Update! “Encountering the Unfamiliar”

ImageAlbert Park, “Hundreds of Prairie Schooner Wheels” (1923 August 20)
Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library.


The overland trails through the Roubideaux and Mitchell passes at Scotts Bluff is largely the story of movement. The photo above by Albert Park, taken at Split Rock Wyoming – almost visible from the top of the Bluffs – shows how the incredible number of wagon trains eventually bore down through solid rock, leaving more-or-less parallel tracks aimed at the Pacific. However incredible, these ruts don’t readily explain why these emigrants went west, or how their perceptions of the environment and western people changed as they did. This week, I spent my time looking at how cultures of the East translated into cultures of the West, as well as what ideas were left laying in the dirt alongside the wagon ruts.

For women in particular, the importance of domestic practice and sociability was ever present along the trail. This manifested itself in traditional (albeit transformed) ways like cooking, and cleaning, as well as in the overwhelmingly female desire to stop traveling on the Sabbath and perform the requisite religious practices. While it is important to note that the cult of domesticity was not rigid and all-consuming, it was still the transcendent structural system of woman’s culture in the nineteenth century. As historian Robert Griswold notes, “a woman who opposed domestic ideology for whatever reason likely lacked even the language to express alternative views.” (28)* The individual experiences of the predominantly Anglo-American middle-class women who undertook the crossing was varied, yes, but was also described in a language that put woman outside their traditional space: the home. Many questions therefore arise. How did women see the home on the plains and prairie? Did home become a mobile concept, or were women literally and metaphorically lost in the wilderness? And how did men – people also removed from the home – respond to the lack of domesticity?

Whether the destination was the Mountain West or the Pacific, or anywhere in between, the crossing was slow and arduous. The distant was very distant, indeed. While silent, the wagon ruts nevertheless tell the story of the home: of the women responsible for maintaining home-making ideals, and recreating it upon arrival.

*Griswold, Robert L. “Anglo Women and Domestic Ideology in the American West in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” in Western Women: Their Land Their Lives. Edited by Lillian Schlissel, Vicki L. Ruiz, and Janice Monk (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988).

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