Independence Rock Interpretive Signs
At Independence Rock Rest Area on State Highway 220

Indepedence Rock: What is the Significance of Prospect Hill?
Left of Independence Rock on the horizon, sits a small but very important peak, Prospect Hill. This landmark is named because “… from the summit…is a grand prospect of the surrounding country. …”

From atop Prospect Hill, the emigrants would have a good view of Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate and Split Rock for the first time. These natural landmarks of the Sweetwater Valley allowed the travelers to make note of their progress along the trail.

Locating good water, forage for their animals and fuel for fires was the main concern each day for the emigrants crossing the prairie.

Wagons traveled between 16 and 20 miles a day, depending on the weather and terrain. They were built sturdy yet lightweight. Oxen were preferred over mules and horses for hauling the wagons. Though oxen were slower, they adapted better to the strenuous journy and various conditions on the trail.

Provisions had to last for a possible six month journey as supplies were scarce or very costly if purchased at stations along the way. Many emigrants took too many belongings and soon found their animals suffering. Possessions would be left along the trail to lighten the wagon load.

History Named in Stone
Independence Rock is one of the most famous landmarks on the Oregon Trail. Emigrants wanted to reach the rock by the Fourth of July to ensure passage over the western mountain ranges before winter snows.

Many theories vary about naming the rock but most versions originate with events that happened on the Fourth of July.

William Sublette, and early mountain guide, is credited with christening it in honor of our nation’s birthdate on July 4th, 1830. One version was based on the Rock standing independent from the other rock formations on the plains.

Explorer John Fremont wrote in 1842 upon visiting the Rock, “…the rock is inscribed with…many a name famous in the history of this country…are to be found among those of traders and travelors…some of those have been washed away by the rain, but the greater number are not very “legible.”

Names were sometimes painted with ordinary paint, wagon tar or with a mixture of black powder, buffalo grease and glue. Others were carved into the hard stone with tools carried for wagon repairs. Mormons stationed professional stone cutters at the rock to engrave names for one to five dollars a name.

Few names remain today, as lichen, weather and time are eroding them away.

Vandalism and graffiiti are also contributing to the destruction of this historic national landmark. Please preserve and respect our Wyoming heritage.

The Ox-Team Monument Expedition
In 1852 and estimated 50,000 pioneers passed Independence Rock on their way west. Among this number was the family of 21-year-old Ezra Meeker, recently of Eddyville, Iowa, but natives of Indiana. Meeker, his wife Eliza, and their infant son, arrived at Puget Sound, Washington Territory, in October 1852. They eventually settled in the Puyallup Valley, where over the years they experienced success and failure in farming, principally in raising hops.

Keenly aware of the national significance of the Oregon Trail in the development of the American Pacific Northwest, Meeker wrote several books on the subject. In 1906, greatly concerned that the Oregon Trail would fade from memory, he decided to retrace the old trail eastward with covered wagon and ox-team, for the purpose of permanently marking the trail. He called this journey the Ox-Team Monument Expedition.

The presence of the 75-year-old pioneer with his long white beard, his considerable promotional skills, and the enthusiasm he engendered brought about a generous response from communities along the old trail. As a result, a line of stone monuments now marks the course of the trail from The Dalles, Oregon, across the mountains and plains to Kansas.

Here at Independence Rock he wrote:
July 3 1906, We drove over to the “Rock”, from the “Devil”s gate, a distance of six miles, and camped at 10:00 for the day…I selected a spot on the westward sloping face of the stone for the inscription, “Old Oregon Trail, 1843-57.”, near the present traveled road, where people can see it…and inscribed it with as deep cut letters as we could make it with a dulled, cold, chisel, and painted, with sunken letters with the best of sign writer’s painting oil. On this expedition, where possible, I have in like manner inscribed a number of boulders, with paint only, which, it is to be hoped, before the life of the paint has gone out, may find living hands to inscribe deep into the stone; but here on this huge boulder, I hope the inscription may last for centuries.

Meeker continued his 1906 odyssey through major eastern cities to Washington, D.C., where on November 29 he met with President Roosevelt. In subsequent years Meeker continued his promotion of the Oregon Trail. In 1916 he made the journey in a Pathfinder model automobile, and in 1924 he was flown over the trail by army pilots. The old pioneer died in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 97 on December 3, 1928.

Wyoming Landmarks on the Trail
Emigrants depended on known land marks and landscape features to guide them in their journey west. Guidebooks were available providing detailed descriptions and trail mileage. Even subtle features such as springs, alkali lakes, ravines, bluffs and aspen groves were noted with considerable detail to aid in the long trek.

Within the territory that is now Wyoming were some outstanding trail landmarks; Fort Laramie, Register Cliff, Red Buttes, Prospect Hill, Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, Split Rock, Three Crossings, Ice Slough, South Pass, Pacific Springs, Parting of the Ways, Church Butte and Fort Bridger.

Fort Laramie…a military post at the eastern foot of the Rockies and an essential supply and service depot.

Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate…Imposing landmarks that were a Fourth of July meeting place for many emigrants and often described as “sublime” and “a natural curiosity.”

Three Crossings… where the Sweetwater River had to be crossed three times within a mile and a half.

Ice Slough…a marshy area where water collected, froze and was kept insulated beneath the tundra-like sod. Ice could be dug a foot or more below the ground surface, providing travelers a luxury in the summer months.

South Pass…a gradual ascent over the continental divide. It marked the long-awaited Oregon country and the separation of waters into the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.

Pacific Springs…a marshy meadow providing good grass and the first water flowing west.

Parting of the Ways…a fork in the trail allowing emigrants a choice: a shortcut or water and forage.

Sublette Cutoff…a shortcut through 50 waterless miles. The other fork went southwest to Ft. Bridger, adding 46 extra miles but favoring the livestock.

Church Butte…and eroded sandstone formation named for its shape.

Fort Bridger…an oasis where good water, grass and necessary supplies could be had.

Impressions at the Rock and Devil’s Gate
Many emigrants recorded their daily struggles and observations in diaries, letters and journals while traveling the Oregon-California-Utah Trail. Enough of these documents survive that one can glimpse at the experiences of a variety of people, from teenage children to adults. Some entries are brief notations on travel conditions while others are very descriptive and informative.

Rachel Taylor, age 15, 1853
July 21st Started in good season and about noon reached the Sweetwater, a swift clear stream. Later in the day passed Independence Rock. We forded the river here and were somewhat hindered. Encamped near the river where grass is abundant. We have here a frightful as well as romantic situation. Just back of us Independence Rock stands out in bold relief, and in front of us yawns the Devils Gate.

July 22nd Today a party of us go to explore the Gate and found the place as wild and rugged as could be imagined.

Cecella Adams & Parthenia Blank, twin sisters, ages 23, 1852
25 Sun W.W. this morning we started at 3 o’clock to feed and get breakfast Sand very deep and dealt very troublesome Stoped for dinner opposit Independence Rock. It is a great curiosity but we were all so tired that we could not go to the top of it It is almost entirely covered with names of emigrants. Went on to the Devil’s Gate and encamped, this is a great curiosity but we have not time to visit it and regret it very much. Passed 3 graves Forded the Sweet water M 16 “

Amelia Hadley, age 26, 1851
Monday June 16…This is an independent rock standing aloof from the rest of the mountains, and has a triangular appearance look like a great rock tooled down from the rest of the mountains. It has the appearunce of a court house standing in the centre with a block of I never seen any thing more splendid see a great many names whom I knew”

James Akin, Junior…
Friday July 2nd 1852 “Travel 18 miles-sandy road and dusty-pass Independence rock-cross sweet water-pass devils gate-camp near sweet water—not much grass”

Time and Understanding
Thousands of immigrants migrated past the point whre you are now standingon their way to settle the “new frontier” and begin new lives. They brought with them the coming of a new age.

The abundant wildlands and free-ranging wildlife seemed limitless to those early settlers. They believed such vast natural resources would last forever. Along with the settlers, however, came new ideas and technologies, railroads and more settlers. Soon, the natural resources of Wyoming were more readily available to the new settlers and the rest of the world.

The unrestricted use of these natural resources quickly lead to diminishing wildlife and wildlands. Eventually, conservation efforts sprang up to preserve wildlife and the wildlands on which wildlife lived.

As we grow to understand our relationship with the earth, we realize that our future well-bing depends on our willingness and desire to act responsibly when we use the earth’s precious natural resources-her soil, water, air, plants and animals.

Wyoming’s vast natural wildlands are as important to people as they are to over 600 species of wildlife. A measure of our future may very well be reflected in our ability to responsibly conserve wildlife and preserve its habitat, for we all share the same space, food, shelter and water.

Independence Rock
Thousands who traveled the Oregon Trail in central Wyoming were unaware that they were the beneficiaries of a long series of geological events. The granite peaks around you are mountains that rose, sank and then were buried in sand and ashy sediments. Erosion exposed their summits and created the Sweetwater Valley, part of an east-west passageway through the Rockies. The route was used by game animals, Native Americans and fur trappers, followed at mid-century by wagon train and handcart emigrants, stagecoach passenger and Pony Express riders. For some this was the halfway point in a 2,000-mile trek from the Missouri River to the West Coast. Arriving here early in July, emigrants celebrated Independence Day. In July 1841, Jesuit missionary Pierre Jean De Smet wrote of this granite landmark: “The first rock which we saw, and which truly deserves the name, was the famous Independence Rock. It is of the same nature as the Rocky Mountains. At first I was led to believe that it had received this pompous name from its isolated situation and the solidity of its base; but I was afterward told that it was called so because the first travelers who thought of giving it a name arrived at it on the very day when the people of the United States celebrate the anniversary of their emancipation from Great Britain…lest it might be said that we passed this lofty monument of the desert with indifference, we cut our names on the south side of the rock under initials (I. H. S.) which we would wish to see engraved everywhere, and along with a great number of others, some of which perhaps ought not be found anywhere. On account of all these names, and of the dates that accompany them, as well as of the hieroglyphics of Indian warriors.

Independence Rock
Father DeSmet, early missionary, on July 5, 1841, surnamed this rock “The Great Record of the Desert” on account of the many names and dates carved on its surface.

It was an important landmark and camp site for the emigrants of the Oregon and Utah Trails crossing this territory from 1840 to 1869.

The first Masonic lodge held in Wyoming was opened on this rock on July 4, 1862.

The rock is of igneous origin consisting of red and white feldspar and mica. Marks on the sides show the action of the glacier, which crossed this part of the country in the Pre-Oligocene period.

Early Ranching
By 1869 people gradually began to settle this area. Cattle herds which had multiplied and overstocked Oregon range were driven back along the Oregon Trail to graze the empty plains. Other herds came to Wyoming, Montana and Colorado from the great Texas herds. The journey’s end for many herds were well watered valleys such as along the Sweetwater River.

Although the Valley of the Sweetwater was once an active scene of westward migration, today it is a vast grazing land used by owners of working ranches. Independence Rock and the ruts of the Oregon Trail remain as evidence that a nation once passed this way.

Military Involvement
Increased travel along the Oregon Trail and the construction of a telegraph line along this route led the Indians to the realization that their existence was threatened by another civilization. As a result, violence between emigrants and Indians increased. By 1860-61 several small military garrisons were built to protect travelers and keep the communication lines open.

The Three Crossing Station was located about 18 miles north and west of this site. It was a sturdy stockade, manned by one noncommissioned officer and 6 privates. Sweetwater Station, located about 2 miles northeast of Independence Rock was a telegraph relay station, military supply base, as well as a Pony Express and Overland Stage station. Both sites were abandoned in 1866.

The Great Emigration
Independence Rock was one of the most noted Oregon Trail landmarks. Between 1848 and completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the trail was the major route followd by emigrants from Independence, Missouri to California, Utah and the Williamette Valley of Oregon.

Father Pierre DeSmet, a Jesuit missionary, dubbed the rock “The Register of the Desert” for at one time it had an estimated 40,000 names engraved on its surface. Almost all of the names, sometimes applied with a mixture of powder, buffalo grease and glue, are now coverd with lichens, mother nature’s eraser, which is slowly decomposing the rock.

Fur Trade and Naming the Rock
Eastward-moving Astorian fur traders in 1812 were probably the first white men to discover Independence Rock. Regardless of the date of discovery, the rock was a well-known landmark to the fur trapping mountain men.

Theories about naming the rock vary, but one likely version states that on July 4, 1830, mountain man William Sublette, leader of the first wagon train to cross the overland route, christened Independence Rock in honor of the nation’s birthdate.

Prehistory and Geology
The Sweetwater causeway was probably first used by animals. Early North American Indians, following migratory animal herds, also used this overland passage. When their descendants, including the Shoshone, Arapahoe, and other Plains tribes acquired the horse, the animal hooves and the poles of their travois wore the trail deeper and wider.

The geologic formation of Independence Rock is shown in the 3 diagrams at right.

Early Eocene Time, 50 million years ago.
The Granite Mountains were uplifted. Sedimentary rocks were stripped by streams from this rising fold, causing the granite core to be exposed, a part of which is Independence Rock, shown on the diagram as I.R.

Miocene Time, 15 million years ago.
The broad granite core of the Granite Mountains sagged downward several thousand feet. As a result, most of this once-majestic mountain range became lower than the basins to the north and south and was largely buried by enormous amounts of gray, windblown sand. In some places the sand accumulated to a thickness of 3000 feet.

Independence Rock as you see it today.
Most of the sediments that buried the rounded summits of the Granite Range have been stripped away. Summits such as Independence Rock have been re-exposed and appear today essentially as they were at the time of their burial 15 million years ago.

The Preservation of Independence Rock
An important landform like Independence Rock is protected and preserved only through the efforts of many people and organizations. Not all attempts at preservation and commemoration are acceptable by current standards, however, and some actions left permanent scars on the National Historic Landmark.

Past attempts to memorilize an event or person by the placement of a plaque on the Rock damaged the surface. Today, nine bronzed legends, bolted to this igneous summit are mute testimony to us about people of the immediate past and tell us what they believed to be important about their history.

A preservation ethic was fostered by public knowledge of the importance of the site. Public gatherings and celebrations held by the Rock over the years, including Independence Day commemorations, Mason Lodge celebrations, and a National Boy Scout Jamboree, helped build public awareness.

As part of the united States bicentennial celebration, the State of Wyoming established Independence Rock State Historic Site with administratie responsibilities given to the Wyoming Recreation Commission. In an effort to retain the undisturbed atmosphere surrounding the rock, development at the site was kept to a minimum. A fence placed around the area of the historical inscriptions reduces contemporary damage.

Hundreds and thousands of people stopped here to rest, to meet, and to picnic and the area continues to serve in the same capacity as Independence Rock State Historic Site, allowing visitors to enjoy the majestic beauty of the landmark while refreshing themselves.

First Lodge of Masons
The first lodge of Masons in what is now the State of Wyoming, was convened on Independence Rock on July 4, 1862 by a body of Master Masons who were traveling west on the Old Oregon Trail. To commemorate this event Casper Lodge, No. 15, A.F. & A.M. of casper, Wyoming, held memorial services here on July 4th, 1920.

The Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail passed over the ridge to the right of Devil’s Gate. Good grass, water and the shelter of the hills made this a popular campsite. Oregon emigrant James Mathers stopped here July 8, 1846, and wrote: “…encamped above the pass of the river, between high rocks. This is the most interesting sight we have met with on our journey.”

Devil’s Gate Mail Station
The Devil’s Gate Mail Station was located here. The Post Office Department contracted monthly mail delivery along this route from independence, Missouri, to Salt Lake City, Utah. This service, using light wagons in summer and pack mules in winter, remained the sole mail service until late 1858. John M. hockaday and George Chorpenning established, under contract, this system of relay stations. These pack-mule stations preceded regular stagecoach service to Utah and California. Plant’s Station, a few miles west of here, was used later as one of the stagecoach stations on the route to Utah and California.

Click here for more reading on Independence Rock

Copyright © 2011 New Times Media Corporation - All Rights Reserved