Randall Chapman | June 22, 2018 | Travel
Along highway 220 in Wyoming on the route between Rawlins and Casper is a rest stop where weary travelers can get out and stretch their legs, use the restroom, get access to free Wi-Fi, and even dump their waste tanks and fill up on fresh water. Over 150 years ago this was a major land mark and rest stop for a different group of weary travels, this was a stop for the wagon trains along the Oregon Trail. From 1841 to 1869 approximately 500,000 immigrants travelled west through this area with dreams of a better life. Some in search of gold, some to homestead their own land and for some it was to get to their promise land. The completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 provided a much faster and safer way to travel across the US and the wagon train and Oregon Trail faded away to the annals of history.
For the US, the expansion west started after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1804 Lewis and Clark set out to find a passage to the West Coast, they succeeded but the path they forged was rough. Starting around the 1810s trappers and explorers traveled up the Platte River off the Missouri River and started laying out the path that would later be called the Oregon Trail. In 1839 journalist John L. O’Sullivan wrote an article predicting the spread of US values calling it at the time a “Divine Destiny”. By 1941 trappers familiar with the area started guiding into the Oregon Territory as emigrants started arriving from Europe buying wagons and supplies and making their way across the country. In 1845 O’Sullivan wrote another essay titled “Annexation in the Democratic Review” once again talking about the spreading of American values; he is credited for coining the term “Manifest Destiny”.
The Mexican American War from 1846-1848 ended with the US annexing California, the New Mexico Territory, and Texas. As gold was discovered in California in 1948 a rush of people started flocking with the majority of them coming in 1949, hence the term “49er”. A new “California Trail” splintered off the main Oregon Trail in Wyoming and heading across Northern Utah and Nevada on the way to CA.
Brigham Young, along with some of his followers, arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, a date now recognized as Pioneer Day in Utah. Having been chased out of every home they tried to establish, including having an open bounty put on them in Missouri, the Mormons found a sanctuary in the Salt Lake Valley. Tens of thousands of Mormons came across the country also using the Oregon trail but splintering off in Wyoming to head down to the Salt Lake Valley, this was called the Mormon Pioneer Trail.
The cost of a horse or ox drawn wagon was more than most of the Mormon pioneers could afford so they crafted a hand drawn cart that was a tenth of the cost but was also harder on the people pulling it. Imagine walking 2,000 miles pulling all of your family’s belongings, and in some cases the kids or the sick as well.
For about 18 months in 1860 and 1861 the Pony Express operated on the Oregon and California Trails carrying mail from the east coast to the west coast in as little as 10 days. This was accomplished by having a chain of stations along the path that had fresh horses and riders to pass the mail off so that a horse and rider could go faster, usually at a gallop, without suffering too much or even dying from fatigue. The completion of the first transcontinental telegraph in October of 1861 put an end to the Pony Express but not before it made a lasting impression on the tails of the wild west.
The Oregon Trail offered one of the safest ways to the west coast crossing the Great Plains following a system of rivers that provided grazing for the livestock and water to drink. It also offered a passage over the Rockies with its system of passes. Other trails like the Santa Fe trail also traveled west but was too harsh traveling through the heart of the desert. The Lewis and Clark trail was still used but not in great numbers. The Oregon trail was the main thoroughfare and the people came by the tens of thousands every year.
Some speculate that Independence Rock was named by legendary mountain man Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick when he stopped here on the July 4th and celebrated Independence Day while traveling. This was the first major land mark on the trail after leaving the Platte River near Casper and it is about the half way point of the trail. It was believed that if the wagon train arrived here before or even around the 4th of July they would be able to complete their journey before the winter storms hit. Many of the pioneers that traveled through wrote their name on the rock with wheel grease, paint, tar or even etching their name into the rock. Most of the names have been washed away with time or have faded but many of the etched names remain.
I found this rock in my usual way, scanning google maps for cool stuff to check out along my route, but if you ever played the old video game Oregon Trail in the 80s you may recognize this rock as it was in the game along with other real land marks that still exist today. As I drove up to it, it was dusk so I stayed the night in the parking lot and waited till morning to hike around. All around the rest stop are informational signs teaching people about the rock and the Oregon Trail. There is a trail of sorts that goes around the rock and leads you past many of the etched names and what appears to be a grave with a rot iron fence and gate but no tombstones that I could see. I traversed the path counterclockwise exploring all the little side paths that led to more names. On the North side of the rock in a fenced in area there are a lot of etched names as well as a bunch of plaques commemorating the rock. The Boy Scouts also built a memorial on the east side. After hiking around the rock, I walked up the northwest face, a low angle slab that ropes were not needed for, to the top where there were a great number more names etched. From the top you can look out over the land and if you ignore the hwy nearby you can start to imagine what the pioneers saw as well. If you go here you have to go on top.
I spent about an hour and 45min hiking around the rock, taking pictures. I hiked about three miles total but I explored every side trail that I saw and toped out on the rock a couple of times on the lower summits. I tried to take pictures of every name I saw but there were so many, some old and some new.
These are just a few of the pictures of names that I took, for more pictures check out our album on Facebook!
About 2-3 miles west of Independence Rock is Devil’s gate, a short steep canyon cut by the Sweetwater River. The Oregon Trail didn’t go through the gate but instead traveled over a ridge just south and dropped into the valley below where there was good grass for grazing and protection from the wind, many of the wagon trains camped here. As you drive down the highway and travel over a ridge there is a turnout with a pit toilet and interpretive signs. Travel on the trail was hard and dangerous, 1 in 10 died on the trail due to diseases and accidents and the occasional bout of violence. There are at least 20 known graves on this ridge of travelers and Native Americans buried up high so that the graves would be off the trail. This Turn out overlooks the Sun Ranch, one of the first big open ranches in Wyoming, now a visitor’s center.
The Sun Ranch:
After leaving the overlook at Devil’s Gate heading west you come across the entrance to the Sun Ranch. This ranch was homesteaded by Tom Sun and operated from 1871 till Tom’s great grand children sold the ranch in 1997. The Mormon Church bought part of the property and created a visitor’s center out of the old homestead. When you stop here they have volunteers from the church that will give you a guided tour giving you the history of the area. This area is important to the church as it is the site where one of their groups of travelers was caught in a winter storm after leaving late in the season and waves of rescuers came from Salt Lake to find them as well as a couple other groups.
In 1856 the Martin and Willies hand cart companies set out from England on their trek to get to The Great Salt Lake Valley individually. Both companies got a much later start and were therefore way behind by the time they got to the beginning of the Mormon Pioneer Trail in Iowa. Many tried to talk them out of continuing so late in the season but they voted to push through. Storms started to hit them as early as October and they continued to push on till the storms got so bad rescuers had to be sent from Salt Lake with wagons and supplies. The Martin Company held up in what was later named Martin’s Cove till rescuers arrived. Many of the people in both companies didn’t make it. This wagon that is at the Sun Ranch is inscribed with the names of the rescuers and members of the two companies. You can read more about the story here.
The ranch came about after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad however there were still a few travelers on the old Oregon Trail in the early years of the ranch. Tom Sun was a Civil War Vet that came west for a new life and found it. He raised cattle and hired out as a hunting guide.
Now a days the ranch is a visitors center and it is a little bit touristy but I think the Mormon church does a pretty good job of preserving historical items and teaching the history. The ranch stayed in the Sun family for over 100 years so a lot of the relics here are original however there is a museum with items collected from all over Wyoming, they are from the right era though. As you come in to the welcoming area they have an old cabin that is used to display brochures and you are met pretty quickly by a volunteer from the church that will give you a guided tour if you like or you can wonder on your own. They have a few replicas of the hand carts that the Mormon pioneers used to travel and you can take one for a walk if you like. I took the tour and was guided around and told the history of the ranch and the Mormon Pioneer Trail. The main focus was on the group that got caught in the storm and the rescue that ensued.
As I keep stopping at locations that have to do with the Mormon Church and their history I feel I should say that I am not Mormon, nor do I believe in any god or religion at all, you just can’t explore the wild west anywhere near Utah without coming across Mormon history as well. I respect the Mormon church for their dedication to teaching the history of these areas. The facilities are always well run with volunteers from the church ready to give a tour and teach about the history of the place as well as answer questions. For those that are afraid of being preached to while visiting these places I will just say that my experience has always been positive. I am usually asked about my beliefs in conversation at some point but when I say I don’t believe it has always been respected and the tour and teaching of the history continues.
Split Rock was the next land mark and camp site on the tail, about 12ish miles to the west. It took me 15 min to drive to it from the Sun Ranch, oh how things have changed. Split Rock was another distinct land mark that could be seen from a day’s travel walking towards it and another two days after. From here it was about another 6 days to South Pass. There was a log cabin built at the base of Split Rock that acted as a way station for the Overland Stage and the Pony Express, it was even used as a US Post Office until the early 1940s.
This was my last stop along the Oregon Trail for now but it has sparked my imagination since I left here. I remember studying about the Oregon Trail and Pony Express in School and it was really cool to explore this area even if it was only for a few hours. I will do my best to seek out more crossings as I head into Idaho after I leave Montana in a few weeks. I do remember playing the Oregon Trail game in school but that was over 25 years ago so the details escape me, I found a website that has the original game available online, I’ll have to play it again when I get to a place with better reception.