One of the most-noted landmarks on the emigrant trails west of Fort Laramie, Independence Rock is an oval outcrop of granite rock that is 1,900 feet long (579m), 700 feet wide (213.36m), and rises 128 feet (39m) above the surrounding landscape, standing 6,028 feet (1,808.3m) above sea level, with an area of 24.81 acres (9.924 ha). There is a trail surrounding the base of the rock that is more than a mile (1.8km) in length. Pioneer traveler J. Goldsborough Bruff said it looked “like a huge whale” from a distance.
You are welcome to climb the rock but be very careful of not walking on or damaging any engravings. It was a breathtaking view from the summit of the rock with many names carved into the face of the granite. I spent about and hour at the top then climbing down I circled the rock on the trail at the base. Make the effort it is well worth the time. Some scrambling is required so be prepared with proper footwear.
As the approximate midpoint of the Oregon Trail between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean the rumor was that the emigrants needed to reach here by July 4 to pass safely through the Sierra Nevada Mountains before winter storms hit, hence one story of its name. But emigrants arrived at this site throughout the traveling season. Another naming story was that William Sublette who held an Independence Day celebration here on July 4, 1830, as he led the first wagon train to cross the new overland route. Before an audience of 80 pioneers, he christened the rock in honor of the birth date of our nation. Another popular legend says Its name actually comes from a party of fur trappers who camped here on July 4, 1824. Take you pick of the naming of the rock I’m sure there are many others.
Independence Rock State Historic Site is on the south side of State Route 220 at the Independence Rock Rest Area. Independence Rock is in an area of windblown sand and silt that has grooved and polished the granite to a high gloss. This smoother surface let the pioneers easily carve their names into the rock. It was the approximately 5,000 names carved in stone here that caused Father Peter J. DeSmet to appropriately name this place “The Register of the Desert” in 1840, thus becoming a part of our pioneering history. One of the earliest signatures is a carving dated 1824 by M. K. Hugh. Register Cliff and Names Hill in other locations along the Oregon Trail also contain names left by the pioneers. Independence Rock was a popular camping site for the travelers.
Fur trapper Rufus B. Sage noted that “the surface is covered with names of travelers, traders, trappers and emigrants, engraved upon it in almost every practicable part, for the distance of many feet above its base….”
On August 1, 1843 John C. Fremont, who camped a mile below this site, made this entry in the journal of his 1843-’44 expedition: “Everywhere within six or eight feet of the ground, where the surface is sufficiently smooth, and in some places sixty or eighty feet above, the rock is inscribed with the names of travelers. Many a name famous in the history of this country, and some well-known to science, are to be found among those of traders and travelers.”
Names were placed on the rock through engraving or by painting them with wagon grease, tar or a combination of buffalo grease and glue. Over the years many of these names have flaked off, been damaged, cleansed off by wind or rain or been obscured by lichens. Despite this, thousands of names remain and are a source of delight to those visitors who climb the rock.
On July 4, 1862, Independence Rock, was the site of Wyoming’s first Masonic Lodge meeting and in the 1950’s the Boy Scouts held their annual Jamboree here camped along the base of the rock.