janet fisher~writer

Following strong women through history

Backtracking the Oregon Trail #6

Day Four ~ Scotts Bluff

501.one wagon scotts bluffShe walked past natural wonders . . . Chimney Rock . . . Scotts Bluff . . . the Devil’s Gate. The oppressive heat sucked her energy. Dust filled her nose and eyes, even her ears. Sounds dimmed—the creaking wheels. Cattle bawling. Thudding hoofbeats. Ropes squeaking. . . .
A Place of Her Own: The Legacy of Oregon Pioneer Martha Poindexter Maupin, Janet Fisher. (Guilford, CT, Helena, MT: TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press, 2014), p. 116.

June 27 thursday we started on and traveled ten miles and stoped to noon in sight of scots bluffs whare their was plenty of grass for the catle we traveled twenty miles and encamped in sight of scots bluffs right on the plat river and I washed some that evening we had plenty of wolfs to visit us that night
—The diary of Sarah Davis, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 2, 1850, Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1990), p. 180.

July 28. We currelled last night opposite the most splendid scenery we have met with on our travels. They are sand hills intermixt with rock or a hard substance resembling rock that rise & tower over the other like splendid mansions with numerous chimneys rising to a great hight. They are called Scotts Bluffs . . .
—The diary of Lucena Parsons, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 2, 1850, Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1990), p. 253.

About noon we stopped nearly opposite the “Scott bluffs” sometimes called capital hills These hills have a truly grand romantic appearance calculated to fill the mind with indescribeble amazement approaching almost to sublimity. There are numerous cedars growing uppon them, which gives them a still more grand appearance.
—The diary of Abigail Jane Scott (entry by Margaret Ann or Maggie because Abigail has cholera), in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 66.

All day the scenery was most enchanting intirely surpassing in loveliness & originality any thing I had ever beheld. Bluffs the most picuresque and resembling to the life some old castle of ancient times. About noon we came to Scotts Bluff which much resembles an old fortification.
—The diary of Celinda Hines, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 6, 1853-1854, Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 93.

506.scotts bluff visitor ctrDay four brought our backtracking trip right back to the Oregon Trail along famous landmarks for the emigrants on their way west. The emigrants would gauge their progress by the number of days it took them to reach these notable places. On our journey eastward to my daughter Christiane’s new job in Kansas City near the trail’s beginning, we planned to stop at several of these locations, where visitor centers provide information.

The towering landmark of Scotts Bluff rises like a beacon in the vast high plains of what is now western Nebraska, layers of multicolored sediment marking the deposits placed there by great upheavals of nature over time, water and wind whisking away the edges to let the monument stand high above the surrounding plain and expose its turbulent history.

We watched for the famous bluff out the car window, as those emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail must have watched. Several lesser bluffs rose around us, scattered over the flat. Was that it? No, not prominent enough. Then a sign marked the way, and when we came closer there could be no doubt. Nothing in the area matched the monumental geological feature. The emigrants with their slow travel might have seen it for days, growing slowly larger before them. This was one of the great mileposts. They knew from the guidebooks they carried that reaching this landmark along the North Platte River meant one-third of their trip lay behind them. And what a marvel, seeing it up close!

Now a visitor center nestles against the sheer height of Eagle Rock. Between that and Sentinel Rock, three covered wagons appear to roll through a wide gap, following the historic trail.

We stepped out of our air-conditioned car, and the heat struck. The hot weather was back. Not quite 100, but in the high 90s—in the shade. And precious little shade beyond the perimeter of the visitor center, where nice trees provide refreshing cover.

After checking in at the center—and giving them one of my books—we left the trees and started our own trek along the short stretch of the Oregon Trail within the park boundaries.

500.two wagons scotts bluffMy grand-daughter Calliope walks ahead at the far left edge of the scene.

There’s a bit of shade alongside the wagon, but when those wagons rolled, back in the day, the dust must have boiled up around them. A person could have shade with dust or blistering sun without. What a choice!

We reluctantly had to forgo the walk we had intended to make up to the wagon wheel ruts farther up the trail, hoping for another visit sometime on a cooler day or perhaps during the morning or evening hours. Unfortunately our schedule didn’t allow us to wait.

A haunting story tells how the bluff got its name, a story with moving parts that shift like sands along the Platte, depending on who does the telling. But apparently an employee of the American Fur Company named Hiram Scott had served as a clerk with the caravan that brought supplies to trappers at the 1828 Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. On their way home, laden with furs from the mountains, Scott became too ill to ride. So the leader of the caravan put him in a bullhide boat and assigned two men to accompany him more slowly downriver the 60 miles or so to this bluff, where the rest of the men would wait for them.

Somehow the boat overturned, and the three men lost most of their supplies, including food and weapons. Unable to hunt or protect themselves, the two with Scott told him they would hurry on ahead to catch up with their company and return for him. Or they said they would go out and find food and natural medicines to take back to him, according to another version of the tale.

However, when the two reached the bluff they found that the company had gone on ahead, so they decided to abandon poor Scott and push forward as fast as they could, finally catching up with the others in two or three days.

A couple of the women diarists offer a kinder version. Abigail Jane Scott says the sick man requested that his companions abandon him. Celinda Hines brings in a robbery by the Indians, who supposedly wounded Mr. Scott. She says they all knew he wouldn’t last much longer, so Mr. Scott begged his companions to leave him, which they did.

504.scotts bluffAnd so the sand of story shifts. In any case, the next spring when the caravan rolled by the bluff again, men found a grinning skeleton they readily identified as Scott. With remarkable tenacity he had made his way those 60 miles alone, finally to die at the foot of this monument which would thereafter carry his name. The story in its variations was told around many a campfire as others pushed west, passing this magnificent marker.

Scotts Bluff National Monument: Landmark on the Overland Trails, A History and Guide, Dean Knudsen, Historian, National Park Service, pp. 10-13.

—The diary of Abigail Jane Scott, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 66.

—The diary of Celinda Hines, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 6, 1853-1854, Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 93.

NEXT: Chimney Rock

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