Nebraska Historical Marker: Ash Hollow (Keith)

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Rest Area I-80W milemarker 132, Roscoe, Keith County, Nebraska

View this marker's location 41.120174, -101.6037

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Marker Text

Although some wagon trains continued to follow the South Platte, most crossed at one of several fords in this area and took a northwesterly route toward the North Platte River. The trail then followed the North Platte Valley through the remainder of Nebraska. Today's traveler, by following U.S. Highway 26 northwest of Ogallala, will encounter several noted landmarks along this portion of the Platte River Road.

One of these is Ash Hollow, a picturesque canyon, near present-day Lewellen. Because of the steepness of the descent, this part of the trail presented one of the most serious obstacles yet faced by the emigrants. Offering spectacular scenery as well as wood and water, Ash Hollow is mentioned in many overland diaries. Several graves, including that of young Rachel Pattison who died of cholera in 1849, testify to the rigors of the overland journey.

Northwest of Ash Hollow on Blue Water Creek was the site of a significant Indian battle in 1855. Often known as the Battle of Ash Hollow, this fight resulted in the defeat of Little Thunder's band of Brule Sioux by United States Troops under General William S. Harney.

Further Information

Ash Hollow is a wooded canyon near the Platte River and was a major landmark along the Platte River Road. Four miles wide, 250 feet deep and ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 feet wide, it is a relatively small canyon but the largest canyon anywhere along the Platte.

Geography The most famous natural feature in Ash Hollow is Windlass Hill, a very steep incline that was the primary route into the canyon. Travelers did not call the hill “Windlass Hill” in those days; rather, it was called “the steep hill” or “the perpendicular hill.” Despite its steepness, and despite the fact that wagons did not have brakes, there are no records of anyone dying on the way down the hill. Several different methods were used to help the wagons down the hill, the simplest of which involved easing the wagons down with ropes. The scars created by the wagons traversing the hill are still visible. The canyon is full of vegetation, especially flowers, trees and shrubbery. There is also a clear spring in the area. Another area of interest is Ash Hollow Cave, which can be found on the eastern bluff and overlooks the North Platte River. Arrival at Ash Hollow indicated that migrants had entered a new stage in their journey. The road from Ash Hollow to Fort Laramie was filled with natural landmarks like Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff.

History Humans have occupied Ash Hollow for thousands of years. The Ash Hollow Cave contains charred remains dating to 8000 B.C. The Sioux sometimes set up camp within the valley. It is believed that the first white man to see Ash Hollow was Robert Stuart, who is credited with discovering the Oregon Trail in 1813 when he traveled from the South Pass in the Rockies to the Missouri. The trails along the Platte would almost always pass through the Hollow to use its abundant trees and drink from its clear springs. The water was especially valued since it was much better than the dirty water from the Platte. Ash Hollow was also frequently filled with game animals, particularly buffalo. One traveler estimated that a herd of 10,000 buffalo congregated in the valley. After 1850, Ash Hollow was home to a rare trading post along the trail. For a brief time from 1855 to 1856, a fort, Fort Grattan, existed near Ash Hollow but served little purpose and was abandoned after less than a year. Many migrants feared that Indians would attack them as they passed through the valley, but few engagements with Indians ever occurred. In 1858, gold was discovered in Colorado. A new trail was created that followed the South Platte River into Colorado. The old trail following the North Platte was still used, but the route was changed to go through Julesburg, Colorado, a major junction point on the two trails. Therefore, after 1860, Ash Hollow was generally avoided by migrants.

The Battle of Ash Hollow The Battle of Blue Water is often erroneously called the Battle of Ash Hollow. One of the great tragedies of the Indian Wars, the battle, also called the Harney Massacre, took place six miles northwest of Ash Hollow in the Blue Water (now called Blue Creek) valley. In response to an Indian raid near Fort Laramie in 1854, General Harney led a raid on a Lakota village on September 3, 1855, killing 86, capturing 70 and destroying the village. The attack was one of the first military engagements between the Army and the Sioux.


R Eli Paul, ed., “Battle of Ash Hollow: The 1909-1910 Recollections of General N A M Dudley,” Nebraska History 62 (1981): 373-399

Richard L Clow, “Mad Bear: William S Harney and the Sioux Expedition of 1885 – 1856,” Nebraska History 61 (1980): 132-151

Marker program

See Nebraska Historical Marker Program for more information.