The Oregon Trail

Four years after the journey of Whitman and Spaulding to the northwest a missionary of different faith but no less devoted to the service of God and man entered the confines of the original Uinta County. He was Father de Smet, a member of the Society of Jesus, who had come as a young man from his home in Belgium to work in the missionary field. After some years spent among the Indians of the southwest, in April, 1840, he left St. Louis to join an expedition of the American Fur Company, with the purpose of taking the gospel to the Flathead Indians. He was thirty-nine years old at this time.

On the 30th of June the fur traders reached Green River, near the mouth of Horse Creek, and a large rendezvous soon assembled. The news of the coming of the “Black Robe,” as the Indians called Father de Smet, had preceded him, and a band of Flatheads, lead by Chief Big face, was sent out to meet him. An Iroquois Indian by the name of Ignace, who came with him as guide from St. Louis, acted as interpreter. A large number of Indians were attracted to the spot. After a week spent by Father de Smet in preaching and giving instruction, there took place one of the most impressive ceremonies recorded of the West. It is described by the reverend father in the following words : “On Sunday, the 5th of July, I had the consolation of celebrating the holy sacrifice of Mass sub Dio. The altar was placed on an elevation, and surrounded by boughs and garlands of flowers. I addressed the congregation in French and in English, and spoke also by an interpreter to the Flatheads and Snake Indians. It was a spectacle truly moving for the heart of a missionary, to behold an assembly of so many different nations, who all assisted at our holy mysteries with great satisfaction. The Canadians sang hymns in French and Latin, and the Indians in their native tongue. It was truly a Catholic worship. * * * This place has been called since that time, by the French-Canadians, La Prairie de la Messe.”1

The scene is one to stir the imagination-the wild and majestic surroundings, the awe of the children of the wilderness at this new manner of communing with the Great Spirit and the solemnity and gratitude of the self-sacrificing priest over the first fruits of his toil, combine to make a picture that stands out in contrast to the rough life of the frontier. With earnest reverence the spectators follow the service and listen to the admonitions of the priest, and then crave his blessing before they part. The spot where this service was performed is two miles above the town of Daniel.2

The following day, in company with the Flathead chiefs, Father de Smet proceeded on his westward way. They ascended Horse Creek, crossed the range to John Day’s River, and followed it down to the Snake and to Pierre’s Hole, where the main body of the Indians was encamped, awaiting his coming. Father de Smet spent a few weeks with them and returned to St. Louis.

In April of the next year, in accordance with a promise made to the Indians, Father de Smet returned, with five other missionaries, traveling to the Snake by way of the Green River crossing and Fort Hall. It was not long before a mission was founded near the present city of Missoula, Montana, and later one among the Coeur d’Alene Indians. For the next six years he was engaged in work among the Indians in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and his labors in promoting peace between the Blackfeet and the Flatheads were so successful as to win f or him the thanks of Franklin Pierce, President of the United States. In 1858 Father de Smet once again passed through Wyoming, this time coming as far south in what is now Uinta County as Fort Bridger, with Johnson’s army.3 His counsels and companionship were highly valued by officers and men.

In 1868 Father de Smet once more left the monastery in St. Louis, where his last days were spent, to confer in behalf of the government and the Sioux Nation. On this trip he visited Cheyenne and met old acquaintances, one of whom was Jim Bridger. He died five years later and was mourned by white men and red.

Several bands of missionaries and a few settlers made the trip to Oregon in the six years following the journey of Whitman and Spaulding, but the number did not reach two hundred. Some came in wagons and brought their families, but the majority traveled with pack horses. In 1842 Whitman, in company with Amos Lovejoy, made his heroic trip from Oregon to the national capital in the dead of winter to plead for the settlement of the northwest, upon which, according to the treaty of 1818, the claim of the United States depended. At Fort Hall the deep snow

compelled them to leave the usual route and go far to the south. Whitman arrived in Washington March 3, 1843, succeeded in impressing on President Tyler and Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State, the importance of his mission, and the next spring started west with an emigrant train of a thousand men, women and children. They had two hundred wagons and a thousand head of cattle, and they carried implements and seed grain. The next year about fifteen hundred traveled the Oregon Trail, and in 1845 three thousand. The Whitman Massacre, on November 29, 1847, lent a new impetus to the settlement of the northwest, and led to the greatest movement of home-seekers that the world has ever seen. Within the next six years over three hundred thousand people were in the northwest.4

In 1842 the government, impressed with the importance of the west as something more than a field for fur traders and adventurers, sent out Captain John C. Fremont at the head of a well-equipped party to make a survey of the mountain roads. His first expedition crossed South Pass and turned back after exploring the country east of the Wind River Range. Fremont’s report on- returning to Washington resulted in his being sent out again the following year. Fitzpatrick, whom the Indians called “Man with the Broken Hand,” was chosen guide, and with nineteen men went in advance to Fort Hall, where he was joined by Fremont and the rest of the party the first of September. Their route from Green River was practically the same as the present Oregon Short Line Railroad, up the valley of Ham’s Fork and over the divide to Twin Creek, which they followed down to Bear River. The early fur traders bad often gone this way. These were the first United States soldiers to cross the Rockies, and they brought with them a twelve-pound brass howitzer that inspired terror in the hearts of the Arapahoes, who followed them up after having raided Fort Bridger.5

Fremont has been called “The Trail Maker”, but, as one of our Wyoming historians points out, “Map Maker” would more accurately describe him. He followed old trails, but his were the first authorized maps of the West.6 They were published in great numbers by the government, and a heavy demand for them was created by the growing interest in western colonization.

About eight miles north of Evanston rises a mountain which bears the name of Medicine Butte, bestowed upon it by the Indians before the coming of white men. It is an outstanding landmark for many miles, and on a clear day it is possible to see from its summit the Teton peaks, more than a hundred and fifty miles to the north. On its rounded summit there is a pile of stones that is commonly called “Fremont’s Monument”. As has been seen, Fremont’s survey did not approach nearer than thirty miles to this spot, but old settlers in the neighborhood believe that some of the party climbed the slopes for the purpose of observation, and piled up the first stones, to which each visitor is constrained by custom to add a contribution of at least one.

Between the years of 1849 and 1858 expeditions led by Stansbury and by Simpson were sent out to explore the country through which the Oregon Trail passed. Their reports gave the first exact knowledge of the geology of the country, and are still authority. Both were officers in the United States Army, as was also Beckwith, who was sent out to report the feasibility of a railroad route across the mountains. The vision of the iron link between the Atlantic and Pacific was already dawning on the minds of men, though its consummation was more than a decade away.

Meanwhile the stream of immigration flowed on. The trains stopped at Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger to buy provisions at exorbitant prices, and as the years rolled on other trading places were built, but none within the region we are studying. The swelling tide deepened and widened the trail, the dead were buried by the roadside, but no other lasting impress was left upon the mountain region save for the hatred sowed in the breasts of their savage foes, that was to bear fruit in later years.

From South Pass the main road led to Green River, near the mouth of the Sandy, and dipped south to Fort Bridger. From here it turned northwest to Fort Hall. There were many cutoffs, as the shorter routes were called, but the great majority of emigrants wisely kept to the main road. Those who did not often paid for their daring with their lives.

Experience taught the necessity of organization, and the caravans, for the most part, moved under the strictest discipline. By night the camps were well guarded, and scouts rode ahead by day to watch for savage foes. Bridger and Fitzpatrick escorted many trains through Wyoming.

The ill-fated Donnar party was the first to attempt the cutoff from Fort Bridger to California through Utah. It consisted of thirty-two people who had left their homes in Sagamon, Illinois, on the 15th of April, 1846, and other emigrants who had joined them on their way, making eighty-one in all. At Fort Bridger they formed a well-organized train under the leadership of George Donnar, and, with a good stock of provisions, started out on what was called the Hastings Cutoff. They were seven days in reaching Weber Canyon by way of Echo Canyon.7 The tragic story of the hardships that befell the Donnar party does not properly belong to this history, save as another added illustration of the folly of leaving the beaten trails. It was not until March, 1847, that they were rescued from their winter camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains, after thirty-six of their number had perished from hunger and cold.

On the 17th of July, 1846, was ratified the treaty between the United States and Great Britain, ceding the Northwest Territory to the United States. It included that part of Wyoming lying west of the crest of the Rockies and north of the 42nd parallel. In 1848 this cession was organized as the Northwest Territory, and President Polk appointed General Joseph Lane first governor.

In 1848 the gold rush to California began. Twenty thousand people traveled the Oregon Trail in the early spring, and the number was greatly increased by midsummer. All sorts and conditions of humanity were represented, and great was the variety of vehicles, ranging from the favorite prairie schooner, drawn by from four to eight oxen, to the frailest of carts. When horses, mules and oxen died by the wayside, cows were often used as draft animals. From the discarded articles found in later years along the way, it is clear that many of the travelers had but little conception of the hardships of the journey. Mahogany furniture, heavy trunks and other cumbersome objects have been picked up within the bounds of Uinta County, and many are the unmarked graves. In the summer of 1852, the year of the cholera, over five thousand people died on the Oregon Trail.8 The way in which this crisis was met showed the metal of the emigrants ; some were terrorized, and advocated leaving the victims by the wayside, but the great majority proved their fitness as builders of the new West by faithfully standing by the stricken ones. The train in which John T. Slate with his wife and five children crossed was an example of the contending elements of self-preservation and fidelity to trust, in which the latter won out. Mrs. Slate, maternal grandmother of Rev. J. F. Vernon, formerly of Evanston and now missionary of Alaska, was among the stricken ones. She was cared f or as well as circumstances permitted, and recovered. Mr. Vernon’s grandfather on his father’s side traveled the same road one year later, and both families settled in the state of Washington.

One of the most interesting historic documents of the West is Independence Rock, on the Sweetwater, on which are inscribed the names of hundreds of emigrants and which Father de Smet aptly called the “Great Register of the Desert.” Only second in importance, is Names’ Rock, a light-colored boulder about twenty feet high and one hundred feet wide, that stands seven miles north of the mouth of Fontenelle Creek and about six miles west of Green River. The meadows below were the camping place of many travelers, who climbed the hill to cut in the soft rock names and dates, many of which are still legible. The name of the scout Jim Bridger is here inscribed, either by a companion, as he could not write, or by some subsequent traveler.

In the early spring of 1857 Capt. Frederick West Lander, an engineer in the Department of the Interior, was sent out to explore the country west of South Pass for the purpose of determining the shortest practicable route to the Pacific- He made a pa king survey as far as Point of Rocks on the western boundary of Idaho, and laid out a road that shortened the distance materially. From South Pass it led northwest over the Wind River range to New Fork of Green River, which it followed to a point a little north of the present site of Big Piney. From here it ran over Thompson’s Pass to Salt River and on to Grey’s Lake.9

The estimated cost of this road was seventy thousand dollars. A band of workmen, under a contractor by the name of William F. McGraw, had been sent out with a military escort the previous fall, but reached South Pass too late to begin work. During the winter the party scattered, some returning to the east and others going on to the Pacific Coast. In the summer of 1858 work was begun. Although one of the avowed objects of this road was to avoid the Mormon settlements, it is interesting to note that the forty men who were engaged for the work were from Salt Lake. Twenty miles of heavy pine forest was cleared, ten miles of willows, and upward of four hundred thousand cubic yards of earth was excavated.10

The emigrant guide issued that year by the government calls attention to the following reasons why travelers should take this new cutoff, namely, shortened distance, good feed, wood, water; no tolls, and fewer steep grades. Many trains did take this route, but after the arrival of Johnson’s army and the settlement of the Mormon question, the main tide turned again to the old traveled highway, and the road through Salt Lake grew in favor with California-bound travelers. The Lander Cutoff can still be traced, and many sections of it are in use today.

In 1913 the Legislature of Wyoming appropriated the sum of $2,500 to place appropriate markers along the old Oregon Trail. A committee of three was appointed by the governor to carry out this work, the members being Capt. H. C. Nickerson of Lander, president, A. H. Parshall of Cheyenne and Mrs. B. B. Brooks of Casper. They worked in conjunction with the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. The first secretary was Mrs. H. B. Patten, and she was succeeded by Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard. Subsequent legislatures have appropriated the sum of five hundred dollars at each session. The veteran Ezra Meeker, who traveled the road in 1850 in an ox cart, has twice retraced his steps in more modern conveyances, and has been of untold help in marking its course. In October, 1924, at the age of ninety-three, he made the trip from Vancouver to Dayton, Ohio, by airplane with Lieutenant Kelley of the United States service. The following markers have been set up within the boundaries of the old Uinta County : About three miles northeast of Fontenelle a slate slab inscribed “Oregon Trail 1843-1914.” In Township 24, Range 113, there has been chiseled on a sandstone bluff “Oregon Trail 1843.” On Slate Creek, Township 23, Range 113, a slate slab is marked “Oregon Trail 1843-1914.” At Emigrant Springs, near the postoffice called Supply, is a slate slab marked “Oregon Trail, 1843-1915.” In the sagebrush near this stone are the graves of several emigrants with unmarked slabs above them. Near the crossing of Rock Creek, about eight miles from Cokeville, a solid granite stone has the inscription “Oregon Trail, 1843-1915.” The little city of Cokeville has two stones on the old trail. On the eastern border of the town is a pillar about nine feet high, appropriately inscribed. The other is near Border, just south of Bear River on the Wyoming Idaho line. A fine monument of cobblestones set in cement has been erected at Fort Bridger, and bears the following inscription on a bronze tablet donated by the State : “Fort Bridger, established as a trading post, 1843. U. S. Military Post on the Oregon Trail, June 10, 1858, to October 6, 1890. This monument is erected by the State of Wyoming and a few interested residents. 1914.”


  1. To the Rev. F. J. Barbelin, dated St. Louis University, February 4, 1841, published as letter 1, of “Letters and Sketches.”
  2. On November 7, 1922, Father Short, Father Moreton, Father Schillenger and Father Welch met with citizens of Daniel for the purpose of marking the location of the Prairie of the Mass. Reverend N. S. Thomas, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming, was the author of the movement. Bishop Thomas possesses the finest and most complete historical library in the state concerning early Wyoming, and has been interested in spreading information.
  3. Levi Edgar Young, “Father de Smet.”
  4. Meecham, “Old Oregon Trail.”
  5. Fremont, “Memoirs of My Life.”
  6. Hebard, “Path Breakers from River to Ocean.”
  7. Levi Edgar Young, “The Story of the Donner Party.”
  8. Meecham, “Old Oregon Trail.”
  9. J. Cecil Alter, “Old Oregon Trail.”
  10. Ibid.

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