Westward Through Nebraska
University of Nebraska - Lincoln
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      That the Oregon Trail came into existence as a national roadway to the Far West was not the result of mere accident. Explorers, fur traders, trappers, men of restless spirit, filled with desire for new adventure, lured by the unknown wealth of an unexplored region--the progenitors of a settled mode of civilization, sought out the most direct and practicable route into the region of the Rocky Mountains. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century the going and coming of such parties made known the existence of South Pass, near the head waters of the Platte, as the easiest route across the Rockies, and by 1830 a direct route to the Platte Valley had been established.

      During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, fur trading parties gave way before an increasing tide of settlers moving along the Trail into the Oregon Country and California. Missionary zeal;

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      desire to start life over; love of the new and untried; patriotic emotion; lure of the open winter along the Pacific coast; knowledge of recently discovered mineral wealth--these and other motives took "the course of empire" westward at an amazing rate. In great companies, sometimes 3000 strong, they traveled across open prairie and mountain pass, through land uninhabited, save by natives who were not always friendly.

      That a Trail of such great length, established without previous mapping or survey, should have followed so completely the most direct route to the West, seems remarkable. It was the line of least resistance, determined by the topography of the country and the availability of water, wood for fuel and repairs, and grass for the livestock. It would seem that in general the route followed a stream or some source of available water, and selected the most easily traveled course along such waterway. Except for the portion of the Trail along the Platte River, fuel was usually not a serious problem.

      In its journey of 420 miles across the state of Nebraska the location of the Oregon Trail was deter-

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      mined by these same factors. It followed the water courses of the Little Blue, the Platte, the South Platte and the North Platte rivers, along whose courses it sought the line of easiest travel.

      To reach the Platte, the Trail followed the water course of the Little Blue, thus crossing a region of loess plains. The broad landscape of the area, modified by shallow drainage ways, was favorable to progress. For 113 miles, the traveler was within easy reach of a never failing supply of water. Trees and shrubs furnished a sufficient supply of fuel. Native prairie grasses were abundant and thus the caravans were at liberty to select the most easily traveled course at a convenient distance from the stream. The maps show that 90 of the 113 miles were on the upland, while only about 23 miles were in the valley proper. Reasons are apparent. Travel on the upland gave a much better view of the area and there was less danger of surprise attack by the Indians. Tributary drainage ways were difficult to cross, and often a sandy valley floor presented obstacles to travel in the valley. Thus, always within easy reach

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      of fuel and water, the Trail tended to stay on the upland, descending into the valley only where stream erosion cut into the upland and made travel thereon difficult.

      The Platte Valley offered a natural highway to the traveler. For a distance of about 200 miles, almost uninterrupted, the traveler had the advantages of proximity of water and level roadway. Where the lowland nearest the stream was well drained and not subject to overflow the Trail stayed close to the stream. Such was the case for approximately 81 miles. Sometimes the gradual slopes from terrace to flood plain provided a more solid roadbed than the lowland, and along these the caravans proceeded for about 32 miles of the distance. The most favorable roadbed, as indicated by the distance traveled, was the terrace. Well-drained, level or gently sloping, the terraces were the roadbed for about 97 miles, approximately half of the distance. In the region of O'Fallon's Bluffs the proximity of the stream to the steep bluffs forced the Trail to the uplands back to the bluffs, for a stretch of about 3 miles.

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      Easy roadway, abundant grass for pasture, accessibility of water, plenty of wild game, especially for the early travelers--these were the advantages of the Platte Valley. Lack of trees and shrubs made fuel a serious problem. Dried buffalo chips were commonly used for fuel, and wagons needing repair were often abandoned on this part of the route.

      The stretch of the Trail which led across the divide represented 20 miles of the most difficult travel within the present state. After a long day's journey, without access to water, a difficult climb to the divide, a dangerous descent into the North Platte Valley by way of Ash Hollow, the travelers were ready to enjoy the cool spring water and the friendly shade of the scattered ash trees at the entrance into the Platte Valley.

      Another stretch of 83 miles in the valley of the North Platte took the caravans to the present Wyoming line. The valley enroute presents many variations. Sometimes a well developed lowland furnished a suitable roadway. The terrace, so prominent in the Platte Valley, is frequently interrupted or completely displaced by long gradual colluvial slopes leading from

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      the uplands of the south. The latter, traveled for 49 miles, seemed to be the favorite roadbed, while the terrace and lowland shared about equally, 16 and 18 miles respectively. Along this part of the Trail are the familiar landmarks, Chimney Rock, Courthouse and Jail Rocks, Scott's Bluff and Mitchell Pass.

      The Trail, marked out by fur traders and adventurers along the "geographic lines" of least resistance, was followed by vast numbers of homeseekers and "fortyniners". Early days of travel had slight economic effect on the development of the region through which it passed. In the decade 1830-1840, there were practically no settlements in Nebraska. It was not until the late '50's and early '60's that business began to grow along the Trail. The use of the Trail for the overland mail, stage and express lines, after 1858, gave rise to the location of ranches or stations along the way. These served as nuclei around which centered such industries as were concerned with supplying the needs of those engaged in overland transportation.

      The Homestead Act of 1862 brought large numbers

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      of settlers into Nebraska Territory, moving west from points along the Missouri. By 1870 Nebraska had become a state, the Union Pacific railroad linked the East and the West, running its ribbons of steel along the Platte Valley, and telegraph communication was completed. There was no longer any use for the Oregon Trail. The highway, once so well marked by the heavy travel passing over it, fell into disuse. Ruts, once deep-cut have yielded to the plough, and the prairie, uninhabited then, is now the home of an agricultural people. Only a few of those who knew the Trail in the days of the Pony Express and the overland stage remain. With their going, the Oregon Trail will belong to the past.

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