Update: “Encountering the Unfamiliar”

Image“Independence Rock”, Dep. of the Interior, General Land Office U.S. Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories (December 31 1869)


The highlight of this period, and I dare say the highlight of the entire project so far, has been turning, page by page, through the primary source materials. Some diarists wrote exceedingly well and with great imagination, describing the natural and social events surrounding them with great vigor. Others, equally interesting, were far more spartan – recording the quality of the grass, the miles traveled, and the cost of buying food from the nearby Sioux. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of reading through these diary entries, was looking for the echoes of travelers who made the overland journey many years beforehand, as well as those who were simply several miles ahead. In the same way that throwing a handful of pebbles into a pond will create many overlapping ripples, these diaries—while inherently individualistic—were nevertheless part of a great social movement that connected radically different peoples to a radically unfamiliar place.

Most, if not all migrants, encountered Independence Rock (photographed above in 1869) on their travels to Oregon and California. Many would encounter this unusual landmark just around the 4th of July, which proved an excellent place to profess one’s patriotism even hundreds of miles removed from that country. One of my favorite passages, written by Winfield Ebey during his 1854 crossing, described this sentiment:

Entry for 1854 July 4: Crowds of Emigrants got to the Rock, to Spend Independence Day, and the loud reports of fire arms throughout the day, testifies that this is the birth Day of American Freedom; & that although here in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, a thousand miles from our home we are Yet American Citizens a part of that great family who have inherited Freedom from our ancestors…

Here, Ebey used the landscape to position himself within the context of American freedom and territorial expansion. This was something that he interpreted as natural and destined–indeed something inherited–that would allow him to recreate society in a land that was ostensibly vacant.

Finding these kinds of connections has been a truly rewarding experience.

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