One of the key objectives for the pioneers (and for me on this trip), was to get to the Platte River in eastern Nebraska. The Platte runs eastward out of the Rockies across the flat plains of Nebraska. The Platte River basin is mostly flat and would lead them all the way to Wyoming. But in the 1840’s and 50’s, the Platte was treacherous. There were no dams, like there are today to control the flow. When the pioneers got to the river they would sometimes find a narrow stream and the next day find a mile wide torrent.
A Deadly River
It was also muddy and not a great source of drinking water. It was said by some that the Platte was “too thick to drink and too thin to plow”. But all the trails (Oregon, California, and Mormon) followed the river. The Mormons traveled on the north side and all others followed on the south side. The muddy water, changing flows, and numerous groups of livestock and people made it a deadly section of the trail. Cholera was rampant on the south side of the river.
There were many groups at the same time traveling along the river. Where one group camped there were several others who had just passed by camped upstream. When the river changed course (which was almost daily), all the animal and human excrement just flowed downstream. I read that on average that 15 people died for every mile along the river.
I’ll share one tragic story to illustrate what happened to many along this section of the trail. Rachel Pattison was a newly married 18 year old bride. She and he husband, Nathan, got married in April 1849 and within a week they left Illinois full of hope and dreams to make a new life in Oregon. On June 18th, they stopped at Ash Hollow in western Nebraska along the North Platte. Around 11:00 am the next day Rachel took ill with cholera. By 11:00 pm that night, she was dead. Her grave site and story is one of the few that still is marked today.
My Journey Along the Platte
Now onto more positive aspects of my journey. I made it to Kearny and spent the night at the Fort Kearny State Rec Area. This is a nice state park campground along some abandoned channels of the Platte.
The next day I visited Fort Kearny, which is now a state historic park, to learn some trail history. The fort was established in 1848 to protect travelers along the trail. It was a major stop over spot for the pioneers. Today, there’s no much left of the original fort other than a blacksmith shop. There is a small museum in the visitor center. The original trail runs right near by.
There’s a few historical sites to see along this section of the river. And Nebraska does a good job with placing historical markers. I took the highway (I-80) to quicken my drive. I stopped in Gothenberg to see the Pony Express Station that is there. They have one of the few original station buildings where the riders changed horses. Gothenberg is another lovely midwestern town. I also stopped here to visit their library and use the wifi the to upload some videos.
I tried to visit O’ Fallon’s Bluff. This was a crossing point for many on the Platte. There’s supposedly a marker here and ruts, but the rest area where it can be accessed was under construction and closed. Dang!
I moved onto Fort McPherson. This fort was another post established along the trail to protect the travelers. It’s now a military cemetery. It was a solemn site to see all the decorated graves right after Memorial Day.
The Pioneer Perspective
For this section of the Plains, some pioneers loved it and others suffered greatly. Narcissa Whitman and her husband Marcus, who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1836, loved the open treeless plains. Coming from upstate New York, the plains were so different. Narcissa wrote how she loved riding her horse on the plains and soaking it all in.
For Mormon Jane Richards, its was all suffering. Just before they were to depart on the Mormon Trail, her husband, Franklin was called away to do missionary work in England. Franklin hired a teamster to drive their wagon, and pregnant Jane, her young daughter, and Franklin’s other plural wife (who was also pregnant) took off with a small company of Saints. Jane was consumptive for most of the trip and was too weak to walk. At times she had to beg for food. Her two children died on the Plains as did her husbands other plural wife and baby daughter. Jane made it Utah and later wrote – “I only lived because, I could not die.”.
My over night stop was Ogallala. There’s not much here of any historical significance (other than for you Lonesome Dove fans who know that Clara Allen, Gus’s sweet heart, had her horse ranch here).
(I’m a western movie junkie and just can’t help myself with the interjections.)
I chose to camp at the Lake McConaughy State Rec Area. This is another beautiful and huge state park. Lake Mac is man-made and covers over 30,000 acres. It’s hugely popular for fishing and water sports.
There are several state park campgrounds along the north shore of this huge lake. I arrived at a perfect time (right after Memorial Day) and had most of it to myself.
After my overnight, I continued moving westward following the Trail along the North Platte to Scottsbluff.