Out in Nebraska on the Oregon Trail


The view of the valley from Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Sign marking the Oregon Trail.

Original but restored buildings form a small town at High Plains Homestead. Pamela O’Meara photo

Purple flowers with badlands in background decorate High Plains Homestead near Crawford. Pamela O’Meara photo

My trip to western Nebraska to learn how pioneers survived on the Oregon Trail began in an unusual way, but it did show us one thing the pioneers faced on the prairie — big storms and twisters.

Shortly after I checked into my motel room in Scottsbluff, tornado sirens started blaring. 

We quickly headed down to the lobby and were taken to the basement of some Scottsbluff administrative offices, where 15 or more of us were sequestered for almost two hours. We listened to the sirens and used our phones to track some eight funnel clouds touching down around us.

The stormy greeting was an introduction to some of the troubles the pioneers faced on the Oregon Trail, which crossed the Cornhusker State, at first as a network of old Indian trails through the southwest.

By the mid-1840s the route became known as the Oregon Trail, becoming the principal path taken by fur trappers, and then pioneers heading west, drawn by the promise of free land, and later, gold. In 1847 Brigham Young brought 70,000 Mormons to Utah on a route paralleling the Oregon Trail.

We learned about the Sager family, who found the trip to be an adventure but soon it became a challenge as they walked day after day alongside their covered wagons, out in the sun, rain and wind. It was not for the faint of heart. 

Some died on the way and were buried at the edge of the trail, memorialized by a simple wooden cross.

Accidents were common. One Sager daughter was thrown under the wagon when her dress caught on an ax handle as she jumped off it. Her leg was badly broken but a doctor was found in the 100-wagon train to set her leg. She spent the rest of the trip in the wagon.

Their father died along the route and then their mother died, presumably grief-stricken — 14-year-old John Sager helped take care of his seven siblings with the assistance of many others in the wagon train. Poor sanitation and bad water added to their woes as they crossed the desert. When people ran out of good water, they drank anything they could find.

Meanwhile, I was riding along in a minivan with air conditioning, music and cell phone service, clean water and plenty of stops for food, along the way.

 

Westward expansion

The westward expansion in the 1800s was deemed by many to be the natural right of Americans, so there were conflicts with native peoples already living there. 

We toured Fort Robinson, which was built to ensure pioneers were protected. Chief Crazy Horse was killed there. An active military post for decades, the fort also distributed goods to the Native Americans camped there on Pine Ridge, in exchange for land.

Today, Fort Robinson has accommodations for travelers — rooms and campsites — activities like buffalo stew cookouts, horseback riding, covered wagon rides and more for families.

Highlighting another aspect of the westward movement, the Museum of Fur Trade, near Chadron, features a reconstruction of a trading post with trade goods like firearms and fabrics, significant to what’s been called North America’s first continent-wide economy. 

A large birch bark canoe hangs from the ceiling. The museum is located at the same site as a trading post that was established in 1837 by the American Fur Company, and was one of my favorites on this Nebraska trip.

In several places, we stopped to look at the old wagon ruts from long ago. On Windlass Hill, several wagons would go down, side by side. I tried to imagine doing that, on top of all the hardships the pioneers faced, and I knew I wouldn’t have done well.

But like the early explorers and first homesteaders, including my great-grandparents, in the 1880s, we did pass some of the same monuments rising up along the way. 

Chimney Rock is the most recognized landmark on the trail and is mentioned in many journals, as well as Scotts Bluff and Court House and Jail rocks. The pioneers had heard about these monuments ahead of time, and considered them milestones on their trip. With the land so flat, the monuments can be seen for miles.

I also had considerable time, like the pioneers in their wagon trains, to watch the ever-changing sky, sometimes with storms rolling in from far away.

At Scotts Bluff National Monument, at a gap in the bluffs on a gentle slope winding down the south side of the Platte River Valley, we walked over to the great views of the expanse. We took hiking paths past a few covered wagons that gave us the feel of the past, and photographed the valley and wild flowers from above.

 

 

Rocks and writers

Most nights we stayed at standard hotels but I spent one night at the High Plains Homestead near Crawford, a unique property at the edge of the badlands. 

A couple bison and several long horn cattle were in pens there. Owners Mike and Linda Kesselring have worked hard to make the property look like an Old West settlement — it has a school, saloon, post office and other buildings, including the Drifter Cookshack where we enjoyed grilled chicken, ribs, beans and rhubarb pie outside on picnic tables. The buildings have been renovated but are real historical structures that are fun to peek into. Our room had high-speed Internet, the result of guest requests.  

The next day we had a Dutch oven campfire breakfast at Toadstool Geologic Park where a few in our group hiked along the stream. It was a lovely summer morning looking out over the rock formations — clay pedestals topped with slabs of sandstone — that look like mushrooms but are an amazing 24 million to 38 million years old.

Capping the trip, we went to the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center on the Chadron College Campus and learned about one of Nebraskaís famous writers. 

In spite of growing up with an abusive father who belittled her writing, Sandoz managed to obtain a teaching credential and wrote 20 books about the high plains, many of which have been translated into other languages. She has been compared to Willa Cather, who also wrote about the plains and pioneer life. 

I purchased Sandoz’ “The Horsecatcher,” a Newberry Medal Honor Book about a young Cheyenne who wants to be a horse trainer, and not a warrior. 

I read it on my flight home, giving me one last peek at life on the high plains.

 

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7818


 

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