By Virginia Vallee Delaney, © 2002

Wyoming boasts of many wonders but the most significant, in terms of history, is the passage through South Pass. South Pass is a low-lying passage over the Continental Divide in the southwest central part of the state that makes a natural road through the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains. Because of South Pass, the emigrant trails went through Wyoming and people of the east had a link with the people of the west.

The value of South Pass came from two combined features. First, as a low, broad gap in the Continental Divide, it provided a crossing through the mountains that could be negotiated by wheeled vehicles. The pass is only 7,550 feet high and rises on both sides by relatively small degrees through unforested country.

In the second place, there was water and grass on both sides to sustain livestock. On the east, emigrants could follow the Missouri to the Platte and the Platte to the Sweetwater. Over the divide, travelers found Pacific Springs, which led to the Sandy and the Green River.

From the Green River the road split. But always water, grass, and territory passable determined the route by wagon. Because South Pass met these necessities, wagon trains came through Wyoming.

South Pass was sometimes called the Great Gap but that name didn’t stick. People liked the name South Pass better. This emphasized it was south of the difficult northern passes discovered by Lewis and Clark on their voyage of discovery. It was also south of a hoped-for easy Northwest Passage that Lewis and Clark proved did not exist. South Pass, a land passage, replaced the dream of a water passage.

A party of Astorians going from the Pacific Coast to the east used South Pass as early as 1812 . However, the news of South Pass did not reach mainstream newspapers until 1824-26. Even then events moved slowly. In 1836, the Whitman/Spaulding party drove a wagon through South Pass as far as Fort Boise. Their movements were avidly followed in the eastern press and soon “wagons west” was popular topic. By the time the first transcontinental railroad was built in 1869 (also through Wyoming) over 150,000 people had crossed South Pass.

The flow of people and information at a time when territorial boundaries were volatile had a far-flung influence. It furthered knowledge, fostered the frontier experience and favored the growth of American style democracy. The shift of population became a deciding factor in establishing borders. Territorial, state and national boundaries were affected. United States loyalties were brought to the pacific area.

For example, the British, who had some valid claims, vied for title to the Oregon Territory. However, by the year 1846 over eight thousand Americans, the majority coming through South Pass, had made their homes in the Columbia region of Oregon and their presence was a major factor in resolving boundary disputes with the English. A treaty was signed that year.

South of Oregon, borders were also contested. In 1842, the Bartleson-Bidwell party first traveled the California Trail, which took advantage of South Pass. This connection was a small but helpful consideration in the outcome of the treaty of 1848 when Mexico ceded to the United States a considerable tract of western territory. The new territory included the Bridger Valley, the future Utah Territory and California. Although not many had traveled the California Trail by 1848, some who did became celebrities and made it known that California could be reached by wagon through South Pass.

More traffic over South Pass began with the gold rush of 1849 when prospectors followed the California trail. These fortune seekers, plus others (many came by boat by way of Nicaragua), quickly swelled California’s population. By 1850, 60,000 people lived there. On September 9 of that year, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st State. South Pass played a role.

Also California was a free state, which during the civil War, helped the North at a time when the unity of the States was hanging by thin threads. Indirectly, South Pass influenced the shape of north and south as well and east and west.

The Mormons were favored by South Pass because this was the route almost all used on their way to Utah country. The advanced company, led by Brigham Young, came through in 1847 and was followed by many thousands of Latter-Day Saints. South Pass not only helped shape Utah’s borders but was a major factor in opening the Deseret land to Mormon Pioneers. Without South Pass, the Mormon migration would have been a trickle.

In 1868 the Union Pacific Railroad was completed across Wyoming, crossing the Great Divide Basis where there is little grazing. This was not an issue for the trains, because locomotives do not need grass. In 1869 the Golden Spike was driven in Utah opening the Transcontinental Railroad. With the coming of rails, South Pass gradually fell into disuse. Today people can visit South Pass and find it has returned almost back to the way it was when first used explorers and emigrants.

For the above reasons and more, South Pass holds an unmatched position of value in Wyoming’s past. South Pass gave to Wyoming a national and even international character. Wyoming’s personality has been shaped by the South Pass experience.

South Pass afforded a route that made a difference. Without it, the shape of North American would be drawn with different lines. The west might have been a separate nation or nations. The map might not have a Wyoming. South Pass is a resource that adds value beyond measure to the history of Wyoming.

The End

I published a similar article in the Bridger Valley Pioneer Thurs. Aug 13, 1987 p12.

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