South Pass Byline: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
November 1, 2013
On the Oregon Trail there was an almost imperceptible crest in the Rocky Mountain chain, yet it is the most significant site on the westward emigrant trails. Here the emigrants crossed the Continental Divide, moving from where the water flowed east to the Atlantic Ocean, to west to the Pacific. As they moved over south Pass, they could then say that they had entered the Oregon Territory. South Pass was known to the natives for centuries, but was “discovered” in 1812 by the leadership of Robert Stuart. Twelve years later it was “rediscovered” by a party of fur trappers who took the first wagons over the summit. Ten years later, Lt. John Charles Fremont set the stage for migration by announcing that the pass could be crossed without any “toilsome ascents”. In the y ears the followed, nearly every diary recorded the exhilaration of crossing South Pass. There is one granite boulder on the summit, erected by Ezra Meeker and the other dedicated to Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, the first white women to cross South Pass on July 4, 1836. The marker was inscribed and erected by Captain H.G. Nickerson, president of the Oregon Trail Commission of Wyoming in 1916. Nickerson recorded it took him two days to inscribe the 80 letters. Nearby to South Pass is the old mining town of South Pass City. It is actually unrelated to South Pass, but instead the discovery of gold in Sweetwater Creek about 1842, and when the settlement of South Pass City then came into being. Indian raids by the Sioux or Cheyenne were frequent and killed many settlers. The raids were sparked by their drinking water being poisoned by the miners and their food supply being killed by the settlers. Despite this, the town continued to grow and by 1870 had a population of 4,000. Not too many years later, the population began to diminish as people moved away to find their fortune elsewhere. During its “glory”, South Pass City boasted 30 gold mines and dozens of sluicing operations. South Pass city also played a key role in the women’s suffrage bill, as William Bright, one of the towns’ representatives in the territorial legislature in 1869 introduced the women’s suffrage bill. It passed, was signed into law, and Wyoming became the first territory or state in the country where women could vote or hold political office.
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