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The Sublette Cutoff

Parting Of The Ways
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted June 1, 2009

An 1844 Shortcut To Oregon

Wagons bound for Oregon during the 1800s were occupied by pioneers and immigrants who had no idea how to get there. They depended on guides, mostly mountain men who had made the journey more than once. Two such men were Caleb Greenwood and Isaac Hitchcock. In 1844, they were in charge of getting the Murphy-Townsend Company across Wyoming when Hitchcock suggested they take a shortcut that would bypass Fort Bridger and save several days of travel.

Although Hitchcock may have suggested the route, Greenwood was probably the one who knew the way. It became known as the Greenwood Cutoff. It involved crossing 45 miles of desert country then continued due west through the mountains before connecting to the original route near the Idaho border. Of course, there were no borders in those days and it was all simply referred to as the Oregon Territory.

The distance traveled over the Oregon Trail by any specific group depended on which shortcuts or cutoffs were taken. For those who used the original trail without shortcuts, the distance was 2,170 miles. Most of them left the Missouri River in early spring. They used Independence Rock in Wyoming as a measurement of progress. If they reached that landmark by Independence Day, July 4th, they were on schedule to cross the mountains in Oregon before the winter snows closed the trail.

The fear of being caught by snow in Oregon was a major factor in choosing shortcuts like the Greenwood Cutoff even though that decision was risky. It included crossing a high desert with no water or grass for the livestock. Each wagon train had to find its own way to deal with that problem.

The Greenwood Cutoff became the favored route for the Oregon Trail simply because it did save time. In 1849, a guide book was written for travelers on the Oregon Trail. In that book, the Greenwood Cutoff was referred to as Sublette Cutoff and still retains that name today.

The Sublette Cutoff splits off from the Oregon Trail following a waterless crossing rather than taking the longer but safer route to Fort Bridger. Using it could have saved a week of travel if the teams could be kept alive.

The Oregon Trail connected Kansas City, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon. At that time Kansas City was little more than a small settlement on the Missouri River. It was not incorporated until 1850. Oregon City was the first city incorporated west of the Continental Divide. It was established in 1829 and incorporated in 1844. It is located near Willamette Falls and became the destination point for settlers arriving by way of the Oregon Trail.

The Sublette Cutoff begins at a point called, "Parting of the Ways". It can be found in a remote location west of South Pass in Wyoming. The left fork continues south along the original Oregon Trail to Fort Bridger with plenty of water and grass. The right fork heads due west along the Sublette Cutoff.

Upon reaching Parting of the Ways, a meeting would be held. Some travelers would choose the safer route but most often the larger group would leave camp going due west. It was an emotional time for some who parted ways with family and friends with hopes of reuniting in Oregon City before snowfall.

Lone Writer began his journey at False Parting of the Ways on Highway 28 west of South Pass. In 1856, a historic marker was placed at this location designating it as Parting of the Ways. Another marker has since been placed beside the original one stating the true Parting of the Ways is 9.5 miles farther west. The false parting is now a roadside rest stop with no facilities and marks the point where the Oregon Trail crosses Highway 28.

The Oregon Trail between the two Partings has historic markers beside the current BLM route. In fact, there were no specific tracks used by wagons in that part of the country. They did not travel single file. The lands are relatively flat and wagons were able to spread out long distances to cut down on dust and crowding. The tracks designated today as the Oregon Trail follow the general direction but were most likely made by ranchers, hunters, and other traffic long after the railroad rendered the Oregon Trail obsolete.

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