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.


Ruth and Hannah – thanks for your work on the website.  I’m very pleased to see that we’re using it to share our ideas.  If anyone has any suggestions for continued improvement please let us know, or just go ahead and make the changes.

I’m wondering what everyone thinks about having a separate page for photographs.  On the one hand, it makes sense to have all our pictures together in one place.  On the other hand it might create an artificial distinction between visual documents and textual documents.  In my two experiences of traveling out to Scots Bluff, I found that a lot of my research questions and ideas were stimulated by what I was seeing.  Why was it Scotts Bluff, for example, which became famous, rather than other fairly similar features nearby?  Perhaps the best approach would be to post pictures to the photographs page in general.  But it would also be good to see photographs posted to the main home page when they are integrated with what we’re thinking about in the blog posts.  What do other people think?

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.

New Western History?

Nic mentioned reading Patricia Limerick et. al., Trails: Toward a New Western History (1993), and this is a major theme in Joel’s essay.  One of the big questions that our history of Scotts Bluff National Monument would seem to raise is the utility of a New Western History approach in 2014, more than two decades later.  On the one hand the focus of New Western History on Native Americans, women, minorities, and the environment fits very nicely with our approach to the history of Scotts Bluff National Monument.  On the other hand, I think there is a feeling in the field that this approach has largely run its course, without anything necessarily emerging to take its place.  We have talked a little bit about using the concept of borderlands to help frame our research, and I think there is definitely some merit to this.  I would also like us to think about what the theory and practice of digital history might do to for western history.  Most importantly, as we research and write the history of Scotts Bluff National Monument, it would be interesting if we can also think about how this history might contribute to the field of western history more generally.  I’m not sure if “pioneers” is quite the right term in this context (!), but it would be good to keep asking ourselves what we’re doing that is a little different, and how our work might serve as a model for other projects of this sort.  Please post or comment if you have any ideas.

Update: Encountering the Unfamiliar

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.