Two major experiences in the last two weeks have greatly informed my study and appreciation of Scotts Bluff and its many years of history.
The First would be largely intellectual. In the Susan Lee Johnson article mentioned above, she cites Sandoval and her “synergetic theory of differential consciousness” that emphasizes how identity can adapt, shift, and transform in order to navigate the myriad landscape of gender/power hierarchies. While neither Johnson or Sandoval are explicitly looking at the Overland Trail and its travelers, I feel this theory applies itself well especially in examining conditions along the trail that forced Eastern sensibilities and gender relations to adapt to a western landscape that made those old relationship of power increasingly untenable (at least for the duration of the journey). This theory focuses on three tracts: (1) the strength to commit to an identity (male/female, east/west, etc…), (2) the flexibility to transform that identity (e.g. costumes and religious custom), and (3) the grace to recognize alliances when readings of power call for alternative interpretations. The single word of “performativity,” while useful, does not fully evoke in my opinion the pressures placed on emigrants to change and stay the same in their epic journey across the continent.
My second experience was my recent (I just returned yesterday!) research trip to the Scotts Bluff Monument in western Nebraska. For many emigrants, these geological formations were the most impressive landmarks they had seen in nearly a month of travel across the undulating grass prairie. While I approached from the opposite direction, the effect from the top was no-less staggering when looking east at what emigrants appropriately described as an “ocean” of grass. Within the museum vault I was able to actually touch the many extant objects of material culture (weapons, tools, metal fragments) and mentally connect these items to their mention in diaries and journals. These objects are of incredible importance to understanding the Overland Trail experience because in many ways they kept cultural connections to Eastern identities alive. What objects proved (or were perceived as) most important, and what objects where discarded en route, are representative of a unique and elusive American emigrant mindset.