Backtracking the Oregon Trail #8
Day Four ~ The North Platte River
Martha looked up the long dry slope they had to climb. Bluffs came right to the river’s edge here, so they couldn’t pass. They had to go around and that meant up. She clasped a child in each hand and started walking. . . .
Thank goodness for the women. What would she do without other women to laugh with and share stories with? Much as she loved Garrett and her brothers, they didn’t see life in quite the same way.
—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. 113, 110.
It is singular that on the north side of the Platte here is not a vestige of a tree in sight—save one “Lone Tree” for 200 miles & yet on the South side there is an abundance of Cedar fastened in the rock Bluffs & some Cottonwood. But the feed for cattle to all appearance is much better on the N. side
—The diary of Polly Coon, 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. 191.
13th Monday . . . the road soon leaves the bottom & leads upon the bluffs which are here of a rocky formation which seems to be a mixture of sand & lime In about three miles we came to Ash hollow so called from the ash trees which grow there. We had looked to this place as one where we should have plenty of wood & water . . . The glen is very picturesque rocks rise almost perpendicular two hundred ft or more We had scarcely encamped in a prettier place . . .
—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), pp. 91-92.
june 23 [Sunday] we camped in ash holler fifteen miles from whare we campe before and their was a tremendous thunder sawer one role after nother till it killed a horse that was onley one rod from our wagon that night Sarah was taken sick we had no super
June 24 we camped on the north fork of the plat river and sarah was very sick . . . 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 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
—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), pp. 179-180.
July 21. We again are pursuing our teadious journey. For the first 3 miles it was up hill then we came to a ridge. This extended to Ash hollow & when we came to it we found ourselves on the top of a high hill, precipices & deep ravines. In these ravines & on either side of the bluffs are trees growing in crevises, ash & red cedar. It is the most romantic place we have seen yet.
—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. 251.
Martha wouldn’t recognize today’s North Platte River. With passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, people started taking a second look at that land west of Missouri. And completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 insured easier transportation to markets.
Instead of seeing the Platte River Valley as a long impediment to a West Coast destination, folks began to see the farming possibilities right there. Add more water with irrigation and the possibilities increased dramatically. So farmers came. They dug plows into the rich soil, built irrigation canals—and changed the character of the valley.
As we traveled along the North Platte, I felt the need to conjure up long-departed images. Massive herds of buffalo. Grassy plains. And where exotic trees and shrubs flourish along the riverbanks today, I imagined a land with few trees in sight and scarcely a stick of wood for a campfire. The buffalo herds may have eaten down the grass along the way, but they left a perfectly good substitute for campfire fuel—buffalo chips. Yes, that’s manure. Folks said it didn’t smell so bad and didn’t give the food a bad taste when used for cooking.
As you drive along the high plateaus you can still see some of the drier landscape the emigrants might have seen. Maybe the soil is too thin up there for farming, so this land has been left to its earlier state. The land has broken away on the edges of some of those plateaus, as if chopped away by a cleaver, baring the rocky interior, like the one overlooking Ash Hollow (above). Soil looks pretty thin at the top.
Before reaching Ash Hollow, most emigrants, traveling on the south bank of the main fork, had to cross the South Platte to make their way over a high plateau to the North Platte where the trail continued. At that river crossing they found that the lazy Platte had turned quite rough, although it was shallow enough to ford. From that harrowing plunge across the water, they met with the strenuous climb to the plateau.
But after following the trail across that high plateau they found no good way down. The gentlest slope appeared to be Windlass Hill. So they stopped at the top of this hill and lowered the wagons with ropes. There would be worse to come, but anytime you have to lower a wagon with ropes it’s a treacherous undertaking. Quite a bit of excitement after the flat prairie they’d followed for many long days. When they got to the Oregon Cascade Mountains and saw Laurel Hill, though, this one would pale in comparison.
From Windlass Hill they made their way to nearby Ash Hollow where even in that day a refreshing grove of trees awaited them. But the Ash Hollow springs held a deadly secret. In bad cholera years that spring water harbored the lethal cholera bacteria. It could strike with sudden force, killing a healthy person overnight. The diary of Sarah Davis (above) touches my heart on so many levels.
We weren’t able to get into Ash Hollow park but could see a little of it from the gate. The park was closed the day we passed through. I had hoped to meet with someone who would let us in, but we got there too late in the day.
We stayed that night in the town of North Platte, Nebraska, which lies just east of where the main Platte River splits into the North Platte and South Platte. We were relieved to get in before dark that evening and rested up for the final day of travel.
—Women’s Voices from the Oregon Trail, Susan G. Butruille. (Boise, ID: Tamarack Books, 1993), pp. 165-166.
NEXT: We’ll head over that flat prairie along the main fork of the Platte, then take the shortest route to the Missouri River, back to the Oregon Trail’s beginning.