Update: “Migrants in Pursuit of a Better Life”

My most interesting discoveries in this reporting period were in studying the role of print media in overland migrations. John Unruh’s monograph, The Plains Across, was an excellent resource in this regard. In today’s age of internet and mass media, we often forget that Americans in the nineteenth century also received much of their information from print media. Many families depended on letters from family and friends to inform them of the lands and opportunities available to the west, but they also used newspapers, published reports, and guidebooks to learn about the West and make decisions and plans to migrate overland.

Although the most vocal aspects of boosterism were still to come later in the nineteenth century, the mid-1800s was rife with newspaper publicity and public relations campaigns focused on directing migrants to settle in certain locations, leave from certain outfitting towns, travel certain routes, and take with them a variety of equipment calculated to make the journey or arrival easier. Would-be travelers voraciously devoured the information published in the newspapers, which especially in the early decades printed information weekly or even daily about the overland experience. The newspapers reprinted letters and reports from those who had already traveled the trails, advertised the best jumping-off places and the latest guidebooks, and offered advice on every detail from when to leave to what to bring to how to form a company and write a constitution.

In the very early years in the 1840s travelers had to learn as they went and depended much more heavily on traders and trappers for information and direction. By later in the decade and throughout the 1850s, so much had been written and published about the overland experience that travelers had an enormous amount of information they could sort through and utilize, even if some of it was boosterism, exaggeration, or down-right falsehood. While such information did not necessarily make the journey less long, dangerous, or grueling, certainly would-be travelers were assured by reading of all those who had already gone ahead, and taking into account the advice offered by letters, newspapers, and guidebooks to hopefully make the journey as successful as possible.

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