Gold rush 49ers, the Platte River trail

Bull Buffalo

Located near Grand Island on the Platte River close to where the trails from Independence and St. Joseph intersect with those from Omaha and Council Bluffs, Fort Kearney was the first place for California travelers to obtain needed provisions and make repairs on their wagons or equipment since leaving the Missouri River. There was no stockade at the fort but by the summer of 1849 several hundred wagons would be gathered close to the sod buildings built around a central parade ground. This would also be the first chance for the emigrants to post letters to family and friends back home.

Encampment along the Platte

After leaving Fort Kearney the trail west continued along the Platte River. Sometimes trees lined the river but for mile after mile there was often nothing but prairie grass. The river ran shallow and straight, and only an occasional boat from John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company could be seen on the water. A few days from the fort many emigrants got their first sight of buffalo and the excitement among the men was tremendous. Many rode after the huge shaggy animals in spite of warnings that Indians would ambush the buffalo hunters, take the meat, their horse and weapon and often kill them. Still the lure of the chase and the appeal of fresh meat were great. Men filled their journals with praise for the delicious, tender, juicy taste of the buffalo hump. So many buffalo were killed that as the summer wore on the animals no longer came near the wagon trail.

Buffalo hunt

Another prairie denizen made a far less welcome appearance about the same time as the buffalo, the rattlesnake. William Banks noted that six were killed in one half acre. It was about this time that wagons began to break down, but the emigrants were a hardy bunch and usually could make the necessary repairs quickly. The first graves appeared along the trail here too, a stark reminder of the hardships ahead. Word passed among the wagons that 1500 men had died so far and many more would not reach California. And to add insult to injury the emigrants were beset by swarms of June bugs that got into everything they cooked and would keep men awake at night crawling through their hair. After several days of this torture they came to the South Fork of the Platte. The most difficult river crossing yet lay ahead.


  1. The image near the top of the page is probably from further upstream, maybe Colorado, given the mountain ridge in the background. I grew up near Grand Island and knew of a famous tree along the Trail known as Lone Tree, as it was the only tree to be seen anywhere to all four horizons. Emigrant travelers took to carving their sentiments into the bark (as there are similar remnants left behind on Independence Rock in Wyoming) and it didn’t last long. A settlement sprang up there called Lone Tree but was relocated some miles farther from the river and became Central City. The novelist Wright Morris, from Central City, used the name Lone Tree in his modern-day novels set there in the 1950s.

    • Great information, Ron. The Lone Tree story is fascinating. There were several places along the trail, called “partings of the way” where travelers left notes to friends they would likely never see again. I will get into them when it’s time, but I didn’t know about Lone Tree. When I put this post together I searched high and low for a photo or drawing of Ft. Kearney. Finally I used the Buffalo pictures, mostly because they were great art. Much later I came across a great painting of wagons arriving at the Fort. The same has happened more than once. Thanks for writing.

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