Overland Trails: Fur Trappers to Pony Express Riders
True West|April 2021
ENJOY THE ADVENTURE AND HISTORICAL SITES BETWEEN ST. LOUIS AND FORT LARAMIE.
CANDY MOULTON

When we think and write about the overland trails, we usually start somewhere in the east at a place like St. Louis, Independence, Kansas City or St. Joseph and follow the trail west. But the trail went both directions, so this time I am starting at Fort Laramie. Never fear, we will get back to the West on this journey.

Fort Laramie, established as a military post in 1849 to provide protection for travelers along the overland trails leading to Oregon, California and the Mormon settlement in Utah, became the most valuable post in the region. In that period almost everyone traveling east or west passed through Fort Laramie, where they could find supplies, collect or deposit a letter, and learn news of the trail.

Near the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers, the post for three decades provided for overland travelers, served as a military post, and played a role in negotiations and relations with the tribes of the Northern Plains. Fort Laramie is now a national historic site.

On from Fort Laramie

The area near the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers became strategically significant in 1834 when Robert Campbell and William Sublette established Fort William as a center for fur trade. Fort William was close to the site where Fort Laramie was later constructed.

Thomas Fitzpatrick guided the first wagon train over the Oregon Trail in 1841, and he also led John C. Fremont’s first expedition into the West in 1843. The importance of Fort William had dwindled after the last big Rocky Mountain fur rendezvous in 1840, but the value of its strategic location was clearly evident, which led to Fort Laramie’s construction as a military post in 1849.

In 1812, Robert Stuart and a party of fur men from Astoria on the coast in Oregon, traveled back to St. Louis. They located a pass—which would be the funnel for people headed west later in the century—and rightly called it South Pass. They did not cross that pass, but instead broke over the Continental Divide farther south. They reached the Sweetwater River and then the North Platte, which they followed until finally striking southeast to the Missouri River and back to St. Louis. In essence, they followed the Oregon Trail from Oregon to Missouri—west to east. Their trip would be replicated by tens of thousands half a century later with most then headed east to west.

Western Nebraska

In far western Nebraska in 1828 fur trapper Hiram Scott lost his life at a sandstone outcrop that now bears his name, Scotts Bluff. A pass just south of the outcrop was the site of the Robidoux Trading Post, which was established at the end of the fur trade era by members of the Robidoux family, prominent fur traders and residents of St. Joseph, Missouri. At Scotts Bluff National Monument you can hike the overland trail route through Mitchell Pass, where the landscape is much the same as it was when Stuart and his Astorian party came through in 1812. The nearby Legacy of the Plains Museum has exhibits on trail history.

Another key provisioning point on the trail was at Fort Kearny, established in 1849 beside the North Platte River in central Nebraska. This post, which succeeded earlier posts of the same name that were near the Missouri River in Nebraska City, is a Nebraska State Historic Site today.

The overland route, like an old rope, is frayed at its eastern end as travelers used various routes until they merged at Fort Kearny. One braid links to places in eastern Nebraska, including the Omaha area, where Mormon travelers had a major encampment before they set off toward their new home in the Great Salt Lake region. The more well-traveled trails led to jumping off places including St. Joseph and Independence, Missouri, then extended on to the gateway to the West: St. Louis.

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