We moved on from South Dakota through the panhandle of Nebraska. We made two educational stops (be prepared for some history). The first stop was Agate Fossil Beds National Monument which is located on the Agate Springs Ranch which was originally owned by James Cook. The monument was created to protect a large number of well-preserved Miocene fossils, which date from about 20 million years ago and are among some of the best specimens of Miocene mammals. Species found at Agate include: Miohippus, an ancestor of the modern horse, Menoceras, a pony-sized rhinoceros, and Amphicyon, a bear dog.
We got a very nice surprise at the visitor center. It houses the Cook Collection which consists of Native American artifacts the Cook family received in the late 1800s and early 1900s from close family friends like Red Cloud, Chief of the Oglala Lakota. James H. Cook first arrived in western Nebraska in the early 1870s, while working as a cattle drover. The 17-year-old’s chance meeting with a 53-year-old Red Cloud didn’t happen until 1874. As the story goes, fossils played a vital role in that meeting. O.C. Marsh, a Yale University paleontologist, wanted to collect fossils—the Lakota called them “stone bones”—from north of the Red Cloud Agency. According to James, who’d previously learned Indian sign as well as some of the Sioux’s spoken language, he met and spoke with Red Cloud and other Lakota leaders on behalf of Marsh. This chance encounter between James and Red Cloud developed into a friendship that lasted until the latter’s death in 1909.
Our next stop was Scotts Bluff National Monument. The collection of bluffs was first charted by non-native people in 1812 by the Astorian Expedition of fur traders traveling along the river. The expedition party noted the bluffs as the first large rock formations along the river where the Great Plains started giving way to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Their findings were not widely communicated because of the War of 1812. In 1823 explorers rediscovered the route to the Rocky Mountains, and fur traders in the region relied on the bluffs as a landmark. European Americans named the most prominent bluff after Hiram Scott, a fur trader who died in 1828 near the bluff. The local Native Americans had called it Me-a-pa-te, “the hill that is hard to go around.”
Fur traders, missionaries, and military expeditions began regular trips past Scotts Bluff during the 1830s. Beginning in 1841, multitudes of settlers passed by Scotts Bluff on their way west on the Emigrant Trail to Oregon, and later California and Utah. Wagon trains used the bluff as a major landmark for navigation. The trail passed through Mitchell Pass, a gap in the bluffs flanked by two large cliffs. Although the route through Mitchell Pass was tortuous and hazardous, many emigrants preferred this route to following the North Platte river bottom on the north side of the bluff. Passage through Mitchell Pass became a significant milestone for many wagon trains on their way westward.
The wheels from the wagons left permanent ruts in the stone which clearly mark the Oregon Trail. Sharon and Leslie decided to be historical and walk on the trail for a little bit, until continual rustling in the bushes made them turn back – some pioneers!