About 35 miles south of Casper on State Highway 220
|The Register of the Desert
This granite monolith is one of the more famous landmarks along the Oregon Trail and has served as a meeting place since the area was first inhabited.
Independence Rock was an important place for the Indians who first lived here. This giant igneous formation of feldspar and mica found its way into many native legends, and later, into the diaries of many westbound pioneers.
The first Europeans to visit the rock were members of Robert Stuart’s expedition in 1812. It is Stuart who is generally credited with discovery of the route, which became known as the Oregon Trail. Stuart’s diary indicated that he visited the site on October 30, 1812.
Stuart, however, did not name this giant rock. That honor is credited to William Sublette, who held an Independence Day celebration here on July 4, 1830, as he led the first wagon train to cross the new overland route. Before an audience of 80 pioneers, he christened the rock in honor of the birth date of our nation.
Independence Rock is most famous for the names inscribed on its facethe names and dates of people who passed by this place in search of a new life in the frontier.
Named for a fur trader’s Fourth of July celebration, this huge rock became the most famous and anticipated of all trail landmarks. Here the trail met the cool, clean and clear Sweetwater River that would lead it to South Pass. The emigrants paused to inscribe their names on the “Great Register of the Desert” while they rested themselves and their livestock. They observed the national Independence Day (no matter the actual date) and congratulated themselves on reaching the perceived mid-point in their journey. Described by most as “looking like a great beached whale…,” the Rock is now the site of a modern Highway Rest Area and State Interpretative Site.
It was the names carved in stone here that caused Father Peter J. DeSmet to appropriately name this place “The Register of the Desert” in 1840.
As you walk around the rock, you will see hundreds of names carved or chipped into the surface. Possibly one of the earliest signatures to be found here is that of “M.K. Hugh, 1824.” Other early names include “Hanna Snow, 1844,” “G. Gingham, 1846,” “J. Bower, 1847,” “Milo Ayer, age 29, 1849,” “W.H. Collins, July 4, 1862,” and “V.D. Moody, July 24, 1849.”
“July 5, 1852 Came to independence rock about ten oclock this morning I presume there are a million of names wrote on this rock …”
Travelers climbed this rock not only to scrawl or carefully engrave their names on the surface, but many read it as if it were a lengthy letter written by their long absent friends or relatives. Although circumstances are quite different today, many of us will do this very same thing. We will climb the rock hoping to locate a name we learned in school or perhaps even a family name.
Lydia goes on to write:
She passed through this area three years after her husband. By locating his name here, she knew he had survived, at least to Independence Rock. What a wonderful feeling that must have been!
Only the greatest of imaginations can conjure up a realistic feeling of these terrible hardships experienced by so many. But the emigrant’s most certain and greatest challenge, above all else, was that of staying alive.
Many who traveled this route, however, did not make it this far. There are some 39,000 emigrant graves out in these wide-open spaces along the trail, marked and, unmarked, with the largest percentage dying of cholera.
The Mormon Pioneer Trail
The first leg of the journey across Iowa to the Missouri River covered around 265 miles.
The second leg, from the Missouri River to the valley of the Great Salt Lake covered about 1,032 miles. The second leg of the journey began on April 5, 1847 and ended on July 24, 1847.
This part of the trip went smoother than the previous year’s journey due to better organization, better provisions and beginning when the trail conditions were optimal. The lead pioneer party left with 148 people (143 men, 3 women and 2 young boys), 72 wagons, 93 horses, 66 oxen, 52 mules, 19 cows, 17 dogs, and some chickens.
This hand-picked group was organized into two large divisions and further split into companies of 50 and 10. This organizational structure was based on Brigham Young’s plan for migrating West and included details on camp behavior and devotional practices to be followed.
At Fort Laramie the Mormons crossed to the south side of the river and joined the Oregon Trail. At Fort Bridger State Historic Site, they struck out on their own and followed the faint year-old tracks of the ill-fated Donner-Reed party.
The last 116 miles took 14 days to complete and were very demanding due to difficult terrain, weary travelers, worn wagons and weakened livestock. Upon arriving at the Valley, this first party began planting late crops, laying out streets, building shelters and preparing for winter. Mormon emigrants continued to arrive during the remaining weeks of summer and fall. Approximately 1,650 people spent their first winter in the valley. The next 20 years would see 70,000 Mormons traveling by wagon and handcarts over the Mormon Pioneer Trail.
Rock Hard Facts
Many people believe that the shape of this highly polished round outcropping was created by glaciers. Not so. A process known to geologists as “exfoliation” is how the rock came to have its sleek and round form.
As Independence Rock was slowly uncovered by erosion, the immense pressures of the weight of overlying rock were gradually lessened. The rock then expanded outwardly shedding its surface layers like an onion. Layers of granite broke off, one after the other and formed the rounded shape you see today.
Windblown sand and silt have grooved the rock and polished it to a high gloss in a process called “windfaceting.” It is because of this smooth surface that the pioneers were able to easily carve their names into the rock.
A Popular Stop
Each wagon train heading West tried to time its start so the spring grass would be sufficient to support the animals, without delaying too long to risk the early snows in the mountains. Conse quently, everyone was on the trail at the same time. The emigrants used the race to arrive at the rock by the Fourth of July. A huge celebration would then take place upon their arrival with sounds of gunfire, boisterous drinking, and patriotic oration.
Today, it is hard to believe this area once held such a community. With the passage of time, all traces of the “town” have been obliterated, recapturing the innocence of this area before the mass migration began, when the grasses were tall and the natives roamed these parts.
Devil’s Gate and Split Rock
There is a scenic turnout on the right side of the road a few miles south of Independence Rock. This turnout provides an excellent opportunity to view the Devil’s Gate and the Sun Ranch. A few miles further south of this turnout you will see signs for the Sun Ranch. This is a one way road to your right that will lead you a few miles to the Sun Ranch headquarters. The Sun Ranch is a historic Wyoming ranch owned and operated by the Sun family for over 100 years. Recently the Mormon Church purchased the property as an interpretive center for this section of the Mormon Trail. Historic markers for the Pony Express, Oregon and California trails are located here as well as an excellent trail rut.
Of particular interest is the tragic story of the Willy/Martin Handcart Company. A stop at the Sun Ranch is certainly worth while. You will also find not only well informed but also very friendly folks on hand to make you feel welcome and answer your questions.
Twenty miles (32 km) south of Independence Rock is the Muddy Gap intersection. Turn north on Wyoming 789/U.S. Highway 287 and eight miles down the road (12.8 km) you will find another famous landmark known as Split Rock. Its summit elevation is 7,305 feet (2,191 m). The notch resembles a gun sight when viewed from either the east or west and it is visible for more than 50 miles.
Enjoy Your Visit, But Please Follow These Rules
Site Hours: open year ‘round, sunrise to sunset daily.
Reprinted from Wind River Country Brochure. and Wyoming State Parks and Historic Sites Brochure