Scotts Bluff, in western Nebraska, was a visible geological landmark for thousands of European immigrants who traveled westward on the Oregon Trail from 1843 to 1869, and for Pony Express riders from 1860 to 1861. The landmark bluff became a National Monument during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
National Park Service
P.O. Box 27
Gering, NE 69341
ph.: (308) 436-4340
Web site: www.nps.gov/scbl/
Scotts Bluff offers a commanding view over the surrounding area. The summit rises seven hundred feet above its base and was created by the erosive action of the North Platte River. Scotts Bluff, the Pony Express, and the Oregon Trail inspired a noted American artist, William Henry Jackson (1843-1942).
Scotts Bluff is memorable primarily as one of several distinctive geological landmarks on the Oregon Trail located along the southern banks of the North Platte River in Nebraska. Thousands of European immigrants streamed westward over the Great Plains toward new homes via the Oregon Trail between 1843 and 1869, and often mentioned Scotts Bluff in their diaries. During the peak travel year, 1852, approximately fifty thousand immigrants made the trip. The end of the long, slow, monotonous trek across the plains and the welcome start of the upward road to Wyoming and the mountains of the West were signaled by a sequence of physical landmarks along the Platte River in western Nebraska: Jail Rock, Courthouse Rock, picturesque Chimney Rock, Castle Rock, and, finally, Scotts Bluff. The North Platte River cut close to the base of Scotts Bluff, such that two passes to the south of the bluff (Mitchell Pass and Robidoux Pass) had to be followed by those traveling onward to Fort Laramie in Wyoming. From 1864 to 1867, the lives of European immigrants were guaranteed by a small military outpost, Fort Mitchell, located just west of Mitchell Pass.
From April, 1860, through October, 1861, the romantic but short-lived Pony Express experiment, which utilized parts of the Oregon Trail, used a route that traversed the Scotts Bluff region via Mitchell Pass. Under a U.S. government contract, the Pony Express company provided transcontinental mail service from Missouri to California. Young riders galloped cross-country in one hundred-mile segments, changing from exhausted to fresh horses every fifteen miles at regularly spaced Pony Express stations. Messages were carried from one end of the route to the other in approximately a week’s time. Three Pony Express stations were located in the neighborhood of Scotts Bluff: one near Chimney Rock (Station No. 34), a second near present-day Melbeta, Nebraska (the Ficklin’s Springs station, Station No. 35), and a third, the Scotts Bluff site (Station No. 36), believed to have been located near old Fort Mitchell. The Pony Express failed economically after October 24, 1861, when the first transcontinental telegraph made possible virtually instantaneous communication. Investors in the Pony Express company lost money, and the three stations in the Scotts Bluff area immediately became obsolete.
On May 10, 1869, eight years after the failure of the Pony Express, the first transcontinental railroad was completed, and wagon traffic on the Oregon Trail ceased almost immediately. People and goods were subsequently transported by rail more quickly, more safely, and more economically to the Far West than was ever possible via wagon over the Oregon Trail. The new route connecting the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads went fifty miles south of Scotts Bluff. No longer a visible landmark for most westward travelers, Scotts Bluff National Monument symbolizes westward European expansion and a bygone era in the history of transcontinental transportation and communication.
William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) documented the westward expansion of European settlers in hundreds of drawings, paintings, and photographs. Jackson’s works evoke romantic images of European pioneers, Pony Express riders, and the vast landscapes of the western United States, including Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. His atmospheric–and often mythic–images were, like those of Frederic Remington (1861-1909), widely published in popular, mass-circulation magazines, and instrumentally contributed to the European cultural understanding of the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Scotts Bluff National Monument, open all year, features an interpretive museum, hiking trails, and an automobile road to the summit. The museum exhibits a noteworthy collection of art by William Henry Jackson. Chimney Rock National Historic Site is nearby.
Franzwa, Gregory M. Maps of the Oregon Trail. Gerald, Mo.: Patrice Press, 1982. This atlas of detailed maps includes the Scotts Bluff portion of the Oregon Trail and is especially useful to anyone planning to retrace the westward treks of the early European immigrants. Hales, Peter B. William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988. Detailed, thoughtful, and well-illustrated assessment of Jackson’s artistic accomplishments and wider cultural influence. Harris, Earl R. History of Scotts Bluff National Monument. Gering, Nebr.: Oregon Trail Museum Association, 1962. A concise account of the development and administration of the national monument from its establishment in 1919 through 1961. Jackson, William Henry. Time Exposure: The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1940. Reprint. New York: Cooper Square, 1970. Folksy narrative of the frontier artist’s life and adventures in the American West. Mattes, Merril J. The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969. Major work on the place of Scotts Bluff and the Oregon Trail in the history of westward expansion by European settlers, includes extensive bibliography of first-person overland narratives. _______. Scotts Bluff National Monument. National Park Service Historical Handbook 28. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983. A compactly written guide and the best single source for information on Scotts Bluff. Mattes, Merril J., and Paul Henderson. “The Pony Express: Across Nebraska from St. Joseph to Fort Laramie.” Nebraska History 41, no. 2 (June, 1960): 83-122. Describes the location and history of Pony Express stations, including the Scotts Bluff Station, from 1860 to 1861.