On the far eastern side of WyoBraska, the land that would become the small town of Bridgeport, Nebraska, are two promontories that served as landmarks on the Oregon- California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Pony Express Trail, and the Sidney-Deadwood Trail. Each was repeatedly mentioned in almost every Western Migration Pioneer’s diaries who passed near them. A product of millions of years of erosion from the North Platte River, these two promontories, referred to as Courthouse and Jail Rocks, of which some pioneers would divert their journey as many as five or more miles just to catch a glimpse of them, stood out to weary travelers and could be seen from forty miles (three days travel) away on the distant horizon of the Intermediate Great Plains.
To gain a better understanding of the journey of the Pioneers of the Western Expansion (1801 – 1861) thought must be given to the challenges of our forebears and the risk they faced, the hardships they endured, and for those that survived, the joy they found at the end of their journey.
After The Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson believed that westward expansion was the foundation of the nation’s prosperity and health. He believed that the republic depended on an independent, virtuous citizenry for its survival, and that independence and virtue went hand in hand with land ownership. Hence began the idea of western expansion but, in the sixty years after the Louisiana Purchase, westward expansion very nearly destroyed the republic in that Jefferson’s, and later Presidents, philosophy was misused as justification to forcefully remove Native Americans and other groups from their land and homes. At the same time, the issue of slavery was intensified as new states were being added to the Union, which lead to the outbreak of the Civil War.
After the Civil War, many Veterans, and their families, looked to their future on the opposite side of the country where they hoped to find their fortunes and new lives leaving the carnage and ravages of war behind them. Businessmen, 49’ers, and Slaves began moving west toward the Pacific Northwest in search of new, better, opportunities. Some, like the Mormons, found solace in moving west to leave the hardships of religious persecution behind, beginning new lives in the territory of Utah where Brigham Young settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Eventually, over 3,000 families and 2,500 wagons would pass near Courthouse and Jails Rocks on their way west heading towards their new homes.
The significance of the promontories and buttes that begin at the borders of WyoBraska are not only historical but also geological marvels. Most of the promontories like Scotts Bluff National Monument, the Wildcat Hills, Bead Mountain, and others, that dot the landscape are the remnants of an ancient flat plateau. Over millions of years, the North Platte River eroded and split the soft rock; the waters cutting deep into the ground creating the hills that jut from the landscape exposing harder substrate consisting of Brule clay, Gering sandstone, and Volcanic ash that erupted millions of years ago in nearby New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah offering a uniquely western view in every direction.
On the Northwest side of Courthouse and Jail Rocks lies a Dismal River archeological site. Remnants of the Dismal River Culture have been found throughout western Nebraska assisting archeologists in better understanding the American Indian cultures, and civilizations, and expansion into WyoBraska and the Intermediate Western Plains of North America.
One of the 53 Pony Express Stations is located near Courthouse and Jail Rocks. The next station was at Chimney Rock to the west following the North Platte River which, at that time, was significantly wider and shallower.
The presence of Dismal River culture suggests that Courthouse and Jail Rocks were used repeatedly over centuries much like Signal Butte southwest of Gering, NE though unlike the Signal Butte location, lithics have not been found at Courthouse or Jail Rock in past archeological field studies that would have amounted to a more detailed and thorough investigation of the area.
That’s not to suggest that the evidence is not there. The discovery of pre-Clovis lithics at a red ochre mine at the Powers II archeological site in Sunrise, WY suggests that pre-Clovis, and Clovis, were highly successful in the WyoBraska area over 15,000 years ago. In the future, further evidence may be discovered at Courthouse and Jail Rocks tying these ancient communities together over vast distances, and re-writing the history of North America’s ‘Clovis First” hypothesis.
Scenes from Western Nebraska
Oregon-California Trails Association
Landmarks of the Nebraska Territory
Chimney Rock National Historic Site
Intermediate Great Plains
Courthouse and Jails Rocks are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and in the Nebraska Natural Areas Register.
Story by: Hawk Buckman