I am firmly grounded in the editing portion of my essay, “Encountering the Unfamiliar.” As I’ve slowly worked through my various silly mistakes, vague statements, and unsupported arguments over the last four weeks I’ve discovered how truly grateful I am for word-processing. I’ve also developed some sympathy for the many overland emigrants who had to settle with crossing out words, or sloppily scribbling over errant phrases or misspellings. Often times, when more information about a certain dramatic event like a shooting or a supposed-scare by Native Americans, emigrants would include a “note” about the event in days to follow. The most avid diarists recorded their thoughts daily, sometimes at multiple instances during the day, and could only record information as they encountered it. The often poetic sentence structure and clever turns of phrase evidenced in emigrant records by necessity were planned and recorded one word after another. Those who remember the type-writer know the frustrations endemic to this form of writing. We denizens of the digital age have it lucky – the tens of thousands of emigrants who recorded their thoughts about sites like Scotts Bluff made plenty of mistakes, but each one of those peculiar errors (and corrections) reveal little insights into the personality of the writer. Crossing on May 23 1854, Winfield Ebey described the theft of some horses by unseen perpetrators with underlines and strike-throughs that are indicative of his unique writing style: “wolves that had frightened the Cattle Horses.” Why did wolves deserve an underline? Why did he briefly confuse Cattle with Horses? These questions are difficult to answer, but are nevertheless interesting for their value in separating Ebey from other diarists.
Composing an essay like this is both rigorous and constantly exciting. I love being able to draw connections between ostensibly disparate peoples and share in their feelings of extreme awe, of terrible pain, and their constant propensity to hope. While on the trail, most diarists recorded their opinions on other people, on flowers, on mountains, or on rivers in a single declarative sentence. For example, when Julius Nevins encountered steamboat springs for the first time in 1849, it was the “greatest curiosity that I ever saw.” The newness of everything west of the Missouri River was so startling that it challenged most emigrants perceptions of what was both awful and beautiful, righteous and wrong. Several diarists in particular, Winfield Ebey, Kate Dunlap, and Lucia Everett, commented on so many different things and their voices are largely what bind my three sections on trail-society, landmarks and celebrations, and perceptions of Native Americans vis-a-vis the environment together. It has been a joy to watch them “encounter the unfamiliar” in ways that were consistently similar, despite their differences in sex, class, and year of travel.
In particular, I have learned that traditional historical analytical modes like gender, race, and class become less-useful when looking at an event like the overland migrations. These emigrants, despite how prepared they might have been for the crossing, largely encountered everything on the trail at the same time, blurring those different facets together, and always with the environment at the center. In this way, emigrant fears of an attack by Native Americans are associated with hostile weather systems, or landforms like Independence Rock conjoin with protestations of nationalism. My methodology has focused on this intertwined, and imminently new, perception of the frontier landscape and its peoples in combination with the social borderlands that they were constantly attempting to recreate around them. My next big writing adventure will be to modify my essay so that it flows well between Hannah’s work in the eastern warm-up before migration, as well as work laterally with Andrew Cabrall’s research into the Native American contact period.
The highlight of this period, and I dare say the highlight of the entire project so far, has been turning, page by page, through the primary source materials. Some diarists wrote exceedingly well and with great imagination, describing the natural and social events surrounding them with great vigor. Others, equally interesting, were far more spartan – recording the quality of the grass, the miles traveled, and the cost of buying food from the nearby Sioux. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of reading through these diary entries, was looking for the echoes of travelers who made the overland journey many years beforehand, as well as those who were simply several miles ahead. In the same way that throwing a handful of pebbles into a pond will create many overlapping ripples, these diaries—while inherently individualistic—were nevertheless part of a great social movement that connected radically different peoples to a radically unfamiliar place.
Most, if not all migrants, encountered Independence Rock (photographed above in 1869) on their travels to Oregon and California. Many would encounter this unusual landmark just around the 4th of July, which proved an excellent place to profess one’s patriotism even hundreds of miles removed from that country. One of my favorite passages, written by Winfield Ebey during his 1854 crossing, described this sentiment:
Entry for 1854 July 4: Crowds of Emigrants got to the Rock, to Spend Independence Day, and the loud reports of fire arms throughout the day, testifies that this is the birth Day of American Freedom; & that although here in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, a thousand miles from our home we are Yet American Citizens a part of that great family who have inherited Freedom from our ancestors…
Here, Ebey used the landscape to position himself within the context of American freedom and territorial expansion. This was something that he interpreted as natural and destined–indeed something inherited–that would allow him to recreate society in a land that was ostensibly vacant.
Finding these kinds of connections has been a truly rewarding experience.
The overland trails through the Roubideaux and Mitchell passes at Scotts Bluff is largely the story of movement. The photo above by Albert Park, taken at Split Rock Wyoming – almost visible from the top of the Bluffs – shows how the incredible number of wagon trains eventually bore down through solid rock, leaving more-or-less parallel tracks aimed at the Pacific. However incredible, these ruts don’t readily explain why these emigrants went west, or how their perceptions of the environment and western people changed as they did. This week, I spent my time looking at how cultures of the East translated into cultures of the West, as well as what ideas were left laying in the dirt alongside the wagon ruts.
For women in particular, the importance of domestic practice and sociability was ever present along the trail. This manifested itself in traditional (albeit transformed) ways like cooking, and cleaning, as well as in the overwhelmingly female desire to stop traveling on the Sabbath and perform the requisite religious practices. While it is important to note that the cult of domesticity was not rigid and all-consuming, it was still the transcendent structural system of woman’s culture in the nineteenth century. As historian Robert Griswold notes, “a woman who opposed domestic ideology for whatever reason likely lacked even the language to express alternative views.” (28)* The individual experiences of the predominantly Anglo-American middle-class women who undertook the crossing was varied, yes, but was also described in a language that put woman outside their traditional space: the home. Many questions therefore arise. How did women see the home on the plains and prairie? Did home become a mobile concept, or were women literally and metaphorically lost in the wilderness? And how did men – people also removed from the home – respond to the lack of domesticity?
Whether the destination was the Mountain West or the Pacific, or anywhere in between, the crossing was slow and arduous. The distant was very distant, indeed. While silent, the wagon ruts nevertheless tell the story of the home: of the women responsible for maintaining home-making ideals, and recreating it upon arrival.
*Griswold, Robert L. “Anglo Women and Domestic Ideology in the American West in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” in Western Women: Their Land Their Lives. Edited by Lillian Schlissel, Vicki L. Ruiz, and Janice Monk (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988).
Two major experiences in the last two weeks have greatly informed my study and appreciation of Scotts Bluff and its many years of history.
The First would be largely intellectual. In the Susan Lee Johnson article mentioned above, she cites Sandoval and her “synergetic theory of differential consciousness” that emphasizes how identity can adapt, shift, and transform in order to navigate the myriad landscape of gender/power hierarchies. While neither Johnson or Sandoval are explicitly looking at the Overland Trail and its travelers, I feel this theory applies itself well especially in examining conditions along the trail that forced Eastern sensibilities and gender relations to adapt to a western landscape that made those old relationship of power increasingly untenable (at least for the duration of the journey). This theory focuses on three tracts: (1) the strength to commit to an identity (male/female, east/west, etc…), (2) the flexibility to transform that identity (e.g. costumes and religious custom), and (3) the grace to recognize alliances when readings of power call for alternative interpretations. The single word of “performativity,” while useful, does not fully evoke in my opinion the pressures placed on emigrants to change and stay the same in their epic journey across the continent.
My second experience was my recent (I just returned yesterday!) research trip to the Scotts Bluff Monument in western Nebraska. For many emigrants, these geological formations were the most impressive landmarks they had seen in nearly a month of travel across the undulating grass prairie. While I approached from the opposite direction, the effect from the top was no-less staggering when looking east at what emigrants appropriately described as an “ocean” of grass. Within the museum vault I was able to actually touch the many extant objects of material culture (weapons, tools, metal fragments) and mentally connect these items to their mention in diaries and journals. These objects are of incredible importance to understanding the Overland Trail experience because in many ways they kept cultural connections to Eastern identities alive. What objects proved (or were perceived as) most important, and what objects where discarded en route, are representative of a unique and elusive American emigrant mindset.