The rock that became a register of the pioneers heading west

Time Before Now, August, 1842John Tyler was serving as the country’s tenth president, elevated to the office from the vice presidency following the death of William Henry Harrison.  Harrison died of typhoid fever just a month after being sworn in, the shortest tenure in White House history.  Georgia surgeon, Dr. Crawford Long, was the first physician to successfully use ether as an anesthetic and Great Britain’s 23-year-old Queen Victoria (right) escaped unscathed after John Francis tried to shoot her for a second time.   She commuted his death sentence and survived five more attempts on her life in her near 64-year reign, the longest in British history.

August 23, 1842

On this day John C. Fremont, added his name to the roster of trappers, traders and explorers on Wyoming’s landmark Independence Rock.  It was a growing list of early travelers who stopped to validate their passage.

It was apparently a significant event.   Never shy about self promotion, the 29-year-old Fremont (left) was a Lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, married to the daughter of one of Washington’s most powerful politicians and an avid proponent of America’s policy of Manifest Destiny.  

While mapping the Oregon Trail, Fremont noted in his journal that he had joined a roll call of others, “famous in the history of this country and some well known to science.”  In this case, he wasn’t wrong.  Independence Rock, indeed, memorialized numbers of pioneers who turned out to be history-makers. 

 Even as early as the year of Fremont’s visit, the rock was already a major milepost. Standing an impressive 130 feet above the prairie, the boulder  measures 1,900 feet long and 850 feet wide, about six times larger than a football field. It’s imposing height made it hard to miss along the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails.  

Independence Rock in central Wyoming.

Named Independence Rock, some say, by wagon masters, who calculated  they had to reach that point by July 4 in order to cross over the high mountain passes before the first snow.  But trail lore says frontier founder of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, William L. Sublette, (right) may have christened it as early as 1830 while en route to Wind River.  Camping there on the Fourth of July, he claimed his party of some 80 men took the opportunity to “whoop it up” for the nation’s birthday.   

Inscribing one’s name on the Archean granite outcropping by non-indiginious people began in the early 1800s, when voyageurs and fur trappers were the only non-native travelers. But Native American’s had for centuries left carvings in the red granite.

Trappers Jedediah Smith (right) and his partner, Thomas Fitzpatrick, were believed to be the first to provide a written record, using it as a place to cache their pelts too heavy to transport by canoe.  Smith, a cartographer in his own right, is credited with mapping the important South Pass in 1831, a natural wagon route along the Continental Divide.   His charts lay in obscurity for three quarters of a century by his premature death, killed that same year  by the Comanche at just 32.  A decade later, Fitzpatrick would lead the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, the first emmigrant overland wagon train, to reach California.  Thousands more would follow. 

It continued to attract trailblazers who may not have even known it at the time.  Educator John Ball, (left) with the Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth expedition, carved his name in 1832.  He became the first non-indigenous teacher in Oregon and the first non-native farmer.  Ball later established a successful law practice in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and donated land for the city’s John Ball Park and Zoo. 

Pioneering priest, Pierre-Jean De Smet, (left) carved his mark on the rock in June of 1840, calling it the “register of the desert.”  The hero cleric, suffering from malaria, roused from his sickbed to add his name.  After resting four days at the Green River Rendezvous, he served the first Christian mass in what is present-day Wyoming.

 Cartographer and amateur artist, J. Goldsborough Bruff had been assigned to copy John C. Fremont’s maps while working in the Bureau of Topographical Engineers in Washington.  A decade later Bruff (left) would follow in Fremont’s footsteps to the goldfields, organizing the California Mining Association.

Goldsborough’s papers and illustrations were published under the title “Gold Rush: The Journals, Drawings, And Other Papers Of J. Goldsborough Bruff April 2, 1849 – July 20, 1851,” still considered an important historical resource on western migration.

Bruff’s drawing made in 1850.

By the time Father DeSmet and Fremont signed up, it was estimated fewer than 200 emigrants had passed that way.  By the Goldsborough era, the number had grown to more than 5,000 and by 1869, when the railroad replaced the wagon routes, more than 400,000 settlers had made the five month trek on the Oregon Trail alone.  Nearly 10 per cent were thought to have perished, fewer than 300 in hostile attacks, an overstated theme in Hollywood Westerns.  That number paled in comparison to those lost to disease, accident and misadventure.

Wyoming seemed to be the most popular venue for trappers, traders and settlers to memorialize their travels.  Register Cliff, near present day Guernsey, Wyoming, 180 miles east of Independence Rock was the first camp site past Fort Laramie.  A total of 375 names appear there beginning in the early 1800s. 

Register Cliff, first of Wyoming’s “record areas.”

Western Wyoming’s Names Hill on the Green River at LaBarge, was the last of  the state’s “recording areas.” Mountain man Jim Bridger is perhaps the rock’s most famous signatory.  

Bridger’s name on Names Hill.

Doubtful Bridger could have carved it himself, however, since Bridger was famously illiterate.  Not to be left out, in 1978 Southeastern Idaho’s mini Register Rock at Massacre Rock State Park, joined Wyoming’s three recording landmarks already on the National List of Historic Places. 

Idaho’s mini Register Rock in Massacre Rock State Park. 

While all the sites are currently deemed in fairly good condition, erosion, overuse and vandalism remain a threat.  Evidence of the nation’s earliest pioneers could vanish without at trace if not preserved.

Independence Rock National Historic Site, located an hour southwest of Casper, Wyoming, is a treasure which remains under threat.  While the National Park Service manages the site, it belongs to the people of America.  The park includes a large parking area, interpretive kiosk and the paved “Top of Independence Rock 1870” footpath where wagon ruts are still well preserved.

Visitors are asked to treat the site respectfully and to observe the prohibitions on defacing, removing or digging in the area.  A special use permit for overnight camping can be obtained by calling Edness Kimball Wilkins State Park at (307) 577-5150. For a complete guide to park use go to Rock.  

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.