Jun 26, 2017

Scotts Bluff, Oregon Trail, & Pony Express

 “Go West, young man, and grow with the country” wrote Horace Greeley in 1865 in the “New York Tribune.”  He was encouraging Americans to take advantage of the Homestead Act whereby, in exchange for a small filing fee, settlers were given 160 acres of public land.  People were already moving west.  It
was part of what some thought was America’s Manifest Destiny, the belief that the U.S. should reach from ocean to ocean. Before 1.6 million homesteaders moved west there were over 400,000 who followed the 2,170 mile route from Missouri to Oregon and California braving everything from disease to accidents to rushing river crossings and many other hardships. Most walked and, keep in mind, that they had to get to Missouri first; many did so via the Erie Canal. 

Chimney Rock was one of the many landmarks along the Oregon
Trail. Pioneers could see it several days before they arrived.  When John and I visited Chimney Rock National Historical Site, park ranger Loren Pospisil, said, “What makes Chimney Rock is not the rock but the people who passed by here.” It is one of the most mentioned landmarks in the traveler’s journals. The next major landmark was Scotts Bluff and the adjacent Mitchell Pass. From here settlers continued to Fort
Laramie and the hard part – when they were exhausted and often sick – through the mountains.  Beside the Visitor Center, there are covered wagons with pioneer-clad docents to tell more tales of the journey.  I even got to try some hardtack, a staple food because it didn’t spoil. I couldn’t help but think of Catherine Sager who, after making it to Oregon, wrote “Across the Plains in 1844.” It was at Scotts Bluff that the wagon slipped breaking Catherine’s leg.  Later her mother had a baby making it a family of seven children.  Both her parents died leaving her 14-year-old brother to lead the seven of them to Oregon. Amazing! And, that is just one story.

We also visited the nearby Legacy of the Plains Museum which
covered everything from the Native Americans to present day farming.  One video display included a saying found on a deserted shack near Chadron, “30 miles to water, 20 miles to wood, 10 miles to Hell, and I gone there for good.” We were fortunate because we got to meet Casey and Matt Debus, members of the National Pony Express Association.  The Pony Express was only in operation for 18 months but played a
significant role in the history of the West.  Riders were young, had to be less than 125 pounds, had to take an oath of loyalty, and were given a Bible to carry. Casey gave us a riding demonstration and with her father showed us how the mochila (mail bag) was transferred from horse to horse.  Three of the four pockets of the mochila were locked to insure
letters arrived without being tampered with. The riders rode 1800 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California in 10 days. Besides the Oregon settlers and the Pony Express, it was the way west for gold seekers, Mormons, traders and other adventurers. 

The Fur Trade Museum in Chadron depicts the time “...when skins were money.” It is America’s oldest business and made John Jacob Astor America’s first millionaire. Outdoor displays included a trading post and one display showed how 10 tanned buffalo hides were compressed into a 2x3-foot bale for easier shipping. The mystique of the West lives on.