Independence Rock Wyoming

Independence Rock, the great registrar of the desert, is one of the most well-known points on the Oregon Trail. From 1843 to 1869 nearly a half million people traveled the Oregon and Mormon Trails through Wyoming.

But who named it, and why, Independence Rock? Today state highway 220 takes travelers from Rawlins to Casper and a state rest stop welcomes all to stop at the rock. The rock stands nearly 140 feet above the surrounding country and can be seen for miles. Independence Rock covers 25 acres, and a walk around it would be a tad more than a mile. Wind faceting, (constant blowing of sand particles against a service that polish it like a gem stone), has caused the igneous feldspar to shine more like granite than the lowly common rock it is.

A writer in the 1860s estimated there were between forty and fifty thousand names written on the rock. Some of these names were painted or penciled and soon disappeared. Most were carved and the deeper of these etchings survive to this day. John C. Fremont visited the rock in 1842 and carved a cross, filling it with India rubber. The rubber was Fremont’s attempt to make his cross long lasting, but in modern days it can no longer found. Today about 5,000 names can still be found.

So why Independence Rock? No one is sure. Some historians believe Thomas, Broken-Hand, Fitzpatrick named it in 1824, at the height of the trapper period in Wyoming, after making camp there on July 4.  Others believe General Ashley named it July 4th 1825. Some say it was none other than Captain Bonneville in 1832 naming it because it stood independent of the prairies around it.

A town grew up near the rock but soon faded, today only memories survive. It doesn’t matter who gave the large turtle shaped rock its name, what matters is this great landmark of the Oregon and Mormon Trail stands today exactly as it did in the 1800s.

37 Years at Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie today
Fort Laramie, like many western forts, was often staffed with European immigrants. Many times these men were ill-equipped for army life in the west. But they were fast learners and on most occasions survived and many thrived as soldiers during the Indian wars. But maybe none so well or as long as Leodegar Schneider. Schneider spent the first 15 years of his life in Switzerland but by his 23ed birthday was in the United States Army.

Schneider fought in the Seminole wars in Florida and several other east coast Indian campaigns. In 1849 when Fort Laramie became a military post, after more than a decade in the army, Schneider along with the rest of his company was sent to the famous Wyoming fort. And he stayed, stayed at Fort Laramie for the next 37 years. The 37 years made him the longest serving soldier at Fort Laramie.

Schneider started as the post’s assistant librarian, later became the first sergeant, and ended as the ordinance sergeant, a highly sought after position. When Schneider came to the fort it was a handful of adobe buildings, it grew to the largest Indian wars fort in the west.  When he left, he along with the fort had seen it all.  He fought in battles along the Bozeman and tried to keep the peace on the Oregon and Mormon Trail. 

 He watched the beginning and end of the Indian wars in the west, the Great War between the states in the east, the passing of tens of thousands on the Oregon Trail. Schneider witnessed the signing of two of the most famous treaties of the west, the treaties of 1851 and 1868, both signed at Fort Laramie. He met mountain men lie Jim Bridger and saw the beginning and the end of the Pony Express. He watched bits of the pushing of the trans-continental railroad through southern Wyoming and  walked along tracks being built to the north. He watched progress, the taming of the west, millions of buffalo changed to cattle inside fences. If anyone ever witnessed the passing of the frontier it was Leodegar Schneider and his 37 years of service at Fort Laramie.

Not a life of novels and movies, but to this old history guy, pretty darned interesting.

Where Did All The Buffalo Go ?

The great era of the mountain man lasted for twenty years. The two decades from 1820 to 1840 opened much of the west and all of Wyoming.  But what did the mountain men do after 1840, the price of fur was down, down so low it wasn’t worth their time to trap. Many turned to the vast buffalo herds of the plains and foothills, either leading hunters to them or hunting themselves.

In the 1840s there were a reported 30 million buffalo and maybe as many as 60 million – by 1882 there were less than one thousand. Theses beasts had roamed America for hundreds of centuries sustaining cultures that dated back to nearly the Stone Age. So what happened? We hunted them to near extinction. They were easy prey, hunted for food to feed railroad workers, shot for sport by hunters from all over the world. Later thousands were killed for their tongue and hump steaks. And then the hide hunters came. $3.00 a hide when a dollar a day was a decent wage. Many hunters employed full time skinners, cooks, teamsters and general help. A good hunter killed hundreds and sometimes thousands in a year.

So how did this happen, sadly, government policy? Kill the food source and the Indian problem would go away, at least that was the theory, and it seemed to work. The United States government encouraged the hunting of buffalo to extension. By 1890 the Indian Wars were over and the buffalo were nearly gone.

Today the Buffalo are making a strong comeback thanks to a few pure strain herds like the one in Yellowstone. I took these photos on a trip in the Laramie Range (30 miles away) last week end. These buffalo are on a huge ranch on open, unfenced range. They look pretty happy to me.

Jim Bridger - The Rest of His Story

Jim Bridger may well be the most celebrated of all the mountain men who lived and worked in the mountain west. So famous that today, roads, streets, trails, bridges, a power plant, schools, a fort, museum collections and many more things were named after the famous, hunter, and fur trader.

The inscription on his tomb stone reads (in part) – “Celebrated as a hunter, trapper, fur trader and guide. Discovered Great Salt Lake 1824, the South Pass 1827 [1823]. Visited Yellowstone Lake and Geysers 1830. Founded Fort Bridger 1843. Opened Overland Route by Bridger's Pass to Great Salt Lake. Was a guide for U. S. exploring expeditions, Albert Sidney Johnston's army in 1857, and G. M. Dodge in U. P. surveys and Indian campaigns 1865-66."

But that is not all the man was. For decades a popular American radio host, Paul Harvey, aired a program called, “The Rest of the Story,” – well here is a bit of the rest of the story of James Felix Bridger, a most remarkable man.

Today Wyoming is known as a ranching and oil producing state. Guess who was the states first cattleman and first oilman? Jim Bridger. Bridger was not the first to have cattle in Wyoming but he may, very well, have been the first to buy and sell cattle, a thriving part of his business from his fledgling trading enterprise at Fort Bridger. And along with his buddy, Kit Carson, he skimmed oil from a seep just west of present day Casper Wyoming. What did they do with it? Well, they mixed it with flour and sold it as axel grease for wagons heading west – and it worked pretty good.

 Bridger also took on special projects for the government. At the request of the army he blazed a new trail from near his Casper oil seep, up though Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin and into the gold fields of Montana. - (The Bridger Trail) - This trail allowed people a chance to avoid the bloody Bozeman Trail. If people would have listened to him and used his new trail maybe a large part of the Indian wars of the west could have been avoided.