In the June 2017 Issue

Crossing Western Nebraska

In Step With Emigrants Along the North Platte River

In this account, longtime contributor Robert Munkres, an authority on 19th century Western migration, examines emigrants’ accounts of four major points of interest in his home state of Nebraska – Ash Hollow, Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scott’s Bluff.

In Step With Emigrants Along the North Platte River

About 70 miles west of the forks of the Platte River there still exists a landmark commented upon by the majority of those who traveled the Oregon-California Trail. Denominated “The Royal Road to the Platte” by Merrill Mattes in his magisterial The Great Platte River Road and “The Gateway to the High Plains,” in my own 1970 article, Ash Hollow today is a Nebraska State Park. It exists today as it did more than 150 years ago − the principal entryway to Nebraska’s North Platte Valley for those entering from the south and east.

Not all emigrants came through Ash Hollow. Although everyone was headed in the same direction – west − there existed more than one way to get from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast. Many chose to follow a trail along the north side of the Platte River and its northern branch, thereby avoiding Ash Hollow altogether. First followed by the Mountain Men, this north-side route became known as the Council Bluffs Road or the Mormon Trail. Others bypassed Ash Hollow by following the Platte River’s southern branch farther west, and then rejoining the North Platte well past Ash Hollow. The route of the famous Pony Express, for example, did not turn north until reaching present-day Julesburg, Colo., where it rejoined the North Platte near Courthouse Rock.

After reaching the point where the Platte River separated into its northern and southern branches, many emigrants often decided to continue along the south branch, cross it, and then roll over the tableland until they reached the north branch. This dogleg in the route often proved a challenge.

From their diary accounts, we know from that the South Platte River presented difficulties that changed markedly from one year to the next, one month to the next, one day to the next, indeed one wagon train to the next! In 1855, William Chandless found the river to be “quite shallow, but very broad, and with a sandy bottom, tolerably firm; all the waggons double-teamed across.” Three years later, Thaddeus S. Kenderdine experienced much greater difficulty and danger. The “tolerably firm” sandy bottom was now quicksand and the size of the ox teams employed was not sufficient to accomplish passage on his party’s the first try. Wagon masters decided to hold the train until the next morning. “Out of the one hundred and fifty-six yokes,” Kenderdine wrote, “we selected eighty of the strongest” oxen which were then “divided into teams of twenty yokes each, our intention being to take four wagons over at a time, and five or six men were allotted to each team, to tug at the wheels and belabor the unwilling oxen.”

Because of the oxen’s fear of the broad expanse of water – and their proclivity periodically to stop in mid-stream − it took Kenderdine’s party all day to make “several excursions back and forth.” But, he added, “We at last had the great satisfaction of seeing the last wagon ascending the northern shore of the South Platte.”

In 1864, George Forman had a much more severe problem while crossing the South Platte. He assumed that he would be able to obtain supplies from other travelers, or perhaps settlers, during this part of his journey. He was badly mistaken. As a result he went “24 hours without food or water and my throat was badly swollen. I could not drink the River water it was so warm and alkaline.” He sat all day in the hot sun, “trying to make a screen of my blankets.” Finally, at sundown, a wagon came along and its occupants gave Forman “some fresh milk and cakes.” But, he reported, the “first drink of the milk took the skin off my throat it was so sore and swollen I could barely swallow.”

For most emigrants, however, crossing the South Platte and the trip up to the North Platte failed to make a marked impression. Ash Hollow, located near present-day Lewellen, Neb., was different. It was remembered primarily for two reasons: First, the entry into the hollow over what subsequently came to be called “Windlass Hill.” Second, for the overall beauty of the site, particularly when compared to the country they’d just crossed.

“We were on the top of a very high hill,” Mary Ringo (1864) remembered, “and when we went down we had to lock the wagons and then the gentlemen had to hold back on the wheels and when we got down in the valley we are in what is called Ash Hollow.” Sixteen years earlier, Keturah Belknap (1848) also descended safely into Ash Hollow, but only after some very difficult procedures had been successfully carried out. Each wagon was moved as far down the hill as possible with a team. When the team could go no farther, it was unhitched “and ruff-lock both hind wheels, then fasten a big rope to the axle of the wagon and men would hold to that to keep the wagon iron (from) going end over end; some were at the tongue to steer it and others were lifting the wheels to ease them down the steps for it was solid rock steps from six inches to two feet apart so it took all day but we all got there without accident.”

Small wonder that Sophia Lois Goodridge (1850) commented, “It seemed impossible for such heavy loaded teams to descend in safety, but we all reached Ash Hollow...” But not for all. Charles A. Scott (1857) recalled “a general run away and smash up at Ash-Hollow, a terrific scene. Horses dashing furiously with the pieces down the hills and precipeces, the noise, dust and confusion, the men shouting hallooing, and women screaming…two horses were killed and seven disabled and unfit for service, in all about $25,000 damage done.” A man known only as Dougherty observed: “I cannot say at what angle we descend but it is so great that some go so far as to say ‘the road hangs a little past the perpendicular!’ ”

Positive and Negative Reviews

Much like today’s contributors to Trip Advisor, emigrants were not shy about reviewing the places they visited. Reactions to Ash Hollow were generally positive, which should not be surprising considering the terrain traversed in order to get there. Susan Amelia Cranston offered a detailed description of “what is called Ash hollow which…is two miles long and from 15 to 30 rods wide winding around the bluffs which tower up on either side some times to the highth of 60 feet The road through the hollow was lined with shrubs and flowers wild roses cow cherries and scrub ash and up on the bluffs small cedars.” Noting the “Bluffs on both sides of the Hollow which appears to have been the bed of a river once,” Sophia Lois Goodridge (1850), pronounced Ash Hollow “a beautiful place.” Camping in Ash Hollow about five years later, Sarah Maria Mousley (1857) thought that it was “a splendid and romantic place.” To Rufus B. Sage (1841) it was “a pretty flower-garden…watered by murmuring streamlets…ornamented with shade trees and shrubbery,” while Elisha Douglas Perkins (1849) thought it to be “a pretty ravine” around which were “some romantic rocks & bluffs which for variety were very acceptable.” James Frear observed that Ash Hollow was the “most delightful (encampment) I ever saw.” Likewise, Celinda Hines (1853) said, “Ash Hollow (was) so called from the ash trees which grow there…We had scarcely encamped in a prettier place.”

Not everyone was so taken with the site. Sarah (Sally) Perkins (1853) wrote simply, “ash holler, verry hilly.” George McKinstry (1846) called Ash Hollow “the most wild barren pass” he’d ever seen. Similarly, Joseph Rhodes (1850) regarded it as “the most Desolate place I ever saw…”

Several factors might account for the negative reviews. Due to the invasion of emigrant-led livestock, Ash Hollow often lacked of adequate forage. As a emigrants often were forced to drive their cattle several miles farther for grass. Capt. Howard Stansbury of the U. S. Topographical Engineers succinctly described the situation in 1849. Noting the emigrant footprint − “remains of camp-fires, in blazed trees covered with innumerable names carved and written on them” − he observed that “more than all in the total absence of all herbage. It was only by driving our animals to a ravine some distance from camp, that a sufficiency for the subsistence could be obtained.”

Mosquitoes detracted measurably from emigrants’ enjoyment of their stopover in Ash Hollow. “On the Platte we find very serious annoyances from black gnats whose bite is very poisonous,” reported Asa Smith (1838). “Our skin is now smarting under the effects of these insects.” The same was true more than a decade later. William G. Johnston (1849) said his party was “almost overpowered by swarms of gnats…Tying handkerchiefs over our heads to protect ourselves from the merciless insects, we were well nigh suffocated for want of air.

As was true elsewhere on the trail, weather more than occasionally added to the burdens borne by emigrant trains. Sarah (Sally) Perkins (1853), for example, laconically reported “hailed ice as big as walnut.” Camped for the night “near the Platt” Sarah Maria Mousley (1857) “here witnessed an awful thunderstorm.” That such storms were not unusual in the area was perhaps confirmed by Sarah Davis in 1850 when she reported “a tremenduous thunder sawer one role after nother till it killed a horse that was onley one rod from our wagon.”

The descent into Ash Hollow plus the strain of being pulled over sandy terrain resulted in another factor that added to emigrant frustration and delay − wagon accidents and subsequent repairs. Sophia Lois Goodridge (1850) reported that “Brother Woodruff’s company joined us tonight with the exception of six wagons which were left, two broken down, and it became too dark to drive down the steep hills.” Her train remained in Ash Hollow for an extra day “to fix up our wagons.” Two months earlier, Margaret A. Frink’s (1850) party had similar problems. “We remained in camp all day, repairing our small wagon,” she wrote. “The hind axle was broken.”

Though there were no suppliers from which to obtain spare parts, one source was sometimes available. Having passed an abandoned wagon, Frink’s husband drew on it for needed parts. “He went back with a man to-day, and took out the bolts and brought the hind axle and wheels to camp. It was then fitted to the small wagon in place of the old axle, and did very well,” his wife wrote.

The full version of this story appears in our print edition.