As I was reading diaries, journals, and letters in the Henderson Collection and BYU’s Digital Collections, I was struck by how few migrants give a back-story on why they chose to migrate. Many of them simply launch into their journey, announcing in the first entry that they have set out from this or that jumping-off place on their way to the West. Why did so few elaborate on where they came from, what they used to do for a living, and why they wanted to migrate in the first place? I discussed this conundrum with my fellow researcher Nic Gunvaldson, since he has also been studying emigrant diaries. He concluded that emigrants understood that the overland journey was a special, important, even epic event. Most of them wrote diaries so share with family and friends back east, or even a national audience, via publication or reprinting in newspapers. Few seemed to be concerned with the lives they left behind—they wanted to share what was happening to them in the present and what they looked forward to for the future.
Historians place events and decisions within a broader context of the times in which those events and decisions took place. Doing so frames the arguments we make, while guarding us from taking people’s words and actions out of their historical, cultural, social, political, or religious contexts. It can be frustrating when people in the past leave few clues about the context of who they were and where they came from. Ultimately, however, it can lead to an exciting treasure hunt as we carefully piece together small details and hints to create a broader picture of the people we study. In the same way, as I have researched overland migration I have found little hints here and there that explain why some of these diarists chose to migrate and what kind of life they left behind.
In many ways, their reasons for not including their past lives in their diaries make sense. Americans are a mobile, forward-thinking people. We tend to stress the importance of progress and the possibilities of the future while forgetting or only casually memorializing our past. In the same way, the Americans who traveled overland were lured by the bright promise of a better future and new social and economic opportunities. Many of them were leaving behind their old lives for a good reason. The lives they were living were hard, challenging, fraught with economic dead-ends, lack of advancement and opportunity, debt, and even prejudice. By traveling overland, they were hoping to leave all that behind them and embrace the American dream of a better life and fresh opportunities.
As historians, we cannot blame these people for focusing predominantly on their future and not their past. At the same time, we cannot fully understand their fascination with the future until we begin to put together the pieces of their past. What they sought to gain was so monumental because of what they sought to leave.