When the Platte Valley came to be recognized as the most desirable route to points in the Far West, overland caravans, setting out from Indepenence or Westport on the Missouri River, began to seek the most direct route thither. The region in question presented few obstacles to the travellers, and various routes were from time to time used. The main travelled Trail led west past Gardner, Kansas, across the Big Blue near Marysville, Kansas, and into Nebraska at the southwest corner of the present Gage County. From here, its course roughly paralleled that of the Little Blue to the region near Leroy, where it struck across the divide to the Platte Valley.
The Trail in Nebraska thus entered and crossed the largest loess plains area within the state the surface of which
"is quite even, with a broad landscape modified by small drainage ways, shallow basins and
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The Oregon Trail entered Nebraska on the divide between the Big Blue and Little Blue drainage systems, at a point 1986 feet east of the Gage-Jefferson County line, and, continuing on the divide, entered Jefferson County at the southeast corner of the present Newton Precinct, section 36, R. 4 E., T. 1 N. It turned north across the eastern half of section 25 and half way into section 24, then swung almost directly to the northwest corner of section 6, in the same township. Its course followed very closely the
The Oregon Trail in Jefferson County, Map A
(Adapted from Dawson, Pioneer Tales of the
Brown line marks extent of valley soil along north side of the Little Blue.
crest of the divide between the tributaries of the Big Blue and the Little Blue, an upland region, well drained and comparatively free from troublesome ravines. The course led across what are now heads of small streams and drainage ways, at present too steepwalled to be crossed easily, but which were probably then shallow, grass covered basins or depressions. Such examples are to be noted in Section 9 and again in Section 6.
As the Trail left Newton Precinct and entered Rock Creek Precinct, T. 2 N., R. 3 E., it swung almost due northwest across section 36, and in section 26 came into the famous Rock Creek Valley. Here the traveler began to encounter difficulties. for erosion left the upland regions very rough and hilly, with steep slopes, and a somewhat abrupt descent into the valley. The discomforts of getting into the valley were offset in a measure by the abundance of grass for the livestock, and the cool refreshing spring water with which the stream is fed. This soon came to be recognized by travelers as a favorable camp site, many making mention of it in their accounts.
The steep rocky bank of the stream made fording difficult. Mr. Hansen, an early pioneer in Jefferson County, gives us the following account:
"Often after heavy rains the mules or oxen would pull the heavy prairie schooners of travelers half way up the opposite bank, and then stop exhausted, the men gripping the spokes to prevent the wagon slipping back, the driver swinging his long whip, its cruel lash stinging the sweating flanks of horses and mules or raising great welts on the oxen's backs, urging them forward." -3-
As the wagons climbed up the right bank of Rock Creek they followed a very narrow path, the most easily ascended, and farther up the bank the pathway widened to possibly 200 feet. A stereograph view, made at an early day, shows the middle and most used part of the Trail to be worn so deep as to resemble a stream bed with banks on either side.
Ingenuity, ever the source of profit-making ideas for the pioneer, prompted him to take advantage of such situations as these. And thus the sagacious, enterprising McCanless leveled the banks, built a3. Hansen, Geo. W., "True Story of Wild Bell-McCanless Affray in Jefferson County, Nebraska, July 12, 1861" in Nebraska History Magazine , 1925-1927. (Go back to where you were.)
toll bridge, and proceeded to collect from ten to fifty cents for each wagon that crossed. The emigrant, more richly endowed with brawn and ability to meet new obstacles, than with worldly goods, proceeded a few feet farther upstream and forded the creek.
The Trail left Rock Creek Valley by way of the northwest quarter of section 26 and proceeded in a northwesterly direction across Rock Creek Precinct and into Richland Precinct, T. 3 N., R. 2 E., roughly paralleling the Little Blue River, but at a distance of two to three miles from the stream. The topography of the region thus traversed ranges from gently rolling to hilly, and the route was close enough to the headwaters of the numerous small streams tributary to the Little Blue to secure favorable crossings. Hilltops and divides are usually well rounded and the slopes are gradual. -4- The Trail thus did not pass through the present town of Fairbury but skirted the town on the east and north at a distance of about4. Soil Survey of Jefferson County , Nebr., U. S, Dept. of Agri., 1925. (Go back to where you were.)
two and a half miles.
A few of the larger streams whose head waters intersected the Trail in this region are spring fed, and their valleys offered advantages for camping. Mr. Dawson, in his book, Pioneer Tales of the Oregon Trail , makes special mention of the camp grounds in the Whiskey Run Valley.
"The southern limit of their camping grounds was in the southeast quarter of the northeast of section 33. .... The camping grounds extended northward through sections 28 and 21, using the springs, located in the southeast of the southwest of section 21 mostly for watering purposes. Here was where most of the early travelers camped, and to the east in the adjoining southwest of the southeast quarter of section 21 lies the grave of George Winslow, about 14 rods south from the north line of the forty, about midway east and west."
In section 20, T. 3 N., R. 2 E., (Richland Precinct) the Trail took a westerly course to the valley of the Little Sandy, which it crossed in section 19, about three quarters of a mile above its mouth. Near this fording was the site chosen by Joel Helvey for a ranch and stage station. After crossing the Little Sandy the Trail ran northwest following a small tributary valley, and in section 13, T. 3 N., R. 1 E.
The Oregon Trail in Jefferson County, Map B
(Adapted from Dawson, Pioneer Tales of the
Brown line marks extent of valley soil along north side of the Little Blue.
(Meridian Precinct) came onto the divide between the Little Sandy and the Big Sandy. At a point north of Powell, section 14, the Trail descended into the valley of the Big Sandy. Here were two pretty well traveled routes, one crossing the Big Sandy in the southeast corner of section 16, the other crossing about the middle of the section. As travel increased and settlement progressed rival ranches were established at the crossings, and competition between them was so keen that at times it was almost necessary to station armed guards along the way to prevent one owner from plowing up the road which led to his opponent's bridge. -5-
Regardless of which crossing was used, the route led to the southwest quarter of section 17, where it climbed to the divide between the Big Sandy and the Little Blue. It left Jefferson County in the southwest quarter of section 18, near the old site of Meridian.5. Proceedings and Collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society , Second Series, Vol. V, "Early History of the Jefferson County Overland Route" by W. W. Watson. (Go back to where you were.)
The Trail entered Thayer County on the divide just mentioned and continued as an upland trail for about half the distance across the county. In the western half of the county the Trail followed the valley.
Entering Thayer County from the east, the Trail continued on the crest of the divide between the Big Sandy and the Little Blue Rivers, coming into Thayer county just above the southeast corner of section 13, T. 3 N., R. 1 W. (Alexandria Precinct). A half mile or so below the route of the Trail, in the valley bottom, is the site of the old town of Meridian, named because of its location on the 40th meridian. Only a few buildings remain to tell the tale of a once thriving village. In the meadows on the slopes to the north may still be seen ruts carved deep by emigrant wagons. The tracks, still visible (1932) in section 13, indicate that here the wagons traveled in columns three and four abreast. The divide, which is rather narrow in section 13, widens to the west, and the Trail continued, across T. 3 N., R. 1 W., to take advantage
The Oregon Trail in Thayer County, Map A
Brown lines mark extent of valley soil north of the Little Blue and south of the Big Sandy.
of its relatively smooth, slightly eroded upland topography.
Farther to the west a tributary of Big Sandy (South Fork Big Sandy) interrupts the rather level divide and where it becomes narrow and broken the Trail dropped again to the valley. Thus in section 23, T. 3 N., R. 2 W., the route took a southwestward course, continuing to the southwest corner of section 29. In section 30 the Trail started the descent into the valley, and cutting across some gently rolling slopes in section 25 T. 3 N., R. 3 W., the valley was reached with ease. Here again in a pasture, about a mile and a half north and a half mile west of the present town of Hebron, may still be seen the old ruts which were the Trail. Now only grass covered furrows, two to four inches deep, they bear witness to the ease of descent into the valley in this region. Parallel tracks, three and four abreast, are still to be seen on the gradual slopes.
From this point west in Thayer County, the Trail stayed on the second bottom or terrace land, following for a distance of about 11 miles quite closely to
the north side of the valley. Thus it traversed an area of alluvial lands, very nearly level or gently sloping, and well drained. It is interesting to observe that these early travelers, without any previous survey or road signs to guide them, chose a route that at various places is followed by present-day roads. The Little Blue, in this part of its course, meanders over quite a wide sandy valley, and to construct roads along township lines would involve considerable expense for bridge building and road upkeep. Examples of where the old Trail closely parallels or follows present roads are to be found in T. 3 N., R. 3 W., sections 20, 19, and again in T. 3 N., R. 4 w., sections 15, 16, 17, and 18.
A few spots of historic interest are still to be noted along the Little Blue valley west of Hebron in Thayer County. Mr. H. A. Handershot of Hebron, who came to Nebraska in 1870 and homesteaded south of the Little Blue west of Hebron served as guide for the writer in the summer of 1932. He pointed out in the northeast quarter of section 27, T. 3 N., R. 3 W., some old mounds of earth, the foundation of an old
The Oregon Trail in Thayer County, Map B
ranch house built in the days of freighting on the Trail. The site is located close to the banks of the stream and was frequently used as a camping ground. The Trail ran about a quarter of a mile north, on a little higher ground. Figure 1 shows Mr. Handershot standing in the old foundation.
Fig. 1. Mr. Handershot, standing in the foundation of an old ranch house, on the Oregon Trail northwest of Hebron. Northeast quarter of section 27, T.3 N., R. 3 W.
Another landmark in the valley is the stately old cottonwood tree in the southeast quarter of section
20, T. 3 N., R. 3 W. Located in a draw leading back to the slopes on the north side of the valley, the immense tree has stood guard over this small ravine for these many years. The sandy bed of the ravine is dry except in seasons of heavy rainfall but its banks are steep enough to require additional pull on the part of the oxen. The friendly shade of the tree must have encouraged many a weary traveler to pause for a brief rest before climbing out of the ravine to another stretch of dusty sun-baked trail. Figures 2 and 3 show the tree and ruts made as the wagons left the ravine.
Fig. 2. Giant cottonwood tree on the Trail Northwest of Hebron. Southeast quarter of section 20, T. 3 N., R. 3 W.
Fig. 3. Ruts of Oregon Trail made as wagons of the draw in which the climbed out cottonwood grows.
Kiowa stage station, in the eastern half of section 16, T. 3 N., R. 4 W., was the only stage station between Meridian and Spring Ranch in Clay County, according to A. J. Croft who knew the region about 1870. -6- Here was a stockade and, in 1870, there were6. Proceedings and Collections, Nebr. State Hist. Soc., Sec. Ser. Vol. V, "From Meridian to Fort Kearney" A. J. Croft. (Go back to where you were.)
no other settlements until the one at Oak Grove Ranch, in Nuckolls County. -7-
The Trail cut across the northeast corner of Nuckolls County, for some 16 miles, part of the distance in the Little Blue Valley, then to the divide, sometimes called "Nine-Mile-Ridge", and again into the valley. Continuing in the valley from Thayer County the Trail entered Nuckolls County about midway on the east side of section 13, T. 3 N., R. 3 W. It swung slightly southwest into section 14 and curved to the northwest in section 15. The present road leading into Oak, Nebraska, from the east, follows almost the identical route of the old Trail. The close proximity of the stream to the hills which form the north side of the valley made this a somewhat dangerous spot on the Trail. It was along this portion of the Trail that the stage driven by Bob Emery, August 9, 1864, was suddenly attacked by a party of Indians.7. Collections of Nebr. Hist. Soc. Vol. XVII, 1913, "Incidents of the Early Settlement of Nuckolls County" by George D. Follmer. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon in Nuckolls County
Observing the Indians just as he was about to enter the narrow part of the valley, he quickly turned about and avoided an encounter which might have proved far more serious. This portion of the Trail is sometimes confused with the true narrows which are west of Oak.
The Trail swung across section 16 to the northwest corner, where a monument now marks its course, then northwest through the present town of Oak across section 8, the northeast corner of section 7, and the southwest quarter of section 6. T. 3 N., R. 5 W. In the immediate vicinity of Oak the valley is wide enough to make travel comparatively safe from surprise Indian attack, but in sections 7 and 6 the stream flows so close to the north side of the valley that the region is quite properly referred to as "the narrows". In this narrow, trench-like valley both flood plains and terraces have developed, and the Trail stayed on the terraces where their width would permit. In general travel followed along the foot of the slopes leading to the uplands, where drainage was efficient but where the surface was not so rough as
seriously to impede progress.
Along the lower part of some of the slopes in sections 7 and 6 may still be seen some of the old ruts which were the Trail; in the northeast quarter of section 7. T. 3 N., R. 5 W., and again in the northeast quarter of the southwest quarter of section 6, T. 3 N., R. 5 W. In the latter they show very distinctly where the Trail dropped to the first bottom to get past a spur of upland projecting close to the river and lying between it and a draw leading in from the northeast. Figures 4, 5, and 6 make clear the difficulties encountered here and show the tracks cut by the wagons as they made their way past this dangerous spot.
Within this region were some of the earliest settlements made in Nuckolls County. The Eubanks ranch was located along the route of the Trail, in the northwest quarter of section 7, T. 3 N., R. 5 W. The Ewing or Kelley Ranch was nearby, in the northwest quarter of section 1, T. 3 N., R. 6 W. The Little Blue station, owned by J. M. Comstock was in the northeast quarter of section 35, T. 4 N., R. 6 W.
Fig. 4. Near the Narrows, Northwest of Oak. Tracks plainly visible. Northeast quarter of section 7, T. 3 N., R. 5 W.
Fig. 5. At the Narrows, where the Trail dropped to the first bottom. Northeast quarter of the southwest quarter of section 6, T. 3 N., R. 5 W.
Fig. 6. Projecting spur of upland at the Narrows. River immediately to left of picture. Monument on the upland to right. Post in foreground marks the spot of the capture of Laura Roper by the Indians in the raid of 1864. Northwest quarter of the southwest of section 6, T. 3 N., R. 5 W.
The Indian raids of 1864 along this part of the Trail seemed to center on these settlements. The Narrows have become known in Nuckolls County history as the scene of the capture by the Indians of Miss Laura Roper, and the heartless killing of many of the settlers in the vicinity.
It would have seemed wise for the travelers to have continued on the upland which they had so nearly
reached in section 8, near Oak and thereby have avoided the hazardous Narrows. Such a course would have seemed particularly desirable in view of the fact that the valley became still narrower and the travelers were forced to seek the divide a short distance west of the Narrows. The distance would have been greater by perhaps a mile or two, but, increased comfort and safety would compensate for that. Such is human nature--to follow where others have gone.
The valley of the Little Blue becomes extremely narrow in T. 4 N., R. 6 W., even less than a quarter of a mile in width in the region a mile and half west of Angus. Rather than make their way along such a narrow valley bottom, travelers chose the upland and so selected the first convenient approach west of the Narrows to the higher levels. Thus the Trail took to the northwest in section 36, T. 4 N., R. 6 W., over a hilly, eroded stretch, climbing more than 60 feet in the course of a mile or so.
In section 26, T. 4 N., R. 6 W., the upland was reached, and the Trail continued in a north and west direction across section 23, the northeast corner of
section 22, section 15, 16, touched the southeast corner of section 9, diagonally crossed section 8, cut across the northeast corner of section 7 and the southeast corner of section 6. Here again a surface ranging from gently undulating to nearly level presents few obstacles to travel. A few scattered shallow, basin-like depressions occur, but the slope is generally sufficient to take care of run off and assure the traveler a fairly solid road bed.
To continue along the divide between the Big Sandy and the Little Blue would involve a wide swing to the north to avoid a rough area along a tributary stream, so the Trail dropped back again into the valley in Section 2, T. 4 N., R. 7 W., and left Nuckolls County, at the northwest corner of section 3, T. 4 N., R. 7 W., a valley trail.
The rather extensive terrace development, along the Little Blue in sections 2 end 3, T. 4 N., R. 7 W., in Nuckolls County, extended into Clay County, sections 34 and 33, R. 7 W., T. 5 N., and furnished the roadbed for the Trail as it entered Clay County.
The Oregon Trail in Clay-Nuckolls Counties
In the northwest quarter of section 33, the terrace gives way to an area of more rugged topography and the Trail was forced to the bottom lands along the stream. Here the Trail passed just to the north and east of the present town of Deweese near which was the Liberty Farm Station, located in the southwest quarter of the southeast corner of section 29, T. 5 N., R. 7 W. -8- Most of the buildings at this station were burned in the Indian raid of 1864 and farmers of the community still plow up bits of the material used as chinks for the log structures.
The rough stony land forced the Trail to follow the bottom lands across the southwest corner of section 29 and diagonally across section 30 T. 5 N., R. 7 W., keeping as close as possible to the slopes leading to the higher levels. In the northern part of section 25, T. 5 N., R. 8 W., the Trail again struck the river terrace along which it continued across the8. Notes found in the Nebr. State Historical Society. Probably a newspaper article prepared by C. S. Paine, 1911. (Go back to where you were.)
southwest corner of section 24 and across section 23. Coming to the northeast corner of section 22, the Trail cut into an area with slopes ranging from medium to very steep. It followed this sloping area across section 15, for there was no terrace and the valley bottom was too narrow and sandy for use as a roadway.
In section 16, the Trail came down from the slopes to ford Pawnee Creek, near its mouth, and to continue on the first valley bottom through the present town of Spring Ranch. The present road which leads northwest from the town and the branch of the C. B. and Q. railroad which serves Spring Ranch follow alomst the very same route that the Trail followed. Old Spring Ranch station was located to the northwest of the present town. The station, which took its name from the springs at that point, was located in the southeast corner of section 8. T. 5 N., R. 8 W.
"Across the present public road from this ranch house, a distance of about 100 feet, were the stables. Directly east of the site of the ranch house at a distance of 230 feet is the present Spring Ranch school
house, District No. 3, which is right on the Trail. At this point the Trail left the bottom lands and turning sharply to the northeast ascended rather a steep hill on the divide between Pawnee Creek and the Little Blue which it followed for some distance passing diagonally through section 8 and entering section 6, 23 chains and 40 links north of the south-west corner...."9
Thus as the Trail climbed onto the divide in section 8 it took its final departure from the Little Blue valley. Travel in the valley was more and more difficult as the valley grew narrower and more deeply entrenched. The general direction of the valley could not much longer take the traveler toward his desired objective--the Platte Valley. For these reasons, the travelers climbed by a somewhat gradual ascent to the higher lands between the Little Blue and Pawnee Creek.
The Trail continued on this divide in Adams County until it reached the ford of the Thirty-two Mile Creek, crossing sections 1 and 2, T. 5 N., R. 9 W., and then across the southwest corner of T. 6 N., R. -9-9. Notes in the Historical Society, probably a Newspaper article prepared by C. S. Paine, 1911. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon Trail in Adams-Clay Counties
The Oregon Trail in Adams County, Map A
W., crossing sections 34, 33, 29, 30, and 19. In sections 24 and 14, T. 6 N., R. 10 W., the Trail cut across some tributary drainage ways, and in section 15 crossed Thirty-two Mile Creek. Thus far in Adams County the Trail was on the divide--a surface nearly level or gently undulating, but not of sufficient width to allow the caravans to spread very far apart.
Thirty-two Mile Creek was not difficult to cross and the route climbed out over a rather steep right valley wall to an uneroded remnant of the original plain, the margin of which it followed in section 9 and again in section 5. T. 6 N., R. 10 W. In section 6 it crossed West Branch Thirty-two Mile Creek, cut across the southwest corner of section 31, and in section 36, T. 7 N., R. 11 W., came again to an uneroded portion of the loess plain.
It is quite likely that from somewhere in this vicinity various routes led to the Platte River Valley, for some writers speak of reaching the Platte at a point about twenty miles below the head of Grand
island, -10- while the survey maps show the route to reach the Platte in the vicinity of Fort Kearney, near the head of Grand Island. Topographic maps suggest that either route might be traveled with ease, and it is quite probable that the routes did diverge.
Regardless of the route followed, travelers had to cross what is spoken of as the banks of the Nebraska or Platte River, a region of hummocky relief, described by Fremont as follows: -11-
"This (the coast of the Platte) had seemed in the distance a range of high and broken hills; but on a nearer approach were found to be elevations of 40 to 60 feet into which the wind had worked the sand. They were covered with the usual fine grasses of the country, and bordered the eastern side of the ridge on a breadth of about two miles."
The Trail, as marked on the original Government Survey Plats, (surveys made in 1859 and 1860) continued northwest across T. 7 N., R. 11 W., crossing sections 36, 26, 23, 22, the corner of 21, 16, 17, the northwest corner of section 18, and left R. 1110. Fremont, J. C., Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains , 1842. (Go back to where you were.) 11. Ibid. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon Trail in Adams County, Map B
W. at the west side of section 7. In T. 7 N., R. 12 W. it continued westward across sections 12 and 11, and in section 10 took an almost due course to the northwest across the southwest corner of section 3, and the northeast corner of section 4, passed into T. 8 N., R. 12 W., at the southwest corner of section 33, continuing through 32, 29, and 20. In sections 19 and 18 the travelers encountered the sand dune region, and at the west side of section 18 came out into the broad valley of the Platte, and passed into Kearney County.
The course of the Trail thus lay to the south, west and northwest of the present town of Kenesaw. Within the low, hummocky hills to the northwest of Kenesaw may still be seen the grass covered ruts, silent witnesses to the days of heavy traffic on the overland Trail. In the southeast corner of the southwest quarter of section 18, T. 8 N., R. 12 W., on the top of a low isolated hummock, stands a lone grave, marked only by a crude barbed wire fence and a few bits of broken rock. The grave stands as a reminder of the grim toll of life taken in the raids of 1864. The story is told that the wife of the pioneer
The Oregon Trail in Adams County, Map C
died as a result of drinking water from a well which had been poisoned by the Indians. The husband, a captive of the marauders for some time, returned to learn the fate of his loved one. His desire to mark the final resting place prompted him to bring from Omaha by wheelbarrow a monument to be erected on the spot. Souvenir-hunting tourists soon carried away the monument piece by piece, and public-spirited citizens of Kenesaw have from time to time attempted to restore a suitable marker, only to meet with the same results. Hence, the present seemingly ungrateful respect for one who paid the supreme price in an effort to redeem for white habitation the plains south of the Platte.
Fig. 7. "Coast of the Nebraska", or Platte River, Northwest of Kenesaw. Section 18, T. 8 N., R. 12 W.
Fig. 8. The lone grave, northwest of Kenesaw. Southeast corner of the southwest quarter of section 18, T. 8 N., R. 12 W.