Scotts Bluff National Monument

Scotts Bluff National Monument

History

 

On March 28, 1914, an inquiry was made to the Department of the Interior about the possibility of establishing a National Monument at Scotts Bluff. Two years later a second attempt was made, which coincided with the establishment of the National Park Service on August 5, 1916.

Not having received a positive response from the federal government, concerned citizens submitted a petition to the National Park Service on October 5, 1916, in which they urged that a national monument commemorating the Oregon Trail be set aside. In March of 1918, a second petition was submitted, and their persistence paid off. On December 12, 1919, Woodrow Wilson signed a Presidential Proclamation, which officially established Scotts Bluff National Monument.

The monument's first Superintendent, or as their were called in those days, "Custodian," was Will Maupin, editor of the Gering Midwest newspaper. He served from 1920 until 1924 at a salary of $1 per month. With the aid of donations, Maupin was able to construct a picnic area at the base of the eastern face of the bluff. He was also able to make imporvements on a hiking path to the summit, and was the first to suggest that a paved road to the summit be built, along with what he termed an "amusement resort."

The monument's second Custodian was Albert Mathers, President of the Gering National Bank, and he served from 1925 until 1934. Thanks to his energetic leadership, in 1926 new tables were added to the picnic area. Using the labor of local Boy Scouts, a new hiking path from the picnic area to the summit, which came to be known as the Zig-Zag Trail, was completed in June of 1927.

In 1928, the picnic area received further improvements when it was provided with electric power and streetlights, and in 1930 a Memorial Arch was constructed. A high point in Custodian Mathers' efforts to develop the monument came on June 16, 1931, when Horace Albright, Director of the National Park Service visited the site. Impressed by what he had seen, on a second visit in 1932, Albright promised to support the construction of the summit road.

Within a few months the first federal money was allocated to begin work on the Summit Road. Excavation of the lower tunnel and parking area, and construction of a connected hiking trail was assigned to a private contractor. Unfortunately, at this same time, a surveyor discovered that the previously developed picnic area had been mistakenly build outside the monument's boundary!

For a short time, construction efforts came under the guidance of an agency known as the Civil Work Administration, which continued until April 28, 1934, when all construction came to a stop. At this time a complete survey was conducted to identify the bluff's historic and natural resources and to determine its future needs.

During this survey, Dr. Harold J. Cook was named the monument's first ranger and on December 20, 1934, another federal agency, the Public Works Administration funded some work on the road to the summit, as well as planning for the new museum.

Development at Scotts Bluff National Monument began in earnest with the arrival of Company 762 of the Civilian Conservation Corps. In April of 1935, these civilian laborers, under the leadership of Army officers, assumed responsibility for completing the summit road and work on new picnic grounds. Work on the first wing of the Oregon Trial Museum was assigned to the Fullen Construction Company in the fall of 1935.

Charles Randels succeeded Cook on July 15, 1935, as Scotts Bluff's fourth Custodian. Before leaving on June 25, 1938, Randels oversaw the completion of the tunnels and the paving of the Summit Road in 1937. The Oregon Trail Museum was dedicated on July 16, 1936, and the Summit Road was opened to the public on September 19, 1937.

The Life and Legend of Hiram Scott

Hiram Scott was born about 1805 in St. Charles County, Missouri, and was employee of William Ashley's Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He is also described as unusually tall and muscular. In 1826, Hiram Scott is believed to have taken part in the first fur trader rendezvous held near the Great Salt Lake, and it has been assumed that he attended those held in 1827 and 1828.

We do know that there was a man by the name of Hiram Scott who was employed by the American Fur Company. His name appears on the pay lists of that company in 1827, where he is listed as a clerk. We also know that his name does not appear in any of the company's papers after 1828.

Beyond this - little else is known with any certainty. In the early days of the fur trade, it was the practice of the various fur comapnies to send trappers into the Far West to gather pelts which would then be brought back to St. Louis and sold to eastern buyers.

The Fur Trade
Beaver furs were especially popular for making men's hats and collars for fancy coats. Muskrat, rabbit, and otter pelts were also marketable, but it was the beaver's fur which brought top dollar. It was the seemingly endless supply of beaver pelts which drew young men such as Hiram Scott out into the frontier. As the business evolved, the fur companies realized that rather than send trappers out to catch and skin the beavers, it would be more efficient to obtain the pelts from the various Native American tribes in the West.

In exchange for the furs, the companies would offer manufactured items such as pots and pans, bolts of cloth, knives, axes, and firearms.

Each spring caravans of traders ventured into the frontier loaded with trade goods. They would meet with the tribesmen and independent fur trappers at pre-arranged sites to conduct their business. Each of these annual events came to be known as a fur trading "rendezvous."

Clerks such as Hiram Scott were necessary to keep track of the many transactions which were made at a rendezvous. Many different accounts had to be maintained, payrolls met and accurate inventories of the trade goods had to be kept. The responsibilities of a fur company clerk would have required a reliable, well-organized, and above all - a literate person.

It is believed that Hiram Scott was returning to St. Louis from the 1828 rendezvous when he died near the bluff which now bears his name. Unfortunately, the details surrounding his death have been lost to history.

Scott's Death
The basic story of Scott's death was first recorded by Warren A. Ferris, who traveled through the area in 1830. He related that during Scott's eastward journey, Scott had contracted a severe illness. Two comrades placed him in a boat and attempted to transport him downstream. However, for some unknown reason, the two men abandoned Scott on the north bank of the Platte River. The next spring, Scott's skeleton was found on the other side of the river, implying that he had somehow managed to cross to the opposite bank before he died.

A subtle variation on this story was recorded two years later by Washington Irving. Instead of being abandoned by just two men, the ailing Scott was supposedly left behind at the Laramie Fork by a larger party who feared for their lives due to starvation. The next summer, Scott's bones were found near the bluffs - 60 miles from where he had been left to die.

In 1834, missionary Jason Lee recorded a story about Hirman Scott that was very similar to those earlier versions, except that the pathetic Scott had traversed 100 miles before dying near the bluffs on the North Platte River.

The Story Grows
The story of what happened near Scott's Bluffs was told and retold. With each telling the story took on new perspectives. Some stories included dramatic attacks by Indian warriors while other suggest murder and foul play. Some stories include the noble theme of the doomed Scott insisting that his comrades leave him behind so they might save themselves from his fate.

There has been some speculation that Hiram Scott was actually injured in an encounter with some Blackfeet Indians that took place at the 1828 rendezvous at Bear Lake, Utah. This has been used to explain why Scott became incapacitated on his journey back east, but as with most of the information about Hirman Scott, very little is known for certain.

Scott's Bluffs
Almost immediately after his death, the bluffs along the North Platte River came to be known as Scott's Bluffs. In 1830, the first wagons made the overland trip on the same route used by early fur traders like Hiram Scott, and the bluffs that bear his name served as a landmark for people making their way west.

The fur trade continued for a decade after Hiram Scott's death in 1828, but by 1840, the beaver had been trapped out and fashions changed. When men began wearing hats made of silk instead of beaver fur, the value of furs dropped. Twenty years later a demand for buffalo hides briefly rekindled fur trading on the high plains.

Hiram Scott's final resting place is not known. His remains were almost certainly found near the North Platte River, but the site has never been located. Today, a plaque dedicated to his memory is located along the North Overlook Trail on the summit of the bluff that bears his name.

Over the years, the geological features known as "Scotts Bluff's" have taken on their own individual names. They are now known as Dome Rock, Crown Rock, Sentinel Rock, Eagle Rock, and Saddle Rock. However, the largest and most prominent is known as Scotts Bluff, and still stands as a landmark for travelers and a reminder of the tragic incident that took place nearly two centuries ago.

William Henry Jackson

William Henry Jackson is best known as the first person to photograph the wonders of Yellowstone. His images adorned the parlors of millions of American households and aided in the effort to create the world's first national park. Jackson was also an accomplished artist who recorded his experiences as a young man. His drawings and paintings provide valuable insights to life in a time when America was suffering through the Civil War and venturing westward in search of a national identity.

Early Years
Growing up in Keeseville, New York, Jackson could not recall a time when he was not drawing pictures. His mother was an accomplished painter of watercolors, and he credited her encouragement with his later success. At the age of 10, Jackson received his first formal artistic training, learning to use perspective and form, color and composition. His drawings now began to take on a more realistic and mature appearance.

His first job as an artist was not a glamorous one. In 1858, he was hired as a retoucher for a photographic studio in Troy, New York, where he worked for two years. His job was to warm up black and white portraits by tinting them with watercolors and to enhance details in the photographs with India ink. During this time, he learned how to use cameras and the darkroom techniques of the time.

Military Career
Jackson might have continued to learn his trade and settle into a stable and lucrative career, but events beyond his control would soon take him in a new direction. In August of 1862, the 19 year old William Henry Jackson enlisted as a member of the Light Guard from Rutland, Vermont.

With the exception of occasional guard duty, there was little for the aspiring artist to do. Jackson passed the long, boring hours sketching his friends and scenes of camp life to send home to show his family he was safe. In June of 1863, Jackson's regiment participated in the climactic Gettysburg campaign, but never saw action in the battle. Soon after his term of enlistment expired, William Henry Jackson returned to civilian life. Luckily, his mother saved the pencil sketches created during his wartime service, and they survive today as a record of an infantryman's life in the Union army.

Seeking Fortune in the West
On his return home, the young veteran quickly found employment in another photographic studio. His obvious skills won him a fine salary, which enabled him to buy fancy clothes and live the good life. After a year, during which he had received substantial raises and promotions, he became engaged to a young woman from a prominent family. Every indication pointed to a happy, successful life and career. However, a lover's spat in 1866 brought Jackson's world crashing down around him. Too ashamed to face his family after the breakup with his fiancé, the heartbroken young man decided to leave Vermont and seek his fortune in the silver mines of Montana. Jackson and two friends set out for the western frontier, making their way to Nebraska City, Nebraska Territory - a jumping off point for freighting caravans headed west. There the three young easterners signed on as bullwhackers for a freight outfit bound for Montana. Despite knowing nothing about oxen or hauling freight, Jackson soon grew proficient in handling the powerful draft animals.

Documenting the Frontier
The hard work and new country did much to mend Jackson's broken heart. Soon he was back to his old habits of sketching the things he saw and the people he met. Forsaking his dream of striking it rich, Jackson left the freight train near South Pass in Wyoming and headed south for Salt Lake City and eventually California. His experiences in the West struck a chord in Jackson, and he began to realize that documenting the settling of the frontier might become his life's work.

With assistance from his father, Jackson established his own photographic studio in Omaha, Nebraska in 1869. He began photographing American Indians from the nearby Omaha reservation and the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.

These photographs came to the attention of Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, who was organizing an expedition that would explore the geologic wonders along the YellowstoneRiver in WyomingTerritory. Hayden realized that a photographer would be useful in recording what they found. When offered the position, Jackson jumped at the opportunity.

Photographing the West
Anyone else might have been daunted by the thought of transporting delicate camera equipment and glass plate negatives across the West, but Jackson's experience as a bullwhacker would serve him well. The images he brought back caused a sensation. For many years, stories about geysers and waterfalls were thought to be tall tales, but Jackson provided proof of their existence. Public interest resulted in the U.S. Congress officially designating YellowstoneNational Park in 1872, and Jackson's name became a household word.

For the next seven years, Jackson worked with Dr. Hayden for the United States Geological Survey. The Survey took him to such unique and unexplored places as Mesa Verde and Yosemite, which Jackson documented with thousands of photographs.

His most famous image would be taken in 1873. For years, stories of a mountain with a large cross etched in its side had been circulating, but it wasn't until Jackson risked climbing Colorado's western slope of the Rocky Mountains that its existence was proven. Within a few months of the photograph's publication, his image of the Mount of the Holy Cross adorned the parlors in thousands of American homes. Jackson's work for the U.S.G.S. ended in 1878. He continued to work in the West, opening a studio in Denver, Colorado, returning to portrait photography as well as documenting railroad construction to mining towns in the Rockies.

No retirement
At an age when most men have already retired, William Henry Jackson embarked on a new career. He chose to put down his camera and pick up a paintbrush at the age of 81. Jackson's eye for composition, coupled with the fact that he had experienced the transformation of the West firsthand gave added credibility to his work. Soon his paintings of western scenes were in demand for illustrating books and articles. Jackson completed approximately 100 paintings, mostly dealing with historic themes such as the Fur Trade, the California Gold Rush and the Oregon Trail. Jackson revisited many of the sites he depicted in his paintings so he could paint them as accurately as possible. For those scenes that predated his own lifetime, he sought out and interviewed surviving participants.

William Henry Jackson died on June 30, 1942 at the age of 99, and was laid to rest in ArlingtonNationalCemetery. His long and active life paralleled the formative years in the life of the United States, and his many contributions as a soldier, bullwhacker, photographer, explorer, publisher, author, artist, and historian have left a lasting legacy that the National Park Service is proud to perpetuate.

William Henry Jackson Collection
Scotts Bluff National Monument houses the world's largest collection of original William Henry Jackson sketches, paintings, and photographs. Many are on display in the Visitor Center at Scotts Bluff. In addition, the entire collection can be found online at www.whjcollection.com.