Mountain Passes: South Pass

When Lewis and Clark were making their way up the Missouri River and then westward across the Rockies, the Indian tribes who lived there warned them that crossing the mountains at Lolo Pass anytime after August was not a wise idea. Not if one wanted to survive. There was, the Native Americans said, a much easier crossing to the south. Lewis and Clark looked for that easier pass and found Lemhi Pass, approximately 150 miles south of Lolo. Lemhi was not the pass that would give them an easy crossing.

Because they never found that southern pass, the Corps of Discovery crossed the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains at Lolo Pass, nearly perishing in the process. That was in the early autumn of 1805. And in 1806 the Corps crossed back the same way: through Lolo Pass.

But that more southern, much easier crossing lay there, 600 miles south of Lolo, between the Wind River range and the Antelope Hills. In fact, this historically important pass is actually two passes side-by-side, but collectively they are called South Pass and treated as one.

In November 1812 the first non-Native Americans crossed it: Robert Stuart, who worked for the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor. The fur-trading baron had a structure erected on the mouth of the Columbia River, naming it Fort Astoria. In June of 1811 Stuart and six other trappers left Astoria and headed east, their goods strapped to their backs. Rather than take the northern passes, they traveled southward, into the land of the Crow Indians.

Luckily for Stuart, the Crow Indians shared their knowledge, explaining to him that he could make an easy crossing at the pass that would later be called South Pass . . . . because it was the pass Lewis and Clark looked for but never found.

Stuart and his fellow travelers made a safe and successful crossing of South Pass. Stuart himself kept a meticulous journal of the trip with all its landmarks noted. He presented a copy of this journal to both John Jacob Astor and to President James Madison, who placed it in his library.

And apparently forgot about it completely, because for the next dozen years, knowledge of South Pass was lost. Except, of course, among the Indian tribes, who knew their land intimately and could not conceive of losing any life-saving information such as the location of an easy crossing of the Rocky Mountains. Nor, I imagine, could they conceive of “losing” anything as large as South Pass.

South Pass is large indeed. Mountain passes came in all shapes and sizes, from tall and narrow to short and wide, to ones with high grades to ones with low grades. As mountain passes go, South Pass is magnificently wide — 35 miles wide. You can be in the middle of South Pass and not know that you’re in a mountain pass at all. Its grade, though steep, rises imperceptibly, so imperceptibly that many of the Oregon Trail emigrants who drove wagons through South Pass did not realize they were crossing to the other side of the Rocky Mountains until they reached the crest of South Pass and looked down — down where all the water now ran toward the Pacific Ocean instead of the Mississippi River.

South Pass
Mountain Range: Between the Wind River Range and the Antelope Hills
Elevation: 7,412 feet
Location: In west-central Wyoming

The same fur-trapping fever that led Robert Stuart to Oregon and then back east across the mountains led other trappers along the same route. Two of these trappers are given credit for “re-finding” South Pass. One is William Henry Ashley, who in 1823 led a group up the Sweetwater River to its source, thus entering South Pass. 

The other is Jedediah Smith who, at the age of fifteen in 1814, read the newly published diaries of Lewis and Clark and, influenced by them, went west in 1822 to join a trapping expedition. In winter of 1823 Smith and his companions headed eastward with their furs. They asked the advice of the Crow, who drew a map of South Pass on a deerskin. Smith memorized that map and led the expedition through South Pass safely in February, 1824. Instead of giving the knowledge of South Pass to a president, Smith shared it with anybody who would actually use the pass. Thus the “lost” pass was “found” again.

Less than twenty years later, westward bound wagon trains crossed through South Pass, some of them turning southward toward California, others northward toward Oregon and Washington. Because South Pass is located in an area that receives almost no rain, and because more than half a million people drove their wagons through, you can still see wagon-wheel ruts there today, 170 years later.

Early in 1860 the Pony Express was established to carry mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in as quick a time as horseback transportation allowed. The route of the Pony Express went directly through South Pass. Likewise, the telegraph lines which would make the Pony Express obsolete also ran through South Pass. The Union Pacific Railroad, however, which would make wagon trains obsolete, chose a different route: but that’s another story of another mountain pass.

Along with the Cumberland Gap and Raton Pass, South Pass is one of the three mountain passes that helped change the composition of the part of North America that became the United States. These three passes allowed hundreds of thousands of Euro-Americans to flood westward into Indian lands they could not have reached so quickly had they not been able to use these passes. Historians speculate that if those half-a-million emigrants hadn’t crossed into Oregon and Washington, that area would have been held as British territory.

South Pass

Here I sit,
a wide crossing
through mighty

Use me,
but do not
lose me.


Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Beale’s Cut.

3 responses to “Mountain Passes: South Pass”

  1. Barbara, you make history (my worst subject in grade school and beyond) so exciting! This reminds me of a favorite television series (dare I say) in the ’60s: Tales of Wells Fargo, hosted by Dale Evans. “Anyone see my cowboy hat and chaps?”


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