorable story teller Jim Bridger, and the lesser known Hiram Scott.
William Ashley upon the return of his men from trading in the mountains in 1827 decided to send a company back to the mountains with a trading kit for the early spring of 1828. He would send the reliable and trustworthy field clerk Hiram Scott and James Bruffee with a company of men in November, 1827.
The winter of 1827 and 1828 was exceptionally harsh, game and other food sources were scarce, and temperatures were extremely brutal. The company would lose three pack animals on their journey to Bear Lake. Through the winter months some of the trappers and traders in the camp became ill either from poor nutrition or poor quality food.
With the onset of spring in 1828 the trading camp was attacked by Blood (Blackfoot) Indians, some traders were injured in the skirmish, one of whom may have been Hiram Scott, according to an entry in John Saunders’ book Bill Sublette Mountain Man.
During the return journey from Bear Lake Scott became unable to travel the company due to illness or injury. Somewhere between the mountains and Laramie Creek he was set aside with two men who were to see to his comfort and safe return to civilization, or to his final rest. Scott’s escorts may have been Roi (maybe Roy), “the man of the desert,” and Bissonette, “the squaw man,” (these men are only identified by name in one source). The three may have been floating down the North Platte River planning to rejoin the main party near the “bluffs on the Platte.” The bull boat (a water craft resembling a bowl made from buffalo or moose hide and a f willow or ash frame) transporting the three was upset or destroyed near the confluence of the Laramie and Platte Rivers, near present day Fort Laramie, losing provisions, powder and guns, according to one version of the legend. The two escorts with Scott in tow safely reached shore. Scott may have been near death, having no supplies and weapons to protect them being surrounded by multiple predatory threats the two men decided it was wiser and to their advantage to leave Scott and attempt to rejoin the main company some sixty to eighty miles downriver.
According to Washington Irving, in Adventures of Captain Bonneville, Bonneville recorded a tale of Scott crawling over hills, sagebrush, and gullies for nearly 70 miles only to die at the foot of the bluff. Before Scott reached the bluff the party had moved on having been informed of his death.
The following spring of 1829 some men of that 1828 party passed near the bluff heading to the mountains for another season of trading and found Scott’s skeleton, as legend has it. Thus “the wild and picturesque bluffs in the neighborhood of his lonely grave have ever since bore his name” as Bonneville recorded.
The site where he was/is buried has long been lost to history and obliterated by time and nature’s elements, but his name lingers on.
In 1832 William Sublette and his company of traders managed to take the first wagon across the trail from St. Louis, passing through South Pass, to the mountain rendezvous leading the way for later excursions. About 1836 came the missionaries on their way to settle the Willamette Valley in Oregon and Washington led by the Spalding and Whitman companies. These pioneering missionaries were accompanied by the first women to travel the trail. Narcissa Whitman would forge her own place in history later in the Willamette Valley.
In the early 1840’s with the demise of the fur markets the old fur trade route to the mountains became the “highway” for thousands of pioneers heading west for new adventures and new beginnings. From the initiation of the pioneer movement in the early 1840’s to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, between 250,000 to as many as 500,000 emigrants may have traversed this rough, rugged and desolate route.
These pioneers were headed to the rich farm lands of the northwest territories joined by speculators and prospectors heading to gold rich California, and those driven by religious zeal seeking to establish a colony in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. During the summer months of the 1850’s there were so many wagons along this trail it was said that an average of one wagon every five minutes passed through Mitchell Pass. Father De Smet (Black Robe to the Indians) said the Indians wondered if there was a great void in the East, so many white people had gone west over the “Great White Medicine Road.”
Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, a former fur trapper/trader and in 1850 the Indian Agent at Fort Laramie, proposed the government enter into a peace treaty with the plains Indians to insure the safety of the pioneers heading west through Indian territory.
In 1851 there was to be a great council held at Fort Laramie between government representatives and the plains’ Indian tribes. When the size of the native contingent was realized it was decided the treaty site should and needed to be moved from Fort Laramie to Horse Creek, some 20 miles northwest of “Scott’s Bluff.”
Their numbers would severely tax the resources around Fort Laramie predicating the relocation of the council site. This was to be a truly monumental gathering with around 600 white men (translators, government representatives, and soldiers), and nine plains tribes represented.
Officially attending the peace council were Oglala and Brule Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara, as well as Mandan, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, and Shoshoni. These leaders were accompanied by a contingent of over 10,000 persons (tribal leaders, warriors, women and children) and their nearly 100,000 horses. Making this treaty council even more memorable is the fact that with the animosity among many of these native people there was not a major hostile incident.
With the emigrants and their wagons continuing to head west and the eminent threat of war in the east a new enterprise cropped up. The Pony Express, a division of the Russell, Majors and Waddell Freight Company, began its legendary and mythical run.
From its first run in the spring of 1860 until its last excursion in the fall of 1861 the service existed only 18 months but has fueled our imaginations spawning an array of fanciful and romantic stories.
The route of the “Express” followed was the existing pioneer route, the Oregon and California trails. According to Express legends only one rider was lost, one mochila was lost, and one run was not completed. Trailing in the dust and shadow of the Pony Express and following the California trail west were the poles and “singing wires” of the transcontinental telegraph leaving the east making their way to Sacramento, California.
During the era of the civil war U. S. regular troops stationed at forts on the western frontier were recalled to the east to support the war effort. To replace those recalled seasoned troops, volunteer forces were assigned to the western forts, the 7th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry was assigned to Fort Kearny, and the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry commanded by Col. William O. Collins was stationed at Fort Laramie.
In 1863 it was ordered by General Robert B. Mitchell outposts be established to secure the safety of the western trails. At that time Fort Sedgwick, near present day Julesburg, Colorado, Fort Cottonwood, later to become Fort McPherson in Nebraska, Fort Mitchell in western Nebraska, and Fort Casper, near current Casper, WY, were established to provide a military presence on the plains. From 1863 through 1867 these small outposts were involved in an array of military actions.
Fort Mitchell, an outpost of Fort Laramie, was located just 2 miles north and west of Scott’s Bluff on the south bank of the Platte River. These troops were called to action in response to an incident at Mud Springs 40 miles east of the fort, in February of 1865 involving native forces fleeing north Colorado after the Sand Creek Massacre.
Mud Springs, at that time, was a manned telegraph and stage station with a telegrapher and 9 soldiers. When the station came under attacked it was quickly reinforced by troops from Fort Mitchell and later soldiers arrived from Fort Laramie.
With these additional forces a potential tragedy was averted. With the cessation of Civil War hostilities in regular forces began returning to the posts in the west, the need for the small outposts was no longer necessary.
Many of these forts/outposts were abandoned and fell into disrepair ultimately vanishing into the earth and history.
With the creation of the National Parks System in 1916 under the Department of Interior local interested residents in Gering, NE began lobbying congressional leaders in Washington to set aside a part of the trail near the town as a park.
Their efforts were aided by the efforts of Ezra Meeker who had traveled from Washington State to Washington, D. C. to raise awareness regarding the historic trail. The monument was created December 12, 1919 when Woodrow Wilson signed Presidential Proclamation number 1547. Its total area today is nearly 3000 acres.
Prior to the depression era of the 1930’s the park was largely a local attraction. It was the site of family and local picnics, young people ascending to the summit and creating foot trails for others to follow. With the advent of the Great Depression era recovery programs of President Franklin Roosevelt during the 1930’s the park took on a new face.
At its base on the south side of the great bluff there was a building constructed which would house a museum and visitor’s center. It was built from adobe bricks which were made on site. The summit road was under construction from 1933 to 1937.
The road would allow visitors to ascend to the summit with greater ease than afforded by the early foot trail. These changes were made and aided by a combination of private contractors, Civilian Works Administration (CWA) and the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), in conjunction with other economic recovery programs created by President Roosevelt.
The park continues to grow and change with the interests and needs of the visiting public, and at the hand of Mother Nature. One of the most dramatic effects which may be viewed and experienced in the park is that of erosion. During the creation of the road and summit hiking trails was a survey marker placed on one of the capstones of the bluff.
Today one can view about 18 to 20 inches of the exposed pipe on which the marker was placed. There have been occasional rock falls or slides which aid in altering the appearance of the bluffs, a slide in December of 2015 moved approximately 300,000 tons of rock from the bluff face and blocked the Saddle Rock Trail.
Due to the size and location of the slide and the fact that the displaced rock compromised a portion to the trail it was over a year before it was removed and the trail was repaired and reopened.
Within the museum a visitor can garner an understanding of the trials and tribulations of life as a pioneer and of what life was like for the native people.
Visitors are treated to living history experiences provided by park rangers and volunteers reliving and retelling the experiences of the fur traders, the pioneers and military. One can gain insight to the origin of the bluffs, along with how the ecosystem has changed over time.
You can walk along the prairie view trail and into a remnant of the Oregon Trail where our pioneering ancestors walked as they helped explore, expand and build the nation.
The history and story of the bluff moves forward and grows through the new understanding and discoveries in the sciences regarding geological and paleontology, as well as interpretation and information. The story and history of the park and region grows with the research, discoveries and writings of trained and untrained historians.
It grows and changes with each visit and visitor and what they share with friends regarding their experience. We all leave our “visible” footprint as we walk the pathways and trails, with the pictures and stories we share.
There is also an “invisible” footprint we leave that is the spiritual part of ourselves as we connect to this place and the stories of the events which occurred here in both the near and distant past. As this place has been preserved by those before us let it be the goal of every person passing here to preserve its natural wonder for those who come after us that they may discover the “footprints” and stories of our ancestors.
The information in this article has been compiled from:
- Scotts Bluff-Broucher-National Park Servie-US Department of Interior History of Scotts Bluff National Monument 1962-Earl R Harris, Suprintendent
- Superintendent’s Report: Scotts Bluff Natoinal Monument, 1984-Alfrord J Banta
- Scotts Bluff National Monument Site Bulletins:
- The Legend of Hiram Scott,
- Fort Mitchell
- Geology of Scotts Bluff
- The Great Platte River Road-Merrill Mattes
- Historic Resources Study: Pony Express-Anthony Godfrey, PhD. National Historic Trails, 1984
- The Pony Express Across Nebraska from St. Joseph to Fort Laramie-Merrill Mattes and Pau Henderson. 1960
- Glimpses of Our National Monuments-National Park Service by Isebel Story. 1929
There are numerous stories of Hiram Scott’s demise. Too many to be shared here. It seems the story changes with each telling and each teller. Those who are interested in more of the story of Hiram Scott may look up the following books and authors:
- LeRoy Hafen-Mountain Men and the Fur Trade (10 volume set)
- Dale Morgan, ed.-The West of William Ashley
- Merrill Mattes-The Great Platte River Road
- Warren Ferris-Life in the Rocky Mountains.