Thursday, September 20, 2018

Ash Hollow by Way of Windlass Hill

This article is brought to you by Janalyn Voigt.

Ash Hollow by Way of Windlass Hill

The climb up California Hill was the first major challenge that confronted emigrants traveling west on the Oregon and California Trail. A climb of 240 feet in a mile and a half brought them to a plateau between the north and south branches of the Platte River. 
Summit of Windlass Hill, looking southward.
Image courtesy of Ammodramus [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
The descent from Windlass Hill into Ash Hollow provided the best (but by no means easy) access to the North Platte, which they would follow toward South Pass. 

View looking north from Windlass Hill. Note the ravine carved by erosion in wagon ruts.

Image courtesy of Ammodramus [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

Here's a closer look at the ravine taken from the footbridge.
Image courtesy of Ammodramus [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
The steep incline down which pioneers lowered their wagons at Windlass Hill looked impossible. Granted, erosion over the years carved ravines and no doubt deepened the drops, but the sight gave me chills. Far below, you can see Ash Hollow’s namesake trees clustered in an oasis of green threaded by blue water. No wonder the pioneers pushed so hard to reach wood, water, and forage. 

No one is quite certain why Windlass Hill had that name, since it pre-dated American emigration and there’s no record of a windlass located here. It’s fun to think of an ancient windlass in operation. I could almost hear the scrape of a lever turning and the creak of ropes hauling something up the hill. Of course, the sheer steepness of the hill could have also inspired the name. Descending took preparation and time. Wagons with wheels locked were lowered by ropes, which acted as brakes to prevent them from careening out of control and crashing. This tactic was not always successful. Panicked livestock might bolt. Wagons broke loose and hurtled downward. For those who survived the journey, the rewards were great. 

Ash Hollow was something of a Promised Land to emigrants.
(National Park Service image; public domain)
Called the Gateway to the North Platte Valley, Ash Hollow featured springs of water so fresh emigrants rhapsodized about its sweetness. They lingered in this place of wild roses and described it in glowing terms in diaries and letters. They were not the first to appreciate its natural resources and beauty.

Fossils discovered in the Ash Hollow geological formation were from mammoths, turtles, camels, horses, beavers, and other prehistoric creatures. 
Archeological digs at Ash Hollow Cave and the Clary site revealed that early Americans occupied this area between 300 and 9,000 years ago. 
Skeleton of an aphelops, an extinct genus of rhinoceros endemic to North America, from the Ash Hollow geological formation. Image by James St. John [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Pioneers described seeing several hundred teepees belonging to the Lakota branch of the Sioux tribe. After General Harney sighted the camp of Little Thunder at Blue Water Creek, his troops attacked the next morning. The Battle of Ash Hollow was the main engagement in a brief war over disputed violations of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed in 1851. The odds were not even. Six hundred soldiers set upon 250 Lakota. Eighty-six people, including women and children, lost their lives. The soldiers took seventy women and children prisoner.

Some of the first settlers erected the stone schoolhouse which stands in Ash Hollow today. Other sites of interest include Rachel Pattison’s grave in Ash Hollow cemetery. Rachel was a new bride of three months when she came down sick with cholera one morning. She died that same night. Her grief-stricken husband, Nathan, carved the stone marker at her grave. Descendants of his brother state that, ever-faithful to Rachel, he never remarried.

Nathan Pattison stayed behind to carve this marker for his wife, Rachel's grave.
Image courtesy of Ammodramus [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

Visiting Windlass Hill and Ash Hollow connects a person to the past in a way no history textbook can. 
Ruts made by wagons still score the hillside. Walking in them takes you backward in time in a way that's hard to describe. Honestly, it gave me goose bumps. I didn't know it then, but the firsthand impressions of the Oregon Trail that I gained by standing in wagon ruts, watching for rattlers and prickly pear, tasting the dust of dirt roads, and exploring ghost towns would make their way into a western historical romance series. Learn more about the Montana Gold series.

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt's unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and whimsy creates breathtaking fictional worlds for readers. Known for her vivid writing, this multi-faceted author writes in the western historical romance, medieval epic fantasy, and romantic suspense genres.

Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary Agency. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA. When she's not writing, she loves to garden and explore the great outdoors with her family.

Explore Janalyn Voigt's interactive website.


  1. That sounds like an amazing journey! Thanks for the post!

    1. It was, Connie. Although time contraints prevented me from making it into Ash Hollow, the glimpse I had of it from Windlass Hill fascinated me. After traveling through miles of parched grass, to see an oasis of green where trees flourished made quite an impression on me. I have to go back.