First of a new series by my uncle John Alldridge. This article first appeared in the Derby Evening Telegraph in November 1967 – Jerry F
Just 139 years ago, on a powdery ledge of sandstone rock a couple of thousand feet below where I am writing this, a man lay dying.
His name was Hiram Scott, a fur trader. Wounded by Indians he had been abandoned by his companions and left to die.
The following spring they found his bleached skeleton lying there below me.
This great mass of rock, rising sheer above the limitless Nebraska plain, buttressed and bastioned like some ruined medieval fortress city, is his memorial. And it is a memorial to all those numberless thousands who came this way between 1841 and 1869.
Emigrants seeking a life in Oregon, or a religious haven in Utah, or gold in California, all passed this forbidding promontory.
They came on foot and on horseback; in covered wagons and pushing handcarts. Men, women, and children, and babies in arms. They were native-born Americans and English and Welsh and Irish and Scots. They were Germans and Swedes and Russians and Chinese. They were Christian and Jew and atheist.
The younger son of an English peer shared the load with a Polish refugee.
They were poor in worldly goods; but immensely rich in courage and determination. When they reached here they had already covered nearly 700 miles.
The Trail had thinned them out, killed off the old and the sick and the feeble. Already they had endured more than ordinary men and women had ever endured before.
And there was worse to come.
Ahead of them still lay the cruel alkali desert, that burned the skin and sent men mad with thirst and drove them away to die alone. Ahead of them still lay the freezing cold of the Rockies.
But after nearly two months of the endless prairie, of dragging their wagons across the sand-bars of the interminable winding rivers, the sight of that towering Bluff, glistening white against the molten sky, sent their spirits soaring.
They outspanned their wagons in its shadow, and unyoked their oxen; and the hardiest of them climbed to the top of the Bluff. They shaded their eyes against the blazing sun and strained them towards the western horizon.
And there, like a broken wall, lay the blue-black line of the Laramie mountains.
Some of them knelt and prayed, and some sang “Hallelujah,” and some took a last swig at the precious bottle they had carried all the way from the Missouri river for just this very moment.
For this was their first view of the Rockies. Like Moses, they had seen the Promised Land from afar. . . .
Scotts Bluff is now a national monument, conscientiously patrolled and disciplined by the United States National Park Service.
Good looking, enthusiastic young men in smart uniforms and Boy Scout hats show you exactly where to go and where not to go and what to look for and what to avoid.
There is a motor road almost to the top, now. But if, when you reach the top — all 4,649 feet of it above sea level — and turn your back on the neat green fields that might be Lincolnshire and on the motels with their heated swimming pools and neon signs that twinkle night and day; and look to the south and then to the west, you will see a panorama that has hardly changed in a hundred years.
To the south is a strange surrealist country that might have been invented by Salvador Dali, a nightmare world of fantastic solitary peaks or buttes, fancifully named the Court House, and the Jail and the Chimney.
They shimmer in the sun, those monstrous rocks, like one vast mirage.
To the west the prairie takes over again, stretching a clear 120 miles to the protection of Fort Laramie.
A prairie now plentifully sprinkled with snug farms, each in its shelter of shade-trees.
But still twisting and winding between them is the old, sluggish, treacherous North Platte River which the emigrants cursed even in their sleep.
A bronze arrow, set in this sandstone rampart beneath me, points the way ahead. Squint along it and you will see how two old trails follow its meandering course.
On its north bank is the Mormon Trail that carried the Saints, pushing their pathetic little handcarts to the new Zion of Salt Lake City.
Along the south bank runs the older, longer trail to Oregon.
For the last three days I have been following that historic Oregon Trail. I picked it up, not at Independence. Missouri, its traditional starting point, but at Kansas City, that great bustling overgrown schoolboy of a city, bursting at the seams with prosperity and high spirits which has grown out of a little landing stage on a bend of the Missouri which the emigrants knew as Westport.
I came to it, not as many of them did — battened down under hatches in leaky rat-ridden coffin-ships — but in the air-conditioned comfort of a Pan American Clipper and a Greyhound bus.
Every spring, from 1842 to the late 1880s, long lines of prairie schooners, horses, cattle and oxen lumbered out of the Missouri towns on the first lap of a trek that would last for five months and carry the strongest of them and the luckiest of them 2,000 miles west.
They followed a route blazed in 1811 by Wilson Price Hunt for traders. What became known as the Oregon Trail began in the grassy swells of the Kansas prairie.
Each party selected a leader, but the expedition’s safety usually depended on the hired guides, many of them former mountain men who had turned to this new profession when their beaver empire began to decline.
My safety largely depends on young Harold Booton, who last year drove me over the Santa Fe Trail.
Being Kansas born and bred, Harold knows his vast rambling state like the back of his hand.
For covered wagon we have a Volkswagen 1600 Fast Back, a tiny car by American standards, but with plenty of leg room, and space under the bonnet and in the boot for our camping gear, which includes a surplus U.S. Army tent, a two-ring cooker, sleeping bags, a Colman lantern and a portable ice-box.
No Forty-niner going West was ever better equipped than we. For the first 100 miles from Independence, the Oregon Trail followed the line of the Santa Fe Trail, on its 600 miles south by south-west to New Mexico, a route now marked by U.S. Highway 56.
Just west of the little Kansas town of Gardner — a short distance from where in 1841 Kit Carson held off and finally defeated 200 Comanches in a three-day battle — the two trails divide.
A roadside plaque marks the spot. A hundred years ago a broken piece of a prairie schooner pointed to the right. Painted on it was the laconic direction “Road to Oregon.”
It would be the only sign along 2,000 miles strewn with broken wagons, pitiful household goods, dumped to lighten the load, the bones of horses, oxen and cattle, and forlorn braves…
NEXT: Death on the Oregon Trail.
© Reach plc, courtesy of The British Library Board
Jerry F 2022