By Eilene Lyon
We’re rolling westward on Interstate 80 in southern Wyoming, on our way to do breeding bird surveys along a proposed transmission line route. The rising sun is adding fire to the stratus clouds hanging low in the sky. Our Ford Super Duty truck passes plains and low hills draped in sagebrush and greasewood, populated by scattered pronghorn. In a land devoid of trees, we see power poles march off into the distance, sporting an occasional raptor.
We pull off the highway and onto a dirt two-track. Though we can still hear the hum of passing semis, I can’t help but think of the emigrant trains that passed through this state in 1849 – some headed to Oregon, but most in a rush to find gold in California. Perhaps ten thousand that year; five times that the following one.
Fifty miles north of where we’re working is South Pass, where virtually every European-American on the northern overland trail crossed the Rocky Mountains in those days. Due to long working hours and the lack of a personal vehicle, I will not have an opportunity to visit it on this trip.
I exit the Ford. It is a challenge to get in and out of. The bottom of the door frame is hip-high and there are no running boards. My knees and ankles chastise me every time I drop to the ground. Turning, I look to where the two-track lines converge and disappear on the western horizon and visualize an endless procession of covered wagons, oxen, mules, men on horseback, all raising billows of alkaline desert dust. Only the lead wagon and scouts escape the choking clouds.
Imagine trekking hundreds of miles across this landscape by wagon or on foot.
South Pass was undoubtedly well-known to Native Americans and early-day fur trappers. Its discovery by emigrants and explorers is not firmly fixed in time, but the route was well-traveled by the 1830s.
In 1842, John C. Frémont surveyed the pass, in anticipation of the transcontinental railroad (it was laid elsewhere). He explored widely throughout the Rocky Mountains, Oregon Territory and into California (still part of Mexico at the time), documenting the various routes through the Rockies, Cascades and Sierras.
Frémont’s report was read by his father-in-law, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, into the Senate record in 1849. It also mentions a route about one degree south of South Pass – where I-80 and the railroad run today – giving its elevation as 8,000 feet, though in reality, it’s about a thousand feet lower.
One emigrant handbook provided a description of the 49ers route:
“The South Pass of the Rocky Mountains is distant from Fort Laramie 300 miles, or about 950 from Independence, Mo. Altitude, 7,490 feet above tidewaters. It is difficult, from the gradual ascent to the Pass, to find the precise summit; the point, or dividing ridge, is between two low hills, about 60 feet high. The Pass is about 19 miles in width, without any gorge-like appearance.”
South Pass, Wyoming (National Park Service)
Most of the gold rush migrants I’m documenting in my book went the sea route, but Elias D. Pierce joined the Argonauts of 1849 on the overland trail. The migrant road followed the North Platte River from Nebraska into Wyoming, where they stopped at Fort Laramie to mail letters home and pick up supplies (not to be confused with present-day Laramie).
Continuing along the river to the northwest, they crossed the river at the Mormon ferry (near present-day Casper) and proceeded to follow the Sweetwater River to the crest of South Pass. Along the way, they stopped at Independence Rock, so named because they hoped to reach it by July 4th to ensure safe passage to the coast before the snows fell. There they carved or painted their names for posterity. They also gazed into the Devil’s Gate.
Pierce described his party’s journey through this section (they reached Independence Rock on July 1, 1849):
“6th. The road smooth but considerable up grade as we were rapidly ascending the Rocky mts. 7th. Our route was up the sweetwater, we could look off and see vast snow peaks far above the fleecy clouds, nearer the base were rough craggy and dark ranges and no gateway to let us through. 8th. Many interesting scenes on the sweetwater, one called the devil’s gate where you can stand on a projecting rock and look down a perpendicular wall into a canyon two hundred feet below and see the sparkling waters dash headlong through a narrow pass not over fifty feet wide and hear the murmuring of the angry waves as they in wild grandeur dash from wall to wall. It calls to mind how wonderful the works of nature, and nature’s God.
9th. A part of the road on sweet-water we had heavy sand to encounter which made it hard on our teams, we were taking the best care of our stock expecting to have a hard trip across the Rocky range and that we might be one or two days without feed. 10th. Still ascending gradually and nothing abrupt, looking every day where we would have to climb. 11th. The scenery ahead was charming, all new and interesting to us but so anxious to see the barrier that seperated [sic] the waters from the waters. 12th. Brought us to the last crossing of sweet water. We then were on the south pass but still expected having to cross a rough range ahead. 13th. Moved along as usual. About 4 Oclock P.M. camped at the Pacific Springs, we had crossed the Rocky Mts. and didn’t know it.”
To the miners and Oregon migrants, Wyoming was merely an obstacle to be endured on the way to the promised land. On their crossing, they failed to make note in their numerous letters and diaries of the wildlife and native vegetation, except as it pertained to hunting game for food or vexatious plants.
According to Holliday, even their domestic animals received little empathy, despite Pierce’s assertion they were taking good care of their stock.
“There seems to have been an almost universal insensitivity to the suffering of the animals pulling wagons till day’s end and then foraging in sage and greasewood that had been chewed and trampled for weeks. Carcasses by the trail, others bloating around the dark pools were noted and sometimes counted; several diarists recorded day after day their count of dead oxen and mules. But rarely did they express concern for the torment of their nonhuman partners.”
Despite the perception of those long-ago travelers, and even their modern-day counterparts, this shrubby landscape is a living mosaic, a functioning ecosystem, and always has been. A challenging environment, to be sure, but not as harsh as our southern deserts.
The state is home to nearly 4,000 species and subspecies of plants. Here in Carbon and Sweetwater counties, where we are working, we see mule deer, elk, and pronghorn. There are pygmy rabbits, cottontails, and white-tailed jackrabbits. There are the iconic sage grouse, innumerable songbirds, raptors, and aquatic bird species.
Energy development, highways, and other human endeavors fragment the habitat, but they endure. Emigrants, then and now, brought in domestic and invasive species crowding out good forage: cheatgrass, tamarisk, and Wal-Mart bags, for example. Still, the natives persist.
More than just a wayside on the road to all points west, southern Wyoming should be considered a worthy destination all on its own.
Feature Image: Sage in the Sunrise, by Eilene Lyon 2018
All images not by the author are public domain.
Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In. 1981. Simon and Schuster, New York, page 179.
Pierce, E. D. 1975. The Pierce Chronicle: Personal Reminiscenses [sic] of E. D. Pierce as transcribed by Lou A. Larrick. Edited by J. Gary Williams and Ronald W. Stark. Idaho Research Foundation, Inc. Moscow, ID, pages 23 – 25.
“Speech of Mr. Benton” in the Indiana State Sentinel, Saturday, March 3, 1849, page 2.
The Emigrant’s Guide to New Mexico, California, and Oregon; Giving the Different Overland and Sea Routes. Compiled from Reliable Authorities. 1849. Published by J. Disturnell, New York.