This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Autumn 2014, Volume 61, Number 1)


By Will Bagley, Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-8061-4442-9; hb; 336p; 25 illus.; 5 maps

Travelling westward in central Wyoming on highways 287 and 28 one traces a large portion of the route of the early pioneers. The Sweetwater River is crossed a number of times, and numerous other streams, and then the long sweep of the Wind River Range, outlined in all its glory to the northwest, provides one of the great scenes of the West. Near the foothills of the Wind RIvers as the road is followed southwest, is the low wide pass known as South Pass - hardly a pass in the true sense of the word, as it's really a shallow basin some twenty miles across, flanked by the Wind Rivers on the north and barren hills on the south. It appears like a gently undulating plain with a thick covering of wild sage, but in the highest part there is a small dry basin of a few acres with good grass. The continental divide cuts southeast across the pass with waters from here flowing to the Atlantic, the Pacific or the Gulf of Mexico.

At over 7,000ft. above sea level, South Pass is one of the West's most historic places. It was the only one that anything on wheels could cross in the whole of the massive cordillera of the Rocky Mountains between Marias Pass near the Canadian border and Guadaloupe Pass not far from Mexico, without considerable engineering challenges. To the early emigrants it was both deceiving and disappointing, for it did not conform to the perceived view of what a Rocky Mountain pass should look like. Indeed, some passed through it without realising it.

South Pass has received much attention in lore and in memory, yet there had been no serious book-length study centred on the region with the main focus being the pass itself and its surrounding areas. Fur traders first saw the place in 1812, but in the decades from the1840s emigrants on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails used South Pass as they transformed the West in a single generation. Bagley, in a very readable style, traces the main Western histories: the peopling of the region by the earliest inhabitants and adventurers, including the Shoshones; the trappers and fur traders; missionaries on their way to Oregon; government explorers and, later, California gold rushers, (the South Pass area had its own mini gold rush); the Mormon emigrants, and the many families who were seeking new lives in the far West. The rich stories continue with the Overland Stage and the short-lived Pony Express, replaced by the first transcontinental telegraph. All crossed through the area. Perhaps an important fact about South Pass is that without it the overland wagons starting off far to the east along the Missouri River would not have been able to have reached their destination in a single season each year. This would have delayed western settlement for years.

Bagley also focuses on individuals such as Frederick William Lander who deserves a greater part in the historical record. Lander had established himself as a recognized an experienced frontiersman and had crossed the West numerous times. A civil engineer for the forty-seventh parallel survey, he established a shorter route, which became known as the Lander Cutoff (1859), crossing the continental divide to the north of South Pass. It was the first federally funded road in the West, an attempt to improve the main trail. The route avoided a hot desert, was about 85 miles shorter and had good grass, water and wood. However it was high, rather rough and steep in places and subject to streams being in flood. Many emigrants continued to use the established trails.

There are some historical map reproductions and some of artist Albert Bierstadt's photos, but a minor frustration is that a more detailed map was needed to cover the many places and offshoots within a relatively small area which are thoroughly outlined in the text. However, this should not detract from an important regional history, even though so many stories and events have to be generalised to encompass one volume.

Raymond Cox


English Westerners' Society  

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