Although the days of the wagon train have long past, their evidence is still visible today.
Scattered sites along the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe trails still bear the scars left by the wagons and livestock that took settlers west.
Many Trail Landmarks Available for Study
According to John Mark Lambertson, director and archivist of the National Frontier Trails Museum, many of the trails’ remnants are on federal land. These remnants can be anything such as swales, camp sites, or gravesites. In 1983, Congress amended the National Systems Trails Act of 1968 to include protection of sites associated with the trails that helped settle and win the western United States. The sites on federal land are open to the public. However, cooperation regarding sites on private land varies, Lambertson said.
Historic Sites Start in Independence, Mo.
As the take-off point for the trails, the Independence area boasts multiple sites where swales (ruts) are still visible. Across the street from the National Historic Trails Museum, visitors can see the rounded “washboard” effect left by multiple columns of wagons passing through.
Swales are also visible at Santa Fe Trail City Park in Independence, 85th and Manchester in Kansas City, Mo. (KCMO), Minor Park in KCMO, and Prairie View Park in Prairie Village, Ks. Other sites such as campgrounds and trail routes can also be found throughout the Kansas City area.
Designated Sites along the Oregon Trail
Oregon Trail enthusiasts can visit sites that were important to Oregon Trail travelers across Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho. St. Marys Mission in St. Marys, Ks. was a popular stopping place for westward bound travelers. Wagons camped at the Red Vermillion Crossing contracted cholera. The gravesite is open to the public. Alcove Spring was another popular place for wagon trains to stop. Although the site is privately owned, access is available through the Alcove Spring Historical Trust.
Once the trains crossed into modern day Nebraska, Rock Creek Station was a place to rest and purchase supplies. As they continued along the trail, settlers were protected by the soldiers at Fort Kearny. Ash Hollow and Windlass Hill provided a place for pioneers to rest, repair wagons, and refresh themselves and their animals. Scott’s Bluff at Mitchell Pass became an important landmark for the wagon trains. Once they reached this point, they had completed one-third of their journey.
Fort Laramie awaited the trains as they moved through what is now the state of Wyoming. At Register Cliff, pioneers carved their names into the rock to commemorate their passage through the area. Names are also carved or painted on Independence Rock, further along the trail. When travelers reached South Pass, it marked their entry into what at the time was considered the Oregon Territory.
The next major landmark along the trail is Massacre Rocks. On August 9, 1862, several members of wagon trains traveling through were attacked and killed. All but two members of the Alexander Ward party were killed by Indians on August 20, 1854. This action led to the closing of Fort Hall and Fort Boise, owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In present-day Oregon, several miles of trail ruts can be viewed at Flagstaff Hill. When travelers reached Deadman Pass, they had only 200 miles left of the cross-country journey to the Williamette Valley.
Information for Today’s Oregon Trail Travelers
Modern-day travelers can travel the length of the Oregon Trail in a fraction of the time it took the wagon trains. Many sites are managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These agencies can be contacted at nps.gov and blm.gov. Another resource is the Oregon-California Trail Associations in Independence, Mo. The association’s Website is octa-trails.org.