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.

Story Making is Survival: A Theme to Explore

An idea from Mark Lindquist and Martin Zanger’s work, Buried Roots and Indestructible Seeds: the Survival of American Indian Life in Story, History, and Spirit, stood out to me this week: “…the very act of making a story, in its creation of meaning, is an act of survival. Thus both the interpretations of experience and the creative stories of this volume not only trace the endurance of tribal people, but also contribute to their continuance” (5).

This quote refers to the idea that stories in Native American tribes have greater significance beyond their entertainment and moral lessons. Lindquist and Zanger suggest that through the act of creating and sharing stories Native Americans are able to preserve their culture, ensuring survival. These tales share indigenous history as well as cultural, social, and moral beliefs historically and in modern terms. The stories that adapt and include modern events, sayings, and objects reflects the evolution of Native peoples. This adaptation is important as it shows Native cultures are not stagnate; they hold on to important cultural foundations in order to progress into the future.

I am intrigued by the idea of letting this quote guide my research, at least to an extent. After I research much of the secondary resources on Native Americans around Scott’s Bluff post white settlement, I am interested to see how these people survived or adapted culturally. Are there local stories that reflect the changes Indians faced with the permanent settlement of whites to the region? Perhaps, are there hybrids of Native tales and white stories? How Native tales changed over the past 150 years as whites and Natives continue to interact? Or have the tales vanished as most Indians were displaced to the various reservations in Nebraska?

Update: “The worst-best-most-least-prettiest-ugliest… that I have ever ever seen.”

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.

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: “Rivers and Irrigation”

I continue to be amazed at how much work Merrill Mattes put into studying the history of the trails and of Scotts Bluff specifically.  He seemed to have an inexhaustible curiosity about the emigrants and devoted much of his life to bringing their perspectives to light.  His familiarity with the diaries and documents remains unparalleled.  His personal records are kept at the University of Wyoming archives but the scope of this project does not offer much reason to make the trip.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading emigrants’ diaries and guidebooks.  Their coverage of the journey, the surprising level of devotion they had to their task of transcribing their experiences, and the benefit that we accrue from being able to access these documents are remarkable.  Unfortunately, I am so enthralled by their memoirs that I find myself reading too far into material that has no relevance to my search whatsoever.  This is probably as much an indication of their value as it is my interest in the project.  It has been interesting trying to re-train myself to skim where appropriate and focus on the material germane to my investigation – it has been a challenge but a fun one.

Update: “Encountering the Unfamiliar”

Image“Independence Rock”, Dep. of the Interior, General Land Office U.S. Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories (December 31 1869)


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.

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! “Encountering the Unfamiliar”

ImageAlbert Park, “Hundreds of Prairie Schooner Wheels” (1923 August 20)
Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library.


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).

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.