Overland Trail Museum - The Overland Trail
In the spring of 1859, tens of thousands of eager people scrambled to the southern Rockies to take part in the Pike’s Peak gold rush. It sparked one of the greatest migrations in U.S. history, and in the ensuing decade, the Overland Trail became one of the most heavily trafficked trails across the country. It was also used by the Overland Stage Company to deliver mail and transport passengers to Salt Lake City, Utah, via stagecoach.
The Overland Trail began in Kansas and ran parallel to the Oregon Trail until it split and continued along the South Platte River to the east of present day Greeley, Colorado. There, one branch of the trail headed north and merged with the Oregon Trail, while the other branch headed south and made a loop through the Denver gold fields. Travelers came by wagon and on foot, pushing wheelbarrows, hauling stores of coffee, biscuits, and bison, seeking adventure and opportunity. The Overland Trail appealed to them because the South Platte provided a natural water source. Later, stage stations and ranches along stretches of the trail would offer travelers a place to stop for food and rest. The ranches often had a blacksmith shop, a store, an eating house, and sometimes even a bakery.
Native American tribes, such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho, had used the trail for centuries before the gold rush brought a massive wave of settlers to their land. In 1851, the U.S. Army made negotiations with the tribes and granted them more than 44 million acres of land from the North Platte River to the Arkansas River. Miners and traders who seized the opportunity to profit from the Pike’s Peak gold rush occupied legal tribal lands, creating more competition for land and resources.
In 1861, under the new Treaty of Fort Wise, Cheyenne and Arapaho land shrunk from 44 million acres to less than 4 million acres to accommodate mining claims and incoming settlers. Then, in 1862, the Homestead Act enticed thousands of more people to take the Overland Trail to Colorado Territory. For a small fee, the Homestead Act allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of land free of charge if they built a home and farmed or ranched the land for at least five years. This new influx of immigration and homesteading forced many bison to migrate.
Tensions between the settlers and Native American tribes continued to escalate, and violent conflicts cropped up along the Overland Trail. 1863 brought a severe drought to the region, and in 1864 heavy rain and snowfall caused major flooding that stranded wagons of people across the now raging river. Perhaps the extreme weather was an ominous sign. In November 1864, nearly 700 U.S. volunteer soldiers attacked a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. The soldiers killed roughly 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people--mostly women, children, and the elderly--in an attack now known as the Sand Creek Massacre. This vicious attack prompted a series of battles in retribution. Nearly all the stage stations and ranches along the Overland Trail were destroyed in January 1865--with the exception of Fort Wicked, named for its defense and survival of the battle.
In 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed and marked the end of stagecoaches, ceasing most travel along the Overland Trail. However, the impact of the trail and those who journeyed along it changed forever the landscape and the course of history forever.