Seeing the Elephant

Yucca, Windlass Hill, NE
2007-06-16 09.33.50 — 0.4 MB — map

Yucca, Windlass Hill, NE

'I think that I may without vanity affirm that I have "seen the elephant."' — Louisa Clapp

"To forty-niners and those following, no expression characterized the California gold rush more than the words 'seeing the elephant.' Those planning to travel west announced they were 'going to see the elephant.' Those turning back claimed they had seen the 'elephant's tracks' or the 'elephant's tail,' and confessed they'd seen more than enough of the animal.

"The expression predated the gold rush, arising from a tale current when circus parades first featured elephants. A farmer, so the story went, hearing that a circus was in town, loaded his wagon with vegetables for the market there. He had never seen an elephant and very much wished to. On the way to town he encountered the circus parade, led by an elephant. The farmer was thrilled. His horses, however, were terrified. Bolting, they overturned the wagon and ruined the vegetables. 'I don't give a hang,' the farmer said, 'for I have seen the elephant.'

"For gold rushers, the elephant symbolized both the high cost of their endeavor — the myriad possibilities for misfortune on the journey or in California — and, like the farmer's circus elephant, an exotic sight, and unequaled experience, the adventure of a lifetime."

'Oh, surely we are seeing the elephant, from the tip of his trunk to the end of his tail!' — Lucy Cooke

• Levy, JoAnn. "Seeing the Elephant." Women in the Gold Rush. 21 June 2004. 21 Sept. 2007 <http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/trailofthe49ers/elephant.htm>.
Physical Map of the Coterminous United States (Fragment)
• Patterson, Tom. Physical Map of the Coterminous United States. [c. 2006.] North American Cartographic Information Society. 26 July 2007 <http://www.shadedrelief.com/ physical/index.html>.
1.2 MB

Physical Map of the Coterminous United States (Fragment)

Here is a map showing the waterways of the central Great Plains.
No towns, no state lines, no cell-phone towers, no emergency services — a one-way dusty dirt road in places — a miles-wide braid of rutted tracks in others — mobbed by glory seekers six weeks of the year — it runs a thousand miles to the crest of the Continental Divide and a thousand miles beyond that.

Strike west from the Missouri River anywhere between Kansas City, MO, and Council Bluffs, IA (across from present-day Omaha, NE, founded in 1854). Ford the Big Blue River. When you come to the Little Blue River, follow it northwest and cross into the valley of the Platte River at Fort Kearny. Like the California Trail, the Platte is truly a river only at certain times and places; otherwise, it is a marsh in a broad, grassy bottomland between distant hills — terrible during the spring runoff (in the days before flood control), not merely for the impetuousness of its current where there is one, but more for the ominous breadth of the sucking sands and muddy flats everywhere present along it.

The tall grass gives way to short grass all too soon — about the same time as you cross the 100th meridian west. If you left from Council Bluffs, you're probably a Mormon in the company of Latter Day Saints heading for Salt Lake City, and you'll be following the north bank. However, you're more likely a Gentile in the company of devout believers in various other organized religions heading for California or perhaps the Willamette Valley in the Oregon Territory. If so, you'll be following the south bank. Of course, most of your fellow travelers are devout believers in nothing so much as getting where they're going and devout doubters that anything good would come of trying to get ahead back in the States.

Imperceptibly the south bank diverges from the north as the two channels of the Platte drift apart, becoming more distinct upstream. Eventually you'll need to ford the South Platte and cross the high ground between them to get over to the south bank of the North Platte at Ash Hollow.

The valley of the North Platte narrows, and rough ground comes nearer the river bed. You pass Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff — sites you've read about and wanted to see once in your life. You stop briefly for rest and repairs at Fort Laramie where the Laramie River joins the North Platte. When you hit the trail a day or two later, you find the river taking a long detour north around the Laramie Mountains.

To skirt low ground, you cross the North Platte near the furture site of Casper, WY, and travel overland to Independence Rock on the banks of the Sweetwater River at its confluence with the North Platte. From here you can see Devils Gate where the Sweetwater descends from alkali sands. From there you can draw a bead on Split Rock pointing in the direction of South Pass, and after that it's all downhill. You find it easy to believe because, by now, you've had practice. You fill your water barrel at Pacific Springs in the shadow of the Oregon Buttes.

Someplace in the desert to the southwest (This place is as good as that place over there — indeed almost as good as any other place in these parts.) you come to Parting of the Ways where the trail that leads to Fort Bridger on Blacks Fork of the Green River (and from thence to Salt Lake City) splits from the trail that heads through desolate country directly to the Bear River (and the route to California and Oregon). Here you pause to gaze down one road before taking the other.
Loading Corn, Cozad, NE
2007-06-15 12.07.00 — 0.4 MB — map

Loading Corn, Cozad, NE

We tend now to hold our ancestors in awe, considering that which has been wrought in the places where they lived and ascribing it all to them, but they were ordinary people in their day, and what we see now is the work of generations. Still we ought to remember those times of unique opportunity and acknowledge our forefathers' gift for taking the main chance — for winnowing the possible from the preponderance of improbability.
Bull Whacker, Chimney Rock, NE
2007-06-16 14.23.40 — 0.2 MB — map

Bull Whacker, Chimney Rock, NE

There are, collected here and there, the ordinary things people brought with them for the journey on the Great Plains. Most are implements such as this flail used to drive the oxen that pulled their wagons.
Dress, Chimney Rock, NE
2007-06-16 14.27.14 — 0.2 MB — map

Dress, Chimney Rock, NE

Other articles are more ephemeral. Not many garments of the period have survived.

These are the things that people kept, but the things they didn't keep — the things that were too big, too ordinary, or too organic — are littered all about as well.
Flax, South Pass City, WY
2007-06-18 11.07.26 — 0.8 MB — map

Flax, South Pass City, WY

The plants, for instance, that used to grow in wild profusion horizon to horizon are still here. Exotic crops and invasive species have not displaced them all.
Prickly Pear, Fort Laramie
2007-06-17 11.13.22 — 1.0 MB — map

Prickly Pear, Fort Laramie

Lupine, Split Rock, WY
2007-06-17 20.23.52 — 0.9 MB — map

Lupine, Split Rock, WY

Bunch Grass, South Pass City, WY
2007-06-18 12.19.14 — 0.6 MB — map

Bunch Grass, South Pass City, WY

Here is one of the more valuable. The places in the semi-arid expanses where bunch grass grew were sought by travelers so their livestock could have nutritious forage. Oxen would eat anything, but they couldn't pull a wagon very far without something substantial to go on.

Staying close to stream beds was not a guarantee of good pasture. From east to west the land became higher, drier, and colder. Eventually the feed gave out, and the animals had to be driven onward until they dropped anyway or until they could be swapped for a fresh team at a trading post.

Staying close to stream beds was not a guarantee of good water either. Springs were few and far between, and the rivers, creeks, and seeps were polluted with human waste by earlier passersby. Historians' rough consensus is that about one in ten pioneers didn't make it because they succumbed to incapacitating falls, runaway animals, wagon rollovers, accidental discharge of firearms, heat stroke, exposure to cold, infected skin lesions, or — most prevalent of all — enteric disorders such as food poisoning and cholera.
Replica Soddy, Gothenburg, NE
2007-06-15 13.16.02 — 0.4 MB — map

Replica Soddy, Gothenburg, NE

There is a class of things that mostly didn't survive the obstacles intervening between that time and this. We know about them from a few documents or a handful of photographs and from reproductions like this of a sod house built literally from the ground up with walls of dirt skived off the top of the prairie.

Unlike that used in other replicas, the timber supporting the roof of this one is not 3/4" stuff from Home Depot. It is full 1" dimensional lumber, indicating that some care was devoted to procuring authentic construction materials. The floor is authentic dirt, too.
Soddy Interior, Gothenburg, NE - Flash
2007-06-15 13.21.26 — 0.5 MB — map

Soddy Interior, Gothenburg, NE - Flash

Period photos of sod dwellings were universally taken out of doors with all members of the family and hired help disposed among their worldly possessions, which had been hauled outside for display on such an occasion.
Covered Wagon, Front, Scotts Bluff National Monument
2007-06-16 18.02.18 — 0.5 MB — map

Covered Wagon, Front, Scotts Bluff National Monument

Here is a replica of a covered wagon, meant to be representative of the size used by pioneers along the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails that I call collectively the flat route.

Note the yellow wheels. We are accustomed to seeing museum specimens with fading paint. Reenactors reckon that families heading out cross-country probably gave their old wagons a fresh coat before starting.

It's worth pointing out there's no seat. The driver walked.
Covered Wagon, Rear, Scotts Bluff National Monument
2007-06-16 18.00.46 — 0.2 MB — map

Covered Wagon, Rear, Scotts Bluff National Monument

The feed trough on the tailgate would have been a bit tall for oxen. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to avoid waste. Probably, though, the trough was detachable.
Pass Road, Scotts Bluff National Monument
2007-06-16 18.48.20 — 0.4 MB — map

Pass Road, Scotts Bluff National Monument

Some things of the pioneer era are forever beyond recall.

This is Nebraska State Road 92 through Mitchel Pass at Scotts Bluff National Monument. In later years, the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails, the Pony Express, and the Overland Mail all followed an improved roadbed here. Supposedly it is visible as a washed out depression paralleling the modern highway between it and the gullies below.
Ruts, Guernsey, WY
2007-06-17 13.00.38 — 0.6 MB — map

Ruts, Guernsey, WY

At Scotts Bluff as at Windlass Hill, NE, and here near Register Cliffs at Guernsey, WY, travelers felt compelled to take the easy way over or around some obstacle. Elsewhere individual wagoners chose scattered paths, but certain chokepoints acted as lenses, narrowing the route to bring the disparate tracks into focus and concentrating traffic on specific hunks of ground to such a degree that these spots still bear the scars of the whole westward migration.
Windlass Hill, NE
2007-06-16 09.43.10 — 0.5 MB — map

Windlass Hill, NE

Windlass Hill is one of those spots. It is not historically established that a windlass ever operated here to lower wagons coming over the rise from the South Platte River into Ash Hollow at the level of the North Platte floodplain. Probably emigrants called it that because they merely wished there had been.
Chimney Rock, NE
2007-06-16 13.35.50 — 0.4 MB — map

Chimney Rock, NE

Chimney Rock is a potent landmark near the 100th meridian west. Passing it, travelers — then as now — reckoned they had entered the true West.
Cattle, Chimney Rock, NE
2007-06-16 15.15.46 — 0.3 MB — map

Cattle, Chimney Rock, NE

"According to early fur traders, Native Americans named the rock after the penis of the adult male elk. This made more sense to people who had lived for centuries in the natural world on the plains than comparing the rock to a feature from a white man's building. Prim and proper Anglo-Americans, though, overwhelmingly preferred the more delicate 'chimney.'"

"Nineteenth-century diarists — and their editors — substituted less expressive terms for Chimney Rock's original name.

"'One of these cliffs is very peculiar in its appearance, and is known among the whites as "Chimney Cliff," and among the natives as "Elk Peak."' — Zenas Leonard, fur trader, in his 1839 autobiography

"'Arrived at the Chimney or Elk Brick, the Indian Name.' — Nathaniel J. Wyeth, fur trader, enroute to Oregon, June 9, 1832

"'We are now in sight of E. P. or Chimney Rock, a solitary shaft, … one of the most notorious objects on our mountain march.' — William Marshall Anderson, fur trader, 1834"

• "'Elk Penis' — Chimney Rock's Original Name." Exhibit. 16 June 2007. Chimney Rock National Historic Site, Bayard, NE.
Oregon Trail, Scotts Bluff National Monument
2007-06-16 18.19.48 — 0.5 MB — map

Oregon Trail, Scotts Bluff National Monument

We can imagine that, from some aspects, the trail hasn't changed much.
Fort Laramie
• Fenn, C. "Fort Laramie." Engraving. Route from Liverpool to Great Salt Lake Valley. By Frederick Piercy. 1855. Rpt. in Pictorial Americana. 6 Jan. 2005. Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-8152. 13 Aug. 2007 <http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/ list/picamer/paForts.html>.
0.1 MB

Fort Laramie

"The emigrants were farmers drawn by free land in Oregon and California, Mormons seeking religious freedom, and, after 1848, miners lured by stories of California gold. This westward migration peaked in the early 1850s at more than 50 thousand annually."

"The period during which emigrants could leave Missouri River points was short. Spring grass was needed on the trail for livestock, but to wait too long for it meant risking snows in the Rockies. The emigrant season at Fort Laramie thus lasted only about 45 days, but they were days of intense activity. Emigrant camps often spread out for great distances around the fort. After the long trip along the muddy Platte, emigrants welcomed the chance to bathe and wash clothes in the clear Laramie. They bought fresh draft animals, flour, and medicines before continuing the journey. Harness makers and blacksmiths at the fort helped service stock and repair worn equipment for the mountainous part of the trail that lay ahead."

• United States. Dept. of the Interior. National Park Service. Fort Laramie. Washington, DC: GPO, 1997. 310-394/00217.
Laramie Peak from I-25, WY
2007-06-17 13.46.20 — 0.5 MB — map

Laramie Peak from I-25, WY

West of Fort Laramie, emigrants encountered the first mountains along the flat route, the front range of the Rockies. These — in what is now Wyoming — were called the Black Hills by the pioneers and must not be confused with the Black Hills of South Dakota. The flat route does not enter them. Instead it continues along the banks of the North Platte, which swings northwest around the terminus of the Laramie Range.
Ayres Natural Bridge, Douglas, WY
Photo courtesy of Mark Olson
2007-06-17 11:40:00 — 4.5 MB — map

Ayres Natural Bridge, Douglas, WY

The natural bridge, near present-day Douglas, WY, was known to the emigrants. It is about six miles south of the trail. Some made the excursion to see it even though they sacrificed a day to do so.

Among natural rock arches this one is unusual because the stream that carved it nowadays flows through it.

The site was donated to the state of Wyoming by the family of Alva Washington Ayres, hence the modern name of the place.
Ayres Natural Bridge, Douglas, WY
2007-06-24 18.44.52 — 0.4 MB — map

Ayres Natural Bridge, Douglas, WY

Historians make much of the necessity of starting the western trip late enough to have good grass (but early enough to beat others to it) and yet still slip through the mountains before autumn snows shut the passes, but evidently not all pioneers felt they were under such urgent time constraints.

Here's a game you can play on your Web browser. Resistance is futile. You will be humiliated.

• "Westward Trail." Global Game Network. 13 Aug. 2007 <http://www.globalgamenetwork.com/westward_trail.html>.
Independence Rock, WY
2007-06-17 19.17.26 — 0.5 MB — map

Independence Rock, WY

"Named for a fur trader's Fourth of July celebration, this huge rock became the most famous and anticipated of all trail landmarks. Here the trail met the cool, clean and clear Sweetwater River that would lead it to South Pass. The emigrants paused to inscribe their names on the "Great Register of the Desert" while they rested themselves and their livestock. They observed the national Independence Day (no matter the actual date) and congratulated themselves on reaching the perceived mid-point in their journey. Described by most as '…looking like a great beached whale…,' the Rock is now the site of a modern Highway Rest Area and State Interpretative Site."

• United States. Dept. of the Interior. Bureau of Land Management. Tour the Trails in Wyoming. 24 May 2007. 1 July 2007 <http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/programs/ special_areas/Historic_Trails/trails_tour.3.html>.
Devils Gate, WY
2007-06-17 19.18.16 — 0.5 MB — map

Devils Gate, WY

From Independence Rock, the trail made a bee line for Devils Gate, the cleft in the hills right of center.
Sun Ranch, WY
2007-06-17 19.41.36 — 0.4 MB — map

Sun Ranch, WY

"In front of you is the Sun Ranch, one of the first large open range ranches in Wyoming. The original ranch building, which today makes up part of the Mormon Handcart Visitor Center, was constructed in 1872.

"Tom de Beau Soleil (a French Canadian name later anglicized to 'Sun') came to Wyoming after the Civil War. He worked as a trapper and as a military scout with William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. He also cut railroad ties under a contract with the Union Pacific Railroad. The 1872 cabin was used as headquarters for a successful ranching and hunting guide business. It later became the 'Hub and Spoke Ranch,' with operations extending well into the Great Divide Basin. The Sun Ranch is a Registered National Historic Landmark.

"Portions of the Sun Ranch were acquired by the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints in 1997. The visitor center, constructed mostly by volunteer labor, opened its doors in the spring of 1997 as part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the 1847 Mormon Pioneer wagon train."

• "Sun Ranch." Roadside marker. 17 June 2007.
"What was the handcart tragedy, exactly?

"It turns out back in July, 1856, a group of Mormon pioneers from England led by Edward Martin left Iowa and embarked on the 1,200-mile wilderness trek to Salt Lake City. Experts advised them that it was too late in the year to start, and that they didn’t have enough provisions. Many were too poor to purchase horses and covered wagons, so the men pulled their earthly belongings behind them in carts.

"One thing led to another. The handcarts cracked and fell apart. The families needed to leave behind the heaviest things, which happened to be blankets and winter clothes.

"In October, in southwestern Wyoming near what is now the town of Alcova, the Martin party got trapped by a blizzard. After enduring sorrow and suffering that "Tongue nor pen can never tell," 150 of the 600 in the group died of starvation and exposure. The rest were rescued by a team from Salt Lake.

"For more than a hundred years, it remained a footnote. People had their own problems. But interest has grown, helped tremendously by the opening in 1997 of a Mormon Handcart Center near the Martin's Cove site. Tourists come 1,000 a day during the summer months — no one wants to be there in late October. Fun is fun, but…"

• Kirby, Doug, Ken Smith, and Mike Wilkins. "Mormon Handcart Tragedy." Roadside America. 13 Aug. 2007 <http://www.roadsideamerica.com/set/handcart.html>.
Split Rock, WY
2007-06-17 19.36.20 — 0.3 MB — map

Split Rock, WY

From Sun Ranch, Split Rock beckons. That's it to the far left.
Sweetwater River, South Pass, WY
2007-06-18 13.28.48 — 0.4 MB — map

Sweetwater River, South Pass, WY

No doubt emigrants who slept beside the Sweetwater River dreamed her seductive lorelei song long after leaving her far behind.
South Pass Panorama
2007-06-18 13.52.00 — 0.7 MB — map

South Pass Panorama

The flat route dodges the terminus of the Wind River Range. In this 180° panorama looking east, the crest of the Continental Divide at South Pass is unimpressive. Except for the insertion of the modern highway, a pioneer would say the landscape was identical to that seen heretofore.
Split Rock, WY
2007-06-17 20.44.48 — 0.3 MB — map

Split Rock, WY

Why did they do it? What possessed the emigrants to pull up stakes and try their luck in a strange country?
  • Land — Free (or at least cheap) land was opened to settlement in the West. Most who undertook the migration saw it as their one best chance to acquire the means to support themselves.
  • Gold — Others were enticed by what they hoped was an opportunity to become filthy rich.
  • Religious Freedom — The Mormons left the United States to escape prejudice, intolerance, and pogroms. By withdrawing into the middle of the Great American Desert, they hoped to purify the practice of their belief, avoiding secular society and the possibility of ideological contamination.
  • Seeing the Elephant — Of course every man who could get up the gumption was partly a dreamer intrigued by notions of new places to go, sights to see, and things to do.
Swedish Cemetery, Gothenburg, NE
2007-06-15 14.15.16 — 0.8 MB — map

Swedish Cemetery, Gothenburg, NE

Many died along the way, once remarked perhaps — likely reposing now on some unmarked busy little hilltop that became gradually more secluded beside the westward trail. Their deaths testify to the impulses that drove them.

Here is the obligatory eastern Nebraska color quote:

"It is sixteen years since John Bergson died. His wife now lies beside him, and the white shaft that marks their graves gleams across the wheat-fields. Could he rise from beneath it, he would not know the country under which he has been asleep. The shaggy coat of the prairie, which they lifted to make him a bed, has vanished forever. From the Norwegian graveyard one looks out over a vast checker-board, marked off in squares of wheat and corn; light and dark, dark and light. Telephone wires hum along the white roads, which always run at right angles. From the graveyard gate one can count a dozen gayly painted farmhouses; the gilded weather-vanes on the big red barns wink at each other across the green and brown and yellow fields. The light steel windmills tremble throughout their frames and tug at their moorings, as they vibrate in the wind that often blows from one week's end to another across that high, active, resolute stretch of country."

• Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! 1913. 13 Aug. 2007 <http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext92/opion13.txt>.
Irrigation Canal, Chimney Rock, NE
2007-06-16 15.21.30 — 0.5 MB — map

Irrigation Canal, Chimney Rock, NE

Farming the Tall Grass Prairie east of the 100th meridian west is possible. Tilling the Short Grass Prairie west of there is not, notwithstanding many settlers tried it. They were inveigled to do so under the notion that "rain follows the plow."

"Popularized by Charles Dana Wilber in an 1881 book touting the agricultural promise of Nebraska, the phrase supported a grand notion that the western Great Plains, which in the early 19th century had been labeled the 'Great American Desert,' could be transformed into a garden, if only people would expose the moist soil to the atmosphere.

"Rainy years added credibility to the idea, and homesteaders flooded the plains. But when the rains reverted to a more normal pattern, thousands were trapped by drought and bankruptcy. And 'rain follows the plow' was discredited as pseudoscience."

• Mcauliffe, Bill. "Hot Enough for Ya? It Could Be Sweaty Corn." Press & Dakotan [Yankton, SD] 27 July 2007. 18 Sept. 2007 <http://www.yankton.net/stories/072707/nei_187330861.shtml>.

Ultimately the pioneers who settled along the flat route struck living water here. They found they could dam the Platte and its tributaries, forcing the river out of its bed over and over again to irrigate sands farther downstream.
"The Platte River starts in the Rocky Mountains and meanders across Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Some wildlife which depend on the river include pronghorns, mule deer, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and mountain plovers. Each spring the skies over the central Platte and its surrounding wetlands darken as ten million ducks and geese, half a million sandhill cranes, and many other species of birds fly in to rest during their long trek through the Central Flyway. The concentration of birds makes the Platte one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles. The only remaining wild flock of endangered whooping cranes depends on the Platte as a rest stop during its multi-week migration between Texas and Canada.

"Pioneers described the Platte River as a mile wide and a foot deep. The river’s broad, unvegetated channels once stretched for miles, giving migratory birds protection from predators. Settlers plowed millions of acres of prairie and drained wetlands. Irrigation canals, dams, and water projects dried it up. Today Platte River wells and surface water projects irrigate millions of acres of farm land. More than three million people get their drinking water largely from the Platte or nearby wells. As a result water flow has fallen by two-thirds. The river has narrowed in many places to one-tenth of its historic width. Dams stop the flow of scouring sediments, so many of the river's open channels are now overgrown with vegetation."

• National Wildlife Federation. "Why Is the Central Platte Region Important?" 13 Aug. 2007 <http://www.nwf.org/centralplatte/>.
Windmill, US 20, NE
2007-06-26 13.44.08 — 0.5 MB

Windmill, US 20, NE

Pioneers found they could mine the Ogallala Aquifer, too. This modern windmill perches atop a wooden tower to pump water for cattle.


Rhode, Chuck. "Seeing the Elephant." The Flat Route. 21 Jul. 2007. Lacus Veris. 28 Jun. 2017 <http://lacusveris.com/Moab/Snaps/TheElephant.shtml>. Last modified 4 Oct. 2015. Served 16193 times between 16 May. 2010 and 27 Jun. 2017. Contact mailto:CRhode@LacusVeris.com?subject=The+Flat+Route.