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.  http://www.jstor.org/stable4519965.


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.

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.