Physical evidence indicates that the first humans to live in the region around Scotts Bluff arrived 10,000 years ago. These people are thought to have been nomadic hunters who manufactured stone tools and lived in small groups. Traveling by foot, these early visitors to the North Platte River Valley would have been limited in both how far they could travel and what they could take with them.
In Time, a different lifestyle evolved among Native Americans living in the West. Farming seems to have offered a more dependable source of food, and for the next 5,000 years, small groups of farmers lived along the major rivers of the High Plains. Then, around the year 1,400AD, perhaps due to an extended drought, the plains were abandoned. Two hundred years later, eastern tribes, such as the Pawnee, Arikara, Kansa, and Mandan moved out into the prairie and began to develop semi-permanent villages along the major waterways.
Explorers and Trappers
It should come as no surprise that the first Euro-Americans to see Scotts Bluff were fur traders returning to St. Louis after spending a year at the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Coast. The small group of seven men was led by Robert Stuart, and on Christmas Day, 1812, he made the following entry in his journal. “21 miles same course brought us to camp in the bare Prairie, but were fortunate in finding enough driftwood for our culinary purpose. The Hills on the South have approached the river, and are remarkably rugged and Bluffy and possess a few Cedars. Buffaloe very few in numbers and mostly Bulls.” Although the Stuart party had a difficult time as the made their way eastward, the trail they blazed through present-day Wyoming and Nebraska would eventually prove to be profound historic importance for the next 60 years.
William Ashley is credited with devising a more efficient method of obtaining furs, which came to be known as the rendezvous system. Before the first rendezvous in 1827, each spring trappers would have to haul the pelts gathered the previous winter, all the way to St. Louis to sell them. Ashley's idea was to have the trappers stay out on the frontier where they could spend more time gathering pelts, ad he would bring pack trains loaded down with trade items and supplies to prearranged places. The trappers would then be able to trade their furs for items they needed and Ashley would return to St. Louis with horses loaded down with furs. The Rendezvous of 1828 led to tragic events that are now shrouded in mystery, but which would have lasting effects on Scotts Bluff. The story involves a man named Hiram Scott, an employee of the American Fur Company. The known facts are these: Scott worked for the American Fur Company since 1823, and had been present at the 1827 rendezvous. In 1828 he was again serving as a clerk for the company at the rendezvous in Wyoming but somehow during the return trip he met his death near the bluffs that now bear his name.
Methodist missionaries Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding took the first wagons over what would become the Oregon Trail in 1836. From 1836-1869 over 250,000 emigrants would travel to Oregon, California, and Utah using this route or a variation of it. Their motivations were as varied as their backgrounds. Emigrants that reached Oregon after the signing of the Donation Land Claim Act in 1850 could claim up to 320 acres of farmland.
On April 5, 1847, Brigham Young led the first Mormon wagon train out of Winter Quarters bound for Utah. The Mormon Trail was established to lead the faithful to their Zion in Utah. Due to a lack of money many Mormons were reduced to using handcarts rather than covered wagons. As many as 70,000 Mormons migrated to Utah using the trail from 1847-1869.
After the discovery of gold in 1849 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, many headed to California in search of riches. The California Trail followed the already established route until west of the Rocky Mountains, then the travelers would head off in a southwesterly direction for the gold fields of California. This route would become the one used by the Pony Express from 1860-1861 in an effort to improve communication between California and the East. Riders could make the 1,900 mile trip from Sacramento, California to Saint Joseph, Missouri in 10 days.