The Old West Trail: Five States of Frontier History

By Wagner, Randall A. | American Heritage, April 1995 | Go to article overview

The Old West Trail: Five States of Frontier History


Wagner, Randall A., American Heritage


How The Old West Trail Country Came To Be

It was, in a sense, the last frontier: the part of the United States that lies below Canada along the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, the region now known as the Old West Trail country.

This area that stretches across Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota was almost completely overlooked by settlers who were anxious to get past it in their rush to reach the Pacific Coast. In 1806 Zebulon Pike called its southern half "The Great American Desert" and the name stuck. The northern section was labeled "Indian Country" by early mapmakers and that was enough to frighten off most travelers.

In fact, the Indians were the first to develop a system of trails throughout the region. For centuries the local tribes -- Sioux, Shoshone, Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Pawnee, Hidatsa, Arikara, Mandan, and others had passed this way, traveling to their summer and winter hunting grounds.

On their epic expedition to the Pacific in 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark laid their own trails across what is now Nebraska, South and North Dakota, and Montana. They followed the Missouri River to its headwaters and beyond, searching for the "Northwest Passage," a direct pass through the Rocky Mountains and on to the coast. Though they didn't find their gateway, they did make it over the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean and back again.

Robert Stuart, a trapper working for John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, finally blazed a direct trail in 1812. Known as the Great South Pass, it was soon crowded with fur-trappers and traders -- Mountain Men, as they were called -- as they hunted valued beaver during the 1820s and '30s.

Wilderness missionaries, such as Marcus Whitman and Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, brought news of the South Pass back East, and before long the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails were crowded with Americans seeking a new life in the West. From 1841 to 1868, endless strings of wagon trains carrying half a million pioneers rolled across the Great Plains of Nebraska and the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, in many places leaving marks in the road that can still be seen today.

By 1868, the Union Pacific Railroad was in operation through Nebraska and southern Wyoming, and wherever the trains stopped, towns sprang up. The open ranges of Wyoming and Montana were perfect for grazing, and great herds of cattle were brought north from Texas, giving rise to the ranching industry. Farmers discovered the virgin soils of the river valleys of Nebraska and North Dakota and planted the first crops. And word of gold, silver, and copper strikes in Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota's Black Hills lured miners to new boom towns.

The government's steps to protect these new populations led to one of the most infamous battles in American history. On June 25, 1876, as the nation was preparing to celebrate its centennial, Col. George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. Seventh Cavalry stood against a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall. The brief and bloody battle, raging across a low ridge overlooking southern Montana's Little Bighorn River, was a total victory for the Plains tribes, but it was the last they would win.

By the time Sitting Bull surrendered and was imprisoned in 1881, most native people were living on reservations. Over three centuries of warring was almost over. The Indian's final stand took place when U.S. troops attacked reservation Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.

That same year, the U.S. Census Bureau noted that the last uncharted American frontier had disappeared. The Old West Trail region was a full-fledged part of the country.

Rediscovering the Old West Trail Today

The best way to explore the Old West Trail country is to find and follow the tracks of the pioneers. Signs and monuments mark the way throughout.

In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark were among the first white men to fully explore the region. …

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