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Historian Jerry Lucas shares his 15 years of research on the legend of Hiram Scott
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Historian Jerry Lucas shares his 15 years of research on the legend of Hiram Scott

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Various layers in this towering monument have formed over the past 33 million years, but that's only part of the rich history the monument offers.

In late 1827 upon his company’s arrival back to St. Louis, Missouri, General William Ashley decided to send a group of men back out west to get a jump start on the next spring fur-trading season. The two men he chose to lead the company were a man named James Bruffee and none other than the legendary mystery man Hiram Scott, the namesake of the Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Scott’s existence has been questioned to this day, often believed to be just a  character in local folklore. However, volunteer historian and the Scotts Bluff National Monument’s resident Hiram Scott expert Jerry Lucas says otherwise.

Lucas has been researching Hiram Scott and the fur trading industry for the past 15 years. He said there is plenty of primary research about Scott prior to the year 1828, including a document from Colonel Henry Leavenworth naming the men in General William Ashley’s company, one of whom was Irishman Hiram Scott.

“This is part of the Leavenworth report of the incident in 1823 on the upper Missouri (River), between Ashley and the Arikara (Native Americans), and this was done by Colonel Henry Leavenworth,” Lucas said as he held out the copy of the report. “This is actually a transcribed copy of his report to the U.S. Army. … He’s (Scott) real.”

Family history

Lucas has traced Scott’s family all the way back to Ireland, where his family fought on the side of Scotland during the Scottish and English wars. From there, they fled to France, where there’s evidence, Lucas said, that Scott’s ancestors settled in the Spanish part of the New World under a land grant given out by the French monarchs and their cousins from Spain.

Lucas said that an article by Merrill Mattes, historian and former Scotts Bluff National Monument superintendent, “relates that they may have settled in this new world in 1789. … He settled in the area of what was called St. Genevieve or Boone Settlement on the west side of the Missouri River. That area today is now called St. Charles, Missouri.”

Lucas said that not much is known about Scott’s early life in Missouri until he shows up in the records for William Ashley’s men from 1822 to 1828.

After that 1827-28 winter, everything we know about Hiram Scott is all myth and legend, Lucas said.

“What happened to him after they get through the rendezvous in 1828 at Bear Lake is myth,” he said. “For right now, it’s myth, because we have not found any firsthand accounts of what transpired. All we know is that after 1828, we have no record of Scott.”

Lucas said that the winter of 1827-28 was particularly harsh, and Scott’s company would lose three pack animals on their journey to Bear Lake — near the Idaho/Wyoming/Utah border — which was where the next fur trading rendezvous was to be.

When they finally made it to the camp, things weren’t much better. Because of the harsh temperatures, food was scarce and many trappers and traders were falling ill. Then in 1828, the camp was attacked by Blackfoot Indians, Lucas said, leaving several men injured.

Those are the last incidents around that time that have been credibly researched and sourced. Record of what exactly happened to Scott after these events has yet to be found, Lucas said.

Legends

“I’ve heard a lot of them (legends),” he said. “He (Scott) became ill and had to be set aside, which was a common practice of that era, with two men who were to see to his safe return or his final rest. He was injured in an Indian battle, which would go back to the trading village, the attack on the trading village in the spring of 1828. … He was shot trying to steal somebody’s furs. He was shot because somebody was trying to steal his furs.

“…According to Merrill Mattes’ research, family lore says that he was fine coming down until they got in the vicinity of the great bluff, which is what we know as Scotts Bluff today. But, they were in the vicinity of what may have become Robidoux Pass, and either his (Scott’s) cousin or a nephew gets into a little dance with a grizzly bear, playing 'the push and shove polka.' Scott gets, whether it’s his cousin or his nephew, out of the way, and he is mauled by the bear and dies from those wounds and is buried somewhere in that vicinity. Now, that’s myth and legend; that’s family lore. Can we prove it? No. Is it believable? Yeah, there were grizzly bear attacks all the time.”

Another legend said Scott, whether due to injury or illness, became incapable of travel and was left behind with two company men—possibly named Roi and Bissonette — who were to see him safely back to civilization or to his final resting place. It was sometime during their travel down the North Platte River on a bull boat (“a water craft resembling a bowl made from buffalo or moose hide and a willow or ash frame,” according to a 2016 article written by Lucas) that it supposedly capsized or was crushed under the rapids near present-day Fort Laramie.

Lucas said the legend goes that the two men, having lost all their supplies, decided to abandon Scott.

“Scott was near dead. The two men think, ‘Is it better that one man die, or three?’ If I were doing the math, it’s better that one man die,” he said. “And they took off. That part of the legend, that they abandoned him, may quite possibly be true. … It probably wouldn’t be uncommon.”

A version of this legend, recorded by Captain Benjamin Bonneville, said Scott then traversed over 60 miles down the North Platte River to the foot of the great bluff (Scotts Bluff) after the two men left him near present-day Fort Laramie.

Bonneville claimed Scott died at the bluff, hence “the wild and picturesque bluffs in the neighborhood of his lonely grave have ever since bore his name,” as was written in Washington Irving’s “Adventures of Captain Bonneville.”

While pieces of that legend are plausible, Lucas said, the 60-plus-mile hike while injured or ill is a lot less likely.

“That’s over 60 miles, and if he’s coming down the river in the springtime or early summer, that water is cold,” he said. “And, if he’s trying to float down the river? Uh no, I don’t think so, because the river is going to be running fast. It’s also going to be very cold — hypothermia.”

Something happened

Still, Lucas said something had to have happened to Scott, as there is no record of him ever having made it back to Missouri, and it would help explain why Scotts Bluff was given his namesake. However, with even his final resting place unknown, that too remains mostly myth.

“The story says ‘in the vicinity of …’ And at that time, there’s 45-mile range of bluffs that was referred to as the ‘bluffs along the Platte,’” he said. “So, what’s the ‘vicinity’?”

One legend says that Scott’s skeleton was found the following spring of 1829 by the same company that had traveled with him the prior winter when they came back through and passed near the bluff.

“The size of the skeleton — you’d have to take that into consideration because the average man at that time was 5’6”/5’8”, maybe weighed 140 to 160 pounds, possibly. Hiram Scott is 6'4" and weighs 240 to 260, so his skeleton is going to stand out,” Lucas said. “So with that information, we can assume that if somebody came across it — also, if some of the people that came across that skeleton, knew who it was — I mean, had known Scott and known what clothing he wore and what markings would have been on the clothing — they could have identified it as such.”

According to family lore, Lucas said, his father and a few relatives traveled to the area to retrieve his bones and bring them back home for a proper burial.

“Family lore says that his father, one of those either sons or grandsons, and another party came out here to retrieve his bones and take them back to St. Charles, the area wherever they live … and bury him in the family plot,” he said. “But according to the lore, his father said, this is a beautiful place; leave him be.”

Capturing curiosity

However it happened — however Scott perished, wherever he lies to rest, if he was ever found afterward or not — his name lives on nearly 200 years later as a focal point in western Nebraska culture. His name is on a national monument; his name is part of a city; he is even a mascot for the West Nebraska Pioneers baseball team.

Whoever Scott was, Lucas said, he must have been important.

“I mean, a lot of people died in the fur trade. A lot of people died going up, back and forth, from St. Louis,” he said. “They don’t have stuff named after them, all of them. Why this (Scotts Bluff)? Because of his honesty, his integrity, his dedication, his character and his notoriety. And in this country, we don’t name things after scoundrels, which is part of the reason I disavow the stories of him being shot trying to steal furs or being anything dishonest.”

The mystery of Hiram Scott’s demise continues to capture Lucas’s curiosity, and if he had it his way, he would eventually fill in all the missing holes to his story and even locate the site of Hiram Scott’s resting ground.

“What do I believe happened to him? Well, I believe something happened, and that the truth is out there,” he said. “And, it is up to somebody to go and find it.”

Lucas hopes that somebody just might be himself.

“If I had my druthers, I would like to find all of the firsthand information that’s out there about Hiram Scott and find exactly what did occur that caused his demise,” he said. “And, I would like, eventually, to be able to locate, reasonably locate, sites for his possible internment.

“And if I ever found out exactly where it was, would I tell anyone? Well, I’d put it in the file, but I wouldn’t say a word. … There’s an old saying between truth and fiction, ‘Print the fiction.’ It makes it interesting. It makes people curious. If you have all of the answers given to you, what is there to do with it? It will be a point to make people curious.”

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Olivia Wieseler is a reporter with the Star-Herald. She can be reached at 308-632-9051 or by emailing olivia.wieseler@starherald.com.

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