The Great Platte River Road

History is hard

It takes a lot of work to make history right

I prefer history and memoirs to fiction because truth is almost always stranger than fiction. In this case Merrill J. Mattes searched for as many first hand pioneer accounts of the western migrations along the Platte River from Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie. His bibliography lists more than 600 such sources. From this mass of material he has distilled a highly detailed picture of this migration both geographically and temporally from the beginning of the mass migrations to the day when the railroads supplanted the wagon.

One vantage point to see them all

The great Platte river road was the common element for all the westward migrations

The settlers headed for Oregon, the gold seekers going to California and the Mormon exodus all followed the course of the Platte river in the stretch from Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie. The pioneers had a variety of motives for making the journey. Gold seekers headed for California were mostly single men seeking quick wealth, those headed for Oregon were farming families seeking a land where the crops never failed and the Mormons were seeking independence. But regardless of where their journey began and where their destination lay, they all followed the same path for almost five hundred miles along the banks of the Platte River in what is now Nebraska.

A mountain of data

Can support many interesting discoveries

I have never read anything about the wagon trains that gave such a clear picture of what it was like. The span of time and space covered coupled with the intimacy of the diaries and letters give a sharp and detailed picture of a unique era in American history.

Back to the present

Who we were illuminates who we are.

The thing that strikes me most about these stories is how desperately uncertain these undertakings were. Fording each stream could be a gamble with their lives and all their possessions as the stakes. Animals could die and leave one stranded. Wagons broke down, animals stampeded or were stolen, extreme weather could strike. And yet still they came by the hundreds of thousands. Joining a wagon train was not cheap and for the most part these were people who had something where they were and left it to seek something better. I wonder what proportion of today's America would do something equivalent?

As Dry as the dusty trail itself

And yet I read it straight through.

This is history as it should be written: pick a topic that matters, find enough data to mean something and mine it for the meanings it contains. It may be lacking in drama but it has enough new information to make up for that.

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