Railroads: Bringing Settlers and Tourists to the Plains

As I worked through sources related to settlement of the Great Plains in the 1860s through the early twentieth century, I saw many similarities with earlier migration patterns along the overland trails. Just as emigrants between 1840 and 1860 relied on mass media including newspapers and guidebooks, so emigrants to the Plains relied on mass media to make decisions about settling on new land. The railroads were one of the leading agents of this mass media revolution, producing hundreds of thousands of guides, circulars, gazettes, and handbills promoting sale of lands on the Great Plains. Before the 1860s, the majority of railroads in the East connected already existing towns, and built track through already established communities and cultivated land. The first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, crossed vast tracts of undeveloped, rural land, as did many of the railroads that followed in the 1870s and 1880s. Railroads depended on haulage on their lines in order to recoup the investment of laying rails. In the rural, unsettled Great Plains, however, there were initially few towns and farms to provide the raw materials the trains could haul. Railroads were one of the most vocal promoters of settlement on the Great Plains in order to build up communities along their lines to produce crops and livestock that the railroads could ship east. Many railroads were given land grants by the government, consisting of vast parcels of alternate sections of land along the railroad right of ways. Railroads then sold these sections to settlers in order to recoup expenses of laying the track. Many railroads even offered free tickets to would-be settlers, inviting them on exploratory trips to scout out the land prior to moving west. Probably the most intriguing and useful source I read on the topic of land promotion was David M. Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands: Boomer Literature of the Central Great Plains.

However, the best efforts of the railroads and promoters could not ultimately mask the fact that much of the western Plains, including the area of Scottsbluff, are a particularly challenging area to farm due to meager rainfall, harsh climate, and the necessity of irrigation. Hardships on the land resulted in out-migration, which occurred throughout the major settlement era and gained speed in the 1920s when crop prices fell and the region began to experience a series of bad harvests that culminated in the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. Nebraska and the Great Plains have never been a place of overall stability for many people. The state and the region are constantly changing, and people are constantly moving in and out in search of better opportunities. From the 1870s through the 1930s, most of these opportunities had to do directly with the land and agriculture. As I continue to read, I hope to discover other industries and opportunities that brought people to Nebraska in the twentieth century.

Railroads did not just bring settlers to Nebraska; they also brought some of the first tourists. These people, generally wealthy Easterners or newspapermen, did not come to settle in the Great Plains, but rather to cross the region and experience the West from the comfort of their Pullman car. The West had had tourists before, but the railroads facilitated a much faster and more comfortable vacation experience. Many nineteenth century railroad tourists and traveling journalists recorded their impressions of the Plains. Among these travelers was Amos Jay Cummings, a journalist from New York City, whose columns about his excursions have been edited and published as A Remarkable Curiosity: Dispatches from a New York City Journalist’s 1873 Railroad Trip across the American West. While relatively few excursionists traveled through Nebraska specifically to see its sights (most tourists focused on destinations such as Denver or San Francisco), crossing the Plains was still part of the vacation experience and the region arrested the interest of travelers. By the early twentieth century, these railroad tourists would begin to give way to a new form of excursion traveler: the automobile tourist.

“Work out alright”: Immigrants and the Environment of the Great Plains

When I was in Nebraska in May for a site visit to Scotts Bluff National Monument, I noticed many businesses named after their owners, who had surnames of distinct German and Czech origin. As I have begun research for my essay on Mobility, Settlement, and Tourism, I am exploring patterns of migration and mobility in Nebraska and the Scottsbluff vicinity in particular from early settlement through the present. One of the major eras of migration occurred in the 1870s through the early 1900s, as thousands of homesteaders poured into the Great Plains to take advantage of 160-acre parcels from the U.S. government under the Homestead Act. While many of these homesteaders were native-born Americans, thousands more were immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, and Russia (ethnic Germans from the Volga River and Black Sea regions of Russia). These immigrants infused the Great Plains with their rich culture in ways that can still be seen today, such as in the plethora of foreign-sounding business names in western Nebraska. I found the many informative essays in Ethnicity on the Great Plains by Frederick C. Luebke to be just the tip of the iceberg in revealing the rich ethnic makeup of the region.

Why did these immigrants flock to the Great Plains? Many people have noted the harsh environment of the region, from the constant wind, the lack of trees, and the scarcity of water to the threat of tornadoes, prairie fires, drought, grasshopper plagues, and blizzards. The Great Plains is a land of extremes, and western Nebraska is no exception. Boosters and promoters claimed that “rain follows the plow” in a glowing effort to demonstrate that the Great Plains was not really the Great American Desert, and only needed the hard work of homesteaders cultivating the sod to make the region into a lush paradise. In hindsight, we know that the plow did not bring rain. Part of the problem was a failure on the part of promoters and homesteaders to fully recognize and appreciate the beautiful but fragile ecosystem of the Great Plains. They needed to develop ways to use the land in accordance with its fragility and not in the same way that farmers had been using lands in the more temperate Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys. It is a lesson we are still learning today: despite our hardest efforts, we cannot tame the land. We can only work with it.

This is perhaps what some homesteaders learned if they managed to persevere on the Plains and not abandon their land after the first few hard years. Steven Kinsella, in his book 900 Miles from Nowhere: Voices from the Homestead Frontier, has combed archives across the Great Plains to present just a sampling of the many letters and diaries from Great Plains homesteaders. As I read the words of these determined men and women, I felt their love for the land, despite every challenge it threw at them. Perhaps most profound was a letter written by Lars A. Stavig, a Norwegian immigrant who settled with his family in Dakota Territory. He wrote a letter to his brother, Knudt Stavig, back in Norway, encouraging him to immigrate to America. Stavig did not write about the Plains in glowing words as a land flowing with milk and honey. He honestly admitted that life there required hard work and brought many challenges. Yet Stavig was content. He firmly believed that struggling in America was far better than struggling in Norway. He wrote:

“I lived in Norway for 32 years and I have now lived in America for 12 years and I can see the difference. I think you would be doing the right thing by coming to America…. I am not living in the most convenient place in America, but you must decide where you want to go. Don’t decide not to come because you don’t like where I live and feel that you have to come here. America also has problems just as Norway does, but there is a difference in their problems. You can be poor in America as well as Norway. In the beginning it is the worst, before you are situated and have made some money. … Dear brother, if you come everything would work out alright for you just as for the million others who come to America every year.”  ⃰

People like Lars Stavig were the men and women who built the Great Plains. It was their determination and perseverance that enabled them to live contented, if not prosperous, lives. For those who learned to love and appreciate the land, and whose families still live on the land today, they did indeed discover that it would “work out alright.”  ⃰

⃰ Lars A. Stavig to Knudt Stavig, from Nutley, Dakota Territory, August 5, 1888. L. M. Stavig and Harold Torness Collection, 1881-1949, p. 106-25, Center for Western Studies, Augustana College. Quoted in Kinsella, Steven R. 900 Miles from Nowhere: Voices from the Homestead Frontier (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006), 174, 176.

Update: “Migrants in Pursuit of a Better Life” — just like all Americans

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.

Update: “Migrants in Pursuit of a Better Life”

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.

Update: “Migrants in Pursuit of a Better Life”

My most interesting discoveries in this reporting period were in studying the role of print media in overland migrations. John Unruh’s monograph, The Plains Across, was an excellent resource in this regard. In today’s age of internet and mass media, we often forget that Americans in the nineteenth century also received much of their information from print media. Many families depended on letters from family and friends to inform them of the lands and opportunities available to the west, but they also used newspapers, published reports, and guidebooks to learn about the West and make decisions and plans to migrate overland.

Although the most vocal aspects of boosterism were still to come later in the nineteenth century, the mid-1800s was rife with newspaper publicity and public relations campaigns focused on directing migrants to settle in certain locations, leave from certain outfitting towns, travel certain routes, and take with them a variety of equipment calculated to make the journey or arrival easier. Would-be travelers voraciously devoured the information published in the newspapers, which especially in the early decades printed information weekly or even daily about the overland experience. The newspapers reprinted letters and reports from those who had already traveled the trails, advertised the best jumping-off places and the latest guidebooks, and offered advice on every detail from when to leave to what to bring to how to form a company and write a constitution.

In the very early years in the 1840s travelers had to learn as they went and depended much more heavily on traders and trappers for information and direction. By later in the decade and throughout the 1850s, so much had been written and published about the overland experience that travelers had an enormous amount of information they could sort through and utilize, even if some of it was boosterism, exaggeration, or down-right falsehood. While such information did not necessarily make the journey less long, dangerous, or grueling, certainly would-be travelers were assured by reading of all those who had already gone ahead, and taking into account the advice offered by letters, newspapers, and guidebooks to hopefully make the journey as successful as possible.

Update: “In Pursuit of a Better Life”

What struck me these last two weeks is both how localized emigration on the Overland Trail was, and how frequently these people moved. While migrants on the Overland Trail came from all over the eastern, southern, and central U.S., the highest numbers came from the more-recently settled Midwestern states, particularly Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Since these states were opened for settlement as part of the Northwest Ordinance and most migrants moved there between the 1810s and 1830s, I found it unusual that in only a few decades many of them were moving on to Oregon or California.

Furthermore, this was not the first time most of them had moved. In many cases, their parents or grandparents had migrated from New England to Appalachia. Then their parents or they themselves moved from the Appalachian states of the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky into the southern regions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Within a decade or two, many of them then moved again, this time to the central or northern regions of those states. Then they would make the biggest move yet: from the Midwest all the way to the Pacific Coast. For many of these people, the Overland Trail was the second or third move of their lives.

By reading a number of sources that focus on the settlement and agriculture of the Midwest, particularly John Mack Faragher’s Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie, Susan Sessions Rugh’s Our Common Country: Family Farming, Culture, and Community in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest, and Paul Salstrom’s From Pioneering to Preserving: Family Farming in Indiana to 1880, I began to develop a picture of why these moves were so frequent. Issues such as rapidly increasing land prices, an economic slump leading to falling crop prices, families splitting land into parcels too small to provide a living for their children, and soil depletion and erosion all combined to push many migrants on to cheaper, more open parcels of land. First they found these to the northwest, in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, but these problems seemed to follow them to the Midwest, so within a few decades, many families chose to move on to Oregon or California.

Update: In Pursuit of a Better Life

The highlight of the past two weeks was getting to spend two days on a site visit to Scotts Bluff National Monument. As a cultural landscape historian, it is very important for me to see the places I am researching and writing about to give me perspective, comprehend the site better, and discover new questions to ask and new ways of formulating my research. Having the opportunity to see Scotts Bluff was very useful for thinking about conceptualizing the landscape, the geography encountered by emigrants, and the geologic change over time.

I was particularly struck by the uniqueness of the monument in contrast to the flat agricultural land all around it. Being able to visually discover how much of a landmark Scotts Bluff would have been to the overland emigrants was very powerful. I have much more of an appreciation for the sights and landmarks identified by emigrants now that I have had the opportunity to see the monument from their perspective.

The geology of the monument stood out to me as quite unique compared to the rest of the landscape. I look forward to working on the geology essay and incorporating themes such as erosion and change over time. I would love to incorporate historic photographs and drawings into my research showing how erosion has changed the shape and size of promontories at the monument in the past two hundred years. Being able to observe the stratigraphy of the rock and how the Brule clay erodes faster than the limestone was a very tangible object lesson that helps make geology a more approachable subject to the layperson. Tangible and visual observations like these are exactly the kinds of things I now know I want to incorporate into the geology essay.

The site visit also made me aware of new potential subjects to explore in the monument/community relationship, especially in terms of water use/irrigation, land management, and viewshed. Several conversations we had with staff revealed the tension in the monument’s relationship with the three ditch companies whose canals cross monument land. This will be a very important story to incorporate into my essay on the monument/community relationship. I was also struck by the proximity of development to the monument land. It was beautiful to be able to stand at the monument summit and see across both Gering and Scottsbluff and the surrounding agricultural land, but at the same time it underscored the fact that this is in many ways an urban site. A compromised viewshed and encroaching development are issues that a number of other NPS sites also deal with, and these are issues that I also want to touch on in the essays.

The trip was also a wonderful opportunity for myself and the rest of the project team to meet the monument staff and seasonal employees and talk to them about our project and work at the monument. I was very encouraged by their excitement and interest in the project, appreciated their insights, ideas, and feedback, and look forward to being able to work collaboratively with them in the months to come. We also had the special treat of getting to meet Jason Kenworthy from the National Park Service’s Geologic Resources Division in Denver. He too was very interested in our project and offered his assistance. He will prove to be an invaluable contact for us, particularly when I begin work on the geology chapter for the project.