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News & Updates
News & Updates
This article written by Vicki Hood won a first-place award in the Wyoming Press Association awards in January of 2014. G.O. Willard's name can be found at Register Cliff near Guernsey, WY, and his ancestors have honored him greatly by keeping him memory alive.
GUERNSEY-They are fading now-wind and weather are taking their toll. Carved into the face of a limestone cliff along the Oregon Trail, hundreds of names, dates and places attest to the onetime presence of travelers coming west. Pioneers following a trail that would take them to new lives and new jobs with destinations such as Oregon, California, Salt Lake and a myriad of places between. The place is called Register Cliff, part of a large outcropping of cliffs that border the Oregon Trail through southeast Wyoming, just a short day’s ride west of the frontier outpost Fort Laramie. Close to the trail as it followed the North Platte River, Register Cliff earned its title for the etchings of the hundreds who chose to document their presence with names, hometowns or states and the date they arrived at the site. Despite the efforts of historians who have recorded as many of those names as possible, most have remained just a signature in rock, their significance and individual stories lost to descendants by way of time and distance.
But every now and then, connections to our past are discovered, even if only by chance. This is the story of one of those connections. Thomas Warren Willard was born in Newport, Rhode Island 72 years ago. At 17, he joined the U. S. Naval Reserves, turning that into a 20-year career before moving on to new challenges. He attended the University of Central Florida and received degrees in Finance. He wound up with a job as a U. S. Customs agent and finally signed on to full retirement in 1998. As many retirees are, Tom was interested in doing some traveling. But little could he have guessed that a chance encounter with a Wyoming tourism book he picked up in the east would start a journey that continues even today. In that book, he came across an article about the Oregon Trail that included a photo showing a signature on Register Cliff near Guernsey, Wyoming. And it was the signature that caught his eye immediately, for there in that photo, etched in the cliff, was the name “G. O. Willard” and just below it, “Boston, 1855.” The wheels began to turn as Tom Willard began to wonder if by some chance, G. O. Willard could be a relative. A long shot, perhaps, but worth checking out, Tom thought. What Tom has discovered is that not only is he a relative, but he’s been able to uncover a significant amount of information about G. O. Willard’s travels and endeavors. What follows is a narrative Tom has written about his great-great uncle. George Otis Willard was born on March 10, 1831 and died on March 11, 1893 and is buried in Leominster, Massachusetts. This story is only looking at a portion of his lifetime, a period from 1854-1869, 15 of his 62 years. American history during this period was full of expansion and dreams with the Oregon and California Trails, faster mail service with the Pony Express, the Civil War and its end, the assassination of President Lincoln, completion of the transcontinental railroad, and the forming of the Emigrant Aid Company. The Emigrant Aid Company was formed in Massachusetts to promote organized antislavery immigration to the Kansas territory from the Northeast. They formed parties under the direction of the company having pre-planned accommodations, meals and travel arrangements. George was in the fourth party and after arriving in Kansas City around October 1854 wrote scathing letters back to the company about arrangements not made, conditions not as represented and even proposing the construction of a tar and feather coat for one of the officers. George specifically wrote about the miserable steamboat ride up the Missouri River although his cousin Alexander Hamilton Willard’s boat ride up the Missouri in 1804 with the Lewis & Clark Expedition must have been much worse. The company virtually ended in 1857 along with it’s counter parts from the South who were in favor of slavery and it is claimed that this movement helped bring on the Civil War. George wintered over in the Kansas City area that year and in the spring of 1855 he noticed a great influx of families and individuals who were making great plans and purchasing wagons, supplies and gathering their personal belongings. This is where George was exposed to a serious disease by some of these people that would change his life. George is now 24 years old and not satisfied with his situation in Kansas City and has the opportunity to mix with this new invasion. He must have made frequent shoulder to shoulder contacts because he was ailing in their disease and soon came down with the serious miner’s illness; gold fever. An important piece of the story, the Oregon Trail is not just a path from Kansas City to Oregon, but a mix of routes that follow previous lanes opened and used by mountain men, trappers and fur traders. Generally, they accompanied rivers where possible and followed natural landmarks and Army forts that protected and provided supplies to the traveler. Death was an issue with cholera, firearm accidents, stock mishaps and on rare occasions, Indian attacks. When space was available, the wagons would spread out away from each other to avoid the dust raised ahead. Breakdowns were common due to the rough ground of the trail, and the fact that wagons built and purchased in Kansas City were mace of fresh, damp lumber that would dry out en route and cause problems with axles and wheels. It was a monumental journey that took months to complete and tested a pioneer’s true grit. George gathered his possessions and joined a group heading west. In what is now Kansas, they crossed the Kansas River, picked up the Little Blue River and followed it into what is now Nebraska. The river took them to Fort Kearney which was the ‘Gateway to the Great Plains and the Platte River (today is Interstate 80, The Lincoln Highway). Now the wagons could
spread out and enjoy the plains, clean fresh water, wood, grass and good camp sites. The first natural landmark was Chimney Rock which was a 500 foot formation. With the speed of the wagons and the height of the rock they could see it for days in the sunset, then days in the sunrise This area was also the first experience of rock passes and a huge animal called Buffalo. The group entered what is now Wyoming and Fort Laramie where the travelers could actually get mail. A day’s travel west from the fort was a formation of sandstone known as Register Cliff where some of the pioneers would carve in their names and date. George took out his tools and inscribed: G.O. Willard, Boston 1855 ( the s in Boston was made backward). The group now headed west over more challenging terrain, meeting with the Sweetwater River and Independence Rock. This rock was also used to leave names and dates however George did not leave his name here. They traveled through Devils Gate, Split Rock and finally South Pass. This is the Continental Divide where water flows west and the least challenging pass through the Rocky Mountains. Fort Bridger is next and for this story a very important place because this is where the California Trail begins. This is the temporary conclusion to the George Otis Willard 15-year portion of his life. We know he turned onto the California Trail because there is a legal issue involving him in Salt Lake County. We have not covered much of the 15 years and a lot went on during that time so the adventure continues. We can also say that George is famous.” Tom’s sister, Karen Willard, is the Willard Family Association computer archivist and he asked her to research George Willard. Karen found out that George was born in Leominster and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Evergreen Cemetery in Leominster. When George moved back East to Leominster, he married his brother’s sister-in-law Lucy Campbell in November 1869. George and Lucy had a baby girl who died within two weeks of her birth so he bought a family plot near the edge of Evergreen Cemetery. George and Lucy adopted is niece and then had a daughter of their own, Emma. Emma married Dr. Daniel Butler Nye, a Dentist. They never had any children. Lucy Willard was eventually buried next to her husband and infant child. She is still in an un-marked grave. Tom Willard, his sister and Karen Willard met at George’s grave in August of 2012. They discovered there was no stone marking his final resting place. Tom was determined to remedy this, since there are no living descendants, by arranging for the carving and design of this memorial stone. The stone was installed on the grave site October 4, 2012. On the back of the stone, the carving on Register Cliff is replicated even with the backward S in Boston. The G. O. Willard signature is found on the north face of Register Cliff, about a foot above the ground. It is protected by fencing but is easily read once located. Many of the pioneer signatures have long since eroded, and as time goes by, more are lost forever. The Willard signature is also one of the most well-known signatures from the cliff, due to the fact that it has been featured in a number of Oregon Trail-related stops and publications. In addition to the actual signature on the cliff itself, it is included in information provided on the kiosk at the site. It is also included in photos displayed at the Great Platte River Road archway that transverses Interstate 80 near Kearney, Nebraska. Many Wyoming vacation directories include that same photo and it is CLIFF: (From page 5) also included in a film shown at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming, as well as their reproduction inscription wall. It is also shown on the kiosk at the Independence Rock Historic Site near Casper. To have documentation and information to the degree that Tom Willard and the Willard Family Association have been able to gather is rare; most descendants are likely unaware of Register Cliff and what it holds. For Tom, the story remains partial and the research and travel will continue. But even if there is no more to be found surrounding G. O. Willard’s life, the work and time Tom has put into this research is more than noteworthy. The effort he’s made to honor G. O Willard demonstrates his respect for his heritage. It is a gift to family that few can give and money cannot buy.
A Second Annual fundraiser to benefit the National Historic Trails Center Foundation will be held on August 8th, 2020. Come enjoy the music of the High Country Cowboys of Red Lodge, MT and a plated brisket dinner with all the fine trimmings from the trail. We'll have fresh baked pies and cobblers for dessert! There will be a live auction, silent auction and a raffle. Contact Carrie Reece at Carrie@nhtcf.org for table sponsorship or ticket purchases. Check out our event on Facebook also!