History of Scotts Bluff National Monument
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The Coming of the White Man

It is not known when the first white men saw western Nebraska. It is now known that the Spanish explorer, Coronado, did not penetrate beyond central Kansas during his explorations in 1541. Such French explorers as Nicolet and Radison were in the upper Mississippi region in the mid-seventeenth century. The first real evidence of white man in western Nebraska is found in 1720 when a group of Spanish explorers under General Pedro de Villasur was massacred at the forks of the Platte River. [4]

The Platte river received its name from the French Mallet brothers who, with six others, crossed Nebraska from north to south in 1739. The word "platte" is a translation from the Oto, meaning "shallow". [5] Other trappers of European extraction undoubtedly wandered through the area during the years before the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleonic France in 1803. After this date, American explorers Lewis and Clark, Pike, and others traversed the region to the north and south of Nebraska and left recorded evidence of their journeys. Major Stephen H. Long, in 1820, was the first official Government explorer to use the "Platte River Route," going up the South Platte to the Colorado Rockies. [6]

In 1810, John Jacob Astor organized the Pacific Fur Company. In 1811 he sent two parties to the Oregon country to establish trading posts and claim the area for the United States. One group went by sea around Cape Horn and established Astoria, the first American fur trading post on the Pacific. The second group, under Wilson Price, went up the Missouri River and then overland. The following year, seven men, the Stuart party, carried dispatches overland to Astor. They traveled up the Snake River, crossed the Continental Divide near South Pass, and down the Sweetwater. The party lost their horses to some raiding Indians and were compelled to continue on for 2,000 miles on foot. They trudged down the North Platte River with most of their gear on the back of a poor old horse obtained from some friendly Snake Indians. These are the first known white men to see Scotts Bluff. [7] Ironically enough, they passed the famous landmark on Christmas Day, 1812, on the north bank of the river, subsequently returning to the vicinity of present Torrington, Wyoming, to spend the winter. After delays, hardships, and near-starvation, they reached St. Louis on April 30, 1813.

Although Stuart and his party discovered an important river route to the western mountains, the significance of his findings were not generally understood at the time. The rediscovery of this corridor was left to a group of General Ashley's fur traders who passed by the bluff in 1824. During the decade following Stuart's eastward journey, most of the fur trading activity was focused on the upper Missouri. Indian troubles on the upper Missouri, especially with the Ree, Blackfoot, and Gros Ventre, caused Ashley's fur company to turn its attention to the Rocky Mountain region south of the hostile Indian settlements. Among the employees of Ashley at this time were such famous men as Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Hiram Scott.

It was at this time that the annual rendezvous system was initiated. In the summer of 1825, rather than build expensive forts to protect his interests, Ashley had his men meet a caravan from the east to transport the year's take of pelts to market. These meetings, which continued until 1840, were responsible for the opening of the Platte River route, being used by the caravans of supplies on their way to the designated rendezvous spot and return with the beaver pelts.

Scott's Spring
Early view of "Scott's Spring." Although legend states that Scott died at this spring, there is no historical evidence to prove this. Spring is now piped for easy use by visitors.

It was during this period that Scotts Bluff received its name. One of the mountain men, Hiram Scott, returning to St. Louis in the fall of 1828, somehow became stranded among the bluffs on the south bank of the North Platte river in western Nebraska. Circumstances of his death are not known and many legends and traditional accounts of it have clouded the facts even more. It is thought that he was abandoned to his fate by his companions and left to die somewhere in the general vicinity of these bluffs. Washington Irving's account of the incident, as related in his stories of Captain Bonneville's adventures in the west, is probably the most famous and often quoted version:

"..... encamped amid high and beetling cliffs of indurated clay and sandstone, bearing the semblence of towers, castles, churches and fortified cities. At a distance it was scarcely possible to persuade one's self that the works of art were not mingled with these fantastic freaks of nature. They have received the name of Scott's Bluffs from a melancholy circumstance. A number of years since, a party were descending the upper part of the river in canoes, when their frail barks were overturned and all their powder spoiled. Their rifles being thus rendered useless, they were unable to procure food by hunting and had to depend upon roots and wild fruits for subsistence. After suffering extremely from hunger, they arrived at Laramie's Fork, a small tributary of the north branch of the Nebraska, about sixty miles above the cliffs just mentioned. Here one of the party, by the name of Scott, was taken ill; and his companions came to a halt until he should recover health and strength sufficient to proceed. While they were searching round in quest of edible roots they discovered a fresh trail of white men, who had evidently but recently preceded them. What was to be done? By a forced march they might overtake this party, and thus be able to reach the settlements in safety. Should they linger they might all perish of famine and exhaustion. Scott, however, was incapable of moving; they were too feeble to aid him forward, and dreaded that such a clog would prevent their coming up with the advance party. They determined, therefore to abandon him to his fate. Accordingly, under pretence of seeking food, and such simples as might be efficacious in his malady, they deserted him and hastened forward upon the trail. They succeeded in overtaking the party of which they were in quest, but concealed their faithless desertion of Scott; alleging that he had died of disease.

On the ensuing summer, these very individuals visiting these parts in company with others, came suddenly upon the bleached bones and grinning skull of a human skeleton, which by certain signs they recognized for the remains of Scott. This was sixty long miles from the place where they had abandoned him; and it appeared that the wretched man had crawled that immense distance before death had put an end to his miseries. The wild and picturesque bluffs in the neighborhood of his lonely grave have ever since borne his name. [8]

It should be remembered, however, that this account is only one of many and its validity is debatable. Captain Bonneville passed through the area four years after the tragedy, in June, 1832. The name "Scotts Bluffs" or "Scott's Bluffs," generally applied to all of the bluffs in the vicinity of the present Monument, remained until the advent of ranching and homesteaders in the 1870's and 1880's, after which time the connotation was reserved for the single promontory which now bears the name, "Scotts Bluff".


History of Scotts Bluff National Monument
©1962, Oregon Trail Museum Association
history/chap2.htm — 26-Jan-2003