Scottsbluff, NE. Sept 30
Another great day traveling the High Plains where the beauty is a whisper, not a shout. Okay, I stole that line from somewhere but we liked it.
The day started cool and sunny and became cloudy and warm. We drove west for an hour on U.S. 26 to Fort Laramie WY. This portion of the day was continuing our explorations of the settlement of the West through the westward expansion along the Mormon Pioneer Trail, Oregon Trail, and the California Trail. These three trails followed relatively similar paths through Nebraska and much of Wyoming before splitting off to their eventual destinations of Utah, Oregon, and California. Between 1840 and 1870 more than 500,000 pioneers migrated on foot westward, transporting their goods and food via wagons.
The initial westward expansion began as a trickle but soon became a flood, with some pioneers deciding to settle somewhere shorter than their planned destination. The Plains Indians initially aided the settlers but as the flood of settlers eliminated the Indians way of living and as treaty violations eliminated their promised land and payments, warfare broke out.
Fort Laramie, just over the border from Nebraska near the junction of the Laramie and North Platte rivers, originally started out as a camp for fur traders. The camp served as a friendly site for Indians to swap various animal furs for manufactured goods. As emigrant numbers increased, the U.S.established a series of forts along the trails used by the settlers. Fort Laramie became the principal military outpost for about 40 years from the mid-1840s to the mid-1880s.
During those years, Fort Laramie was the scene of negotiations, some successful. Other times the military here were involved in skirmishes against the Plains tribes. In the period of 1866-1868, Red Cloud, a Lakota Chief, bested the U.S.military (including those from Fort Laramie) and forced a new treaty to make settlers abandon the Bozeman trail and to establish the Great Sioux reservation in western South Dakota. By 1874, that treaty was broken when gold was found in the Black Hills. By 1890 though, the Indian wars were over and Fort Laramie’s usefulness was gone.
Fort Laramie was made a national monument in 1938. Over time, archeological research has led to the rehabilitation of eleven of the historic buildings. The site today is well-maintained and illustrates the life of a soldier on the frontier. But the impact on us of the fort is less from the soldier’s life as it is on the story of the settlers moving west. One hears again the individual stories of people leaving all behind to follow a dream; a dream that included tremendous difficulties including death.
In a side note, many of us remember the Pony Express, that mix of man and beast that transfixed the nation by delivering news to the west coast in just eight days. What we frequently forget is that the Pony Express only lasted from April 1860 to November 1861. A new invention, the telegraph, was able to string wires across the country and make the Pony Express obsolete.
We left Fort Laramie and drove 90 minutes into Nebraska to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. We drove back roads through small towns like Van Tassell (population 15) to have lunch in the large town of Harrison (population 251), although there are three bank branches here. Our burger lunch was in the local bar/restaurant and we were the only non-locals in the place. PS, the burgers were great.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is in the middle of ranching country, Verizon cell service is non-existent here. Again, the rangers were very helpful in answering questions. The site is a national monument because in the early 1900s, a vast trove of mammal fossils were found here. There were so many fossils that paleontologists were able to construct full replicas of previously unknown species. The fossils included a full range of specimens by age and sex to indicate that a mass die off occurred here.
Scientists have theorized that this area of the U.S.at the time of these mammals resembled the area we know as the Serengeti Plains of Africa. Volcanic ash had created grass-covered plains with sporadic watering holes. These mammals died during a period of drought when the hordes of animals devoured all vegetation near the watering hole and could no longer find enough food close to the water. They simply laid down to die and various conditions preserved their bones.
The fossil beds were located on the ranch of James and Kate Cook named Agate Springs Ranch. Cook had an interesting background of his own. He was an Army scout,hunter, frontiersman before taking up ranching and was well-respected by the local Indians. Cook was so respected that he received hundreds of gifts from Indians; some of those Indians lived hundreds of miles away. The monument has a special exhibit of many of those gifts.
We had the opportunity to walk to the location of the fossil dig and while it was good exercise (2.5 miles and uphill), what we saw was not particularly illuminating. The displays in the visitors center would have been fine just by themselves.
As we descended the hills going back to Scottsbluff, the high plains area is very quiet and unassumingly scenic. The hills and valleys combine with flat grasslands scattered with cattle grazing and cattle feedlots. But even as you watch trains moving along the tracks (which I enjoy doing), you have to be aware that these are coal trains feeding the hunger of coal-fired power plants. As we drove along the highways, we passed one coal plant where you could see the exhaust plume of dark smoke stretching miles from the plant stacks.
Overall, this chance to catch up on history of our country has been enjoyable and educational. The next few days at Rocky Mountain National Park will be primarily enjoyment before we return to visiting more National Park units in South Dakota.
Ed and Chris