Caravans, which had wound their way across the divide between the Little Blue and the Platte, came at last to the "coast" of the Nebraska or Platte River. The journey of eighteen to twenty miles was a long day's travel and probably one of the most tiresome within the present state. The route lay along a level prairie ridge, without streams to supply the travelers with water and without trees for shade. For miles in any direction the emigrant could see only waves of prairie grass on a field which seemed as level as a parlor floor. The Platte Valley must have been a welcome sight, for here was the level roadway, combined with the things so lacking in the day's journey just finished. Major Stansbury describes it thus:
"From this elevated position the valley presented a lovely appearance. The bottom was as level as a floor, covered with short
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The point where the Oregon Trail entered the Platte Valley almost coincided with its entrance into Kearney County, section 13, T. 8 N., R. 13 W. It proceeded westward for about five miles, (sections 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17) across an area of gravelly, sandy loam, a flat-surfaced portion of the Platte River terrace with a gentle slope to the north and northeast. In section 19 it came into the flood-plain of the valley, crossed the stream bed of Dry Creek and in section 18 continued on the first bottom lands along the river. -3-
The Fort Kearney Military Reserve extended across Ranges 14 and 15 West, in the present3. Soil Survey of Kearney County, Nebraska, United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Soils, 1923. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon Trail in Kearney County
Kearney County. The original township survey plats do not show the exact location of the trail for this distance but it seems very probable that the route followed the first bottom lands along which it is found on either side of the Reserve.
Fort Kearney was located on the lower lands of the valley on the site chosen by Lieutenant D. P. Woodbury in 1847. In his official report he said:
"I have located the post opposite a group of wooded islands in the Platte River, seventeen miles from where the Oregon Trail turns off to the south from the Platte River, three hundred seventeen miles from Independence, Missouri, one hundred ninety seven miles from Fort Kearney on the Missouri and two or three miles from the head of the group of islands called Grand Island."
The buildings were erected on a slightly elevated site, so as to be free from the danger of overflow. Much of the timber needed for building could be obtained on the nearby islands. Lieutenant Woodbury had reported a heavy growth of grass still green when he visited the place in September and so it was believed the surrounding valley would produce the natural hay necessary for the livestock which would be kept at
the Fort. -4-
The site had the further advantage of being centrally located in respect to the Indian tribes, the Pawnee on the one hand and the Sioux and Cheyenne on the other. These tribes were not only hostile to each other, but were continually attacking emigrant trains passing through their territory. A military fort at this point would secure peace for the emigrants as well as between the tribes. -5-
As settlement along the Missouri advanced and travel westward increased, Fort Kearney came to be of still greater significance. Various cutoff trails from points on the Missouri River, merged with the main trail in the vicinity of Fort Kearney. One of the most famous of these was the Nebraska City cutoff, the eastern portion of which was known as the Steam Wagon Road. Across the Platte from Fort Kearney the Mormon Trail came close to the river and travelers4. Willman, Lillian M., "The History of Fort Kearney" in Publications of the Nebraska Historical Society , Volume XXI. Also, "Military Correspondence of the War Department", same volume. (Go back to where you were.) 5. Willman, "The History of Fort Kearney" in Publications of the Nebraska Historical Society , Vol. XXI. (Go back to where you were.)
on this route benefited from the presence of a military force. Indian troubles in 1851 dispelled ideas of abandoning the fort and it was to remain during the years of travel on the trail, as such, a place of safety and refuge for care-worn travelers. Later, as a station on the Pony Express line, it was to continue a service, which it ceased to perform only after the Union Pacific railroad, north of the river, made such service unnecessary.
At the present time the old site of Fort Kearney is a part of the state park. A flag pole marks the center of the spot where the old building stood and around it may still be seen low mounds of earth, grass covered remnants of the barracks which once gave protection against the savage and sheltered the emigrant. (Figure 9)
West of the Reserve the Trail entered Range 16 W., T. 8 N., in the southern half of section 24, and swung to the northwest across sections 23, 22, 21, and 20, on the north side of a stream bed. At the northeast corner of section 19 the trail diverged, one line extending north into section 18 and entering
Fig. 9. Oregon Trail Monument on site of old Fort Kearney. Flag pole marks the center of the spot where the old building stood.
Phelps County in section 13, R. 17 W., T. 8 N., thereby staying very close to the river bank. The other route lay to the southwest across section 19, crossing a stream bed which parallels the Platte, and entered Phelps County in the southeast quarter of section 24, T. 8 N., R. 17 W. It is quite probable that these two routes represented wet and dry weather trails.
The Trail entered Phelps County, T. 8 N., R 17 W., section 24, the two trails, noted above, converging at the northwest corner, and continuing westward
The Oregon Trail in Phelps-Kearney Counties
across sections 23 and 14. In sections 15, 16, and 17, the route lay very close to the stream bank. In section 18 it swung away from the main stream, keeping to the south of an old deserted stream channel, as was also the case in R. 18 W., T. 8 N., sections 13, 14, 15.
Thus far the Trail in the Platte Valley followed a strip of bottom or flood plain land, lying between the river on the north and an area of hilly, hummocky relief on the south. Travel was facilitated by the nearly flat surface, which, though only 8 or 12 feet above the normal flow of the river, was not subject to overflow. Drainage was good, and the rank growth of native prairie and marsh grasses was adequate for the livestock of the traveler. -6-
The sand dune area bordering the Platte Valley on the south becomes less pronounced, and finally disappears along the border between Ranges 18 W. and 19 W., T. 8 N. This sandy area gives way to a strip6. Soil Survey of Phelps County, Nebraska, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Soils, 1917. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon Trail in Phelps County
of terrace some 15 feet above the first bottom and 15 or 20 feet below the upland. Next to the river, beginning in section 10, R. 18 W., T. 8 N., and extending westward into R. 20 W., lies a strip of poorly drained silt loam. Between the terrace and the poorly drained area immediately along the river lies a belt of well drained loam, the surface of which is flat, except for an occasional ridge or deserted stream channel. -7-
This strip of lowland furnishes the roadbed for the Trail for the greater part of the remaining distance across Phelps County. From section 15, R. 18 W., T. 8 N., where it began to come onto this slightly higher land, it continued westward across sections 16, 17, 18, and into R. 19 W., crossing sections 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. In R. 20 W., it followed along the edge between the well drained and poorly drained area, approximating the course of a contour line across sections 13, 14 and 10. The Trail continued westward across section 9, and in section 87. Ibid. (Go back to where you were.)
came to Plum Creek, which, according to the survey of 1868, the Trail crossed at the west side of the section and recrossed to the south side about a quarter of a mile west in section 7. The topographic and soil maps suggest no reason why the stream should have been forded twice when it would seem that no crossing at this point was necessary. Plum Creek Station seems to have been located on the north side of the stream in this vicinity, but the reason for its location is not apparent. The Trail continued across section 7 about a quarter of a mile south of Plum Creek, approximating the course of another contour line as it left section 7 and passed into Gosper County.
The Trail cut across the northeast corner of Gosper County, a distance of 4 ½ or 5 miles, and about half a mile south of an old abandoned channel of the Platte. It swung northwest across section 12, T. 8 N., R. 21 W., and continued in a general northwesterly direction across sections 12, 3 and 4. The soil survey for Gosper County has not been published, but the topographic map suggests that the route lay along
The Oregon Trail in Phelps-Gosper Counties
a terrace slope similar to the one traveled in Phelps County.
The sand dune area of Kearney County and the eastern part of Phelps County, gives way to an upland with a gradual slope to the lower levels of the valley in the western part of Phelps County and in Gosper County. In Dawson County this becomes a decided upland with a sharp escarpment facing a wider valley bottom. The terrace in Dawson County seems to be more pronounced, ranging from 2 to 3 miles in width, and to form a long gradual slope from the rather narrow flood plains to the base of the escarpment.
The Trail in Dawson County is a terrace trail for practically the entire distance of about 27 miles. A few interesting exceptions occurred which will be noted. Entering Dawson County at the southern border of section 33, R. 21 W., T. 9 N., it stayed for the first 5 miles on the terrace, half to three fourths of a mile south of the old stream channel, and for the next 2 miles about the same distance south of the main stream. It thus followed in a general north-
The Oregon Trail in Dawson County, Map A
westerly direction, crossing sections 32, the northeast corner of section 31, the southwest corner of section 30, section 25, 26, 23, 22, 21, and 16. The route thus traversed a region of flat to gently undulating topography, with sufficient slope toward the valley to give adequate drainage. -8-
The presence of a sandy area in sections 18 and 7, R. 22 W., T. 9 N., caused the Trail to turn rather sharply to the north in section 17, traversing the river flood plain in section 8, the corner of section 7, section 6 and across section 1. R. 23 W., T. 9 N. This took the Trail over a lowland region sufficiently drained in normal times to make it a better roadway than the sandy area on the terrace with its hummocky relief and tendency for soil to shift when the protecting cover of vegetation is disturbed. -9-
In section 2. R. 23 W. T. 9 N. the trail came back to the terrace, which it followed for the rest of the distance in Dawson County. In sections 35, 34, 33, and 28, R. 23 W. T. 10 N. it stayed on the terrace8. Soil Survey of Dawson County, Nebraska , 1922. (Go back to where you were.) 9. Ibid. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon Trail in Dawson County, Map B
slope leading to the lower level about a mile from the river. It followed across section 29, 20 on the terrace and in section 19, R. 23 W., T. 10 N., and also in section 24, R. 24 W., T. 10 N., followed about a quarter of a mile from the river, and for a distance of about a mile, the route traversed by a present day road. The route lay along the foot of the slope between the terrace and flood plain.
The flood plain for the remaining distance across R. 24 W. is quite narrow, from an eighth to a fourth of a mile wide and the trail stayed on the terrace without getting far from the river itself. It crossed sections 13, 14, 15, 16, 9, 8, 7, and 6. In R. 25 W. the route crossed sections 1 and 2 of T. 10 N., and entered T. 11 N. at the southwest corner of section 35, continuing northwestward across sections 34, 27, 28, 29, 20, and 19. In section 2, T. 10 N., the Trail swung farther away from the river and stayed about a mile away as it crossed T. 11 N.
The Trail traveled the Platte valley in Lincoln County for some 55 miles, during which distance changes in the valley occur. The valley narrows perceptibly.
The Oregon Trail in Dawson County, Map C
The terrace which the Trail had been following in Dawson County, and which is about two miles wide in the eastern part of Lincoln County, finally disappears at a point south of O'Fallon's. Here the uplands come very close to the stream. From O'Fallon's on west there is little or no terrace, and the Trail followed along the slopes leading from the uplands to the poorly drained lowlands. At some places in the valley the bottom lands are pinched out by extensions of the terraces; in other places, a wide swampy area lies between the terrace and the stream proper; at other times:, the upland slopes immediately to the bottom land. In the eastern part of the county the terrace is nearly level, and the streams which traverse it are deeply intrenched.
"The western part of the terrace occupies long gradual slopes, and is characterized by many low colluvial ridges composed of surface wash brought down from the upland." -10-
The Trail entered Lincoln County at the northeast corner of section 24, R. 26 W., T. 11 N., swung northwest, keeping pretty well to the terrace front10. Soil Survey of Lincoln County, Nebraska , 1926. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon Trail in Lincoln County, Map A
across sections 13, 14, 15, 10, 9, 4, 5. and 6. in T. 11 N.; the southwest corner of section 31, T. 12 N. R. 26 W.; and across sections 36, 35, 26, 27, and 28 in R. 27 W. T. 12 N. From this point, for about three miles, the terrace displaces the bottom land, and the Trail swung farther back on the terrace across sections 20 and 19, R. 27 W., and section 24, R. 28 In R. 28 a narrow strip of lowland again appears and was paralleled by the Trail, which stayed on the terrace about a fourth of a mile away, crossing sections 14, 15, 10, and 9.
The increasing width of the lowland or first bottom belt, which is to continue as a wider strip to the region south of O'Fallon's, forced the Trail farther back from the stream in order to stay on the terrace. From this point on colluvial ridges begin to make their appearance and the terrace presents a more decided slope. Numerous small creeks and streams come out from the uplands and cut their way across the surface. The Trail crossed section 8, the southwest corner of section 5, and section 6 in R. 28 W. T. 12 N., and in R. 29 W. T. 12 N., crossed sections 1, 2,
The Oregon Trail in Lincoln County, Map B
then swung north into T. 13 N., crossing sections 36, 35, 34, and 27. In sections 28 and 29 the Trail cut across a southward extension of low sandy bottom land which has decreased the terrace to half or three quarters of a mile in width. In the southwestern corner of section 20 the Trail came again on to the terrace which is wider for a distance and the Trail followed across section 19, R. 29 W. T. 13 N., and sections 24, 23, and 15, R. 30 W. T. 13 N.
Along the eastern side of R. 30 W., T. 13 N., the North and South Forks of the Platte unite. A few parties, notably that of Fremont (1842), crossed the South Fork somewhere near the junction and followed the north bank of the stream. -11- The area between the usual route and the stream was poorly drained and quicksands in the stream bed made fording in this area difficult. However, most of the travel continued on the south side of South Platte. The terrace becomes so broken and at places so completely interrupted that travel followed more closely along the slopes which11. Fremont, Report of the Exploring Expedition. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon Trail in Lincoln County, Map C
lead to the lowlands. These occupy a poorly drained strip, a mile to a mile and a half wide. -12- Thus the Trail may be traced across sections 16, 17, and 18, R. 30 W., T. 13 N., and in R. 31 W., across sections 13, 14, 15, 10, and 9. In section 8 the route stayed along the northern edge of a sandy region with hummocky relief, and in section 7 was again on the slopes leading to the lowlands.
The Trail paralleled Fremong Slough, which it crossed in section 1, R. 32 W. T. 13 N., and in sections 2 and 3 the Trail swung decidedly northwest into the lowland region. It ran just along the edge between section 4, T. 13, N., and section 33, T. 14 N. to avoid a swampy area which lies in the northern part of sections 4 and 5, T. 13 N., and extends into section 32, T. 14 N. Across sections 32 and 31, R. 31 W.,12. The original township survey plats do not have the Trail marked across ranges 21, 30, 31 and 32. For this part of the Trail, the route outlined by Dr. A. B. Hulbert, in The Crown Collection of American Maps, Series IV, The American Transcontinental Trails, Vol. II, North and South Platte Routes , was used. The maps are shown in less detail, and are therefore not considered quite so accurate for location by sections. (Go back to where you were.)
T. 14 N., the Trail again followed along the slopes, as it also did across sections 36 and 35, R. 33 W. T. 14 N.
This brought the traveler to the point south of O'Fallon's where the bottom land and terrace are suddenly displaced by the highlands. For a distance of some three miles bluffs rise abruptly to heights of 120 to 160 feet, and so close to the river that to pass between the river and the bluffs would be a hazardous undertaking, especially in a region of hostile Indians. At one point, section 34 R. 33 W. T. 14 N., the bluffs are so close to the river that there is scarcely room enough for a wagon to pass. Farther west, in sections 33 and 32, the bluffs bend back from the river an eighth to a fourth of a mile but they leave a sandy area which would not be a desirable road bed. For these reasons the Trail swung back of the bluffs, southwest across the lower fourth of section 34, T. 14 N., and the upper parts of sections 4, 5, and 6, T. 13 N. This brought the Trail to the west side of R. 33 W., and past one of the most difficult and dangerous spots thus far encountered on the jour-
The Oregon Trail in Lincoln County, Map D
In R. 34 W. T. 13 N., the escarpment swings somewhat sharply toward the southwest, but in the western half the trend becomes gradual. At the foot of the escarpment runs an old abandoned stream channel. The Trail followed along the foot of the bluffs, crossing numerous spurs of the escarpment, but avoiding the old channel. It crossed sections 1, 2, 3, 10, 9, 8, and 7, R. 34 W., T. 13 N. A present-day road strikes the route of the Trail in section 2 and continues along it for the remainder of the distance in R. 34 W.
The terrace which practically disappeared in the western part of Lincoln County reappears as a narrow strip a fourth to a half a mile wide, leading from the alluvial bottoms to the uplands in the eastern part of Keith County. In range 36 W. the terrace becomes wider, and continues westward past the South Platte crossing as a strip from a half mile to a mile and a half wide. The terrace lies from 5 to 30 feet above the bottom lands, and about 200 feet below the general level of the upland. The surface is generally flat to gently undulating. In most places the slopes
The Oregon Trail in Keith County, Map A
to the higher tablelands to the south, as well as those to the lower lands, are long and gradual. -13-
For practically its entire journey in Keith County the Trail followed the terrace. It entered the county at the east side of R. 35 W. T. 13 N., in the southern fourth of section 12. It followed the terrace due west across sections 11, 10, 9, a route followed by a present-day road. Half way across section 8 the route of the Trail and the present road coincide, after which the present road drops south to follow the section line west across the upland while the Trail continued on the terrace across section 7, and across section 12, R. 36 W., T. 13 N.
For a distance of about half a mile at the southwest corner of section 11, and the northwest corner of section 14 the terrace seems to disappear, and the Trail approximated roughly the course of a contour line across the northwest corner of section 14, and the northeast corner of section 15, R. 36 W., T. 13 N.
Across the western half of R. 36 W., and continu-13. Soil Survey of Keith County, Nebraska, 1926. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon Trail in Keith County, Map B
ing across ranges 37, and 38 the low alluvial lands are poorly drained. The drainage patterns roughly parallel the main stream, and there are scattered areas of swamp lands. The terrace itself becomes wider but seems to consist more and more of gradual slopes to the uplands. The Trail followed the inner slopes of the terrace which lead to the lowland area, approximating for much of the distance a contour line. Such was the course of the Trail across sections 15, 16, and 17, R. 36 W., T. 13 N. The route swung northwest across sections 18 and 7 to avoid a swampy area which lies immediately at the foot of the terrace slopes. In R. 37 W., T. 13 N., the Trail again came onto the terrace slopes, crossing sections 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, and 7. In the eastern half of R. 38 W., T. 13 N., the Trail continued to follow the slopes to the lowland across sections 12, 11, and 10.
From this point westward the poorly drained lowland area, across which few or no present-day roads have been built, gives way to a very narrow stretch of first bottom lands and a more extensive terrace development. The Trail followed this terrace, fairly
well back from the slopes to the lowlands, to the ford of the South Platte. It crossed, in R. 38 W., T. 13 N., sections 9, 8, and 7. In R. 39 W., T. 13 N., it crossed or touched the corners of sections 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 21, 20, and 19, In R. 40 W., T. 13 N., it crossed sections 24, 23, 22, 21, 29, and 30.
The water of the South Platte flows in a network of shallow meandering channels, except during the dry summer season when the river often becomes dry save for scattered water holes. -14- Such a stream is not difficult to ford as is evidenced by the numerous crossings used by various emigrant parties.
The party led by John B. Wyeth, 1833,
"traveled six days on the south branch of the La Platte, and then crossed over to the north branch...." -15-
Allowing a progress of 10 miles per day, this would14. Soil Survey of Keith County, Nebraska, 1926. (Go back to where you were.) 15. Wyeth, John B., "Oregon; or a Short History of a Long Journey", in Early Western Travels by Ruben G. Thwaites, Vol. XXI. Arthur H. Clark Co., 1905. (Go back to where you were.)
The Oregon Trail in Keith County, Map C
make the crossing somewhere in the vicinity of Brule, Nebraska. Fremont's party in 1842, crossed the South Fork near the mouth, then followed the left bank of the South Fork for some distance before striking across the divide. -16- Palmer's party, in 1845-46, crossed the South Platte five or six miles above the forks,
"and where the high ground commences between the two streams.... The south fork is at this place about 1/4 of a mile wide, and from 1 to 3 feet deep, with a sandy bottom, which made the fording so heavy (they) were compelled to double teams." -17-
The usual crossing, and the one which came to be known as the Lower California Crossing, is west of the present town of Brule, Nebraska, about 4 miles, and about 63 miles from the forks. -18- This places the ford somewhere along the west side of R. 40 W., or the east side of R. 41 W. Near here was established the Beauvais Ranch on the south side of the16. Fremont, J. D., Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1842 , in Senate Documents, Nos. 174 to 177, Second Session, 28th Congress, 1845. (Go back to where you were.) 17. "Palmer's Journal" in Early Western Travels by Ruben G. Thwaites, Vol. XXX. (Go back to where you were.) 18. Ghent, The Road to Oregon. (Go back to where you were.)
The low banks of the stream and the scarcity of water during the summer season rendered this an easy crossing. At the present time the low bottom land next to the stream is covered with native prairie grass and the explorer in search of ruts remaining from the days of travel on the Trail may find them in this community.
Over much of the distance thus traversed in the Platte Valley few remnants of the old Trail remain. Into this level region of fertile soil and tall prairie grass came the white settler with his plow. Where once the buffalo roamed at will and white-topped wagons rolled along, now grow the cultivated crops. The Trail, so plainly marked by the countless numbers who traveled it, has been well-nigh obliterated by those who settled within the region through which it passed.