Podcast Episode 79: Visiting the Oregon Trail 200 years later

Video: Oregon Trail spots you can see today

You can see the almost 200-year-old wagon ruts in Wyoming right now…and not far away is Register Cliff, where travelers would carve their names into the soft rock to let others know they had made it that far.

Both sites are an incredible timestamp on history that gives you a glimpse into what it took to travel westward in the mid to late 1800s.


Ep 79 – Oregon Trail Ruts

[00:00:00] Scott: One day, for those listening, if I include this somewhere maybe this will be the cold open, but we had that,

[00:00:10] that kind of podcast cover art kind of poll

[00:00:14] and we had one and actually was really proud of the one that I created. I love the one that we have on right now with Rosie the but there was one.

[00:00:23] That I created and I’ll have to, maybe I’ll, I’ll post for those But it was an old British World War II propaganda poster. And it was the it’s kind of this like good looking woman sitting in like, in like a tight fitting dress sitting on this like lounger chair.

[00:00:42] It’s like lounging very a naval officer.

[00:00:46] Jenn: Like three officers

[00:00:47] around her. 

[00:00:48] Scott: three officers 

[00:00:49] Jenn: But why do you see the naval guy right in

[00:00:50] Scott: But yeah, the one you see, because you can see the stripes on, on

[00:00:53] his collar. And I think it says, like, above, it says, Keep dumb, she’s not, or keep mum, she’s not so

[00:00:58] dumb. Basically saying, like, hey, don’t talk about your military actions in front of this person.

[00:01:02] She might actually be a spy.

[00:01:04] Jenn: try to impress her with all the stuff you know. Mm

[00:01:06] Scott: But it’s, like, very seductive looking. And I recolored it, and I edited out the, the one, and I edited out, like, the cigarette Drinking glass is it actually got the most votes out of all of them, but I was like I really like it. I was really proud of it, but I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it was

[00:01:23] a good fit. Oh, I don’t think it was a good fit for this particular podcast. But if we ever did like a talk with history after dark, that would be a fun one. It’s like something that you would not listen to with your kid in the car topics that are a little bit. not safe for, you know, or adult. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:01:45] Jenn: are a little bit not safe

[00:01:45] Scott: Anyways complete, totally aside. So if, if you’re listening and you’re interested in talk with history after dark, let us know. You can find our email in the podcast show notes.

[00:01:54] Intro

[00:01:54] Scott: Welcome to talk with I’m your host, Scott here with my wife and historian Jen. this podcast, we give you insights to our history inspired world travels.

[00:02:14] YouTube channel journey and examine history through deeper conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the 

[00:02:21] Opening

[00:02:21] Scott: Now, today we embark on a journey to Wyoming where the Oregon trail pioneers of the 1800s left lasting marks on the landscape we’re talking about our exploration of the wagon ruts etched into the earth at the historic site in Guernsey, Wyoming, a testament to those travelers resilience.

[00:02:52] And we’ll tell you about our visit to Register Cliff, not too far away, where their names are forever carved in stone preserving the stories of those who ventured westward So stick around and join us as we bridge the gap between past and present, rediscovering the spirit of these brave 

[00:03:10] Growing up with the Oregon Trail

[00:03:10] Scott: pioneers So Jen, you grew up going to the places that we’re going to talk about 

[00:03:25] Jenn: yeah, so I lived in Wyoming from the time I was in second grade to

[00:03:31] 10th grade.

[00:03:32] Cheyenne is very close to this area, about an hour away from this area, and so for field trips, we would go, you would learn different parts of the Oregon Trail, and as you got more, As you, as you got older, you would learn more. And so we would go to these wagon wheel ruts. We’d go to Register Cliff.

[00:03:53] We’d go to Fort Laramie just to bring the story more to life. And I, I just remember being there with my class and standing in between the ruts and taking pictures.

[00:04:06] It just looked almost the same even now, but it was just a neat part of America and a neat part of American history and to have really grown up with it.

[00:04:16] So we talk about this usually when we would, when we interview people and talk with history, we’ll ask them what local history they know, what local history they learned and where you grow up really impacts how you learn 

[00:04:31] Scott: Oh, a hundred percent. So, me growing up, my younger years, in central California near Monterey, I grew up going to a world class aquarium.

[00:04:40] Because that’s what aquariums do. They have kids come and do their field trips. And so, I remember just like you, as a kid, going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is world renowned, and petting stingrays, and doing all the stuff that kids do at these

[00:04:55] Jenn: and I never did that, right? And so, and you also knew a lot about the 

[00:04:58] missions, 

[00:04:59] Scott: missions, and the Native

[00:05:00] Americans, all the

[00:05:02] stuff that kind of Spanish history that kind of came all throughout California.

[00:05:08] Jenn: Yeah, so you very are influenced by what is available to you. And that’s what, you know, walk with history really emphasizes, like what history is in your backyard, what history is available to you as an easy road trip. And so for me growing up, this was one of those easy road trips. This is the history I knew.

[00:05:26] So when it was very important for me, when we took our kids out on this Western trip that we go to these little. off road places. And so this is very much a part of the Oregon 

[00:05:37] Scott: Right, and our last episode we talked about Devil’s Tower, and this isn’t too far away.

[00:05:42] Jenn: No, it’s on the same side of Wyoming.

[00:05:43] Scott: the Same side of Wyoming, so it’s, you know, 

[00:05:46] Jenn: you know… Yeah. 

[00:05:47] Scott: Yeah. One, will you tell us kind of a, we didn’t really talk about the Oregon

[00:05:52] Jenn: Devil’s Tower, 

[00:05:53] Scott: for Devil’s Tower, so what’s kind of the snapshot, like what prompted everybody to kind of start heading 

[00:06:00] Why did people start using the Oregon Trail?

[00:06:00] Jenn: So the Oregon Trail is this Western route that people would take to basically move in America to change your destiny, to go make your fortune. And we, they call it emigrate. Instead of immigrate, you’re emigrating. So you’re, you’re moving within your own country. And at first, in the early 1840s, it was missionaries that were very motivated to do this.

[00:06:38] And when we went to Oregon and visited your brother, I got a book from the very first missionaries that made it across. And when they did that successfully in 1840, it kind of inspired people to that this could be done. And it also coincided with a depression that was going on in 1837 and 1841 in America where farmers and businessmen weren’t making money.

[00:07:07] They were turning out to be destitute and they weren’t making a go of their businesses. And so they decided to pack up and go West and try to make their fortunes.

[00:07:15] Scott: And, and there had been, there had already been a little bit of that out there,

[00:07:19] right, with the fur trapping. I mean, there had been, even the French, I mean, they had

[00:07:22] been out 

[00:07:23] Jenn: So there had been traders out there. And there had, you know, of course, Lewis and Clark had explored. So people knew there was this,

[00:07:32] Scott: kind of, way westward.

[00:07:33] Jenn: yeah, this area that hadn’t been discovered, settled, and it was wild, untamed, but it was a possibility. It was a dream, right? And so politicians really urged people to go West.

[00:07:46] You see a lot of things. land for free. You can get out there and make settlements. There was a

[00:07:53] sort

[00:07:53] of incentives to make settlements. And there was this growing spirit of manifest destiny, where God intended the United States to trust to stretch from coast to coast. Plus, at the time, the British kind of had their foot on the Pacific Northwest.

[00:08:08] So if more Americans could move out there, it could push the British away. 

[00:08:17] Scott: So, you know, U. S. government, 

[00:08:19] Jenn: hmm. 

[00:08:20] Scott: For them to be like, okay, how do we keep the British and the French and the Spanish, right? How do we keep them out of that land? We gotta get our people out there. And that’s what they started 

[00:08:32] Jenn: And the American dream. People are coming into America and the cities are already overcrowded. So they sell this dream of go West, get your families, get a cart. Get some possessions and go west and build your life there. And people would take like their whole families with them or villages with them or groups of people.

[00:08:53] And basically the start of the Oregon Trail is Independence, Missouri. And it stretches from Missouri, it touches Kansas, goes into Nebraska. Wyoming. And then from Wyoming is where it’s going to kind of veer off. If you’re going to go the Mormon trail towards Utah, you’re going to go the California trail towards California, or you’re going to hit Idaho through 

[00:09:16] Scott: And now it does all three of those because really I think one of the things we talked about in our Fort Laramie video Was that Fort Laramie was like the last real big stop before you hit the mountains Like that like that was kind of the last stop and then once you start going west past Fort Laramie You had to commit to get past those 

[00:09:33] Jenn: Yes, and this is, this is where all the trails intervene. So this is where everyone

[00:09:39] Scott: all converge at

[00:09:39] Jenn: Converge, if you’re on that California trail, if you’re on that Mormon trail, if you’re on the Oregon trail, you’re all going to hit Fort Laramie. And what’s interesting about the Guernsey Ruts and Register Cliff is it’s the first basically camp after Fort Laramie.

[00:09:54] It’s the one day travel first camp. So most people who leave Fort Laramie, their first overnight stay will be Register Cliff.

[00:10:02] Guernsey Ruts

[00:10:02] Scott: One of the things that I read about and I kind of put in like a little pop up video type thing on the video was that the reason that the ruts, these Guernsey ruts were so well defined is the way, one, everybody was converging at Fort Laramie and two, after.

[00:10:19] Fort Laramie, the way the landscape was, is everybody passed by this particular spot. And so, like, you know, even in the video we said 300, 000 to 500, 000 traveled the Oregon Trail. So you get that many people over the years with these heavy, you know, wagons, passing over the same exact spot. It gets incredibly worn in.

[00:10:41] I mean, we can still see them to this day. 

[00:10:43] Jenn: wagons passing over the that direction. It’s because of the North Platte River. It’s right around Laramie and it’s it, it basically has saturated the land around that area. So if you put your wagon wheels into the mud, it’s gonna get stuck. But if you go over this 

[00:11:02] sandstone, it keeps your wagon wheels from going in.

[00:11:06] Scott: That 

[00:11:06] makes 

[00:11:06] Jenn: that’s why everyone is going 

[00:11:08] in the 

[00:11:09] Scott: literally this exact spot like they all I mean It’s it’s really interesting to see because it wasn’t something like you said, you know about it growing up So you had known about it most of your most of your life.

[00:11:20] I hadn’t known about these right? I didn’t really know about register cliff. I didn’t know about the wagon ruts. I knew Having grown up in the West that you could go see spots of the Oregon Trail. That was about all I knew.

[00:11:35] Jenn: Yeah, and these wagon ruts, they also call it deep rut hill are they say the best example of Oregon Trail wagon ruts because of erosion through the years or there’s been people who have built up. where the Oregon Trail actually was, and it has been changed, and, but these ones are actually the best example if you want to see it.

[00:11:57] So it’s, it’s really neat. It’s about a half mile south of the town of Guernsey, but if you, you put it in your GPS, it’ll show up.

[00:12:04] Scott: it’s very easy 

[00:12:05] Jenn: What’s neat about this area too is during World War II, way before World War II, the Depression time this is a part of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

[00:12:21] where FDR created these jobs for people.

[00:12:24] And so if you visit the Guernsey Wagon Ruts, this is a great examples of architecture building some of the buildings there. And the trail is actually made by them, so the trail you take to walk around the wagon 

[00:12:37] Scott: Oh, wow. 

[00:12:37] Jenn: and the picnic area there, it’s called the Sitting Bull Picnic Shelter. It’s all built from that 1930s program by FDR.

[00:12:47] And it’s just really… Great architecture. It’s still there today, and I remember even as a kid sitting in the picnic structure and having lunch, but You’ll notice there’s a nice groomed trail that takes you all around. I will say there is steps So if you are on a wheelchair or something motorized, it might be more difficult, but it’s a very easy groomed trail It doesn’t take you on to the ruts, which I think you know trying to protect them But you’re right beside them and you can

[00:13:16] Scott: Yeah. And you’ll see in our video again, I’ll link our video in the show notes, but you’ll see in our video, if we wanted to like jump down inside of the wagon routes, we could

[00:13:25] Jenn: Oh, yeah. And I mean, I have pictures as a kid doing 

[00:13:27] that. 

[00:13:28] Scott: They haven’t fenced them off or anything And I think that’s because it’s in stones. That’s relatively easy to preserve. And it wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was just so neat to see like literally, this is where. Thousands upon thousands of, of wagons

[00:13:43] pass through this exact 

[00:13:45] Jenn: wagons, and draft animals and people wore down this sandstone and it’s to some degree where it’s five feet and you can see between the wagon wheel ruts, you can see is these the length of a wagon. It’s really amazing to see.

[00:14:03] 25 years of use is what they believe this area had from 1841 to 1869 because in 1869, the railroad is completed.

[00:14:12] And so most people would take the railroad across the West but this was so used during that time. They believe that 5, 000 people came through there and about a 10th of them would die from disease. So right in that area is some famous tombs. Gravestones from early settlers and their families.

[00:14:33] And those stories are always important to tell about the Oregon Trail as well, as well. But so when people were making this trek, it would usually take about five months. And like you said, you want to make sure you’re hitting Laramie. pretty early,

[00:14:49] Scott: So when people would restock and rest up and then be like,

[00:14:52] Okay 

[00:14:52] Jenn: it by May because you don’t want to be crossing the mountains anywhere near the winter. So that was really neat. It was first recorded, someone passing the ruts, like someone wrote about it in 1812.

[00:15:04] Scott: it in 1812. Oh wow.

[00:15:05] Jenn: So that’s how long they’ve been around. And then it became a national , a historic landmark in, in 1966.

[00:15:12] Scott: now, not too far away from

[00:15:14] there. Oh, 

[00:15:14] Jenn: I wanna say one more thing. Oh,

[00:15:15] Scott: yes.

[00:15:16] Jenn: Brigham Young went through there. Really? He had to have, because he settled Salt Lake City in 1847 in July of 

[00:15:25] 1847. So he passed through there probably July of 

[00:15:30] Scott: Wow. Yeah.

[00:15:31] That’s, that’s, that’s pretty

[00:15:33] Jenn: historic tidbits.

[00:15:35] Scott: It’s, it really is, it’s one of those things that until you get there and see it, like kind of hearing about it and even seeing it in a video, you’re like, oh that’s cool. But once you get there, and you’ve traveled through that part of Wyoming, which is just, huge and just feels big because there’s nothing out there.

[00:15:53] You’re just driving through plains and it’s windy and all of a sudden then you hit Fort Laramie and there’s this little protection.

[00:15:59] Jenn: Mm hmm.

[00:16:00] Scott: then you get over to these wagon ruts my gosh, like people were traveling across this vast expanse

[00:16:06] of countryside in covered wagons and all this

[00:16:09] Jenn: And nothing else.

[00:16:10] Register Cliff

[00:16:10] Scott: and then not too far away is Register Cliff, which I totally understand why everybody’s staying

[00:16:22] Jenn: Mm hmm. Yeah.

[00:16:22] Mm hmm. 

[00:16:23] Scott: probably protection that stuff. And so Register Cliff is called that because everybody carved their name in the 

[00:16:30] Jenn: It’s probably protection from the rock. So, it’s also a historic place. It’s open daily, sunrise to sunset. And it was a one day’s journey from Fort Laramie. So to the west. So, again, if you’re from Fort Laramie, this is as you’re heading. out wherever your final destination is. And it’s a hundred feet above the North Platte River Valley.

[00:16:51] So you have some, again, you’re not going to, you have rock around you. So it’s a little bit more, again, it’s a, it’s a landmark, which would be easy for them to find. And you would be able to not sink into the ground there, which 

[00:17:06] Scott: there, which is…

[00:17:06] And, and it sounded like, even from my research, it was, I think, online or the National Park website says it’s one of three kind of. similar style cliffs so it makes sense for people to be going from one to the next one to the next one because again landmark natural protection right and they’re all and there’s the two other ones is Independence Rock and Names Hill or 

[00:17:28] Jenn: And They’re all in Wyoming. Yeah. Which make the same kind of rock.

[00:17:31] Scott: Yeah, yeah, sandstone, 

[00:17:33] Jenn: yeah, it’s this chalky limestone.

[00:17:35] Scott: Yeah, I think, what was the kind of earliest name registered on 

[00:17:38] Jenn: So they, I, there’s conflicting reports, like I’ve seen the earliest one at 1829, but when you’re there, they have a sign there that says 17,

[00:17:48] Scott: Yeah, it said it right on the

[00:17:49] Jenn: yes, right on the signs.

[00:17:51] Yeah, so I was like, okay. Now what is very interesting is What I really love about this is they’ve been able to trace some of the names and I wanted to talk about that because I think that is super cool when people do genealogy and they’re able to look back on some of these names. Several signatures have been tracked down. By their descendants, including A. A. Withrow. He’s thought to have been Able Anderson Withrow and he was a Sadler from Indiana who moved to California. And so he came through there, signed his name. And then during the Civil War, he was part of the fighting Californians.

[00:18:31] So he had come through there before the Civil War, signed his name on the rock, and then joined the Civil War and fought for the 

[00:18:38] Scott: Wow. 

[00:18:39] Jenn: And then one of the most poignant signatures, they say, belongs to Alva Hunt Unthink.

[00:18:45] Scott: Yes. What was

[00:18:46] that? 

[00:18:46] Jenn: So he’s a 19 year old Boy, he’s heading for California, again, he’s part of that gold rush, and he signs his name in the sandstone, June 23rd, 1850, and a week later, he dies of cholera, July 2nd, 1850, and he’s buried in a marked grave outside Glenrock, Wyoming.

[00:19:03] So you can track, like I said, the graves along, you can track from the register, if they wrote their names. their, their plight right there, their journey. And so he’s one of those famous ones. So what also happened with him is his cousin will come and sign the rock beneath his name in 1869. And then his cousin’s son was signed underneath that name.

[00:19:26] Scott: will come and sign the rock beneath his name

[00:19:27] Jenn: Yeah, Unthink, Oliver, in 1931. So they’re all on

[00:19:31] Scott: his cousin’s son

[00:19:32] will sign the same name. in 1931. Like the one that we showed, and I think you called it out in the video, was like, it must have been someone with like postal

[00:19:41] service. It said U. S. 

[00:19:42] Jenn: Mm hmm. That’s a 

[00:19:43] Scott: It’s like 1850, something like that. 

[00:19:45] Jenn: famous

[00:19:45] one to take a

[00:19:46] Scott: That’s a, that’s a pretty famous one. So we showed that one on there because it’s very clear to see, right? And it was neat to see it. 

[00:19:51] Jenn: It’s very neat. So what I love about Register Cliff, again, another place I visited as a kid, they try to protect some of the older names with a fence because what has happened is through the years more modern people want to add their names to the 

[00:20:07] cliff. 

[00:20:07] Scott: There’s a bunch of stuff from like the 60s, the 70s, 

[00:20:09] Jenn: Yes,

[00:20:10] and it’s been written over the older names.

[00:20:13] So they’re trying to protect some of those older names. And they also think there’s some pictographs inside the cave from American Indians. And they’re trying to also protect those things as well. So, it’s, it’s one of those things that you, you know, you You want to make sure you’re trying to preserve the history, but it also is a living landmark.

[00:20:32] Right beside Register Cliff is a little graveyard. And there are some , emmigrant graves there. They’re not sure whose graves they are. But again, one day out of Laramie Fort Laramie, you know, like I said, a tenth of the people are going to die of disease along the way. And then you even get the gentleman who signs his name who’s going to die a week later of cholera.

[00:20:52] And cholera is a disease you get from drinking filthy water. So who knows if he did that at Register Cliff for a week later to die. I mean, it takes about a week, so it’s very interesting. But Guernsey was the name of the cattlemen in the area in 1890.

[00:21:10] Scott: Oh, okay. 

[00:21:11] Jenn: owned a bunch of that land, and he donated that land to the state, to the federal government, to make them landmarks.

[00:21:19] And that’s why it’s named after him. So that’s where Guernsey comes from.

[00:21:22] Scott: from.

[00:21:22] Yeah, that’s that’s pretty cool. It, it was, the, the Register Cliff one, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It was pretty much kind of what I expected it to be, but the one thing that I, I, I,

[00:21:33] I didn’t know how I’d feel about it was just seeing the old dates on right? And seeing the names and seeing the old dates on there.

[00:21:42] And again, I think it sounds like the national park service tried to verify some of them because I’m sure there’s some on there that they couldn’t verify. You know, some from like the early, early 1800s, even though they said they tentatively verified that one from 1797. But you never know because someone from.

[00:21:59] 1950 could have signed it for

[00:22:01] 1820. 

[00:22:02] Jenn: so that’s why they try to verify through genealogy, but you do get fur traders out there that early. So that’s why it could, it’s 

[00:22:09] Scott: Yep. So that’s I think the 1829 one was actually like a fur trader. He marked it on July 14th, which is like a significant…

[00:22:15] Jenn: Bastille Day

[00:22:16] Scott: Day. It was Bastille

[00:22:17] Jenn: and and he’s French it’s a French fur trader and that’s kind of how Fort Laramie starts to if you watch our video on Fort Laramie it starts as a fur trading fort and so it’s just neat to what’s what’s neat about these two things is you’re seeing the journey that is building America and you’re understanding A piece of the story of what these people endured to to make dreams come true, to make a life, to make a change, to, to see, you know, this American dream and, you know, we talk about the American dream and what it is and what it means, but it’s so different for each American and really I think it’s just trying to make a life for yourself and your family to be free and to have something to, to live off of and to have comfort and to be, you know, to be stable.

[00:23:10] And so I really love seeing these are real landmarks you can go to and be in the space of which we talk about a lot of history makers and the bravery it took to make that trek as a family as you lose people along the way and you keep going and it’s just amazing to be out there and to be in the presence of 

[00:23:33] Scott: keep going, and it’s just amazing to be out there and to in the presence 

[00:23:48] Explorer’s Spirit

[00:23:48] Scott: So, if you’re listening, don’t forget that you too can embark on a journey through time to explore the rugged landscapes of Wyoming, where the echoes of the 1800s pioneers still resonate today. Just like we did, you too can retrace the footsteps of those intrepid settlers who embarked on the arduous trek along the Oregon Trail, leaving behind a tangible mark of their passage through the heart of America. Stand on windswept plains of Wyoming and you will… gaze upon a remarkable testament to the spirit of these settlers where these ruts, like scars on the landscape, tell stories of sacrifice, determination, and the pursuit of the American dream. Your journey won’t stop there, because you can also see the awe inspiring Register Cliff that we just talked about, where the pioneers in their pursuit of hope etch their names into the stone walls. These inscriptions serve as a A remarkable historical of the individuals and families who pass through their way to the unknown. Each name tells a story and together they paint a vivid picture of the diverse tapestry of those who dared to traverse this unforgiving 

[00:25:02] So thank you for listening to the Talk With History podcast and please reach out to us at our website, talkwithhistory.

[00:25:08] com. More importantly, if you know someone else that might enjoy this, share it with Shoot them a text and tell them to look us up. Because we rely on you, our community to grow and we appreciate you all every day. We’ll talk to you next 

[00:25:21] Jenn: We’ll talk to you next time. Thank you. That was beautiful.

[00:25:26] Scott: you. Thank you. 

Published by Scott

The mountains are calling, let me grab a jacket and my kids.

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