South Pass

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South Pass, seen from the west looking eastward towards Pacific Springs
South Pass, seen from the west looking eastward towards Pacific Springs

South Pass (elevation 7550 ft) is a mountain pass on the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Wyoming. The pass is located in a broad valley between the Wind River Range to the north and the Antelope Hills to the south, in southwestern Fremont County, approximately 35 miles (54 km) SSW of Lander. The pass furnishes a natural crossing point of the Rockies and has historical been the route for the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trail during the 19th century. The pass is a broad open saddle with prairie and sagebrush, allowing a broad and nearly level route between the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. The Sweetwater River rises on the east side of the pass, and Pacific Creek rises on the west side.


The discovery of the pass as a natural crossing point of the Rockies was a significant but surprisingly difficult achievement in the westward expansion of the United States. It was unknown to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which followed a northerly route to the Missouri River, crossing the Rockies in high passes in the Bitteroot Range in Montana. South Pass, by comparison, was known only to Native Americans until 1812 when Robert Stuart and six companions from the Pacific Fur Company (the Astorians), crossed the Rockies here on their return from Astoria, Oregon:

Map of southwestern Wyoming showing location of South Pass at the headwaters of the Sweetwater River
Map of southwestern Wyoming showing location of South Pass at the headwaters of the Sweetwater River
"In 1811, the overland party of Mr. Astor's expedition, under the command of Mr. Wilson P. Hunt, of Trenton, New Jersey, although numbering sixty well armed men, found the Indians so very troublesome in the country of the Yellowstone River, that the party of seven persons who left Astoria toward the end of June, 1812, considering it dangerous to pass again by the route of 1811, turned toward the southeast as soon as they had crossed the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, and, after several days' journey, came through the celebrated 'South Pass' in the month of November, 1812.
Pursuing from thence an easterly course, they fell upon the River Platte of the Missouri, where they passed the winter and reached St. Louis in April, 1813.
The seven persons forming the party were Robert McClelland of Hagerstown, who, with the celebrated Captain Wells, was captain of spies under General Wayne in his famous Indian campaign, Joseph Miller of Baltimore, for several years an officer of the U. S. Army, Robert Stuart, a citizen of Detroit, Benjamin Jones, of Missouri, who acted as huntsman of the party, Francois LeClaire, a halfbreed, and André Valée, a Canadian voyageur, and Ramsay Crooks, who is the only survivor of this small band of adventurers." (Letter of Ramsay Crooks to the Detroit free Press, June 28, 1856)

The knowledge of its location was lost, however, so for over a decade trappers used a longer, more northern route which included an extra mountain range and offered a shorter season for crossing. In 1824, Jedediah Smith rediscovered the pass. In 1832, Captain Benjamin Bonneville and a caravan of 110 men and 20 wagons became the first group to take wagons over the pass. In July 1836, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spaulding were the first pioneer women to cross South Pass. In the 1840s, the route furnished the convenient crossing point for emigrants westward, most of whom followed the Sweetwater River across Wyoming to its headwaters. Before the railroads offered an easier crossing in 1869, perhaps half a million would trek through South Pass.

Gold had been discovered in the gulches near the pass as early as 1842. It was not until 1867, when an ore sample was transported to Salt Lake City, that an influx of miners descended into the region. The gold rush led to the establishment of booming mining communities such as South Pass City and Atlantic City. The placer gold in the streams was exhausted quickly, however, and by 1870 the miners began leaving the region. In 1884, Emile Granier, a French mining engineering, established a hydraulic drilling operation that allowed gold mining to continue. Gold mining was revived once again in nearby Rock Creek in the 1930s. The 1960s through 1983, a US Steel iron ore mine operated in Atlantic City.

Wyoming State Highway 28 traverses the pass, roughly following the route of the Oregon Trail. Wagon ruts are still clearly visible in numerous sites along the highway.

South Pass was designated a national historic landmark in 1961.

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