Emigrants shared a basic human desire to be remembered. As a result, they routinely left behind evidence of their passing, inscribing their names on any number of "register rocks." Today, these signatures can be found in large groups, such as those on Register Cliff in Guernsey or Independence Rock as well as single or small clusters of inscriptions found along the length of the trail. Recently, what appears to be a legitimate emigrant signature was even found high up on a lodgepole pine in eastern Wyoming. Marked graves, of course, represented another form of trail inscription.
All these signatures, which we find so fascinating today, are little more than 150-year-old graffiti. However, the emigrants were not always simply satisfying their ego by leaving their names behind. Many inscriptions include a date. In many cases, emigrants hoped that friends and family following behind might see the signature and know that their loved ones had made it this far safely.
Imagine that your family suddenly finds its supplies perilously low. Already weakened by the journey, the family seems in danger of succumbing slowly, one at a time. Your husband decides to ride ahead, to locate fresh supplies and bring back the necessary staples. As you part, there can only be dread.
Then imagine your trepidation approaching a freshly-made grave. Will the name be horrifyingly familiar? Will you gaze upon the fate that likely awaits you as well? And now, here are some emigrant signatures. How much time will you spend looking for evidence that your beloved was safe and well when he passed this point days or weeks before? But if you are the husband, will you spend your time scratching your name for eternity – and, hopefully, your spouse’s gaze – or will you hurry on, anxious to complete your mission?
The time and energy required to inscribe your name varied from surface to surface. The chalky sandstone of Register Cliff enabled an emigrant to quickly inscribe their name and even add a date and hometown. The Cliff, exposed as it is, offered a ready invitation and ready surface and thousands throughout the years have indulged their desire for immortality. The ease with which the cliff can be incised also makes it extremely susceptible to the erosive forces of nature.
Independence Rock, which Father Pierre De Smet nicknamed the "Great Register of the Desert," required much more patience and effort. The heavy granite would not yield to a simple scraping. Emigrants who wanted to leave their name among all the hundreds already on the rock had to resort to paint, axle grease, or chisels to create a lasting impression. Today, many of these signatures are fading away or flaking off. Even more distressingly, some vandals have attempted to remove whole slabs of the rock with prime inscriptions on them.
The trail inscriptions represent a treasured, irreplaceable remnant of the emigrants who passed this way. One day, they will likely all be lost forever.