At the California Trail Interpretive Center you can learn about Scotts Bluff, one of the most famous California Trail landmarks and a welcome way-marker for emigrants. Ascending a little over 800 feet from the plains below, this historic and majestic bluff rose dramatically on the plains of Nebraska for early trail travelers, and also rose to prominence in the history of Westward expansion.
The People of Scotts Bluff
Scotts Bluff was named for Hiram Scott, a fur trader who died near the bluffs in 1828. Fur traders were among the first people to travel through the region, as early as 1811. An estimated 350,000 people passed through Scotts Bluff between 1841 and 1869, but it wasn’t just trail emigrants. Of course, Scotts Bluff was originally well-known to the Native Americans who lived and hunted nearby. This included the Plains Indians and several other tribes. They called Scotts Bluff Me-a-pa-te, “the hill that is hard to go around.” When the Pony Express became prominent, and then the telegraph lines, Scotts Bluff was a destination and byway for many people, such as:
- Plains Indians
- Fur Traders
- Pony Express Riders
The Devil’s Gap
The path of westward overland migration brought travelers through Scotts Bluff, through a pass known as the “Devil’s Gap,” or known less colloquially as “Mitchell’s Pass,” named after Brigadier General Robert B. Mitchell. There were initially two paths at Scotts Bluff to continue on the trail westward – the old road going around Scotts Bluff, and Mitchell’s Pass, going through. While Mitchell’s Pass was shorter, it was also treacherous, and the wind would howl through the pass, thus earning the path the nickname of Devil’s Gap. The Army Corps of Engineers did improve Mitchell’s Pass in the 1850’s, making the route safer and faster.
The Gibraltar of the Plains
Scotts Bluff was often romanticized by those early travelers, who appreciated this giant marker of progress on their journey. As it could be seen for miles, Scotts Bluff became an object of fascination and imagination for California Trail emigrants and other explorers. An English adventurer by the name of Richard Burton once penned these lines about Scotts Bluff: “In the dull uniformity of the prairies, it is a striking and attractive object, far excelling the castled crag of Drachenfels or any of the beauties of romantic Rhine.” A soldier later called it the “Gibraltar of the Plains”; an ode to the famous promontory of the Iberian peninsula.
At the California Trail Interpretive Center, you can learn more about the importance of Scotts Bluff, the Native American Tribes who lived nearby, and the emigrants passing through on their journey West. Experience interactive exhibits and exciting events. Plan your trip today.