tv Oregon Trail CSPAN December 6, 2015 7:42pm-8:01pm EST
susan: what led to your work on the oregon trail? prof. keyes: i am a child of the 1980's, and i grew up playing the game. how you are trying to survive this trek across the continent. it has always been a part of my touchstone. after college when i began to consider graduate school, i realize that this was a story that had not been retold by academics in decades. it was something that i wanted to pursue. susan: most everyone has heard of the oregon trail, can you just give us a brief overview of where it started, where it ended, and what years people traveled it. prof. keyes: great question. many of the people who traveled to oregon and california, were moving from towns on the edge of the western settled united stays in places like missouri. they're coming from places that are more interior, farming communities in illinois and iowa.
they are leaving from missouri and going all across the continent. one of the really key factors of what makes this migration so unique is that in the first place it is so long. 2000 miles across indian country. the second is that it lasts for so long. it is a migration going on in the 1840's, 1850's, and throughout three decades, you have people making this migration. the narrative changes as there are changes going on in the u.s. susan: what motivated these people to make this journey? prof. keyes: there are a lot of different motivations. one of the things about this journey is we often think of it as east to west. that is certainly true.
there are farming families going. there is legislation passed to make land cheaply available. that is a huge draw. you also have livestock. they realize that if they could get cows to the pacific coast, they're going to make a lot of money. you also have people traveling the trail at least once a year for may be a decade or so of their lives. a third major push factor is gold in california. when gold is discovered in california -- that really changes the makeup of the migration, because you have more young men were coming from farther east and from urban centers like new york. susan: how do you conduct your research on the subject and what kinds of people did you find whose stories discussed the travel? prof. keyes: most of my research is that i'm reading people's letters, diaries, and journals. people's personal writings. one is a really fascinating
things about this archive is that many of the people who wrote a council of this journey, this is the only thing they ever wrote or the only thing that ever got saved in the archives. this is the one glimpse that we have into their lives. it gives you a sense of how important they thought it was. there is one family who has papers at the huntington library in california. they are in buffalo, new york, and the father and the son decide to go to california in 1849. sarah, the mother, is absolutely distraught. she is distraught because she is terrified that they are going to perish or they will contract cholera on this dangerous journey. the sad thing for them is that she is right. her son, george, dies on a steamboat while he is going with his father up the missouri river.
in fact, samuel, the father, takes the body home. a few years later in 1851, he takes the journey again by himself. then, he dies in california. sarah was unable to prevent the loss. susan: you mentioned a law that encouraged people to take this route, can you elaborate on that? prof. keyes: the oregon donation lands act, which granted land homesteaders, the idea is that building on this american idea that if we can build families we are creating independent, free, virtuous citizens. one of the interesting provisions of this law is that it also allowed women to hold -- increases the amount that a married couple can get. susan: you mentioned a fear of disease and death. how dangerous was the journey for most of the people who took it? prof. keyes: honestly, it probably was not that much
dangerous than if they had stayed at home. in the mid-19th century, you have growing urbanization, but not a lot of understanding of sanitation practices and things like that. there is a weird paradox with united states becoming stronger and more powerful, they are expanding demographically and territorially, but they're also losing citizens at an alarming rate. infant mortality rate is a major cause of concern. there is a major conversation that is happening around death. going to the west is the idea that this is a healthy place, it is clean, and the climate in oregon is supposed to be amazing. there is an old story that is meant to oregon and california you will never be able to die because it is so wonderful. people in some ways think that this could be a journey for something better in terms of health. what happens is that in 1849 in the early 1850's, there is a major cholera epidemic along the trails. this is the time the nichols family tried to go. that inverts the story of potentially the west as being healthy.
instead is associated with an epidemic which has predominately been in urban centers such as new york. people start to exaggerate the fears of dying on the trail around the disease and when they do that they are also building on and transforming earlier misconceptions about indians as being sort of murderers. this is something that people are aware of because they have heard family stories and then there are also consuming it in the press. susan: how serious was the threat from native americans? prof. keyes: not very serious. in general, most of the interactions are fleeting. they are about trade. they are about getting assistance crossing rivers. indians offer ferries for pay. they are about those types of interactions.
there is a constant discourse of potential indian attacks. there's is also a constant discourse of rumors that indians have attacked. i mention the people who traveled the trail, one of the things that people will do if they will offer -- we have heard of someone farther west was attacked. they are hearing these things as they are traveling. they have cultural misconceptions and then evidence everywhere on the trail. when cholera comes, it fits into these existing fears because then the rumors shipped more to -- shift more to rumors about cholera. that people up ahead have it. the missouri towns are competing with each other for which one they want everyone to go through. they will say, there is cholera and that other town, see need to come to ours. susan: going back to the family, what more can you tell us about
their journey that would give us a sense of what life was like along the trail? prof. keyes: the most highly documented aspect of the journey is the journey before they start the actual trail on the edge of missouri. i think it is really indicative of what that experience is like for people. the trail is defined as missouri west. people are traveling for weeks and sometimes months before they ever reach that point. this is actually a journey that extends much longer and takes people six months across the continent, it may take them eight months to complete the entire journey. considering what they travel through. the nichols family is interesting because they use this journey as an opportunity to visit relatives who they have not seen for years. one of the things that is happening in the u.s. is that people are moving around a lot. families are dispersing because of economic reasons and all of these other factors. increasing mobility of the population.
samuel and george actually use their initial journey as an opportunity to visit relatives in places like pennsylvania as are heading down from buffalo. in terms of the day to day experience on the trail, it is slow going, it is hard work, and there is a lot of unknown elements and challenges. you have people who need to cross rivers with heavily loaded wagons, oxen, and livestock. in 1849, when the family left, the trail was very crowded. what this meant was that it was really dusty. it was also very limited in terms of resources. if you reached a river crossing and there were a whole train of wagons and 15 man, you could be waiting for days in order to get the proper equipment. susan: do you find that many people have stereotypes about the oregon trail? in your research, have you found evidence that there are stereotypes that are not true at all? prof. keyes: i think that there
are stereotypes. there has been some work that has moved beyond those. thinking about indians and immigrants as having a range of types of interaction. one of the stereotypes that i'm working on most in my work is the idea that this is sort of an isolated western adventure that does not necessarily connect working on most in my work is the idea that this is sort of an isolated western adventure that does not necessarily connect back to people's lives at home. they go out west and they have this really hard journey and that is their frame of reference for talking about it. the interesting thing about the migration is that it really feeds back into the 19th century. it puts a new twist on it. the fear of cholera is already a part of the u.s. culture, but it plays out completely different on the trail. susan: your research has focused a lot on death along this trail. when people did die, what happened?
how did they deal with it? prof. keyes: that, for immigrants, is an even bigger challenge than dying. in the 19th century, the idea that you accept death, that this is something that is part of life, it is an opportunity to reflect on your religious teachings, as well as to share your religious thoughts with assembled family and friends. once there is a body, that poses a huge problem, because euro-americans are used to dying at home, and they are used to burying bodies in cemeteries where family and friends can routinely visit to maintain the memory of their loved one. what happens is that on the trail, they do not have coffins. they do not have stone and wood for permanent headstones. they are forced to improvise. that becomes a major part of the
loss of his experience, not only the loss of the person's life, but the loss of the ability to properly commemorate and mark their body. susan: so they always buried the bodies along the trail? prof. keyes: yes. sometimes they would try to identify a particular landmark feature that was close by that might help them to later visit the grave. if they found a tree, or if there was a slight rise. in other cases it is simply about expediency, so they pulled up to the side of the road and the body is right there. susan: what was the impact on these people, in terms of their religion? did they have services? funerals? prof. keyes: that is a great question. they definitely did try to conduct those types of services as much as possible. they certainly -- they had bibles with them and other books. even if they were not trained
preachers or ministers, they could use that as something to sort of create more of a proper ceremony. susan: you mentioned disease as being one of the major causes of death, how -- what other causes of death were there along the trail? prof. keyes: disease was definitely the primary cause as you pointed out. accidents. this could take a range of forms. drowning in the river. a lot of people were not very good at swimming. run over by a wagon or actually accidental shooting, which increased significantly during the years of the gold rush because there were more firearms on the trail. there was a government subsidy that they were selling arms at cost immigrants as they were heading out west, and some of the men were not trained to lack -- were not trained. so, that could be a problem. susan: sometimes there were accidental deaths? prof. keyes: i mention this with the fear of indians. there is a pattern of instances in which one man may leave the
camp to go find a law or say hi to a friend and he might return after dark and his companions are worried that he may be approaching as an indian and he would get shot. that happens. susan: did these groups almost always travel in these large wagon trains? prof. keyes: it depends. one of the things that cholera does is that it inspires people to break off of the main road. most people traveled in companies in varying sizes. this could change shape as they traveled. five to six month journey, people could get in fights or disagreements, and they could break up and reconfigure. it is somewhat fluid. susan: your research is focused on 1840-1860, why do you -- why have you honed in on that and why is it important?
prof. keyes: that is when most historians focus on it. i think that this narrative has to be understood. you have a lot of them was, commemorations, coming out in the early 19th and early 20th centuries. the overland trail straddles the civil war and reconstruction period. it starts at the beginning, goes through the civil war, and commemorating the civil war. it is a totally different story. the war was about north and south, and reconciliation was about repairing the rift in the nation. the trail was about expanding the nation west. it is interesting how those narratives reflect each other. i have one goldrush immigrant saying they were talking about the civil war, but we cannot forget everyone who lost their lives on the trail to build the
pacific coast. susan: can you talk about where you are finding these stories about families and individuals that are taking the trail? prof. keyes: there are some major repositories in the u.s. that have a lot of these documents. they are at major academic institutional libraries, such as the huntington library, the library at berkeley, the meineke library at yale. it goes on and on. one of the great things is that people who are into this topic, and who spend a lot of time collecting sources and also documenting them. the oregon-california trail association have also done an incredible amount of work in terms of collecting sources that
have not been treated and also -- have not been collected, and also producing summary notes on these sources. i have benefited a lot from that, as well. depending on where the people are, it is likely that some of -- someone in your community has these in their attic. susan: you'll publish this research? prof. keyes: i do. i'm working on the book. susan: do you have any idea what might be finished? prof. keyes: probably in a few years. susan: thank you for joining us. >> follow us for information and to keep up. the latest.