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.

William Henry Jackson: Unlikely Overland Trail Spokesman

Much of my research over the past few days has concentrated on William H. Jackson. It is mind boggling to me what a prolific photographer and artist Jackson was and how much he accomplished in his long, ninety-nine year life. However, what struck me in particular is how tenuous his ties really are to the Oregon Trail and Scotts Bluff in particular. Although Jackson traveled the route in 1866 as a bullwhacker and again on a return trip in 1867, he only passed through Scotts Bluff on the 1866 trip. As a photographer with F. V. Hayden’s geological surveys from 1870-1878, Jackson spent many summers in Wyoming, including two that involved traveling along sections of the overland trail in that state. However, none of the surveys of which he was a part involved Nebraska, and Jackson never photographed Scotts Bluff during his years as a landscape photographer. Jackson himself viewed his years with the survey as among his best, and Yellowstone, Mount of the Holy Cross, and Mesa Verde held the closest places in his heart.

I have found myself speculating whether Jackson would have ever returned to subjects of the overland trail had he not met Howard Driggs in New York in the late 1920s, a friendship that resulted in Driggs publishing Jackson’s autobiography and appointing Jackson as research secretary of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association (OTMA) in 1928. In his later years, Jackson did mostly commissioned watercolors and oil paintings, many of them for people like Driggs, who used Jackson’s paintings and sketches to illustrate books about a romanticized West. Jackson seems to have enjoyed this work and the opportunity to revisit his early sketches and journals from the 1860s to help him get the setting and details right for these paintings. People knew him primarily for his survey photographs, however, and only as time wore on would his work for Driggs and OTMA attain prominence, now standing as equal to or even rivaling his survey work in fame.

Even Jackson’s association with Scotts Bluff National Monument would likely not have been formed was it not for Driggs and the many events that Jackson attended as a member of OTMA. Jackson was an old timer who survived longer than many other overland travelers, so having him present as a speaker or guest of honor at events and dedications at Oregon Trail sites like Scotts Bluff was a feather in the cap of these locations. The otherwise inconsequential fact that Jackson had camped near Mitchell Pass in 1866 and could personally point the location out seventy years later likely added to a sense that he was tied to Scotts Bluff in an inextricable way. I am still researching all the details of how such a large portion of Jackson’s sketches, paintings, and photographs as well as personal effects wound up at the museum at Scotts Bluff National Monument. It seems unusual, considering his closer attachment to other western sites and his residence in places like Omaha, Denver, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Certainly Jackson played a role in the history of Scotts Bluff and in ensuring its place among the still-revered landmarks of the overland trail. However, the more I read the more I see Jackson as being less of a leader in overland trail memorialization and more a convenient tool to accomplish the aims of others. Unlike Ezra Meeker, Howard Driggs, Merrill Mattes, or Paul Henderson, Jackson was not necessarily an advocate for the overland trail history and sites. He certainly appreciated the history he had lived through, and made money memorializing it in visual form. But had he made friends with someone other than Driggs, perhaps someone who wanted to preserve the cliff dwellings of the Four Corners area, for example, Jackson likely would have just as easily spent his last two decades painting other western scenes with which he was at least, if not more, familiar. In this way, Jackson is almost an accidental hero of the memorialization movement. An important hero, certainly, but also one who was propelled to that position by men wishing to take advantage of his talents and his cachet as an old timer who had lived during the trail days. Jackson himself, even humble and self-effacing as he was, recognized this and expressed some frustration and helplessness that his life and story had been co-opted by others so that they could tell history their way.

I’m realizing now that telling the Jackson story in light of memorialization of the overland trails and Scotts Bluff in particular is going to involve more nuance and fresh interpretation than expected. Jackson’s story, along with all of the other unusual stories and characters I have discovered, is going to make for fascinating chapter material.

Further Reading:

Hales, Peter B. William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Waitley, Douglas. William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier. Missoula, MT: Mountain
Press Publishing Company, 1999.

Gundy, Lloyd W., ed. William Henry Jackson: An Intimate Portrait: The Elwood P. Bonney Journal. Edited and annotated by Lloyd W. Gundy. Denver, CO: Colorado Historical Society, 2000.

Driggs, Howard R. Westward America. With reproductions of forty water color paintings by William H. Jackson. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1942.

Jackson, Clarence S. Picture Maker of the Old West: William H. Jackson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947.

Jackson, William Henry. The Pioneer Photographer; Rocky Mountain Adventures with a Camera. By William H. Jackson in collaboration with Howard R. Driggs; illustrated from sketches and photographs made by the author. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company, 1929.

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.