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Hendersons' Oregon Trail Collection called priceless

Hendersons' Oregon Trail Collection called priceless

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Railroad conducter Paul Henderson had been called “The Trail Detective” and “The Caboose Historian.” For 50-plus years, Henderson and his wife Helen documented and mapped the history of the Oregon, California and other trails when America was expanding westward.

They left behind a veritable treasure trove of information for authors and researchers to pore over for that time period.

It’s all contained in a special archive housed at Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering.

Oregon Trail researcher and author Gregory Franzwa described the Henderson Collection as priceless,

“The finest by far, and despite years of research by many other trail historians, his scholarship remains unchallenged.”

Historical fiction writer Ashley Sweeney of Washington came to the area in 2018 to research her latest book, “Answer Creek.” She called the Henderson Collection the “motherlode of all Oregon Trail information.”

The Henderson’s story began in the late 1800s. Paul was born in 1895. When he was about 8 or 9 years old, his father was working as a telegraph operator in Angora.

“Paul took his pony out to go exploring one day and discovered an old stage station,” Barb Netherland, board member of the Oregon-California Trails Association Nebraska chapter, said. “He was digging around the ruins and found a half-dime. That’s when he became hooked on history forevermore.”

After service in World War I, Paul went to work for the Burlington Railroad. At the time, railroads would often have layovers in some towns along the routes. That gave Paul the opportunity to visit with the local old-timers. They’d often show him where trail ruts were located and take him on hikes to their local historic sites.

In 1923, Paul was attending a historical society meeting in Sidney, where he met Helen Dunn. He found she was just as interested in history as he was. Her grandparents lived in the area of a stopover campsite for travelers along the Mormon Trail, where she’d find pottery shards and other artifacts.

Married later that year, the Hendersons spent the next half century walking the overland trails, mapping and photographing its many sites. Most often, all they had to accompany them was a pair of binoculars, a compass and a spirit of adventure.

In addition to mapping all 2,000-plus miles of the Oregon Trail, they mapped the Mormon and California trails through Nebraska as well as a significant portion of the Sidney-to-Deadwood Stagecoach Road. They also determined the locations of all 157 Pony Express stations, spread out over eight states from Missouri to California.

Other research done by the Hendersons documented the Cherokee Trail and the Lodgepole Trail.

There are more than 100 banker boxes of historical information in the Henderson Collection. There are also thousands of slides and photographs, along with dozens of maps, many hand-drawn by Paul.

Other items in the collection are more than 300 pioneer diaries, guides, journals and letters from 1805-1883.

The Hendersons didn’t just document the trails. Once they got going, they documented small towns that have since vanished. They documented the remains of military forts along the trails.

It was Paul and Helen’s research, planning and guidance that led to the preservation of sites like Ft. Phil Kearney, Ft. Fetterman, Ft. Bridger, Scotts Bluff National Monument and Ft. Laramie.

“Once history buffs became aware of the Henderson’s work, people would send them family diaries and stories handed down about life on the trail,” Netherland said. “They’d ask Paul and Helen to research those stories. Paul and Helen would spend hours transcribing those hundreds of diaries before returning them, so their notes are part of the collection. A lot of that information doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Netherland later became good friends with Marge Waitman, the Henderson’s youngest daughter.

“Marge told me she had been in more museums and archives before she was 5 than most people see in a lifetime,” Netherland said. “That’s what the family did in their spare time.”

A quote from Marge described growing up as a Henderson: “Weekends we would pile into the car and head for the hills. We explored Indian burials, campsites, battle grounds, old forts, Pony Express sites, old graves, and unusual rock formations. We sifted old campsites for bits of pottery, old bullets, uniform buttons and anything else that was old. We never took a trip that wasn’t a history or geology lesson.”

Paul wrote only one book during his half-decade of research: “Landmarks on the Oregon Trail.” However, he authored essays for numerous archaeological and historical periodicals, such as Nebraska History.

Even after his retirement from the railroad, Paul was a historical consultant for the National Geographic Society and the State of Wyoming.

After Paul’s death in 1979, Helen became concerned about the future of their massive collection, stored in their basement in Bridgeport.

Paul had wanted to donate the collection to a museum along the Oregon Trail. The family contacted the Nebraska State Historical Society, but there was no interest.

The collection eventually ended up on loan to the archives at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where it stayed for the next 25 years.

In the local area, there remained a group of people who wanted the collection moved back to a museum closer to where Paul wanted it to be.

Netherland was joined by three friends who went up to Laramie to take their first look at the Henderson Collection. The university’s archivist brought out two boxes for each of them — a sample for them to inspect.

Barb was given a box of photographs and a box of section maps that Paul had drawn over the years. County by county along the trail, Paul had identified exact location of places that have long since vanished. Netherland said the only thing she could say was “Wow.”

Although the group was chatty on the trip to Laramie; the trip home was silent. The others had the same reaction to the extent of the material.

“The scope and attention to detail that was recorded in the collection was just phenomenal,” she said.

Because of the dedication to bring the Henderson Collection home, it was donated to (at the time) the North Platte Valley Museum, which later became Legacy of the Plains Museum.

One of the conditions was that it be housed in an established archive, a usable library space with a designated place where researchers could look over the material.

It then took countless hours of dedicated volunteer work to inventory every item in the collection for future reference.

Volunteers would read every page and list names of people, towns, forts, geographic areas and native tribes so the collection could be searchable for historians, authors and others doing research.

Once the project was completed, the resulting database for the Henderson Collection approached 3,000 pages.

Much of the original research was done by the Hendersons during the Great Depression, at their own expense. What they left behind was an invaluable historical reference for generations yet to come.

“There’s not much of the old Oregon Trail left,” Netherland said. “This collection is important in that it documents sites long since gone and forgotten. So many events happened along the trails. It was Paul and Helen’s work that will keep that time period alive. Primary source materials are invaluable the further away we get from that time in our history.”

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