How Memorialization Shapes History and Tourism

As I have begun writing the chapter on memorialization of the overland trails, I am struck by the connections this chapter has to others in the report. How people have commemorated, designated, wrote about, and toured sites along the overland trail have had a direct correlation to the national political, cultural, and social context of the time and have consequently influenced, either for good or ill, how the trails have been studied and remembered ever since. The history of the nineteenth century overland migrations themselves, as Nic Gunvaldson and I explore in our chapters on the migrations, obviously formed the cornerstone for memorialization efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The role of Scotts Bluff National Monument in the memorialization and commemoration process has much to do with its formation as a local landmark and subsequent development within the neighboring communities, as Doug Sheflin’s chapter on town and park relationships will demonstrate. Memorialization of the overland trail has privileged a white, Anglo-Saxon narrative that ignores or over-simplifies the rich and diverse Native American connections to the trail landscape and the Scotts Bluff region, past and present, as Andrew Cabrall is exploring in his two chapters on the Native American experience.

One of my earlier chapters written for this project involved a look at mobility in Nebraska and the Scotts Bluff area in particular, as people have moved about in the region from the 1860s to the present in search of land, industry, opportunity, and tourist experiences. The team has decided that because of the overlap between this chapter and others that will be part of the final report, my research for the mobility chapter will instead be folded into other appropriate sections of the finished document. It seemed to make sense to incorporate the tourism sections of the mobility chapter into my current chapter on memorialization. At first, I was unsure how strong the connections would be. As I have begun writing, however, I have noticed how well the two correlate. Memorialization of the overland trails and of Scotts Bluff National Monument has not just been about marker dedications, speeches, pageantry, and anniversary events. Memorialization is also part of the day-to-day, annual routines of how and why Americans remember, read about, visit, and explore sites connected to their nation’s past. The desire to increase tourism, and thus economic development, was a major reason why local residents of Scottsbluff and Gering pushed to get Scotts Bluff designated as a national monument. Tourism is both an economic driver and a vehicle for popular memory. When tourists visit historic sites, they bring to the table a host of preconditioned values, beliefs, assumptions, and motivations, often colored by the cultural and social forces at work in their nation at that time. Many tourists believe that it is important to visit historic sites in order to gain an appreciation for their nation’s past, or to inculcate patriotism or a particular set of values in the lives of their children. Consequently, tourism is an important element of memorialization. However, tourists are not merely passive consumers of information who seek edutainment. They can, and many do, play an active role in how Americans continue to shape our understanding and commemoration of historic events. Many parents, including my own, have dragged many a young child along to a host of historic sites during the family summer vacation. In the process, many of those children, like me, have discovered a passion for the history of places that eventually turned into a career of helping to interpret and document that history for others. And most of us still enjoy touring the sites that are important to our nation’s heritage.

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.

A New Framework for Memorialization

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.

Mobility vs. Persistence: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

In my research, I have gotten the feeling that Nebraskans view themselves from the context of late nineteenth century homesteaders. These homesteaders are portrayed as determined and brave conquerors of a wild land, who put down roots and whose generational experiences on the land have given Nebraska its rich culture of persistence. This view is evident in the literary works of Nebraskans such as Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. At the same time that they value the pioneer tradition, Nebraskans have always tried to expand the state’s industry and economic diversification. Despite some achievements in this regard, Nebraska remains a primarily agricultural state that struggles with out-migration due to limited opportunities.

These views are not just the perspectives of Nebraskans in 1900, 1930, or 1945. They are still held, as evidenced by the concluding lines in the 1997 third edition of History of Nebraska, a definitive study by James C. Olson and Ronald C. Naugle. The authors write,

“Nearly a quarter-century since their centennial celebration, Nebraskans continue to struggle with many of the same issues. Their society is still heavily dependent on agriculture yet is seeking a broader economic diversity through the expansion of industry. The out-migration of Nebraskans remains a concern…. As Nebraskans look to the new century, there is much in their past to celebrate. Both creative and pragmatic solutions have resolved challenges of the past and will likely do so in the future. The land and the pioneer spirit of its people remain Nebraska’s most valuable resources for meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century.”¹

It may indeed be that the land and the pioneer spirit has made Nebraska what it is and will continue to give its people direction, but this view can neglect the role that mobility has played in the lives of Nebraskans since before it was a state. People have constantly moved in and out of the state for land, jobs, and leisure. Much of the mobility within the state has taken place within the minority population, including American Indians, Mexicans and Hispanics, Japanese Americans, and African Americans. These are many of the key players in Nebraska’s history that historians Olson and Naugle devote little, if any, space.

However, other historians have argued that the Great Plains and Nebraska have a more complex, multi-faceted story, one that takes into account the persistence but also the mobility, the white Euro-American homesteader as well as the American Indians, Mexicans, and African Americans who transformed the land. R. Douglas Hurt, the preeminent scholar of the Great Plains, has shown that the ideas of mobility and persistence are not at odds with each other; they are mutually compatible, normal processes of life. He calls Plains residents the “next year people in a next year country,” and appropriate phrase that sums up their attachment to the land and to the idea that the future is full of possibilities. Hurt concludes his book The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century by saying,

“The depopulation or changing population of rural areas was not necessarily bad, because it indicated the traditional, historical process of adjustment of plains men and women to their environment, something they had done since they first came to the plains. During the twentieth century, some chose to stay while others chose to leave, but for those who stayed by choice and even for many who could not, the Great Plains became their sense of place, the land where they belonged.”²

I think Hurt’s conclusion is an excellent beginning for exploring mobility in Nebraska.

¹ James C. Olson and Ronald C. Naugle, History of Nebraska, 3rd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 398-399.

² R. Douglas Hurt, The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011), 260.

Prisoners of War in Nebraska

One of the most interesting histories I have uncovered recently in my research is the history of World War II prisoner of war camps on the Great Plains. Hundreds of thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war were housed in the United States starting in 1943. The Great Plains provided an ideal location for the POW camps: the region was remote and far from coastlines, many areas were far from major military outposts, and the region’s agricultural areas were suffering the loss of workers due to the war, which had created a labor shortage that prisoners could fill. R. Douglas Hurt’s The Great Plains During World War II introduced me to the story of these prisoners. In his article for Nebraska History, “Prisoners of War in Cheyenne County, 1943-1946,” Ralph Spencer notes that Nebraska had twenty POW camps during the war. Near the town of Scottsbluff, on land that has now been returned to pasture, stood one of two major POW base camps in western Nebraska (the other was located at Fort Robinson).

Many of the prisoners processed through Camp Scottsbluff were later located in smaller, 300-man branch camps, many located close by in communities such as Bayard and Bridgeport. Under the Geneva Convention, officers who were prisoners could not be forced to work, although they could volunteer. Enlisted men could work so long as the labor did not directly aid the war effort and the work was not demeaning or the conditions were similar to those experienced by civilian laborers. Many of the German and Italian prisoners in Nebraska worked on neighboring farmers, including sugar beet farmers in the North Platte Valley. This was an incredible boon for farmers, who faced a severe labor shortage as young men joined the military and many other agricultural workers left for higher-paying defense industry jobs in the cities. While migrant labor, particularly from Mexican-Americans and the Bracero Program, helped with the shortage, it did not supply all the labor farmers needed. Prisoners of war offered accessible, affordable labor, even if in many cases the quality and efficiency of their work was much poorer than that of experienced agricultural laborers.

In contrast to the racism that Nebraskans often displayed toward Mexican migrant workers, many farmers were much more receptive toward German and Italian prisoners. Farmers often treated their prison workforce to home-cooked meals, engaged them in conversation, and sometimes even maintained friendships via correspondence long after the prisoners returned home. I found this very unusual considering that many of these farmers likely had sons fighting the Germans and Italians in Europe. Although the federal government classified Mexican workers as “white,” many residents of the Great Plains did not view them as white. Most Nebraskans were unwilling to surmount the language and culture barriers with their Mexican employees, but residents were more likely to treat European prisoners of war as equals. Similarity of cultural background and even language (since many residents of the Plains were themselves descendants of immigrants, including large numbers of ethnic Germans), may have accounted for some of this, but still does not dismiss the attitudes of Nebraskans.

These prisoners of war were only in Nebraska for a few short years. In 1946, only three years after the first prisoners arrived, the camps closed in and all prisoners were repatriated. Despite the prisoners’ brief time in the Great Plains, the story of mobility in the region is not complete without the unique story of these men. Despite how little has been written about this facet of Great Plains history, my interest has been piqued to learn more about their story and the experiences of the Nebraskans who lived and worked alongside them.

Demographic Shifts in Nebraska Mobility

I have spent much of the past two weeks looking at the Plains since the turn of the century, and have noted that temporary and permanent mobility is a defining social and economic feature of the region. The most useful source in discovering these broad trends in mobility has been R. Douglas Hurt’s The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century, while many of the other sources I read have provided details on particular themes or eras of mobility in the Great Plains and western Nebraska in particular.

The turn of the century saw a significant influx of Mexican and Mexican American migrant laborers on the Plains, numbers that intensified after 1910 and the unrest of the Mexican Revolution. Single men and later families traveled to the Plains seasonally to take part in agricultural harvests, railroad work crews, the oil industry, and meatpacking plants. Eventually work in the railroad and meatpacking industries often became year-round, and these Mexicans moved to Nebraska and other Plains states permanently, instead of spending their winters in the cities or south in Texas and Mexico where they were recruited. In the Scottsbluff area, many migrant workers came to labor in the sugar beet fields. Those who ended up staying lived in colonias, settlements of Mexican laborers organized by Great Western Sugar Company.

High commodity prices during World War I led to many farmers expanding their production, only to have the market collapse after the end of the war. This set the stage for hard times from the 1920s through the 1930s. Some areas of the Plains were plagued by drought and poor harvests in the 1920s, which intensified with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The exodus from the American farm during the Depression had actually already started in the 1920s. Many Nebraskans found better conditions in the Pacific Northwest, where the economy had not been hit as hard. Others moved from farms and rural towns to cities in search of work. The demographic shift of the 1920s and 1930s was permanent; people who migrated to other areas in search of improved economic conditions did not move back to the countryside.

World War II again brought high commodity prices and flush years for the farmers who stayed on the land. The war also brought many new war defense industries to the Great Plains. Although California was the “hot spot” for defense contracts during the war, many Plains states benefitted. Nebraska boasted a number of munitions and ordnance plants, aircraft assembly plants, and military bases. Again a population shift occurred. Defense industries offered much higher wages than most other jobs, so many people left the countryside for the towns and cities where these industries were located. Some stayed within the Plains for these jobs, while many others moved to the Far West states. Cities experienced booming populations and strained city services and infrastructure, while small rural communities hemorrhaged population. Farmers in particular struggled, unable to obtain enough laborers year round and at harvest to process the high production levels called for by the federal government. Many farmhands left for the military or for higher paying defense jobs. Once again, Mexicans filled the void. The federal government authorized the Bracero Program starting in 1942 to provide much-needed temporary labor assistance to agricultural industries across the nation, and Nebraska’s sugar beet fields benefitted from this help. After the war, many defense industries closed down their plants and factories in the Great Plains. Nebraska lost the majority of its defense spending, resulting in the loss of many jobs. Some people chose to move outside the region after the war, but others stayed in the cities where they had found work during the war.

Migration and mobility in Nebraska and the Great Plains changed after the turn of the century. In the late 1800s, people had come to the region for land and farms. By the 1920s, a large exodus from the farm had begun that would wax and wane over the decades. While agricultural laborers often experienced high mobility due to seasonal employment and limited opportunities for advancement, white Nebraskans increasingly moved in search of non-agricultural employment. Cities and towns grew as people sought higher paying jobs and a more comfortable standard of living. The first half of the twentieth century thus saw more demographic population shifts and mobility in the Great Plains than in previous decades.

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.

Rhetoric’s Importance

Many of the historical texts and articles I’ve read thus far mention the power of rhetoric concerning American Indians. Language utilized by white settlers and government officials created a wedge used to separate the cultures, creating a “them vs. us” mentality. Once whites perceived American Indians as “others” rhetorically they justified social, political, and economic inequalities. Thus my writing and rhetoric examining American Indians in the Scotts Bluff area (post white settlement) must remain cognizant of the limitations and strengths of my sources as well as my own perceptions.

During the reservation era (roughly 1860-1934), white government officials often felt empowered as patriarchs and labeled American Indians as “childish.”[1] This point of view was significant as whites of the nineteenth century viewed children as incompetent and in need of direction, as opposed to many American Indian tribes that respected children as valued members of society.[2] As such, whites created a rhetorical barrier that “othered” American Indians, which allowed for whites to justify a plethora of physical and social injustices. For example, President Ulysses S. Grant’s “Quaker Policy” sought to educate and assimilate natives through the use of religious organizations such as the Society of Friends (the Quakers).[3] Thus, viewing American Indians as lesser, policy makers and reservation agents created a dichotomy of power most often in their favor.

Although whites often held more power, American Indians were not completely helpless. Bands of Sioux avoided living on reservations until the late 1870s- an entire decade later than many other native groups.[4] Furthermore, all American Indian tribes have successfully protected many of their cultural traditions.

And therein lies the problem for many historians. The potential exists for historians to portray American Indians solely as victims, which negates their agency and fails to acknowledge their successes. On the other hand, historians run the risk of portraying American Indians in a simplistic, heroic fashion. The problem is for historians to portray American Indians in their true context, both as victims and heroes.

One of the most important goals of my research will be to honestly portray American Indians’ struggle of adaptation to the changes caused by white settlement in the Scotts Bluff area. My work will look at the ways in which American Indians were successful in preserving their heritage throughout the last one hundred and fifty years in relation to the drastic challenges they faced due to cultural clashes with white settlers and reformers. Noting the significance of rhetoric used in the past, I recognize the importance of the rhetoric I will utilize in my research. Though past wrongs cannot be corrected, historians—myself included—have an obligation to portray history with honesty and must advocate for agency and voice for those previously misinterpreted.



[1] Clyde A. Milner, With Good Intentions: Quaker Work among the Pawnees, Otos, and Omahas in the 1870s, Lincoln, Neb: University Nebraska Press, 1982, 131.

[2] Ibid, 133.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Larson, Robert W. “Part II: Red Clouds: The Reservation Years.” The Magazine of Western History 47, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 14-25. Accessed August 5, 2014.


Update – “Encountering the Unfamiliar:” Crossing Out, Underscoring, and Misspelling

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.