Retracing the Overland Trail in the Twentieth Century

One of the most interesting things in my research has been discovering how many people have written driving guides on the Oregon Trail. One of the earliest seems to be one produced by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939, which provides step-by-step directions, mileage, and landmarks. Other driving guides are more personal, giving not only detailed information about following in the footsteps of the pioneers but also how the writer felt about the trip and their observations into the past. Ezra Meeker, himself a pioneer, was probably the first to do this when he published a version of the diary he kept when retracing the Oregon Trail in 1906. One of the people who followed Meeker’s lead was Irene Paden, who published The Wake of the Prairie Schooner in 1944 as a compilation of her family’s decade of travels back and forth along various routes of the overland trails.

What is unique about these part driving guide, part personal memoir books is their demonstration of how ordinary people, who were trail enthusiasts but not necessarily history buffs, were memorializing the overland trails in their own way. Most did not recreate the trip with strict historical accuracy; people like the Padens drove automobiles, stayed in hotels, and ate at restaurants along the way. Instead, their focus on authenticity was through following the historic route as closely as possible. Some, like the Padens, even drove their automobiles in the ruts of the historic trail!

As they traveled, people like the Padens often viewed history from their lens of comfortable twentieth century life. They read overland diaries and journals and amassed enormous collections of material, but struggled to lay their modern biases aside so they could attempt to understand the experiences of the overland migrants from a nineteenth century perspective. It was through the musings of these twentieth century trail enthusiasts that historians begin to see how some of the myths of overland migration crept into how the history of the era has been told ever since. For example, Irene Paden zeroed in on any mention she ever found in diaries of interactions with Native Americans. Although we know now that most emigrants likely did not encounter Native Americans on the trail, and if they did, that these encounters were usually friendly or at least distant, Paden prioritizes accounts that focus on massacres, hostility, and the warring nature of the Plains tribes. She stereotypes Native Americans as dirty, ugly, primitive, brutal, and war-like. Because of her writing and that of many of her contemporaries in the first half of the twentieth century, many people have erroneously over-exaggerated migrant interactions with Native Americans.

Other biases that have crept in to the writing of these individuals includes a monolithic focus on the people traveling overland, relatively little attention to Mormon emigrants, and an over-generalization that the migrants to Oregon were white families seeking land and homes and migrants to California were white single men seeking wealth. Later scholarship has proved many of these claims false, but the way people have remembered and memorialized the overland trail continues to emphasize many elements like these. Consequently, my goal with the memorialization chapter is to reveal how we have portrayed the overland migration over time, discuss how myths have crept into the history, and provide a directive for a new interpretation of overland migration.

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