I have read a wide scope of literature related to overland trail memorialization over the last two weeks. It has spanned early memorialization through Ezra Meeker’s work starting in 1906, promotional materials from the Oregon Trail Memorial Association and its successors, studies of landscape photography and William Henry Jackson, including his role in memorialization in the 1930s and 1940s, and modern works that cater to tourists and adventurers seeking to retrace and relive the pioneer experience. The tone of these materials shows a change over time from 1906 to the present. Early memorialization literature focused on the “all-American” nature of the westward migration movement, and the patriotism of settlers “conquering” Oregon and “wresting” it from the hands of the “arrogant” British. Efforts to mark the Oregon Trail with monuments focused on the need to encourage civic pride in the nation’s young people and remind Americans of the struggles of their forebears. Today’s literature focuses a bit less on these grand patriotic narratives and instead celebrates the individuality of the pioneers and their daily struggles, and promotes a desire to preserve the nation’s rich heritage. Much of this literature is tourist-focused, aimed at providing the modern American with directions for how to retrace the Trail in their own way, or relive the pioneer experience through reenactments and living history. Yet, whether the material was written in 1906 or 2006, one motif has remained constant in the literature: the idea that overland migration in the mid nineteenth century was an important, transformational period in our nation’s history, and one which we would do well to remember and preserve.
Is there an opportunity in these motifs and themes for a new interpretation of overland trail memorialization? I think so. I think a broader interpretation of overland migration must encompass a much more complex and possibly less progress-oriented narrative than has historically been the case. Even today, the narrative is remarkably narrow, context-less, and white-centric. The narrative gives some space to the broader context of American political, social, and economic history that prompted overland migration, but not nearly enough. This, coupled with an inadequate discussion of what happened to the 350,000 white emigrants after they arrived at their destinations, gives the overland migration almost a feeling of an aberration in American history, disconnected from the continuity of the story before and after it. The also narrative lacks discussion of the ultimate impact of white migration upon the Native American peoples through whose territory the emigrants traveled, and the ramifications of mass mobility for Native Americans as well as other non-Anglo peoples, including Mexicans. A more all-encompassing narrative for overland trail memorialization might be much less of a heroic story of progress, but it would more fully explain the migration’s place within the whole of American history, and recognize both the successes and failures, heroes and villains, achievements and consequences, of this important period in our nation’s history. A new memorialization would focus on instilling in the next generation and appreciation for diversity, a humility in the face of past wrongs, and a desire to learn forgotten stories of those historic players given short shrift in the past.