They formed a steady stream, crossing Wyoming as well as Nebraska, Kansas, Idaho and Oregon. From 1843 to 1868 a half million pioneers in covered wagons and other means of transport crossed the West via the Oregon Trail.
Now, nearly 150 years later, portions of the Oregon Trail are paved over and obliterated. Still, a good bit of the trail remains and even many wagon wheel ruts are visible today. Douglas resident and avid Oregon Trail historian, Randy Brown, has been marking and helping preserve the trail since the 1980s. He has remained chairman of the Graves and Sites Committee of the Oregon-California Trails Association, or OCTA, since 1991. He has also conducted painstaking research, often using journals left by Oregon Trail travelers, to discover and mark graves along the route.
He is the author, along with Reg Duffin, of the book “Graves and Sites on the Oregon and California Trails” and author of “Historic Inscriptions on the Western Emigrant Trails.”
In Rinker Buck’s delightful book, “The Oregon Trail,” about crossing the trail not in the mid-1800s but in 2011, he acknowledges Brown as the person who “probably has done more than anyone else alive to preserve the original Oregon and California trails.”
Thanks to Brown portions of the trail are easier to find. Brown frequently walks the trail and places or replaces carsonite signs that mark the trail.
Such route maintenance is no easy task. The post setter used to pound the signs into the hard ground weighs close to 20 pounds, so it is a cumbersome piece of equipment to haul on a hike. Brown said he carries the pounder, four or five trail markers, maps, camera and then water and snacks.
“A few times I have set the pounder and markers down in the grass while scouting trail and then had trouble finding them again,” Brown said. “Once or twice I’ve had to come back the next day to pick them up.”
Brown, who is retired now, was a teacher in several rural Wyoming schools. He put up the first Wyoming markers in 1987 with the help of a couple of students.
“I usually go alone when I’m scouting new areas since I often walk back and forth and up and down for hours looking for trail remains and deciding what is and isn’t trail,” Brown said. “Some of those days I’d be out all day and only put in one or two markers, if any. I wouldn’t inflict that type of day on anyone — they’d be bored to tears.”
Most of Brown’s markings — about 1,400 to date — are in eastern Wyoming on private land but he’s also marked some public lands west of Casper as far as Jeffrey City where there are gaps in the markers put out by the Bureau of Land Management and the Wyoming State Historical Society. He typically places a marker just before the previous one is out of sight.
“The markers require maintenance since they can get broken and worn,” Browns said. “I go out and redo segments after some years go by. Most of the markers out there have been replaced once or twice, some even three or four times. “
Brown believes the markers help preserve the trail. He recalls a few times where archaeologists scouting pipeline routes have seen the trail markers and have rerouted the line away from the trail.
“Other times, they have bored under the trail ruts to avoid damage,” he said. “Unfortunately, they have often just plowed right through trail ruts, but in the last twenty years they have been far better in avoiding damage.”
In addition to marking the trail, Brown also researches gravesites to identify individuals buried along the route. Several thousand emigrants died along the 2,000-mile journey to the West, according to Gregory Franzwa, founder of OCTA, who wrote the forward in Brown’s book.
“One historian estimated that there is an average of one grave for every eighty yards of the trail,” Franzwa wrote. “A few hundred graves are visible today.”
Brown said, thanks to funding from OCTA, he’s marked 50 or 60 graves in every trail state. Many, if not most, involved original research on the background of the grave occupants.
When asked why he hikes the Oregon Trail putting up markers, repairing and marking pioneer graves Brown just shrugs.
“Don’t ask me why I do it,” he said. “I really don’t know. But if I don’t do it, maybe nobody else will.”
Amber Travsky earned master’s degrees in wildlife biology and exercise physiology from the University of Wyoming. She runs her own environmental consulting company, as well as a martial arts school. She authored “Mountain Biking Wyoming” and “Mountain Biking Jackson Hole,” both published by Falcon Books. She is the tour director and founder of the Tour de Wyoming bicycle tour, which crosses the state every July.