#Lookback: Burnt Ranch and the Oregon Trail

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

The Burnt Ranch sits on the north side of the Sweetwater River on the Oregon Trail. It
is at this point the pioneers on the Oregon Trail made their final crossing of the
Sweetwater River where the river is only about 3 feet deep and 50 feet wide. The site
had several names over the years, but ended up with the name Burnt Ranch because it
was burned down by the Sioux at least two, possibly three times. Earlier names for the
site were Last Crossing, Gilbert’s Station, Upper Sweetwater Station, South Pass
Station, Camp Highland, and South Pass City (not to be confused with the South Pass
City we know today.) On the opposite side of the river Brigham Young had built a
Mormon Mail Station which was known as Marham’s Fort. Burnt Ranch was important
as a trading post and for the protection of the emigrants along the trail and so was
harassed by the Native Americans who also occupied the land.


The Seminoe Cutoff rejoined the main Oregon Trail here about 1850, and it was from
this point the Lander Cutoff diverged from the main trail heading west in 1858. Charles
Lejeunesse, an early trapper who was also known as Seminoe, forged the Seminoe
Cutoff, and Frederick Lander surveyed the Lander Cutoff as a shorter, safer route to the
west coast. Before the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, the Oregon
Trail was the main overland trail to the west coast.


Manifest Destiny was the belief in the mid-19th century that the United States was
destined by God to occupy the entire continent. The settlers that crossed through the
Burnt Ranch would have been familiar and probably believed in this divine plan, but the
Native Americans also claimed this land as their home and hunting ground.


The Burnt Ranch at different times was a Pony Express station, a stage station,
roadhouse, telegraph office, post office, a military outpost and a trading post. Many
notable people passed through the station.


Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Tribune, and famous for telling men, “Go
West Young Man” passed through the station in summer of 1859 in a stagecoach. He
was the only passenger on the stage and rode atop seventeen mailbags. Greeley wrote
he had just missed Colonel Lander’s road crew when he arrived at Gilbert’s Station.


Sir Richard Burton, the famous English explorer, stayed at Gilbert’s station in the
summer of 1860 as he traveled by stage. He wrote, “The Station added to rather than
took from our discomfort. It was a terrible unclean hole…”

In late 1860, a man drove 4100 sheep past the station on the way to California, and
another man drove 9000 animals. These animals were destined to help settle
California.

On June 20, 1861, a Sioux war party attacked Washakie’s Shoshones who were
camped close to Gilbert’s Station. Sioux chief Crazy Horse was part of this raiding
party. Washakie’s son, Nannagai also known as Snowbird, the Shoshone War Chief
was killed, and he was scalped within sight of his broken hearted father This may be the
reason Washakie would not move his people to the reservation after the Treaty of 1868
was signed at Fort Bridger until a military outpost was established to protect the
Shoshone from Sioux raiders. This military outpost, Camp Auger, was the beginning of
the town of Lander.


A few weeks after this battle, a young Samuel Clemens and his brother, Orion Clemens
arrived at Gilbert station on a stage filled with mailbags. His brother was on his way to
Nevada Territory where he had been appointed the Secretary of Nevada Territory.
Clemens described his visit to the station:


“We drove in sight of South Pass City….the hotel keeper and the postmaster, the
blacksmith, the mayor, the constable, the city marshal, and the principal citizen, and
property owner all came out and greeted us cheerily, and we gave him a good day.”


Clemens later took the pen name Mark Twain and wrote a book, Roughing It, about his
adventures in the West.


In October or 1861, the telegraph line became operational and ended the short life of
the Pony Express.


The next Spring through Fall the Shoshone, Sioux and Arapaho caused a lot of
problems for settlers and emigrants. The Native Americans were frustrated with the
changes coming to their homes. Livestock was stolen, stagecoaches were attacked and
soldiers killed not just at Burnt Ranch, but all along the trail.

In 1868, Jim Sherlock purchased a toll bridge and cabin at the Last Crossing. He and
his wife, Janet and their three children made their home there until the summer when
the water levels in the river fell and a toll bridge was no longer needed to cross the
Sweetwater; the soldiers who had been garrisoned at Burnt Ranch had been removed
and it became dangerous to stay. The family retreated to South Pass City that we know
today and became leading citizens of that community. After they left, the Sioux attacked
the buildings and once again Burnt Ranch was burned.

After this final attack, the settlement was not rebuilt. The transcontinental railroad
became fully functional in 1869 and after that far fewer people traveled the Oregon Trail.
Today the site is on private property and closed go visitation. The Burnt Ranch played a
pivotal role in the history of the settlement of the West.


Next up for the Fremont County Museum
June 18
, 10am “Lander Area Petroglyphs” with the Pioneer Museum in Lander, Wind
River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series
June 22, 10am “Kids Corner: Junior Trailblazer” at the Dubois Museum, Bailey Tire/Pit
Stop Children’s Exploration Series
June 22, 7-9pm “Music at the Museum: Packin the Mail” at the Dubois Museum,
Sponsored by the McGee Family
June 25, 2-4pm “Mapping Adventure” at the Riverton Museum, Bailey Tire/Pit Stop
Children’s Exploration Series
June 29, 10am “Kids Corner: Butter Time” at the Dubois Museum Bailey Tire/Pit Stop
Children’s Exploration Series
June 30, 7pm “Beyond Heart Mountain” By Alan O’Hashi at the Pioneer Museum,
Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
July 1, 9-5pm “First Fridays” at the Dubois Museum, Pioneer Museum & Riverton
Museum, State Farm Riverton & State Farm Lander
Thru October 2022, 9-5pm Monday-Saturday, at the Pioneer Museum, “Hurrah for
The Cowboy: Men of the Open Range” Art Exhibition

The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum
need your financial support. In the current economic environment, the museums are
more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the
quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become
their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax deductible contribution to
be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check
to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2 nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you
choose to support.

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