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In the Footsteps of the Pioneers

Photo Credit: Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne

I am a huge fan of any book having to do with pioneer stories. It probably started long ago with the “Little House” series by Laura I. Wilder, which I read several times over, although I remember reading others. I no longer see these stories through rose-colored glasses. The last one I read recently was a sad diary by one woman whose family had been killed by Indians. I know that the story of the development of the frontier is a complicated one and can be looked at through several lenses, but it is still very interesting to me.

So, I thought it might be fun to see Oregon trail ruts. My interest was piqued on this idea several years ago when we were horse riding in Estes Park, Colorado, and the picture above is from that time. Our trail guide casually mentioned that the trail that you can see at the top of the mountain in the center of the picture was made by wagons going west. Fact or fiction, it made me wonder what else I would be able to still see.

My search led us to Guernsey, Wyoming. This picture was our first sighting of wagon ruts. The area is a state historic site. We walked down the trail for awhile and found more. The ruts were in rock which had been worn down by so many wagons going through. Nearly 400,000 people traveled the trail, an approximately 2,000 mile trip to either California or Oregon.

It was such a thrill for me. Once again, I had that “history beneath my feet” feeling. I could hear the heavy snuffling of the horses, the bawling of the cattle and oxen, and the clanking of the pots and pans inside the wagons. I could see people walking, on and on down the trail, because there wasn’t room to ride in the wagons unless one was very young, old, or infirm.

This picture shows the countryside around the trail, looking much as it did 150 years ago.

Despite the latest book I read, Indian attacks were rare. Many people died of cholera or some other disease. In the Oregon Trail computer game of the 90’s, which my daughters played constantly, their characters frequently died of dysentery – true in real life as well. People also drowned in river crossings. Below is a picture of the Platte River near the ruts, which would have had to have been crossed. It still runs swift and deep.

In my prior post I added a picture of mastodon bones from the Wyoming Welcome Center on I-25. Here is a fully loaded wagon from that same museum.

The emigrants were not the only ones on the trail. The first to come, besides the natives who were already here, were the explorers and fur trappers. There were miners seeking gold in California. The emigrants were lured by free land in Oregon, but many stopped along the way and made their home where they were. Others, such as the Mormons, were seeking freedom from religious persecution. A little further down the road from the ruts, some of the passers-by left their names on Register Cliff. The natives were the first to leave their mark, but many of these have been obliterated either by time, or by the newer visitors who also left their names. Many times the travelers wanted to let family and friends know that they had made it thus far. There are over 350 names on the cliff.

Some of the markings are right next to newer ones.
Swallow nests in the cliff above the signatures

A rest stop for the travelers was to be found at Ft. Laramie, which was just east of the ruts and Register Cliff. This was a major stop for bathing and washing clothes, replacing worn-out draft animals, and making repairs to their wagons. They could find replenishment for supplies, letters from home, and protection if it was needed. It also became a dumping ground for overweight wagons. After Ft. Laramie was decomissioned, many of the buildings fell into disrepair and are lost to time. It was a much bigger fort than I had thought it would be. Eleven structures were restored and furnished to the way they had been.

The building directly to the left of the wagon was the post trader’s store, where everyone would have loaded up on provisions, and the residents of the fort could add to their home furnishings.
Typical supplies that would have been available. There is actually no one strung up from the ceiling – those are just new boots for sale!
The enlisted cavalry barracks
It seemed like everyone would be returning momentarily, with beds made and all of their personal items on the shelves and hooks
Time for dinner!
One of the officers’ homes can be seen on the far left.

In between the sight seeing, we took time to drive through Guernsey State Park. We had a picnic lunch in an old CCC shelter. It was a very hot day, so we were glad for the shade.

Our modern-day Conestoga

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a site at the state park. The RV park we stayed in was just a little farther down the road and in Wyoming farm country. We enjoyed some walks nearby.

These cows were way off in the distance when we started walking, and then we realized they were all coming to greet us!

When I was searching for an RV park, the one we stayed at received negative reviews for the frequent trains that go by across the road. To make matters worse, it is near an intersection, so the train whistle blows several times as it goes by. It is a well-known fact that many RV parks are built near train tracks, but the whistle just added an extra dimension. We rather like the sound of trains going by, and the lonely sound of the whistle, but on the second night the whistle volume seemed to increase by several decibels. I was glad this wasn’t more than a two-night stay!

The trains have been a common sight for us so far, both in our stays in southern Wyoming and now here, where I’m writing this in North Dakota. Mostly they are loaded with coal from mines in the Gillette, Wyoming area and are headed to power plants that are fueled by coal to produce electricity. The trains run frequently and constantly. It amazed me that so much coal is still being used.

I found the Platte River again about a mile and a half down a country road from our RV park, and it was beautiful on one of my early morning walks, so I’ll leave you for now with that view.

Next time – Medora, ND

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