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  • A Grave on the High Plains
  • Stephen Benz (bio)

June 30 Alvah getting worse it’s quite hopeless

complaining none. July 1 Alvah is rapidly sinking.

July 2 in the early morning hours Alvah died.

—journal of Pusey Graves, 1850

Wyoming is fertile ground for historical sites associated with the California and Oregon Trails. In the midst of a summer-long journey to retrace the old trails, I came upon one such site—the grave of a Gold Rush pioneer—just east of Glenrock. Located about two hundred yards off the latter-day interstate freeway that parallels long stretches of the trail, the gravesite proved to be yet another good place to pause and reflect upon the consequences of America’s westward expansion.

For nineteenth-century Americans, westward was the direction of freedom—as Thoreau had famously posited—but the passage to freedom was fraught with danger. Tens of thousands died during the trek across the continent, and death came in many forms. Pioneers died from gunshot wounds and wagon accidents. They drowned at river [End Page 135] crossings. They succumbed to cholera and typhoid and hunger. As they made their way west, trail travelers often passed the graves of those who had faltered along the way, the graves so numerous that, according to historian Merrill J. Mattes, “the trail to California took on the resemblance of an elongated cemetery.”

Most of the graves are long gone. Wolves often dug up bodies soon after burial. Occasionally, American Indians desecrated graves to take the clothing. Time and the elements obliterated other graves, and eventually progress paved over all but a few of the remaining trailside burial sites.

But here outside Glenrock, Wyoming, there is an intact pioneer grave to contemplate, complete with the original headstone. The story of the pioneer’s death is related on a nearby historical marker. Personally, I love these markers placed here and there along highways for the benefit of travelers who have the urge to stop and read a sign. Does anyone actually do this in our high-speed era? It takes a strong desire to break the inertia of an eighty-mile-per-hour cruise, to interrupt progress as it were, for the mere purpose of reading a brief text put up by the state historical society (or in this case the Oregon-California Trails Association) telling you in fifty or seventy-five or a hundred words that some obscure event in American history has consecrated this unlikely place. Why pause in the midst of pursuing your own inscrutable destiny just to learn about some forgotten episode?

My impression is that few people stop to read such signs nowadays. Windswept by the disturbed air of passing tractor-trailers and speeding cars, historical markers have a forlorn, abandoned feel to them. Most markers, it seems, are located along old two-lane highways, well off the beaten track. You find rather few along the interstates—maybe at the odd scenic overlook, or at a rest area, where the marker is typically stuck somewhere off to the side, away from the restrooms and vending machines that have prompted travelers to exit for a hurried pit stop.

Although the historical marker for the pioneer’s grave is located just off I-25, it is not easy to find. Along the freeway, no sign points to its whereabouts. Just getting to it takes some doing: You have to exit the freeway, make a sharp turn at the end of the off-ramp, and then [End Page 136] backtrack a half-mile or so on a county road. As you approach, nothing announces the presence of the nondescript marker.

Hard as it is to find, this obscure grave does receive occasional visitors—trail buffs and readers of trail history who are drawn by the grave’s poignant backstory. The buffs are particularly interested in this site because the story behind it is so poignant. Here lies a man named Alvah H. Unthank, buried on July 2, 1850. As the marker explains, Unthank’s name is found carved into Register Cliff, a sandstone wall some eighty miles away, just outside of present-day Guernsey, Wyoming. In the nineteenth century, numerous pioneers inscribed...