South Pass (Wyoming)

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South Pass
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Historic South Pass, seen from the east looking westward towards Pacific Springs
Elevation 7,412 ft (2,259 m)
Traversed by Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trail, Wyoming Highway 28
Location Fremont County, Wyoming
United States
Range Wind River Range and Antelope Hills (Radium Springs, Wyoming)
Coordinates 42°22′12″N108°54′49″W / 42.37000°N 108.91361°W / 42.37000; -108.91361 Coordinates: 42°22′12″N108°54′49″W / 42.37000°N 108.91361°W / 42.37000; -108.91361
Topo map USGS Pacific Springs
South Pass
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Map of southwestern Wyoming showing location of South Pass at the headwaters of the Sweetwater River
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Nearest city South Pass City, Wyoming
NRHP reference No. 66000754
Significant dates
Added to NRHPOctober 15, 1966 [1]
Designated NHLJanuary 20, 1961 [2]

South Pass (elevation 7,412 ft (2,259 m) and 7,550 ft (2,300 m)) is the collective term for two mountain passes on the American Continental Divide, in the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Wyoming. It lies in a broad high region, 35 miles (56 km) wide, between the nearly 14,000 ft (4,300 m) Wind River Range to the north and the over 8,500 ft (2,600 m) Oregon Buttes [3] and arid, saline near-impassible Great Divide Basin to the south. The Pass lies in southwestern Fremont County, approximately 35 miles (56 km) SSW of Lander.


Though it approaches a mile and a half high, South Pass is the lowest point on the Continental Divide between the Central and Southern Rocky Mountains. The passes furnish a natural crossing point of the Rockies. The historic pass became the route for emigrants on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails to the West during the 19th century. It was designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark on January 20, 1961.


Though well known to Native Americans, South Pass was first traversed in 1812 by European American explorers who were seeking a safer way to return from the West Coast than they had taken to it. As a natural crossing point of the Rockies its pioneering was a significant but surprisingly difficult achievement in the westward expansion of the United States. Because the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806 was searching for a water route across the Continental Divide it did not learn of South Pass from local peoples. Instead, the expedition followed a northerly route up the Missouri River, crossing the Rockies over difficult passes in the Bitterroot Range between Montana and Idaho.

The first recorded crossing was made on 22 Oct. 1812 by Robert Stuart, and six companions from the Pacific Fur Company of John Jacob Astor. They were trying to avoid Crow warriors further north, on their return to St. Louis, Missouri from Astoria, Oregon. A Shoshone had told Stuart of "...a shorter trace to the South than that by which Mr. Hunt had traversed the R. Mountains..." [4] [5] In 1856 Ramsay Crooks, one of the party, wrote a letter describing their journey:

In 1811, the overland party of Mr. Astor's expedition, under the command of Mr. Wilson P. Hunt, of Trenton, New Jersey, although numbering sixty well armed men, found the Indians so very troublesome in the country of the Yellowstone River, that the party of seven persons who left Astoria toward the end of June, 1812, considering it dangerous to pass again by the route of 1811, turned toward the southeast as soon as they had crossed the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, and, after several days' journey, came through the celebrated 'South Pass' in the month of November, 1812.

Pursuing from thence an easterly course, they fell upon the River Platte of the Missouri, where they passed the winter and reached St. Louis in April, 1813.

The seven persons forming the party were Robert McClelland of Hagerstown, who, with the celebrated Captain Wells, was captain of spies under General Wayne in his famous Indian campaign, Joseph Miller of Baltimore, for several years an officer of the U.S. Army, Robert Stuart, a citizen of Detroit, Benjamin Jones, of Missouri, who acted as huntsman of the party, Francois LeClaire, a halfbreed, and André Valée, a Canadian voyageur, and Ramsay Crooks, who is the only survivor of this small band of adventurers.

Letter of Ramsay Crooks to the Detroit Free Press, June 28, 1856 [6]

Stuart's "Travel Memorandum" was left with President James Madison, but the War of 1812 preempted western exploration. A translation of his journal was published in an 1821 French journal, but South Pass would have to be rediscovered by later explorers from information provided by Crow Indians. [5] :5157

Location of South Pass along the Oregon Trail Fort Laramie National Park sign.jpg
Location of South Pass along the Oregon Trail

In 1823 William Henry Ashley's Rocky Mountain Fur Company led to the rediscovery of the pass. Jedediah Smith's party, part of Ashley's Hundred, made the first crossing traveling east to west in Feb. 1824. Ashley subsequently established the first Rocky Mountain Rendezvous in 1825. Ashley sold out to Smith, William Sublette, and David Jackson in 1826, becoming their supplier. [7] [5] :5377 [4] :158

In 1832 Captain Benjamin Bonneville, aided by Michel Cerre and Joseph R. Walker, blazed a wagon road across the pass. Their caravan of 20 wagons, in place of the usual pack-train, supplied the fur trappers from Fort Bonneville, which they established near the Green River. [5] :7982

South Pass marker Southpasswyomingsign.jpg
South Pass marker

In 1834, Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth led the first Methodist missionaries Jason Lee, Daniel Lee, and Cyrus Shepard across the pass. They were accompanied by the naturalist John Kirk Townsend, who documented this first use of the Oregon-California Trail, avoiding the Lander Cutoff used by the fur traders. Wyeth then established Fort Hall on the Snake River and the Lees settled the Willamette Valley. Robert "Doc" Newell's first child was born at South Pass in June 1835. Also in 1835, Thomas Fitzpatrick led Protestant missionaries Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman across the pass. In 1836, Fitzpatrick guided the "First White Women to Cross This Pass", Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, along with and their husbands, plus Miles Goodyear and William Gray. By 1838, four additional American missionary women had crossed the pass, Myra Fairbanks Eells, Mary Richardson Walker, Mary Augusta Dix Gray and Sarah Gilbert White Smith. [4] :156157 [5] :87107

Oregon Buttes - a wilderness study area on the Oregon Trail near South Pass City Oregon Buttes.JPG
Oregon Buttes - a wilderness study area on the Oregon Trail near South Pass City

The first family of emigrants, the Walkers, crossed the pass in 1840 with the intention of settling in Oregon. Joel Pickens Walker, and his wife Mary Young Walker, made the journey with their four children. In 1841, Fitzpatrick led the Bartleson-Bidwell Party across the pass, the first wagon train. [5] :110,113 [4] :158

In 1842, John C. Fremont led a United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers expedition to survey South Pass. Reaching the pass on 8 Aug. 1842, Fremont wrote, "The ascent had been so gradual, that, with all the intimate knowledge possessed by Carson, who had made the country his home for seventeen years, we were obliged to watch very closely to find the place at which we had reached the culminating point." In his 1843 expedition, Fremont was able to determine the elevation of the pass at 7,490 feet above sea level. He wrote, " may be assumed to be about half-way between the Mississippi and the Pacific ocean, on the common traveling route...the emigrant road to Oregon." [5] :112124

Ezra Meeker erected this boulder near Pacific Springs in 1906 to mark the trail South pass marker2.jpg
Ezra Meeker erected this boulder near Pacific Springs in 1906 to mark the trail

Stephen W. Kearny led the first military expedition to South Pass in 1845. By 1848, 18,487 Americans had crossed the pass, and over 300,000 by 1860. [5] :114,128

Gold had been discovered in the gulches near the pass as early as 1842. However, it was not until 1867, when an ore sample was transported to Salt Lake City, that an influx of miners descended into the region. The gold rush led to the establishment of booming mining communities, such as South Pass City and Atlantic City. The placer gold in the streams was exhausted quickly, however, and by 1870 the miners began leaving the region. In 1884, Emile Granier, a French mining engineer, established a hydraulic mining operation that allowed gold mining to continue. Gold mining was revived in nearby Rock Creek in the 1930s. Additionally, from 1962 through 1983, a U.S. Steel iron ore mine operated in Atlantic City, and the company's Atlantic City Mine Railroad crossed South Pass.

After passage of the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, South Pass Station was established in 1861, at Last Crossing on the Sweetwater River. [5] :244248,261 South Pass was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. [2] [9]

Wyoming Highway 28 traverses the modern pass, roughly following the route of the Oregon Trail. Wagon ruts are still clearly visible at numerous sites within a few miles of the highway. [10]


The pass is a broad open saddle with prairie and sagebrush, allowing a broad and nearly level route between the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. The Sweetwater River flows past the east side of the pass, and Pacific Creek rises on the west side. Historic South Pass is the lower of the two passes (elevation 7,412 feet (2,259 m)), and was the easy crossing point used by emigrants. Wyoming Highway 28 crosses the Continental Divide 2.5 miles (4.0 km) to the northwest at elevation 7,550 feet (2,300 m), and its crossing is also named South Pass. The Lander Cutoff Route crosses the Continental Divide at the far northwest end of the broad South Pass region, about 25 miles (40 km) to the northwest of the South Passes, at an elevation of 8,030 feet (2,450 m).

See also

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Split Rock (Wyoming) United States historic place

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  1. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places . National Park Service. April 15, 2008.
  2. 1 2 "South Pass". National Historic Landmark Program. National Park Service. Archived from the original on 2008-04-13. Retrieved 2008-06-27.
  3. [ Oregon Buttes, Wyoming, Elevation: 8558 feet, 2608 meters,
  4. 1 2 3 4 Borneman, Walter (2008). Polk: the man who transformed the presidency and America. New York: Random House Publishing group. p. 158. ISBN   9780812976748.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Bagley, Will (2014). South Pass: gateway to a continent. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 33–48. ISBN   9780806148427.
  6. Crooks, Ramsay (March–December 1916). "Who Discovered the South Pass?". In Young, Frederic George (ed.). Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society. XVII. Portland, Oregon: Ivy Press.
  7. Victor, Frances Fuller (1870). The river of the West : Life and adventure in the Rocky mountains and Oregon; embracing events in the life-time of a mountain-man and pioneer: with the early history of the north-western slope, including an account of the fur traders ... Also, a description of the country. R. W. Bliss and Company. ISBN   9780665163425.
  8. Meeker, Ezra (1908). Ventures and Adventures of Ezra Meeker: Or, Sixty Years of Frontier Life. Rainer Printing Company. ASIN   B000861WA8.
  9. "South Pass" (pdf). National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings. National Park Service. 14 October 1959. Retrieved 2009-06-22.
    "Accompanying photographs" (pdf). National Park Service. October 1958.
  10. "Google Maps".