U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
National Historic Trails Interpretive Center
When Stuart and his band of Astorians returned to St. Louis in the spring of 1813, a newspaper report stated, "By information received from these gentlemen, it appears that a journey across the continent of North America might be performed by waggon, there being no obstruction on the whole route...". But Stuart wasn't real sure where he had been. Ten more years would slip by before another party of explorers would re-discover the Pass he had found.
By 1824, South Pass was in annual use by mountain men and trappers engaged in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade. Soon the trappers discovered connections that linked South Pass with the Snake and Columbia rivers and with the Hudson's Bay Company holdings of the Pacific Northwest.
In 1832, Captain Benjamin E. Bonneville led 20 ox-drawn wagons through South Pass to a fur trade rendezvous on the Green River, proving that wheeled vehicles could, indeed, cross the Continental Divide and reach the west side of the Rocky Mountain barrier. Four years later, missionaries Dr. Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding put their wives in a spring cart and headed for the Columbia River. The wives made it all the way. The cart almost did.
The first organized emigrant wagon train left the United States at the Missouri River in 1841 and rolled west through South Pass. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party was headed for a new life in California. They made it all the way, but were forced to abandon their wagons in the Great Basin desert. Another wagon train had a similar experience in 1842, although Pathfinder John C. Fremont, who explored and mapped the South Pass route that same year, declared it safe for overland wagon travel.
The following spring, Marcus Whitman organized an emigrating party of nearly 1,000 men, women and children into a huge wagon train consisting of 120 covered wagons and several thousand head of livestock and headed for the Columbia River, some 2,000 miles and six months distant. The "Great Migration of 1843" succeeded, officially opening a road of emigration, settlement and commerce to the Pacific Northwest, a road that would come to be known as the famed "Oregon Trail." Thousands, of westering pioneers would follow their tracks in subsequent years.
People of the Mormon faith joined the westward emigration in 1847. They turned southwest after crossing South Pass and headed for the valley of the Great Salt Lake. In 1849, a flood tide of humanity poured through the great Pass as the Forty-Niners went rip-roaring to the gold fields of California. More than 50,000 pioneers, most of them gold seekers, went west annually in the years 1850-52.
By the mid-1850s, stagecoaches and freight wagons were regular users of the Oregon, Mormon and California trails, rolling both east and west through South Pass. For eighteen months in 1860-61, the riders of the Pony Express transcontinental mail service thundered through the pass on the incredible schedule of 2,000 miles in 240 hours: St. Jo to San Francisco in only ten days.
Inevitably, refinements would be made on the historic South Pass trail system. In 1858, the Lander Road, the first surveyed and constructed road in the Rocky Mountains, was built to provide a shortcut from South Pass to Fort Hall on the Snake River. In 1862, stagecoach king Ben Holladay opened a new Overland Trail route through southern Wyoming that bypassed South Pass entirely. His road generally followed an older route pioneered by peoples of the Cherokee Nation who joined the Gold Rush in 1849.
New routes leading to gold mining boom towns in western Montana were opened in the mid-1860s. The Bozeman Trail, known to all who followed it as the "Bloody Bozeman," branched off from the Oregon Trail west of Fort Laramie and tracked through Indian country along the east face of the Big Horn Mountains. The Bridger Trail departed from the main road at Fort Caspar and took a safer route on the west side of the same mountain range.
The great overland wagon train migrations came to a halt with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Now a new system of trails came into being in the form of stagecoach and freight roads connecting the railroad towns with new settlements scattered across the northern two-thirds of Wyoming. The Cheyenne-Deadwood Trail became the most infamous of these as it carried gold-laden stagecoaches from the Black Hills mines to the rail head in Cheyenne.
Historians estimate that some 500,000 pioneers "went westering" along the South Pass trail system in the mid-1800s. About 80,000 were headed for the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Some 70,000 Latter Day Saints had the Great Salt Lake region as their destination. Almost all of the remaining 350,000 were bound for California with just a few headed for intermediate gold camps in Colorado, Wyoming , Montana and Idaho. Of those that started the journey, one in seventeen would not complete it. Thousands would die along the way, mostly from cholera and other diseases. Some would simply "see the elephant" and turn back.