The Platte River has served as a major transportation corridor across the Great Plains for hundreds of years. From the Native Americans and the fur trappers to the Transcontinental Railroad and the modern Interstate system people have always traveled along the Platte River. The first wagon ruts along the Platte River were left by supply wagons traveling to the annual mountain man and trappers rendezvouses in the west in the 1820s. Not long after the rendezvous’ supply wagons created the trail along the river, the emigrants on their way west followed. The majority of the emigrants on the Oregon and California Trails followed the southern bank of the Platte River while those on the Mormon Trail followed the northern bank. In 1847, the first wave of Mormon settlers left the eastern states headed for the Salt Lake Valley. After the controversy surrounding their religion and fearing the opposition of the anti-Mormon emigrants, they opted to stay on the opposite bank despite the south bank being an easier trail with more plentiful grass. This was the first time travel along the Platte was split into two distinct and separate sides. Emigrants headed west followed the Platte River for nearly eight hundred miles. Life on the trail, the hardships they faced, the important landmarks and interactions with the Native Americans were all very important parts of the emigrants' journeys to California.
Many emigrants had to adjust their expectations of life on the trail once they had begun. Timber and other materials for fire were rare and the emigrants had to make do with what was available. Dry buffalo chips were more than plentiful, and it did not take long for the emigrants to begin burning them in their campfires. William Kelly wrote, “Although we had not a chip of wood this evening, we had a capital substitute in buffalo chip (as their ordure is called), which makes roaring fires, and is the exclusive fire of the Indian tribes who live in their haunts…” While some of the emigrants were unsure, at first, about using the buffalo chips as fuel, they quickly overcame their hesitancy. In 1847, thirteen-year-old Edwin Pettit wrote, “Everyone would go out to gather buffalo chips and some of the daintier sex, instead of picking them up with their hands, used tongs but soon very bravely got over this and would almost fight over a dry one.”
Even early in the trip the emigrants faced many difficulties in their travels. Stampedes, summer storms, cholera, dangerous river crossings and other accidents plagued the emigrants as they traveled across the Great Plains. While the first thousand miles of the trip could be the easiest part of the journey for some, for others a single stampede or failed river crossing was all it took to end their dreams of a better life in California.
The emigrants’ livestock were one of their most valuable assets along the California Trail. They depended on their oxen, horses and mules to pull their wagons and haul the supplies they needed to survive the two-thousand-mile journey. The emigrants dreaded stampedes. A single mule spooked by a dog or a running herd of buffalo could end in disaster. In 1850, Eleazer Stillman Ingalls wrote about the frenzy and panic that ensued when a stampede took place on the plains.
"A stampede took place about sunset, of 150 head of horses, mules and oxen, which was the largest stampede that we have seen or heard of. We were just cooking our supper. Our horses were quietly gazing around the camp; the men gathering buffalo chips for the night, or idly lounging about the fires, talking and smoking, and taking as much comfort as possible after our hard day’s work, when down the river came a sound, as of distant thunder, yet more terrible to the ears of the practiced emigrant on the plains; instantly every man was on his feet listening to the approaching sounds; faintly above the noise could be heard the cry of stampede! stampede! and a dark mass enveloped in the dust could be seen moving down upon us with the speed of the wind. Instantly every man sprang for the horses, knowing too well that if they were not got inside of the correll of wagons, before that moving mass of terror and phrenzy came up to them and they were lost. The cooks threw down their frying pans, the men their pipes, and bags of buffalo chips, and the whole plain looked more like bedlam broke loose than a quiet camping ground; some shouted and belabored the poor beasts, who already began to feel the infection, others lugged away at the long lariets of their mules who dogged and sullen, threw themselves on their reserved rights, and braced back on all fours with their long ears turned back and their eyes half closed… During this time, which occupied less space than I have been in recording it, the infuriated mass kept rushing towards us, sweeping everything of stock kind along with them that came in their way. The matter began to look serious for us, although we had succeeded in getting all of our stock within the circle of our wagons, when suddenly, when within a quarter mile of us they took a turn and went dashing over the hills like a torrent, and a few minutes after them went 30 or 40 men on horses which they had secured, riding madly on to keep in sight of the terrified animals."
Ingalls also wrote about the aftermath of the stampede for many of the people and families involved. He said, “Many had lost all their stock, their sole dependence for the prosecution of their journey, or even their safe return to the States. Families, men, women and children thrown out in the wilderness hundreds of miles from civilized beings, and their main hope gone.”
Ingalls' diary can be viewed and downloaded here.
Storms also caused many issues for the emigrants. The late spring and early summer storms could arrive with little warning, leaving the emigrants with little time to prepare. High winds and drenching rains blew over tents, soaked important supplies and caused the rivers to rise. In 1849, William Kelly and his wagon train were surprised by a storm. He wrote, “Though favoured with a fine day, as night came in black heavy clouds and floating masses of watery vapour gave indication of a storm, which burst upon us just as we sat to supper, blowing a hurricane, and teeming down torrents of rain. It was perfectly useless to attempt pitching our tents, as they would be blown down; besides, the ground was running over with water, so that we could not sleep on it. We therefore took shelter in our waggons; and though I was thoroughly soaked when my guard was relieved, I went to sleep in my wet clothes, in a position not very conducive to repose, and awoke in the morning without any symptom of cold or sickness…”
Eliza Ann McAuley woke up to a storm on June 2, 1852. She wrote, “It has been exceedingly hot today and the road is so dusty that we were obliged to stop often and water the teams. As there was the appearance of a storm we camped early, though the water is scarce. Presently the storm broke in all its fury. I had lain down on a pile of bedding in the tent and when I awoke the bed was nearly afloat, and two of the boys were trying to hold the tent up. Finding the attempt useless, they abandoned the tent and all took to the wagons, which were anchored to stakes driven in the ground.”
You can read a portion of Eliza's diary on Google Books in a preview of the Covered Wagon Women, Vol. 4 book. This book may be available for sale in the CTIC gift shop.
Diseases such as cholera were the number one cause of death on the Overland Trails. In 1848, cholera was brought to America by steamships leaving France where the disease was running rampant. Unfortunately, the arrival of cholera in the states coincided with President James K. Polk’s announcement that gold had been discovered in California. Steamships were leaving ports for the jumping off towns of the mid-west and carrying cholera with them. Instances of cholera were very high in places like St. Joseph and St. Louis where the emigrants were gathering to prepare for their journeys west in 1849. Cholera plagued emigrants on the trail for many years, but 1852 was the worst year. One historian estimated that nearly 96% of all cholera cases on the Overland Trails happened before the emigrants reached South Pass in present day Wyoming. There is not really one theory as to why this was the case.
Sarah Davis went west with her family in 1850. In her journal she wrote about the calamitous impact cholera had on her wagon train. “june 24 we camped on the north fork of the plat river and sarah was very sick their was one woman died in the camp of the colera and was buried the next morning when I went to Sarah she was no beter and I soon saw she would die and she did die before noon o how lonely I felt to think I was all the woman in the company and too [sm]all babes left in my care it seams to me as if I would be hapy if I only had one woman with me”.
Sarah's original diary can be viewed and downloaded at Yale University. The diary is also part of the Covered Wagon Women (volume 2) series of books available for purchase in the CTIC gift shop.
In 1849, Elmon S. Camp tried to capture the number of deaths caused by cholera in words. He said, “Were there no other marks to guide the emigrant on his way, the graves upon either side of the trail would be sufficient to direct him with unerring certainty for hundreds of miles.”
River crossings could go smoothly for the emigrants or they could have catastrophic consequences. Summer storms could cause the rivers to swell, quicksand and mud could stop oxen and wagons in their tracks, livestock could panic in the water and wagons could fill with water or be swept away. Many emigrants did not have any problems with the various river crossings of the Great Plains but there were still many accidents. In 1849, Luzena Stanley Wilson and her family witnessed a tragedy after they had safely made it across the Platte River themselves. In her memoir she said, "The Platte was the first great water-course we crossed. It is a peculiar, wide, shallow stream, with a quicksand bed. With the wagon-bed on blocks twelve or fourteen inches thick to raise it out of the water, some of the men astride of the oxen, some of them wading waist-deep, and all goading the poor beasts to keep them moving, we started across, The water poured into the wagon in spite of our precautions and floated off some of our few movables; but we landed safely on the other side, and turned to see the team behind us stop in mid-stream. The frantic driver shouted, whipped, belabored the stubborn animals in vain, and the treacherous sand gave way under their feet. They sank slowly, gradually, but surely. They went out of sight inch by inch, and the water rose over the moaning beasts. Without a struggle they disappeared beneath the surface. In a little while the broad South Platte swept on its way, sunny, sparkling, placid, without a ripple to mark where a lonely man parted with all his fortune."
Luzena Wilson's diary can be viewed and downloaded from the Library of Congress.
Fourteen-year-old Sallie Hester’s family also encountered some struggles while crossing the Platte River in 1849. Sallie commented on the number of accidents from river crossings in her diary. She wrote, “Left camp and started over the Black Hills, sixty miles over the worst road in the world. Have again struck the Platte and followed it until we came to the ferry. here we had a great deal of trouble swimming our cattle across, taking our wagons to pieces, unloading and replacing our traps. A number of accidents happened here. A Lady and four children were drowned through the carelessness of those in charge of the ferry.”
You can view one edition of Sallie's diary published by Capstone here. Her diary is also included in the Covered Wagon Women (volume 1) series which may be available in the CTIC giftshop.
There are many important landmarks across the Great Plains that the emigrants watched for and wrote descriptions of in their journals. Fort Kearney, Fort Laramie, Scott’s Bluff, Chimney Rock, Courthouse Rock and Independence Rock are just a few of the landmarks and locations the pioneers used to mark their progress. Scott’s Bluff and the origin of its name is mentioned in many of the emigrants’ diaries and guidebooks from the time. Hiram Scott was born in 1805 in Missouri. It is thought that he was an employee of a fur trading company and attended the first rendezvous in the Salt Lake Valley in 1826. He also attended the rendezvouses in 1827 and 1828 and worked as a clerk. Clerks were essential employees of the fur trading companies and were tasked with keeping track of all the transactions that occurred at the rendezvous. On the journey home from the rendezvous in 1828, the initial story says Scott became very ill along the Platte River. His companions tried floating him down the river in a boat but when that did not work, they abandoned him on the North Bank of the river. The next spring his remains were discovered on the south bank leading them to believe he made it to the other side of the river after being left behind. They named the large rock formation near his remains after him. The original story of Scott’s death was first recorded in 1830. Since many of the details were lost to history, there are many slightly different versions of Scott’s death. While it may never be clear exactly what happened to Hiram Scott, the story of his death is still being told by people traveling near the bluff today.
In the early years of the westward migration there was very little conflict with the Native Americans. Stories and rumors had fueled panic among the emigrants, and they traveled across the plains expecting the worst. At first the Native Americans and the emigrants were eager for the opportunities to trade for goods they needed or wanted. After gold was discovered in California, tens of thousands of people traveled the California Trail and began depleting the resources the Native Americans had been dependent on for hundreds of years. Livestock ate all of the grass along the Platte River and the emigrants drove away the wild animals. This is when the wariness the emigrants and the Native Americans had for each other began to turn into resentment. The worst blow to the Native Americans way of life was the decimation of the buffalo.
Buffalo or the American Bison had already been hunted out of the Eastern United States by the early 1800s. Many of the emigrants in the westward migration of the mid-nineteenth century were seeing the large animals for the very first time. The buffalo roamed the plains in herds of thousands and sometimes even tens of thousands. These herds could block wagon trains for miles or cause devastating stampedes. The emigrants began killing the buffalo for sport and food. Professional hunters also killed buffalo to sell their hides for industrial use. Buffalo were also killed to feed the railroad workers building the Transcontinental Railroad across the plains. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad accelerated the end of the buffalo. Once it was finished companies began offering trips where people could hunt by rail and shoot buffalo right from the train. It is estimated that there were thirty to sixty million buffalo on the plains in the early nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, only three hundred buffalo could be found in the wild. The Native Americans had been hunting the buffalo for hundreds of years without wasting the meat or over hunting them. The demise of the buffalo signaled the end of the Indian Wars and forced the Native Americans onto the reservations.