Once one of the most important landmarks for early settlers traveling along the Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails, Independence Rock is a massive granite rock rising 130 feet high, 1,900 feet long, and spanning over a mile in circumference. Originating some 2.5 billion years ago during the Archean eon, Independence Rock is one of the oldest exposed rock formations on the face of the Earth and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
Before settlers reached this massive granite rock, different Indian tribes including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone, and Ute visited the rock and left carvings themselves. These Native Americans called the rock Timpe Nabor, meaning the Painted Rock. Early settlers who came upon this large granite monolith compared it to a number of different objects and animals, like beached whales, elephants, and even a loaf of bread. Regardless of what type of image the rock conjured for these visitors, it was clear that it stood as a symbol of optimism and hope to weary wayfarers on their way to new beginnings along the Pacific.
Over the span of thirty years, about five hundred thousand settlers passed by Independence Rock on their way to the new frontier. They believed that the rock marked the halfway point between the Missouri River and the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific Ocean and that, if they reached the rock before July 4, they’d pass the Rocky Mountains before the dreaded snowfall began. Consequently arriving at this milestone was often a highly anticipated day of celebration and festivities. To commemorate their arrival, thousands of settlers had their initials, date of arrival, and sometimes short messages engraved into the stone. In fact so many names were once etched into this rock that the site was named The Register of the Desert by the renowned explorer and Jesuit missionary Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, who was also known as the “Friend of Sitting Bull” who convinced the famous Sioux warrior chief to negotiate with the United States government in 1868 for the Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Many observers of Independence Rock wonder how the tired settlers were able to carve so many thousands of markings that remain to this day, but there appears to be a logical explanation. Over the years, windblown sand and silt grooved and polished the surface of the rock (a process known as “wind-faceting”) to give it the smooth appearance it has today. This softened glossy surface is what made it easy for the pioneers to carve their names into the rock.
While there is still a little bit of mystery as to how all these carvings were made, it’s thought that professional carvers set up shop at the base of the rock and would provide their engraving services for a fee to those settlers traveling through. This explanation makes a lot of sense considering that many of these engravings appear to be etched into the rock in a skilled manner, and bear a similar shape and style of “handwriting.” The rock had also been covered in names and messages drawn with paint and tar, but most of these markings eroded away over the years, leaving only the carved engravings that we see at Independence Rock today.
There’s a paved sidewalk with interpretive signs along the way that will lead you to the rock. The park allows for visitors to climb on the rock where some of the most recognizable engravings can be found. Some of the etchings are small while others are much larger, presumably on purpose to ensure that generations of future visitors didn’t miss their names.
Be sure to do your best to preserve the carvings on the rock by not stepping on them or making impressions. And although many people feel the temptation to leave their own mark, it’s important that visitors resist doing so out of respect for the early settlers who risked their lives passing through the area and earned the right to immortalize their names here.
Overall this is the perfect type of destination to stop, stretch your legs, and enjoy a great piece of history while you’re making your way through the long highways of Wyoming.