Mitchell Pass
Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
Scotts Bluff, Nebraska 

American Indians, Traders, Trappers, Travelers, and Settlers

Wagons crossing Mitchell Pass
Wagons Crossing Mitchell Pass
William Henry Jackson

Scotts Bluff, in the North Platte River Valley of western Nebraska, has long been culturally and historically significant. It was a major landmark not only for pioneer travelers and settlers but also for native peoples of the High Plains thousands of years earlier. In fact, the bluff was such a prominent focal point that more than 50 pre-contact archeological sites lie within its shadow.

Long before European exploration and American settlement, native inhabitants left their distinctive mark upon the region. Several sites elsewhere in western Nebraska show that nomadic big-game hunters roamed across the area at the close of the Ice Age, some 8,500 years ago. As the climate continued to warm, however, many large animal species that once had been primary elements of their adaptation became extinct. Bands of people began to hunt smaller game, in addition to the communal pursuit of bison, and to gather a wide variety of plant foods.

Horticulture emerged among many peoples of the Plains by the start of the Common Era, which permitted a more settled lifestyle. The harsh environment of western Nebraska, however, did not favor crop production, so a continued reliance on the collection of wild plants and the hunting of small game were essential to sustain the native population. Small villages could come together seasonally in river valleys where horticulture was possible, but family groups still needed to range out at different times of year to exploit traditional hunting and gathering places.

Beginning in the early decades of the 19th century, trappers, traders, missionaries, gold-seekers, soldiers, homesteaders, and others came to the valley. Many of the trails to the west coast passed through the Scotts Bluff region, most notably the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, as well as the Pony Express route. These trails were instrumental in the settlement of the American West. Today, Scotts Bluff National Monument memorializes the thousands who traveled along the region’s various overland trails.

Much of the West including the Scotts Bluff area remained essentially unknown to white men until the 19th century. Many Indian tribes made their homes in the region though, including the Arapaho, Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow, Hidatsas, Kiowas, Mandans, Pawnee, Poncas, and Shoshone, among others. By the time others began to push west in earnest, the Sioux tribes, who moved in from the Great Lakes region starting in 1685, dominated the Great Plains by means of conquest. The Tetons, Yanktons, and Yanktonais, or the tribes comprising the western Sioux, were linked by their culture, interests, and intermarriage. The Sioux pushed steadily west in search of beaver and buffalo through the Missouri River until their territory included Minnesota, Yellowstone, and the Republican River by the late 1800s. Tribal wars for rights to hunting grounds often pitted one or more Sioux tribes against other native hunters and farmers.

Although Spain and France claimed portions of what is now the American West prior to the 19th century, they left much of it unexplored. When President Thomas Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory from France’s Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803, white exploration of the West began in earnest. The early reports from government-sponsored expeditions, such as those of Lewis and Clark (1803 to 1806) and Zebulon Pike (1806 to 1807), testified to the bounty of natural resources that lay in the West, which trappers and traders soon began concerted efforts to exploit for profit.  They were interested primarily in obtaining and selling valuable animal hides, especially the in-demand beaver pelts used in fashionable clothing in the eastern United States and Europe.

Wagon at Chimney Rock
Wagon at Chimney Rock
J. Nabb, Nebraska DED

The first fur trappers passed through the Scotts Bluff region as part of the Astorian Expedition in 1811-1813. Named after its sponsor, the multimillionaire fur trader John Jacob Astor, the expedition of Astorian trappers travelled to the Pacific Coast and founded the trading post of Astoria in Oregon Country at the headwaters of the Columbia River. Led by Robert Stuart, the trappers followed the route that would eventually become known as the Oregon Trail. During their return trip, they also discovered the South Pass in what is now western Wyoming, which would eventually become the chief route through the Rocky Mountains. They wintered in the Scotts Bluff region. In the ensuing years, hundreds of other traders followed the Astorian/Oregon route along the Platte River.  Trappers typically headed west in the early summer, passing through the Scotts Bluff area to the Rocky Mountains, and returned east in the autumn with their furs. By the 1830s, fur trapping reached its peak. Demand for furs waned as fashions changed in the middle of the 19th century, and fewer trappers headed to the rich trapping grounds in the upper Missouri and the Rocky Mountains.

In the 1840s, emigrants replaced trappers on the westward trails. In 1841, the first group of emigrants, a wagon train of 80 people known as the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, passed through the Scotts Bluff region on their way to settle in the fertile farmland of the Willamette Valley in Oregon under the guide Thomas Fitzpatrick. Also accompanying the party was well known Catholic missionary, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet. Missionaries had long travelled throughout the western wilderness seeking American Indian converts, and were among some of the first travelers along the Oregon Trail. As homesteaders sent positive reports of the Oregon territory back east, the renown of the region spread, and more settlers embarked on the arduous journey.  The number of emigrants using the trail reached its peak in 1852, when more than 70,000 emigrants headed west. Most settlers traveled through the North Platte River Valley on their 2,000-mile trek west. Since the shallow North Platte River proved difficult to navigate because it flowed east rather than west, most trans-continental travelers used land rather than water routes. Occasionally, mountain men used bullboats, an adaptation of a native design. Made of buffalo hides stretched over willow boughs, these boats, with their light weight and small draft, made navigation of the shallow North Platte River possible.

Most of the pioneers bound for Oregon were families seeking farms. Wagon trains, usually comprised of multiple families, embarked in late April or early May, each guided by a train leader. Emigrants had three primary needs on their journey: food for their company; grazing lands for their animals; and good, safe campsites. With wagons pulled by oxen, the trains could travel 15 to 20 miles a day across the plains, but make significantly fewer miles in the mountains. The trek took up to six months.

Historic Mitchell Pass
Historic View of Mitchell Pass
North Platte Valley Museum

The journey west was not for the faint of heart. Difficulties ranged from the relatively minor, such as boredom or the irritation of the dust kicked up by the feet of hundreds of oxen, to more threatening environmental disasters. Should wagon trains manage to navigate these pitfalls, further threats of starvation, dehydration, exhaustion, and disease remained; cholera alone killed thousands of travelers. Out of a total of roughly 350,000 emigrants, about 20,000 people died during their journey.

Violence resulting from tensions between settlers and travelers and the Plains Indians was also a danger.  At night, the wagon convoys formed into protective circles, as bulwarks against possible Indian attack. White travelers and settlers reduced the number of buffalo, encouraging intertribal war over hunting grounds, which in turn caused more danger to settlers. White travelers also brought new diseases with them, wiping out large numbers of Great Plains Indians. The ever-increasing number and size of homesteads on the plains and irrigation projects for farming further threatened buffalo populations, as well as Indian territory. In addition, settlers often established homesteads or towns on land set aside for Indians by the United States Government.  The tensions often erupted into wars throughout the 19th century, when circumstances provoked both sides to attack in a series of bloody confrontations and massacres throughout the West.

More than 70,000 Mormons crossed Nebraska’s North Platte River Valley seeking religious freedom in the West. In 1846, following the murder of their founder Joseph Smith, the Mormons were driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois. Led by Brigham Young, who became the president of the Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after Joseph Smith’s death, the group found refuge in the Salt Lake City area, in modern-day Utah. Mormon converts continued to move into the Salt Lake Valley over the next few decades. At first, the Mormon Church created an emigration fund to assist those who had difficulty making the dangerous and costly journey due to illness or poverty. As thousands of Mormons utilized the aid, however, funds became scarce, and Young decided to provide less expensive handcarts instead of wagons. As a result, many of those on the Mormon Trail, who could not obtain a wagon, went all the way to Salt Lake on foot, pushing carts laden with their possessions. The Mormon handcart migration continued until the advent of the railroad in the late 1860s.

In 1849, the largest wave of migration to the West began.  In 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold in California at Sutter’s Mill. Tens of thousands of “forty-niners,” named for the first year of the gold rush, joined the exodus to California to seek their fortunes. Unlike settlers to Oregon, who often travelled in family units, most “forty-niners” were young men, either unmarried or unaccompanied by wives. The most commonly used route to the California goldmines followed the Oregon Trail west through the Scotts Bluff area and turned southwest toward California at Fort Hall. The gold rush became the largest overland trail migration in American history. In 1850 alone, nearly 55,000 emigrants passed through the Platte Valley, most headed to California. By 1853, the gold rush slowed as easily accessible gold deposits ran dry, and most emigrants travelling along the trail were once again homesteaders and not gold-seekers.

Wagon train
North Platte River Valley Wagon Train
William Henry Jackson

Geographical landmarks, often huge rock formations, were important to overland travelers and often used as benchmarks of the journey. Scotts Bluff, not to be confused with the county or nearby town, was well known to travelers of the trail. Many of the westward pioneers romanticized the grandeur of Scotts Bluff in their diaries. The landmark was a welcome sight after miles and miles of flat prairieland, and only Chimney Rock was mentioned more often. Other nearby recognizable rock formations included Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock, near modern-day Bridgeport.

Besides being a visual landmark, the Scotts Bluffs were a physical obstacle to emigrants. The imposing bluffs blocked travelers from following directly along the banks of the North Platte River as they had done in earlier parts of the journey. Two historic paths passed through the bluffs. Gold rushers utilized the Robidoux Pass, south of the river. First used in the 1820s and 1830s by fur traders, Robidoux Pass continued to serve travelers well into the 1850s. Once through the pass, travelers headed west toward Fort Laramie. About 1851, with the opening of Mitchell Pass, Robidoux Pass began to fall into disuse. Troops from Fort Laramie were perhaps the first to take wagons through Mitchell Pass, possibly engineering the pass to be wider and less steep, thus making it passable for wagon trains. Before long, most homesteaders were using Mitchell Pass because it was a more direct route and had easier access to water. Established in 1864, Fort Mitchell was an important center of commerce for the emigrants.

Pony Express Rider
Pony Express Rider
William Henry Jackson

Events of the 1860s transformed Scotts Bluff and the West as a whole. Because of population growth and business concerns on the frontier, businessmen sought a way to ensure faster communication between the East and the West. The first attempt at an efficient, transcontinental mail-route was the Pony Express, which began on April 3, 1860. The Pony Express delivered mail on horseback, with carriers riding from station to station. The operation only ran until October of 1861, when the Pacific Telegraph, which went through Mitchell Pass, was completed. Although short-lived and a financial failure, the Pony Express demonstrated the feasibility of fast transcontinental communication. Located near Courthouse Rock, the Mud Springs Pony Express Station served as a stagecoach station and a telegraph station over the years in addition to being a Pony Express station. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1867, when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah, marked the end of widespread use of the Oregon Trail. Train travel was safer, more reliable, and quicker than travel by wagon.