The Plains Across
The Overland Emigrants the Trans-Mississippi West 1840-60
by John Unruh
The title gives you an idea about this book. It is serious. If you’re after a quick read or an exciting story, this is not for you. If you are after a serious treatment of the emigrant experience, then you’ll like it.
John Unruh worked on his doctoral thesis, the Plains Across, for ten years. This is the standard by which all books on the westward migration are measured. The research is exhaustive with footnotes by the hundreds of both primary and secondary sources. For that reason it’s an amazing book. Unfortunately the author died shortly after finishing it in 1979 at age 38.
I had picked up the book looking for clues and sources about the westward migration as it went over the Sierra. There is not much in the book about that besides a description of Truckee Lake (Donner) from Edwin Bryant’s book, What I Saw in California (1846), “The Alps, so celebrated in history and by all travelers and admirers of mountain landscape, cannot, I am satisfied, present scenery more wild, more rugged, more grand, more romantic, and more enchantingly picturesque and beautiful. than that which surrounds this lake, of which the lake itself composes a part.”
Even without much about the Sierra, it’s a fine book for those interested in the emigrants’ experience. It covers all aspects of the migration: public opinion, motivation, perspective, personal experience, relations (emigrants to Indians, army, gov’t), entrepreneurs, etc. Unruh’s approach is topical as opposed to chronological, geographical or experiential which is how other authors have approached the subject.
The book delves deeply into the subject, maybe too deeply for the casual reader, but that reader can always skim the unwanted detail.
In general Unruh makes statements about the traders or government supporting emigrants and then follows with example after example. There are charts covering the cost of sugar and flower at different trading posts over the years for example. That detail is good but not everyone will enjoy it.
A book that has so much detail will then give the reader a lot of new information in facts, stories, lessons, and reflection.
Not only did a few hundred thousand emigrants head for California and Oregon, about whom we’ve all heard, but there were many who went back because the trip was too hard. There was communication between the trains. Letters went back and forth and messages were left scratched in animal skulls, what the author calls the “roadside telegraph.” There was an amazing number of ferries which emigrants paid to use. As time went on there were many many trading stations along the emigrants’ route. Emigrants paid people returning and passing traders to mail their letters back home.
Entrepreneurs were a big part of the emigrant experience both from among the emigrants themselves and in the communities the travelers came across. They were critical to success.
Emigrants decorated their wagons with paintings, slogans, names and origins. The emigrants not only brought wagon with them, but herds of cattle and sheep as well as fruit trees and seeds.
Some years the emigrant experience was not one wagon train crossing the prairies as we see in pictures. Sometimes the wagons traveled in huge crowds four or more abreast and the dust, pollution, and debris was amazing. Some emigrants wore goggles to be protected from the dust the many trains raised.
Truckee Station was an emigrant relief station dispensing 500-880 lbs of beef a day to starving emigrants in 1850.
Then there are the stories.
There was the fellow who thought emigrants would want chewing tobacco so he stocked his wagon with the tobacco and sold it to emigrants as he traveled west, making a lot of money.
There was a young girl who “inherited” a baby because the mother died. Each night the girl sought out a woman to nurse the baby. She was never refused.
There were stories of kindness. For example, after crossing the desert emigrants would fill barrels with water and head back to help others. When the others reached the desert they would do the same.
And we learn about the relationships of people which are good lessons for today, “When we left the frontier we were told great stories about the selfishness & want of feeling among the Emigrants…. I wish to bear my testimony against this slander. Never have I seen so much hospitality & good feeling anywhere exhibited as since I have been on this route…1849.”
There are plenty of horrors such as traveling the Hastings cutoff. One man was found surviving by drinking his own urine. “By mid-July fifteen to twenty overland were reported to have died of starvation. According to incoming emigrants it was commonplace to find flesh sliced off the thousand of mules, oxen, and horses who had not survived the diminishing grass and water supplies. Decomposing animals and abandoned wagons littered the trail mile after odorous mile – according to one traveler’s account seventy dead animals were visible at one time and ninety-two wagons were abandoned within one two mile stretch. A small emigrant party was known to have lived for six days solely on a few pounds of coffee.
Unruh’s final thoughts put the topic into perspective as he talks about how the emigrant experience is difficult to categorize. The weather varied year to year, the emigrant population changed over time, the relations with Indians changed, routes changed and improved, new routes opened, more trading stations opened, there were more traders, there were more forts over time, ferries and bridges increased, emigrants’ preparation changed.
If you are up to it, it’s a fascinating read. You will learn a lot.