Historic South Pass, seen from the east looking westward towards Pacific Springs
|Elevation||7,412 ft (2,259 m)|
|Traversed by||Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trail, Wyoming Highway 28|
|Location||Fremont County, Wyoming
|Range||Wind River Range and Antelope Hills (Radium Springs, Wyoming)|
USGS Pacific Springs
Map of southwestern Wyoming showing location of South Pass at the headwaters of the Sweetwater River
|Nearest city||South Pass City, Wyoming|
|NRHP reference #||66000754|
|Added to NRHP||October 15, 1966|
|Designated NHL||January 20, 1961|
South Pass (elevation 7,412 feet [2,259 m] and 7,550 feet [2,300 m]) is the collective term for two mountain passes on the Continental Divide, in the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Wyoming. The passes are located in a broad low region, 35 miles (56 km) wide, between the Wind River Range to the north and the Oregon Buttes and Great Divide Basin to the south, in southwestern Fremont County, approximately 35 miles (56 km) SSW of Lander. South Pass is the lowest point on the Continental Divide between the Central and Southern Rocky Mountains. The passes furnish a natural crossing point of the Rockies. The historic pass became the route for emigrants on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails to the West during the 19th century. It has been designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
The pass is a broad open saddle with prairie and sagebrush, allowing a broad and nearly level route between the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. The Sweetwater River flows past the east side of the pass, and Pacific Creek rises on the west side. Historic South Pass is the lower of the two passes (elevation 7,412 feet (2,259 m)), and was the easy crossing point used by emigrants. Wyoming Highway 28 crosses the Continental Divide 2.5 miles (4.0 km) to the northwest at elevation 7,550 feet (2,300 m), and its crossing is also named South Pass. The Lander Cutoff Route crosses the Continental Divide at the far northwest end of the broad South Pass region, about 25 miles (40 km) to the northwest of the South Passes, at an elevation of 8,030 feet (2,450 m).
The 1812 discovery of the pass, by European Americans, as a natural crossing point of the Rockies was a significant, but surprisingly difficult achievement in the westward expansion of the United States. Because the Lewis and Clark Expedition was searching for a water route across the Continental Divide, it did not learn of South Pass from any Native Americans in the area. Instead, the expedition followed a northerly route up the Missouri River, crossing the Rockies over difficult passes in the Bitterroot Range in Montana.
In 1812 Robert Stuart and six companions from the Pacific Fur Company (the Astorians) happened to cross the Rockies at this point, while trying to avoid Indians further north, on their return to St. Louis, Missouri from Astoira, Oregon. In 1856 Ramsay Crooks, one of the party, wrote a letter describing their journey:
Despite Stuart's meticulous journal of the trip, which he presented to Astor and President James Madison, and published in France, the location of the South Pass did not become widely known. For more than a decade, European-American trappers continued to use a longer, more northern route. It included an extra mountain range to be crossed and had a shorter season for crossing.
In 1823 a St. Louis merchant named W. H. Ashley led a party up the Sweetwater to its source, rediscovered the pass, and spent the summer in its vicinity trapping. He returned again in 1824, this time going as far as Great Salt Lake and setting up a trading post there, which after three profitable years he sold to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, headed by Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, and David Jackson.
In 1832 Captain Benjamin Bonneville and a caravan of 110 men and 20 wagons became the first group to take wagons over the pass. In July 1836, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were the first white pioneer women to cross South Pass. Between 1848 and 1868, South Pass was the preferred crossing point for emigrants westward, most of whom followed the Sweetwater River across Wyoming to its headwaters, following the Central Route. Before the railroads offered an easier crossing in 1869, perhaps half a million emigrants would trek through South Pass.
Gold had been discovered in the gulches near the pass as early as 1842. However, it was not until 1867, when an ore sample was transported to Salt Lake City, that an influx of miners descended into the region. The gold rush led to the establishment of booming mining communities, such as South Pass City and Atlantic City. The placer gold in the streams was exhausted quickly, however, and by 1870 the miners began leaving the region. In 1884, Emile Granier, a French mining engineer, established a hydraulic drilling operation that allowed gold mining to continue. Gold mining was revived in nearby Rock Creek in the 1930s. Additionally, from the 1960s through 1983, a U.S. Steel iron ore mine operated in Atlantic City.