As I set out to research and write my essay on the overland emigrants in terms of who they were, why they set out, and how they prepared, I anticipated discovering a multi-faceted group of people. I believed that some of the old history written about the emigrants was far too monolithic, and that surely these people were more diverse, coming from a wide range of geographic regions, ethnicities, races, nationalities, religions, and socio-economic conditions. While most emigrants were from the Midwest, they came from every state of the Union and from multiple countries. While most were white, they also included a small number of African-Americans. While many were Protestants or Catholics, a large number were Mormon. While most were middle-class, many were poor and others were wealthy. While most emigrants went west for gold or land, others were simply looking for adventure.
By the time I completed the essay, I had confirmed that the overland emigrants were far from a monolithic group, instead coming from an array of backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences. Even their specific reasons for emigrating covered a huge spectrum—every individual came to their own conclusion about emigration based on unique reasons, motivations, desires, and values. Yet I discovered that this diverse group of people had one major thing in common: they were all emigrating for opportunity. That opportunity looked different from person to person. For one it was the opportunity to own land. For another the opportunity to escape debt. For still others it was the opportunity to become wealthy, to move up the social ranks, to cast off the burdensome restrictions of society, to practice their religion without interference, to travel and see the country. Regardless, they all traveled for the opportunity.
Emigrants in the mid-1800s moved west in search of opportunities to improve and enrich their lives in some way. In many ways, Americans have not changed. Despite its flaws, we still cling to the idea of the “American dream.” We pursue economic and social opportunity and improvement through a wide variety of means, such as getting a college education, buying a home or car, and having a successful career. In many ways, we have not changed much from Americans of the 1800s, even if their versions of economic and social opportunity meant owning a farm or staking claim to a gold mine.
Discoveries like these are what make studying history so rich to me. I enjoy being able to close the gap between myself and people who lived hundreds of years ago by discovering the commonalities we share. History is not musty old documents and dead men’s bones. It is alive with the stories of fascinating people not so unlike you and me, who may have done different things in our lives but who still shared many of the same goals and motivations.