The Trails (Part I)
Long before the railroad, airplane, and automobile; the desire to develop the West brought explores, mountain men, fur trappers and a few brave settlers into Wyoming. Later this would be followed by miners, farmers and ranchers, and hundreds of thousands of settlers to California, Oregon and Utah. Many of the routes that would eventually become prominent trails were developed by Native Americans as they followed the natural migration routes of Bison, Elk and other prairie animals as they moved from winter camps to spring and summer hunting grounds. In this semi-arid region water was a major consideration in trail selection, most major trails followed primary rivers. Another key factor in trail selection was the need to cross mountain ranges and rough terrain with loaded wagons, coaches or while driving cattle long distances.
-The Settler Trails-
Several major immigrant trails crossed Wyoming, which at different times included part of Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, and the Dakota Territories before becoming the Wyoming Territory on July 25, 1868.
The Oregon Trail - First used by Captain Benjamin Bonneville in 1832, the first official wagon train used it in 1841, and then the trail was in continuous use from 1843 until the arrival of the railroad. The route covered 2000 miles from Independence, Missouri to the Columbia River in Oregon. It followed the North Platte River across Nebraska to the Sweetwater River in central Wyoming, then crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass City before entering the Green River Basin, and into the Fort Bridger Valley before turning northwest toward Idaho and ultimately Oregon. At least two other famous trails would follow or parallel the Oregon Trail across Wyoming (Mormon Pioneer Trail and the Pony Express Trail).
The California Trail - In use from 1841 to 1868, this trail was discovered by trappers and explorers and used to supply the mountain men rendezvous in the 1820's and 30's. The route departed from either Independence or St. Joseph, Missouri, and followed the North Platte River across Nebraska and two thirds of Wyoming before crossing over South Pass in the Wind River Range down through the Green River Basin and out to Utah and on to the goldfields of California. In addition to the immigrants; the trail was used to haul supplies, mail, and later people in stagecoaches.
The Mormon Pioneer Trail - The Mormons (now referred to as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) left their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois starting in 1846/47 and by 1869, 70,000 people had moved to Utah to establish their new homes in the Great Salt Lake Valley. The Trail crossed the Missouri River at Omaha, Nebraska, moving west to join the Oregon Trail. Across Nebraska the Mormons would travel on the northside of the Platte River while other wagon trains would follow along the south side of the river. At Fort Bridger the trail would follow the California Trail through the Wasatch Mountains and into the valley.
The Trapper's Trail - This informal trail across the front range of Colorado ultimately traversed from Taos, New Mexico, up into the Dakotas. Originally used by Native Americans, early explorers, and the mountain men it would later be used by north-south stage and freight lines diverting from the Santa Fe Trail across Colorado and into Wyoming. From 1820 to 1846 the main portion of the trail was from Bent's Fort in Colorado north 400 miles meeting the Oregon Trail at Fort Laramie. This trail passed through the area that would later be called Cheyenne.
The Cherokee Trail - Although following part of the the Trapper's Trail, this trail was also known as the Arkansas Emigrant Trail until 1849 and 1850 when two large bands of Cherokee Indians used it to get to the goldfields of California. Following the Santa Fe Trail to Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River in Colorado, it turned north and followed the Trapper's Trail to about present-day Fort Collins where it turned northwest toward Laramie and on across southern Wyoming. Later this route would become the Overland Trail.
The Bozeman Trail - Begun as a shortcut across central Wyoming to the Montana goldfields, it started at Fort Fetterman (near Douglas) on the Oregon Trail. Approximately 3,500 immigrants traversed the trail from 1863 to 1868. The trail required military posts to protect travelers and ultimately was one of the causes of the Indian Wars. It was abandoned in 1868 following the Fort Laramie Treaty but reopened in the 1876 military campaigns at Rosebud and Little Big Horn.