Review: History of South Pass tells of America’s expansion

06/29/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

“South Pass: Gateway to a Continent” by Will Bagley (University of Oklahoma Press, 325 pages, $29.95).

The crest of South Pass is in Fremont County, Wyoming, about 10 miles southwest of South Pass City at 42 degrees 34.4 minutes north latitude and 108 degrees 88.6 minutes west longitude. Selected as one of America’s first National Historic Landmarks by President Eisenhower in 1960, this treasured place is about as isolated a spot as one can find in the continental United States, and looks very much as it might have looked in 1840, when the first Bartelson-Bidwell party of wagons pulled across it headed for Oregon.

Fur traders with the Astorian group led by Scotsman Robert Stuart first identified South Pass as the continental passage point in 1812, although some of Andrew Henry’s men tramping into and out of Idaho in 1811 may have heard of it, or even seen it without fully realizing its import. During the heyday of the Mountain Man (1820-36), South Pass made the “fur system” possible, with mule and ox trains bringing supplies to the trappers, who were able then to remain in the mountains year-round. South Pass made possible the Rendezvous and gave missionaries a route to the Pacific Northwest, where they set about converting (or subverting) the Native Americans. Brevet General Fremont used South Pass in the haphazard wanderings that made him famous, as did the Latter Day Saints on the run from religious persecution.

But what made South Pass vitally important were the Oregon Trail and the Gold Rush, without which American expansionism, American exceptionalism, and the great era of imperial adventurism that was to follow could not have come about quite so quickly. Indeed, between New Mexico’s forbidding scrub deserts and parched Gila Mountains under the suzerainty of the Apache, the impassable Colorado Rockies, and the forbiddingly Blackfeet- and Crow-dominated regions of Wyoming and Montana, there is no effective wagon crossing of the continent that could have served to spirit hundreds of thousands of families, miners, crooks, lawyers, proselytizers, land surveyors, merchants, doctors and Army scouts to the great American West. Despite being more than 7,000 feet in elevation, South Pass is a gentle, almost flat-seeming passage, a miracle for people in wagons and on foot.

Will Bagley, author of a dozen books on the history of the American West (most recently a brilliantly researched history of the Oregon Trail), has written a serviceable history of South Pass, a book beautifully made as always by the University of Oklahoma Press, and one that contains a fine index, bibliography and maps. The book suffers from the fact that much of this history has been well-told by historians like Dale Morgan, Bernard DeVoto and David Lavendar, among many others, some of whom were more colorful writers than Bagley; the book suffers from a surfeit of quotations, even if from original sources, which sometimes make reading it more like an exercise in academics. The book does, however, examine the later history of the Pass, its stage, freight and mail lines, and the railroad, which is sometimes neglected. Fascinating, too, is the story of those hardy few who couldn’t afford railroad fare, and were still found pushing west in covered wagons as late as 1882. Bagley’s extensive research, his heart-felt devotion to the subject, and frequent insight and wit, make the book worthwhile to more than devotees of Western history.

South Pass is a history-haunted place. Bagley writes, “The rugged landscape still eloquently evokes openness and freedom, rich with the grandeur and desolation that so impressed early pioneers. The profound and terrible stillness and solitude of the pass Richard Burton experienced in 1860 endures, broken only when the high, cold wind blows relentlessly through a break in the mountains.”

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