Midwest Region: Scotts Bluff National Monument

A hazy painting of a wagon train stretching into the distance toward bluffs.
Wagon Train

By William Henry Jackson, from Scotts Bluff National Monument museum collection [SCBL 53]

Quick Facts

1841-1869 Westward Expansion Movement
1927-1948 Development as National Monument/Federal Work Programs
Old Oregon Trail and Scotts Bluff National Monument Landscape

In the mid-1800s, great numbers of emigrants began making the 2,000 mile journey over the Oregon Trail, following routes first established by Native Americans and fur traders to travel from Missouri to the distant Oregon Territory.

Mitchell Pass, Then and Now
Mitchell Pass, 1915 and 2014

Above: Image courtesy of North Platte Valley Museum, from Cultural Landscape Inventory report. Below: NPS Photo/R. Reed, 2014

The first organized party of emigrants set off across the west in 1841, and they were soon followed by thousands of pioneers heading west to settle new lands. By 1848, word spread that gold had been found in California, dramatically increasing the number of emigrants traveling west along the route.

Eventually, over a quarter of a million individuals followed the trail to what they hoped would be a better life.

Oregon and California Trails followed the same route until the trail split in two in Idaho, with one heading toward Oregon and the other heading to California. Chimney Rock is the most frequently mentioned landmark in diaries and journals of the emigrants. The area between Scotts Bluff and South Bluff was also known as Mitchell Pass, or "The Gap."

The early trail route followed the south side of the North Platte River until it approached the badlands area of New Scotts Bluff. At that point, travelers had to make a wide swing through Robidoux Pass, because the terrain through Mitchell Pass would not accommodate wagons. Then, beginning in 1850, pioneers excavated the most treacherous segments through the Pass which significantly shortened the travel distance by about eight miles. While that may not seem like a large amount for such a long voyage, it eliminated a full day's travel for wagons on the trail. Emigrants reaching these landmarks and successfully navigating the Pass would have completed one-third of the journey to Oregon.

William Henry Jackson

William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) was an American painter, Civil War veteran, businessman, geological survey photographer, and an explorer. According to some who knew him, the legend of the man is as vast and vibrant as the Western landscapes he painted.

Jackson turned to artistic pursuits in his later years after retiring from a routine of business. For about the final two decades of his long life, his mind returned to the landscapes of his young manhood in the West. His paintings were inspired by his earlier pencil sketches and early photographs, enhanced by his meticulous notes and sharp memory.
Two men stand with camera equipment on a rocky mountaintop.
William Henry Jackson and another man prepare photographic equipment on a mountain near Yellowstone Park, Wyoming (1871-1878)

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Catalog Number 93510825

"Anyone meeting him was instantly riveted by his brilliant, sparkling eyes peering out over his spectacles, which were always halfway down his nose. Then the attention would focus on his personality and stream of memories. ...

"He was such as electric personality and presence that only those privileged to experience him in person can even begin to describe him and appreciate him. They can only remember him and miss him, smile quietly and be grateful that this man touched their lives. Never would I, or anyone else that knew him, forget his rapid, high pitched voice telling an exciting story, his grabbing a pencil and paper to illustrate part of an adventure seventy years before, his burst of laughter recalling an episode from the past, his appreciation of people and his inability to condemn or criticize anyone, and above all his love for his country and its history."

Marian Albright Schenck (daughter of NPS Director Horace Albright), November 6, 1997, from Introduction to An Eye for History: The Paintings of William Henry Jackson

The relatively slow pace of wagon trains crossing the overland trails makes the voyage appear deceptively peaceful. River crossings, unpredictable weather, illness, and shortage of supplies made life on the trail an endurance test with both physical and psychological challenges.

Jackson himself had crossed the plains in 1866, so the potential difficulties were familiar to him. His admiration for the courage of these travelers shows in many of his paintings. Instead of expressing boldly patriotic scenes, he focuses on the quiet strength of people with hope for a better life.
Ink drawing of wagon train crossing the plains towards rock formations.
Chimney Rock Wagons, an ink drawing created by William Henry Jackson in 1866.

William Henry Jackson. Held by and displayed with permission of NPS/Scotts Bluff National Monument (SCBL_143a).

Replica wagons and Eagle Rock at Scotts Bluff
Replica wagons near the base of Eagle Rock, marking the path of the historic Oregon, California, and Pony Express Trails.

NPS/Scotts Bluff National Monument

When Mitchell Pass opened in 1851, it became the main route for westbound emigrants. Named for United States Brigadier General Robert B. Mitchell, the route was used by the military, pony express riders, and the telegraph lines.

The Oregon Trail Pathway gives visitors at Scotts Bluff National Monument a chance to walk where the historic trail once passed. The site where William Henry Jackson camped and sketched while he worked as a bullwhacker on a wagon train in 1866 is located near the end of the trail.
Map of Scotts Bluff National Monument area
Scotts Bluff National Monument area map showing Oregon Trail passing through Mitchell Pass, between Scotts Bluff and South Bluff (c. 1936).

NPS, SCBL Archives

Last updated: June 28, 2018