Independence Rock: The Register of the Desert
Independence Rock, a natural landmark along the old Oregon Trail, can be found near Casper, Wyoming. The rock was an important landmark for pioneers; it served as a campground and watering hole, and it marked their progress westward. Three main pioneer trails – the Oregon, California, and Wyoming – led past Independence Rock.
Measuring approximately 1900 feet long, 800 feet wide, and 130 feet tall, the massive granite outcropping is hard to miss. The distance around its base measures 5,900 feet, or more than a mile. Some say it looks like a giant whale emerging from the plateau. The rock is now believed to have been carved by glaciers during the last ice age.
It’s believed that the first white people to pass the rock were fur trappers working under General William Ashley. Some of these men were famous adventurers, including Jedediah Smith. They would have passed by in 1823. Legend says that in 1830, another group of fur traders reached the rock in time for a Fourth of July celebration. This occasion supposedly lent Independence Rock its current name. In a competing theory, however, it’s said that people leaving the Missouri River in early spring would use the rock as a benchmark; if they reached it by July 4th, then they knew they were on schedule to evade winter snowstorms in the mountains.
Once pioneers arrived at the rock, they could rest, camp, and let their animals drink from the Sweetwater River. Arrival usually included a celebration with gunfire, drink, and dancing. The pioneer Rachel Simmons wrote, “We heard so much of Independence Rock long before we got there. They said we should have a dance on top of it, as we had many a dance while on the plains.” Sometimes campground revelry got out of hand. Traveler Samuel Smith wrote in his diary, “The evening of our arrival I went up to the top of the Rock to hear the Band play, and also to sing several hymns; while here, one of the company’s cows was poisoned by drinking below.” Other people wrote of using Independence Rock as an area for recuperation and buffalo hunting. Some stayed to build transitory communities nearby, but most people stayed for only a night or two and then followed the Sweetwater westward.
Thousands of people left their names and messages on the surface of Independence Rock. Some painted with buffalo oil or grease from their wagon wheels’ axels. Others etched their names with tools carried for wagon repair. Professional stonecutters even stationed themselves at the rock and charged per carving. Considering all the signatures, a Jesuit missionary dubbed the rock the “Great Register of the Desert”. Many names have eroded away or are covered with lichen, but thousands are still visible. In order to preserve the historic messages and signatures, further writing on the rock is prohibited.
Before white pioneers took interest in the rock, it was an important meeting ground for Native Americans such as the Shoshone and Ute. They also carved into the rock, and the granite outcropping appears in many traditional legends.
Today the rock is part of Independence Rock State Historic Site. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. Wagon ruts left by the early pioneers are still visible, but today tt can be accessed by Wyoming Highway 220.