This stop was a major guidance point for the Oregon Trail travelers. Just as we could see it miles ahead, it would be visible long before the wagons could reach it. This beacon told the emigrants that they were headed in the right direction. Hopefully, they were there early enough in the year to avoid disaster in the Rocky Mountains which lay ahead.
Lots of lush grass would have been available, and probably water, if what we saw was what greeted them. There would be no wood for fires, though, so hopefully they could gather buffalo chips or had brought them with them.
The name Courthouse was first noted by Robert Stuart in 1812 and quickly became one of the guiding landmarks for fur traders and emigrants. Historians found it mentioned in a diary in 1837, according to the marker at the site today. Some called it a castle while others mentioned a solitary tower.
Capt. Joel Palmer, who my Everest ancestors traveled with, described it like this,
“Viewed from the road, the beholder might easily imagine he was gazing upon some ancient structure of the old world. A nearer approach dispels this illusion, and it looks, as it is, rough and unseemly.”
In November 1841, Rufus B. Sage recorded, “A singular natural formation, known as the Court House, or McFarlan’s Castle . . . rises in an abrupt quadrilangular form, to a height of three or four hundred feet, and covers an area of two hundred yards in length by one hundred and fifty broad. Occupying a perfectly level site in an open prairie, it stands as the proud palace of Solitude, amid here boundless domains. Its position commands a view of the country for forty miles around and meets the eye of the traveler for several successive days, in journeying up the Platte.”
One traveler in 1845 said the rock resembled the ruins of an old castle rising abruptly from the plain. Another said that though travelers called it the courthouse, it looked infinitely more like the Capitol.
These erosion remnants are 400 feet above the surrounding North Platte Valley. They are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and in the Nebraska Natural Areas Register. This is one of the most famous piles of clay, sandstone and volcanic ash on record.
The site is a couple of miles south of Bridgeport, Nebraska, on State Route 88. As we would find, and the successful Oregon Trail emigrants knew, other amazing rock formations were ahead. Karin and I saw pictures and descriptioins so we knew they were on the route, but we would still be startled to see them in person.
For more information on Courthouse and Jail Rocks (sometimes called Jail House Rock), go to:
For information on The Oregon National Historic Trail, go to:
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