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The Oregon Trail - Eastern Third

Independence to Fort Laramie


Independence, Missouri

Mile 0

Most wagon trains formed up and finalized their supplies at Independence, as they waited for the grass to come up on the prairie. The first large overland expedition set out from here in 1843 with over a thousand people. In the 1840's and 50's this town square was a scene of great activity year around, and especially in spring.

Independence was also the starting point for the Santa Fe Trail, so in addition to the families bound for Oregon or California in their prairie schooners, there were heavy freight wagons driven by hard-bitten teamsters that carried cargo into what was then Mexico.

Official site: Visit Independence

Wikipedia article: Independence, Missouri

 thumbnail - Oregon Trail Monument in Courthouse Square

The Oregon Trail Monument in Courthouse Square, the original start of the Oregon Trail

Independence, Missouri

July 11, 2008
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Independence

The Missouri River

The first challenge for the newly formed companies was to ferry the wagons, animals, and all their people across the wide Missouri River. St Joseph was the second most important staging point after Independence, and later became the starting point for the Pony Express. The river was not bridged until 1869, by which time covered wagons had been replaced by steam trains. Building the bridge at the new settlement of Kansas City assured that it would become the dominant city of the region.

Official site: Welcome to St. Joseph

Wikipedia article: St. Joseph, Missouri

 thumbnail - Oregon Trail Monument in St Joe

The Oregon Trail monument on the banks of the Missouri River in Saint Joseph

Saint Joseph, Missouri

July 11, 2008
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Saint Joseph

Winter Quarters

Not everyone started from Independence or St Joe. The first large Mormon expedition spent the winter of 1846-47 west of the river in what is now Florence, near Omaha, Nebraska. Hundreds of cabins and sod huts were built to withstand the cold weather. Food was scarce and disease rampant due to poor sanitation - of the 2500 people probably about 360 died during the winter.

Official site: Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters

Wikipedia article: Winter Quarters (North Omaha, Nebraska)

 thumbnail - Winter Quarters Plaque in Florence

The city park and monument commemorating the "Winter Quarters" Mormon encampment in the winter of 1846-47 in Florence

, Nebraska

July 12, 2008
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Florence

The Big Blue River

The main wagon train route required fording or rafting the Big Blue River in the northeast corner of Kansas. The Donner Party, already behind schedule, lost precious time here, waiting for high water to subside, and one of their party died and was buried nearby.

Wikipedia article: Big Blue River (Kansas)

 thumbnail - Big Blue River

The Big Blue River was one of the first obstacles for wagon trains, most notably the Donner Party

, Kansas

July 10, 2008
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Alcove Spring

Alcove Spring

This spring under an overhanging rock layer was commented on by many of the emigrants. It was also the first place where they carved their names into the soft rock. A broad channel worn in the hillside here by thousands of wagon wheels is still discernable on the slope opposite the spring.

Official site: Alcove Spring (National Park Service)

Wikipedia article: Alcove Springs

 thumbnail - Alcove Spring and Falls

Alcove Spring bubbles up under the seasonal waterfall, and was an important source of clean water for the covered wagon emigrants

, Kansas

July 10, 2008
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Alcove Spring

Rock Creek Station

A toll bridge was built over a small stream here, well worth it for those driving the clumsy wagons. A 1600 foot stretch of trail ruts is preserved here. Rock Creek Station grew into an important supply point and eventually served as a Pony Express station. It is also known for its association with Wild Bill Hickock.

Official site: Rock Creek Station (National Park Service)

Wikipedia article: Rock Creek Station

 thumbnail - Rock Creek Ruts

Oregon Trail ruts on the hillside above Rock Creek

Rock Creek Station State Historical Park, Nebraska

July 9, 2008
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Rock Creek Station

Fort Kearny

Mile 319

Fort Kearny was the first of a series of frontier forts. They served to protect emigrants from hostile Indians, and as general stores to resupply the wagon trains. Fort Kearney was established in 1848 as traffic on the Oregon Trail increased dramatically with the California Gold Rush. It was placed strategically where all the various trails from the Missouri (Council Bluffs, St Joseph, Independence and others) converged. From here west to Fort Laramie, more than 300 miles, the Mormon Trail ran north of the river, and everyone else stayed on the south side.

Indian troubles peaked in 1864, and the fort was important to protect workers building the railroad. Ironically, the tracks were laid north of the river where the town of Kearney was built, and the old fort faded away.

Official site: Fort Kearny (National Park Service)

Wikipedia article: Fort Kearny

 thumbnail - Stockade at Fort Kearney

Recreation of the stockade at Fort Kearny on the Oregon Trail

, Nebraska

July 8, 2008
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Fort Kearney

The Great Platte River Road

Successive generations of transportation have used the Great Platte River Road - wagon trains, stagecoaches, Pony Express, the transcontinental railroad, the Lincoln Highway, and now Interstate 80. An interpretive center, the Archway Monument, has been built near old Fort Kearny in the form of a bridge over the interstate highway.

Official site: The Great Platte River Road Archway

Wikipedia article: Great Platte River Road

 thumbnail - Archway Monument Over I-80

The Archway Monument visitor center and museum spans Interstate 80 near Kearney

, Nebraska

July 8, 2008
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Fort Kearney

The Hundedth Meridian

One hundred degrees west longitude is an imaginary line that stretches north and south across the prairies from the Dakotas through Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. It is traditionally considered to separate the east from the west in the United States. It does actually coincide rather well with a shift from green well-watered eastern landscapes of woodlands and tall-grass prairies, to typically western scenes of dry short grass prairie and sagebrush with few trees.

Wikipedia article: 100th meridian west

 thumbnail - Hundredth Meridian marker and Union Pacific caboose at Cozad

Hundredth Meridian marker and Union Pacific caboose at Cozad

, Nebraska

July 8, 2008
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Gothenburg and Cozad

North Platte

The emigrant trails followed the Platte River almost all the way across what is now Nebraska. The lush riparian area flanking the wide shallow riverbed provided water, grazing, and fuel, and the grasslands on either side were easy going for the wagons. A lack of understanding about water-borne disease, however, resulted in recurrent outbreaks of cholera and many deaths.

The town of North Platte was built where the North and South Forks came together, and eventually became the most important railroad town along this route. It is noted for Buffalo Bill Cody's ranch, and the huge Union Pacific Railroad yards.

Official site: Visit North Platte

Wikipedia article: North Platte, Nebraska

 thumbnail - From the observation deck atop the Golden Spike tower in North Platte

From the observation deck atop the Golden Spike tower in North Platte

, Nebraska

July 8, 2008
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North Platte

California Hill

This gentle hillside on the Nebraska-Colorado border is the best example of wagon ruts anywhere along the trail. The ruts are not, as many expect, parallel grooves like a jeep trail, but rather a wide swathe eroded to several feet below the original ground surface. At this point the trail had to climb 240 feet to cross the divide between the South and North Forks of the Platte River.

Official site: California Hill (National Park Service)

 thumbnail - Wheel tracks on the precise alignment of the Oregon Trail at California Hill

Wheel tracks on the precise alignment of the Oregon Trail at California Hill

, Nebraska

July 7, 2008
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California Hill on the Oregon Trail

Ash Hollow

Mile 504

This was a favored camping spot, sheltered, with a good spring, and lots of trees. A steep descent, known as Windlass Hill, dropped from the rolling uplands of California Hill down to the North Fork, and required lowering the wagons with ropes or dragging logs as a crude sort of brake.

Official site: Ash Hollow Complex (National Park Service)

Wikipedia article: Ash Hollow State Historical Park

 thumbnail - Ridgetop at Ash Hollow State Historic Park

Ridgetop at Ash Hollow State Historic Park

, Nebraska

July 7, 2008
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Ash Hollow

Chimney Rock

This striking geological oddity was a major landmark along the trail, a contrast to the flat prairies traversed up to this point. Comparison of photographs going back to the 1860's show that it has been gradually weathering away.

Official site: Chimney Rock (National Park Service)

Wikipedia article: Chimney Rock National Historic Site

 thumbnail - Chimney Rock from near the old cemetery

Chimney Rock from near the old cemetery

, Nebraska

July 7, 2008
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Chimney Rock

Scotts Bluff

Mile 596

Scotts Bluff was considered to mark completion of the first third of the length of the trail. Even today westbound travellers may feel that Scotts Bluff gives a hint of dramatic western landscapes to be found ahead. It rises sheer 800 feet above the river valley and prairie. The Oregon Trail here detours away from the Platte River by going over the shoulder of the Bluff and through Robidoux Pass.

In the 1930's the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) built a road (with three tunnels) to the top of the bluff, as well as lookouts, trails, restrooms, and a visitor center.

Official site: Scotts Bluff National Monument (National Park Service)

Wikipedia article: Scotts Bluff National Monument

 thumbnail - Prairie schooners on the Oregon Trail at Scotts Bluff

Prairie schooners at Mitchell Pass on the Oregon Trail, Scotts Bluff National Monument

, Nebraska

July 7, 2008
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Scotts Bluff

Fort Laramie

Mile 650

Fort Laramie was the most important outpost of civilization along the emigrant trail, a significant military base, and a busy trading post. Many wagon trains paused here to rest before beginning the long slow climb to South Pass. It has been extensively restored by the national park service, and includes the oldest building in Wyoming, the bachelor officers' quarters, known as Old Bedlam.

Official site: Fort Laramie National Historic Site National Park Service)

Wikipedia article: Fort Laramie National Historic Site

 thumbnail -

, Wyoming

July 5, 2008
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Fort Laramie

Previous Thematic Listing:
Hot Springs - Southwest
Next Thematic Listing:
Oregon Trail - Middle