Independence Rock, WY, 2015. Photographer: Megan Huelman



Who the pioneers are, how they got there, by which route and when they traveled are questions many Western historians of the 1970s sought to answer by researching trail diaries and journals. Several of their works are still hailed today as seminal on the topic and epic in their vast content. In 1969, the Nebraska State Historical Society published a book that has long been held as an encyclopedic work for all others studying the Overland trails. This book, The Great Platte River Road, written by Merrill Mattes, focuses mostly on the Nebraska portion of the trails from the jumping-off towns to Fort Laramie in eastern Wyoming. His in-depth look at the towns along the Missouri, the provisions pioneers bought there, the perils of the trail, and the most minute details about certain landmarks of the trail clearly show Mattes’ exhaustive primary source resources. Leaning heavily on trail narratives, the five-hundred page volume is certainly still a valid and useful source even forty years later.

A decade after Mattes, John Unruh wrote an equally large volume as part of his doctoral work. Along with discussing the roles played by the government, Indians and Mormons on the trail, Unruh also uses his book, The Plains Across, as an “overall synthesis on overland emigration for the entire 1840-60 period.”(Unruh, xi) Long chapters about the interaction of pioneers with the other players show Unruh’s dedication to correcting myths that were set into popular belief earlier in the twentieth century by the popularity of Western movies and television shows. Unruh neither downplays the confrontations nor paints the American Indians as either good or bad; his statistics and facts are unbiased. Perhaps Unruh’s most significant contribution is chapter eleven, “The Overlanders in Historical Perspective,” a historiography of the trails and the pioneers who traveled them. Although serving a general conclusion of the book, the chapter also looks at the way the west and the trails have been obscured by myth in the twentieth century. Unruh claims “[the] epic westering experience has become so enveloped in myth and stereotype, the reality of how it was accomplished remains historically elusive.” (Unruh, 416) Unruh’s book is conclusively a valuable revision of an important part of American history.

Beginning in the 1960s, many historians pursued the new field of social history. Topics that involved a minority, underprivileged, or repressed social groups were popular among these revisionist historians. The Oregon Trail became popular among these same historians in order to rewrite the stories of women and the American Indian-pioneer relations. These two histories had previously been either glossed over (women) or stereotyped wrongly (Indians). Unruh did not mention women but he attempted to set straight the pioneer relations with the American Indians. Other historians looked to shed light on related topics. John Mack Faragher wrote his book, Women and Men on the Overland Trail, about the gender relations between women and men on the trail. He looked at the societal roles the separate genders participated in as well as the delegation of work chores along the trail and how this reflected the separation of the sexes.

For any study regarding women and the Overland Trails, it would be a critical mistake to not read Lillian Schlissel’s, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey. Her book, written in 1982 is considered a seminal look at pioneer women in general, but traveling women especially. Her mixture of narrative, pictures and complete diary transcriptions meld to create an educational source full of primary and secondary material. Schlissel’s volume separates the trail into three distinct periods: 1841-1850, 1851-1855, and1856-1867, these represent the early, peak and late periods over overland travel. Her study depicts the many ways women’s travel experiences differed from the men’s. Often the diaries were written in different manners, the motivation and purpose for heading west were unalike and as Faragher discussed in his book, the daily duties for men and women were different. Women did the baking, washing, cooking and the caring for the children and men hunted, scouted, kept guard, and took care of the wagon and animals as well as driving the wagon and team throughout the day. (Schlissel, 63) Schlissel’s discussion of women’s clothing is particularly noteworthy as previous volumes barely mentioned this important provision.

Literature on the Oregon Trail is admittedly a large genre full of children’s stories, romance novels and western fiction. Academically; Mattes, Unruh, Faragher, and Schlissel have made some of the greatest contributions to primary source documentation and research of the traveling pioneers. Other authors like Sandra Myers, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, and Robert L. Munkres have made contributions to scholarship of women on the Overland Trails through book chapters and articles in journals. Myers’ book chapter, “Westward Ho! Women on the Overland Trails” looks at the romantic and misinterpreted stereotypes of the woman traveler written with decidedly feminist undertones. Likewise, Bledsoe states that women on the trail had unjustly been considered the weaker sex unwilling to travel west by earlier male historians. She posits a different thesis, one about the courage of females on the hunt for adventure:, as she aims to “balance the historical account by highlighting women's experiences of personal growth, enthusiasm, happiness, and purpose on the Oregon Trail.” (Bledsoe, 22) In contrast, although Munkres titled his article "Wives, Mothers, Daughters: Women's Life on the Road West,” he focused not on adventure but chores gendered towards women: cooking, caring for ill, and other domestics arts. He used women’s views of the duties as an angle to look at the Oregon Trail’s day-to-day life instead of women and gender roles being the focus. All of these authors of the 1970s and 1980s have made contributions to Overland Trail literature and continue to color the way twenty-first century historians view the westward migration.

Image: Register Rock in Eastern Wyoming, Author's collection.
Image: Guernsey Ruts, Wyoming, Author's collection.