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Picturing history: Pioneer trails in the Sweetwater Valley

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Split Rock as seen from the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express Trails.

Kenneth Mays

The Sweetwater River flows out of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming near South Pass or the Continental Divide. It continues eastward through Fremont and Natrona counties toward its confluence with the North Platte (now an arm of Pathfinder Reservoir). The Oregon, California and Mormon Pioneer Trails followed the river in the Sweetwater Valley for nearly one hundred miles.

After passing Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate, travelers passed one other major landmark in the granite rock: Split Rock. This feature, a cleft on the top of a granite mountain, resembled a gun sight notch. It was visible for several days to those following the trail and was used as a guide to keep heading in the right direction.

President Brigham Young and the pioneer company camped near Split Rock on June 22, 1847. Nine other Latter-day Saint emigrant companies made the trip that year. (see “Sacred Places, Vol. 6: Wyoming and Utah,” edited by LaMar C. Berrett page 109). Years later, in 1860-61, a Pony Express station was situated near that site.

Continuing on from Split Rock, pioneers on the trail passed Three Crossings, where a narrowing of the valley necessitated crossing the Sweetwater three times in the short distance of 1-2 miles. Just west of present-day Jeffrey City on U.S. Highway 287 is an ice slough. This site provided sweet tasting ice for travelers well into the summer months. Also in this area, ruts in the rock near Fifth Crossing are still visible. Then came the Sixth Crossing of the Sweetwater.

Today, a beautiful new visitors center built and maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints interprets the site to all who visit. All interested persons are welcome and admission is free. 

Kenneth Mays is a board member of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation and a retired instructor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Department of Seminaries and Institutes.