Westward Through Nebraska
University of Nebraska - Lincoln
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      The route marked out by fur traders and trappers and carved deep by emigrant wagons fell into disuse as a great national highway with the dawn of the railroad era. But portions of its course were followed by bands of steel over which are carried the freight that once was transported by teams of plodding oxen. Still other parts of the old route were paralleled by graded, improved highways over which the high-powered motor speeds with an ease undreamed of by those who knew the white-topped wagons.

      As a highway the Oregon Trail belongs in a class by itself. Unique because of its great length, over 2000 miles, it is further distinguished by its spontaneous origin. Its course was determined, not by previous survey and mapping, nor by grading and the building of bridges, but by grim necessity. The wealth of the mountainous region must be transported to the markets of the East by the most direct route. Regions inhabited by hostile natives were to be

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      avoided so far as possible and at the same time mountain passes and stream valleys were to be utilized. Travel was from end to end and the earliest emigrants passed through a region uninhabited save for the Indians, at first amazed and later alarmed by the hosts of people migrating through their country.

      "Only on the steppes of Siberia can so long a highway be found over which traffic has moved by a continuous journey from one end to the other. Even in Siberia there are occasional settlements along the route, but on the Oregon Trail in 1843, the traveler saw no evidence of civilized habitation, except four trading posts between Independence and Fort Vancouver."  -1-

      As a highway over which flowed tides of emigrants to the Far West the Oregon Trail assumed national significance. Over its course hundreds of settlers moved into the Oregon Country, and thus the Trail became an important factor in securing a settlement of that prolonged Oregon question which was favorable to the United States. Witness the tide of migration by which the population of the Oregon Country increased (not including the Hudson's Bay Company operatives).

1. Chittenden, American Fur Trade. Vol. I, p. 460. (Go back to where you were.)

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      To the population of 200 in 1840 were added the migration of 1841, 111 people, and 1843, 109 people.  -2- The year, 1843, brought the "great migration" of approximately 1000 people in 120 wagons drawn by six-ox teams. With them were several thousand loose horses and cattle.  -3- The next year brought 800 more people. In 1845, some 3000 people crossed the plains, about two-thirds of whom reached Oregon, the rest turning off at Fort Hall for California.  -4- The next year another 2000 people set out for the west, half of whom reached Oregon.  -5- It is estimated that 5000 pushed across the prairies in 1847, fully two-thirds of whom went to Oregon.  -6- The migration of 1848 was large but statistics for it have not been gathered. Many who started for Oregon changed their plans and went to California upon learning while en route of the discovery of gold in California.  -7- While not all

2. Johnson, S. V., A Short History of Oregon , pp. 219-222. (Go back to where you were.)

3. Clarke, S. A., Pioneer Days of Oregon History. Vol. II, p. 490. (Go back to where you were.)

4. Johnson, Short History of Oregon , pp. 244-5. (Go back to where you were.)

5. Idem.  (Go back to where you were.)

6. Ibid. , pp. 246-7. (Go back to where you were.)

7. Ibid. , p. 247. (Go back to where you were.)

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      of these emigrants followed the route of the Oregon Trail, it is known that the Whitman party of 1843 followed this course and doubtless a fair portion of the others took this well-known road.

      With such large numbers of American settlers came a demand for local government and some form of territorial organization which could not be forthcoming until the question of ownership was settled. Settlers sent numerous petitions to Congress asking for recognition as a territory, and politicians took up their cause. The treaty of 1846 established the boundary between British and United States territory and in 1849 an act was passed creating the Territory of Oregon.

      The discovery of gold in California (1848) gave another impetus to westward travel. From the headwaters of the Platte various routes led into the fabled region but the well-known Oregon Trail, particularly the eastern portion, offered a direct route, the course of which was well marked by previous travel. The great rush of emigrants into that region brought about the organization and admission to the

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      Union of the first far western state, California (1850). A few years later, 1859, Oregon became a state. The early admission of these states, so far removed from the seat of government, would have been impossible without the existence of such routes to the west as the Oregon Trail.

      In the troublous years immediately after 1850 the routes to the west were to serve another purpose. Friction between the North and the South was becoming more intense. Threats of secession grew louder and more insistent. It was imperative that the far-flung western frontier be in close communication with the eastern half of the United States, and that the intervening territory be brought under control. Over the route by which settlers had gone into the far west, went the lines of communication which united the interests of the widely separated regions. The Pony Express, the overland stage, freighting caravans followed its course until the advent of the railroads and the telegraph made the Trail useless. Thus, as a highway already established, the practicability of which had been previously demonstrated, the Oregon Trail was one of the links binding the East and the

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      As a highway which was evolved from early travel and not from previous survey or mapping, the location of the Oregon Trail was determined in large measure by the natural landscape of the region through which it passed. The cultural landscape of the area was to be modified by the existence of such a highway and the continuous process of adjusting the Indians to the changed conditions coincident with the development of the "Great Medicine Road" assumed a national role. From the Missouri River to the Rockies the Trail passed through the hunting grounds of natives whose livelihood was largely dependent upon the buffalo, and other wild animals within the region. With such crude implements as they had to use their means of subsistence was greatly restricted without the horse. The natives had gained their first horses from the earliest traders who had come to the region. They had learned the value of the horse for the hunt and in warfare, and it is small wonder that they manifested such interest in the livestock of the emigrant parties.

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      The records of travel on the Trail during the early period of its use, 1830-1850, contain few accounts of Indian depredation to emigrant life and property, except for begging and pilfering. Frequent mention is made of loss of livestock. Perhaps the size of the emigrant parties made for their safety from Indian attacks, though they were seldom adequately armed to withstand such emergencies. The further fact that these people merely passed through Indian country on their way to regions more remote gave the Indians less cause for alarm.

      The presence of the natives within the region through which the Trail passed gave rise to problems which required action by the United States government. The first of these acts, passed in 1834, before travel on the Trail became very heavy, created an Indian Country in the territory west of the Mississippi River. White people were forbidden to enter the region except upon special military permit; surveys or settlements in any lands within the region were prohibited and only those properly licensed

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      could carry on trade with the natives.  -8- Who then could have foreseen the difficulties that lay in the way of enforcing such provisions, or who could have foretold that within the next 35 years numerous treaties with the natives would have to be arranged as white travel and settlement encroached upon the territory involved, regardless of government acts.

      Emigrants proceeded to the Far West through the Indian Country. The Pawnee Nation, living a fairly settled mode of life, offered little resistance to the invasion of the whites. By treaty in 1833 they gave up claims to land south of the Platte, except as a common hunting ground, in return for aid (tools, implements, seeds, etc.) from the Great White Father for their agricultural pursuits.  -9- Again, in 1857, by treaty arranged at Table Creek, Nebraska Territory, the Pawnees ceded their land as far west as a line running north from the junction of the North and South

8. United States Statutes at Large. Vol. IV, 1789-1845, pp. 729-735. (Go back to where you were.)

9. Statutes at Large. Vol. VII, pp. 448-9. (Go back to where you were.)

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      Platte to the Keha-Paha River. They agreed to establishment of a reservation for them along the Loup, and in return the government was to continue its aid along agricultural lines.  -10- Thus by 1857 the Pawnees had been peacefully relegated to a reservation and the period of settlement along the eastern part of the Trail could progress without danger from that sources.

      Farther to the west, the various tribes of the Sioux presented a more serious problem. The Sioux lived almost entirely by the hunt. Early they coveted the horses and other livestock of the emigrant and upon many occasions helped themselves to possess what they wanted. They likewise viewed with alarm the increasing number of emigrants who each year were moving through their territory. They saw the buffalo rapidly diminishing. They were not kindly disposed toward the treaties which seemed to be pushing them farther and farther back until at last it seemed they had their backs to the Rocky Mountains and must fight

10. Statutes at Large. Vol. XI, pp. 729-733. (Go back to where you were.)

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      for their very existence.

      By treaty in 1837 the Sioux gave up to the United States government all claim to lands east of the Mississippi river and agreed to move into the Indian country which had been created west of the Mississippi, the government to pay them a stipulated sum in goods for a period of years.  -11- The Trail, which began to be used about 1832 and over which such large numbers of travelers were moving by 1850, cut through the heart of the Sioux Country. The Sioux tribes, frequently at war with neighboring tribes, and often threatening to bands of emigrants, were finally called into council. At the junction of Horse Creek with the North Platte, about two miles east of the present town of Lyman, in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, were assembled nearly all the western Sioux bands and the first Fort Laramie Treaty was accepted September 17, 1851. The various tribes agreed to a division of territory among themselves within which they were to keep the peace and to be

11. Statutes at Large. Vol. VII, p. 538. (Go back to where you were.)

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      protected against all depredations by the whites. They recognized the right of the government to establish roads within their territory and agreed not to molest travelers using such highways.  -12-

      From this time on the hatred between the Sioux and the white people seemed to grow more bitter and more intense. That the terms of the treaty of 1851 were not faithfully observed by either Indian or white is shown by the following incident.

      In 1854, a lame cow, belonging to a band of emigrants, left the Trail and wandered into a Sioux camp, where she was killed and eaten. The emigrant party reported their loss to the commander at Fort Laramie, who, with a group of 29 men, set out to demand compensation for the cow or the capture of the young brave who had wantonly destroyed emigrant property. Failing in both, his soldiers opened fire, the Sioux camp went wild and there was great loss of life to both parties. It would seem that such tragedy might have been avoided.

12. Kappler, Charles J., Indian Affairs. Vol. II, pp. 594-5; also Sheldon, Nebraska. Vol. I, pp. 133-36. (Go back to where you were.)

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      General Harney's surprise attack on a party of Brule Sioux near Ash Hollow in 1855 seemed more or less unwarranted and ruthless. The great restlessness and continued hostility of the Sioux appeared to be further aggravated by the discovery of gold in the Pike's Peak area and the consequent rush of gold seekers and settlers thither. A few years later, the Bozeman Trail to the gold fields of Montana, an offshoot from the previously established Oregon Trail, cut again through Sioux territory and the natives had reason to believe that settlement by the whites would follow. Rumors and threats of Indian attacks caused government troops to be sent over trails into the region of unrest, but such show of force did not seem to overawe the discontented savages. The Agent in Upper Platte agency, in his report of September 30, 1863, urged the necessity of immediately making treaties with the Sioux and the Crow, who claimed they had been promised by General Harney that no whites should settle or travel in or through their country until a treaty had been made with them. Attempts to hold council with the tribes at Cottonwood Springs

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      in the early summer of 1864 proved futile and late summer of that year found the Indians in possession of much of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska. Considerable destruction of life and property resulted all along the Trail, especially at Little Blue Station, Liberty Farm, and Oak Grove Ranch. Stage coach and mail service were suspended for a few months. General Dodge was sent to restore order but hostilities continued along the Platte River and in the Powder River region to the north. Such persistent and determined opposition to the policy of the government led finally to the abandonment of the country. The new treaty, April 29, 1868, provided that the territory north of the North Platte and east of the Big Horn Mountains should be regarded as unceded Indian territory in which the white people should not be allowed to settle, nor through which they should be allowed to pass without first obtaining the consent of the Indians. It was further agreed that the military posts within the territory were to be abandoned within 90 days after the signing of the treaty

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      and the roads leading to them were to be closed.  -13-

      Thus the period of thirty-five years, beginning about 1832, during which time the Trail reached its peak as a highway to the West, and which likewise marked the decline of its period of usefulness, brought also a marked change in the life and distribution of the people inhabiting the region in question. From a primitive condition where the tribes were free to roam and hunt at will, they passed through a series of struggles with the encroaching whites which were to leave them restricted to certain areas, dependent upon the Great White Father for many of their implements and provisions, and forced to adopt a cultural existence which was finally to rob them of their mode of living.

      As a highway in use for four decades, the Oregon Trail left its imprint upon the region through which it passed. The migrations of large numbers of people presented business opportunities which the foresighted were soon to see and quickly grasped. Early

13. Kappler, Indian Affairs. Vol- II. pp. 998-1003. (Go back to where you were.)

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      in the era of the colonization of Oregon, Marcus Whitman saw the need for a series of stations along the route and had in mind the introduction of a bill proposing that the government establish such posts and provide sufficient military protection to insure safety for the travelers. According to his plan such forts were to be built at river crossings for there was most danger of Indian raids and thefts. The supply of grass and fuel was usually better in such locations and there was the possibility that such stations could become self-supporting through the sale of their crops and supplies to the travelers.  -14- Such a proposition was not presented to Congress and private enterprise was quick to grasp these business opportunities.

      Stations along the overland stage and Pony Express route were established ten to twenty miles apart, and throughout Nebraska such stations became nuclei of settlements. Around them centered such business activities as developed with travel along

14. Coman, Katherine, Economic Beginnings of the Far West. Vol. II, p. 158. (Go back to where you were.)

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      the route. Early history of the counties through which the Trail passed make mention of the influence of the Trail in determining the location of the first settlers.

      A few of the stations which were thus started later developed into towns of some significance. Others have become spots of historic interest, some with only a few mounds of earth left to tell the tale of a once prosperous past. Some flourished until the railroads came and the glory once theirs is reflected by a few remaining buildings. All such stations have been significant in the development of the territory through which the Trail passed.

      Of interest as a survival of Oregon Trail days is the old town of Meridian, the first real town in Jefferson County. Its beginnings date back to around 1868 when freighting on the old Trail was still of much importance. The somewhat astonishing growth of the town in two years from a mere bit of prairie sod to one of the important towns in that section was doubtless due to a few interested citizens along the Big Sandy. Recognizing the importance of water power

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      and of valleys for railroad construction they promoted the town of Meridian on the Blue as a place to which the railroad would build.  -15-

      In 1873, when Mr. H. M. Stanclift, now of Alexandria, came to Meridian, he found a town of about 275 people. The hotel with about 40 rooms suggests the importance of the town as a stopping place for travelers of that day. Other industries flourishing then are suggestive of the influence of overland travel and trade. The meat packing business, owned and managed by T. J. Holt, George Weisee, and Hugh Ross, handled about 200 head of hogs and as many cattle in a year. The meat was cured and smoked in a brick building, which is still standing, and at the present time is used as a residence. The Meridian Mills were the farthest west of any mills in 1873, and, according to Mr. Stanclift, people came here from Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Dakota for flour and other mill supplies.  -16- But the St. Joseph and Wes-

15. Dawson, Pioneer Tales of the Oregon Trail , p.273. (Go back to where you were.)

16. Interview with H. M. Stanclift of Alexandria, Nebraska (Aug. 1932). Personal letter from H. M. Stanclift, (Oct. 9, 1932). (Go back to where you were.)

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      tern railroad, built about 1871, followed the Big Sandy valley and left Meridian without the advantage of more rapid transportation. In the years which have passed since 1871 Meridian has come to be only a remnant of a town. A few old buildings still stand in the Little Blue valley. On the hill above the site is an old abandoned cemetery, a grim reminder of the days when justice was speedily wrought. Some of the buildings were moved across the divide to the present site of Alexandria, on the railroad.

      Another point of interest during the days of the Trail's greatest use was Cottonwood Springs, in the Platte valley, named from a spring in the vicinity of which was a cluster of cottonwood trees. Located (R. 28 W., T. 12 N.) near the mouth of a wide canyon (Cottonwood Canyon) which provided splendid passage to the tablelands farther south, this spot had become a favorite crossing place for the Indians in their movements north and south.  -17- The first buildings were probably constructed around 1858

17. Ware, Eugene F., The Indian War of 1864 , p. 62. (Go back to where you were.)

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      and the spot assumed importance as a trading ranch.

      "Aside from the stage station, stables, grain warehouse, and a store or two, there never was much of a town at Cottonwood Springs. It was, however, during staging and overland freighting days, a valuable location; and, being only a short distance west from Fort McPherson it was naturally thus made still more valuable. Cottonwood Springs was situated about midway between the Missouri and the Rockies, and was looked upon as an important point by all in early days who drove oxen and mules and traveled the overland route. It was especially important to the stage officials, for it was a 'home' station and a depot of general supplies. There was also a telegraph office in the building, and it was the half-way point between Fort Kearney and old Julesburg."  -18-

      The presence of such a highway in territory which had been set aside for the natives and the increase of immigrants to numbers alarming to the Red Man were sufficient cause for the establishment of military protection within the region so traversed. Thus it was that the government ordered the laying out of a military road, and that road, designated about 1850, followed the general route of the Oregon Trail across Nebraska, continuing south of the South Platte to Jules-

18. Root and Connelly, Overland Stage , p. 499. (Go back to where you were.)

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      burg. Various names have been applied to parts of the Trail so laid out. The name Fort Kearney-Fort Leavenworth Military Road was given to the portion between the points named; west of Fort Kearney it was often referred to as the Wagon Road.

      As a part of the system for military protection forts and posts were established along the way. These served for supply stations, for stage stations, and telegraph stations as well as for military headquarters. One of the first of these posts to be established was Fort Kearney, the site for which was selected in 1847 and which was to become of greater importance during the Indian troubles after 1850.

      Cottonwood Springs previously referred to, became the site of another military post for Nebraska Territory. Fort McPherson, established in the fall of 1863, in a region occupied by tribes of hostile Indians, proved its value during the attacks the next year. Like Fort Kearney, its period of usefulness ceased with the passing of danger from Indian raids. A military reserve containing about 16 square miles, with 100 acres devoted to a government cemetery, now

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      remains to remind present and future generations of the tragedy that once stalked the prairies and of the dauntless courage of those who claimed these areas for more peaceful pursuits.

      As the Trail was a factor in determining the location of the earliest settlements within the region through which it passed, so was it to play a part in directing the pursuits by which these first-comers were to make their living. A wide-spread belief that the soil could not be successfully tilled tended to discourage farming on an extensive scale. The story was told of Christian Luth, a German, who settled near the Trail in Thayer County in 1859 and began to till the soil. He was much laughed at by those traveling the road for attempting to farm on the "Great American Desert".  -19- The crops raised by such settlers were intended for home consumption and for sale to the travelers. They consisted principally of corn, vegetables, oats and hay, and farmers near the Trail could realize a fair profit from such trade.

19. Andreas, History of Nebraska. Part II, pp. 1440-1444. (Go back to where you were.)

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      Greater profit was to be made in other lines of work. The rapid increase in the number of stations enroute brought demand for building materials. The supply of these within the region was limited, but some use was to be made of such trees as were found. The saw mill began to grind out slabs of lumber for rude structures to house supplies and people. Sod houses and dug-outs sometimes served the same purpose and stables were frequently of similar structure.

      The grain crops were ground into flour and meal, and grist mills sprang into existence at places where power from some stream or other source was available. Others found it profitable to prepare meat for sale to overland parties. The slaughtering industry at Meridian has already been cited. The meat was usually dried or smoked, and the industry must have become of greater importance in the later period of travel over the Trail, for then the buffalo had practically disappeared.

      From the earliest beginnings of the Trail to the time when the railroads rendered it useless, one of

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      the most important pursuits along its course was the carrying trade. Men had blazed the Trail seeking the wealth of furbearing animals in the Rocky Mountains. Going out empty-handed, but full of high hope, they returned to the fur markets of the East bearing precious cargo. The carrying-trade was principally eastbound, and was pursued by the travelers themselves.

      The half-century following the beginning of the Oregon Trail as an emigrant highway was to change the nature of the cargoes, as well as the direction of their travel and method of handling. East-bound fur-traffic gave way with the movement of settlement into the Far West. In its place was to come a vast movement of goods and supplies from the regions east of the Missouri. With the establishment of ranch houses and stations and increasing travel, not all of the supplies needed along the Trail in Nebraska could be produced within the region. Flour, tobacco, sugar, dry-goods, whiskey, furniture--these and other items were in demand along the Trail.

      Freighting companies were organized to carry on the business.

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      "Few persons except those who saw with their own eyes can have a correct idea of the enormous amount of traffic on the overland route in those early days. There were trains constantly outfitting and crossing the plains from Omaha, Nebraska City, St. Joseph, Atchison, Leavenworth and a few other points."  -20-

      In the late fifties and early sixties,

      "the greater part of the traffic was over the old military road, along the south bank of the Platte River. Often there could be seen a string of four-and-six-horse (and mule) teams and six to eight yoke of cattle hauling the biggest heavily loaded wagons. Frequently a train a mile long might be seen on the road. Many times a number of trains could be seen together, and the white, canvas-covered vehicles extended for many miles, as far as the eye could see."  -21-

      One of the largest and without doubt the best known of these companies, was the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell.

      "For many years they were the government contractors for transporting military stores to all points on the frontier. Besides, they had large contracts with Brigham Young--as well as with many of the prominent business men of Utah, for freighting their supplies from the Missouri river...."  -22-

      The importance of the freighting business is

20. Root and Connelly, Overland Stage , pp. 307-8. (Go back to where you were.)

21. Idem.  (Go back to where you were.)

22. Ibid. , p. 309. (Go back to where you were.)

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      shown by efforts of the government to protect those engaged in overland traffic.

      "An order was issued by the war department, the last of February, 1866, for wagontrains to rendezvous at Fort Kearney. In the order it was stipulated that no train of less than twenty wagons and thirty men, thoroughly organized, would be permitted to pass beyond Fort Kearney into the Indian country."  -23-

      It would seem that various points along the Missouri River were used as outfitting points, but that they converged at Fort Kearney and proceeded on the south bank of the Platte.

      "Owing to the scarcity of troops, and the amount of country to be covered and protected by patrol, it was impossible to furnish sufficient troops to patrol both sides of the Platte river, and all emigrants and freighters coming up on the north side of the river were compelled to cross the stream at Fort Kearney, the journey then being continued on the south side."  -24-

      Thus it would seem that the eastern portion of the Oregon Trail in Nebraska came to have rival routes which robbed it of some of its traffic. With the extension of settlement along the course of the Mis-

23. Ibid. , p. 310. (Go back to where you were.)

24. Idem.  (Go back to where you were.)

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      souri River cut-offs were made which led more directly to the Platte Valley. Among these were the "Ox-bow" Trail from Nebraska City to Fort Kearney by the way of Salt Creek at Ashland, probably established around 1859-59.  -25- By 1860 the Nebraska City--Fort Kearney cut-off reached Fort Kearney by way of Otoe, Lancaster, Seward, York, Hamilton, Hall, and Adams counties. This road, called the "Steam Wagon Road", carried much traffic by 1863.  -26- The portion of the Trail west of Fort Kearney continued as a route for overland traffic until the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad robbed all parts of the Trail of significance in connection with freighting. But its course had been laid, the western empire was assured, the beginnings of white civilization were established in Nebraska.

      The story of the Oregon Trail as a highway of history is full or romance and of tragedy, of high achievement and of bitter disappointment, of courage

25. Mapes, C. B., The Nebraska City-Fort Kearney Cut-off (Master's Thesis). (Go back to where you were.)

26. Ibid.  (Go back to where you were.)

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      and of determination. As a factor affecting the economic development of the region through which it passed, the Oregon Trail played its part well, and then passed from the stage. The geographic aspects of travel along the route remain to be considered. In general its course was determined by the natural landscape of the area traversed. Access to water, fuel, grass, and game were direct factors in determining the route to be followed. A detailed study of the location of the Trail within Nebraska reveals some interesting relationships between the route followed and the natural environment.

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