Saturday, July 3, 2010

An Excursion to California Over the Prarie, Rocky Mountains, and Great Sierra Nevada / William Kelly -- London: Chapman and Hall, 1851

This blog entry will not only review the book in the title, but will also review Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865 the diary of Sarah Raymond Herndon, published by the Morris Book Publishing Company, 2003. Both are accounts of travels across the Great Plains during America's westward expansion.

William Kelly describes his 1849 trip from Bristol, England to the United States and his overland travel to Missouri. Along the way, he joined with 23 other men looking to emigrate to California. At first the account seems rather fanciful, crafted mostly to entertain, but as the narrative proceeds, the mundane details of life crossing rough country demonstrate a degree of authenticity to Kelly's reporting. Much of his work describes the work needed to cross rivers, marshes, and rough country, the constant search for forage for the wagon train's mules and horses, the maddening irritation of biting insects, hunting expeditions, and sometimes dangerous encounters with Indians. The most harrowing segment of his trip occurred crossing the Nevada desert. Here, one gets a clear sense that the journey could easily end in the death of every emigrant.

In contrast, Sarah Raymond Herndon's account of traversing virtually the same ground (up to the Rocky Mountains) 16 years later, describes pic-nics and parties, visits to settlements along the route, and frequent encounters with other wagon trains. She reports hundreds of wagons gathered together in a "town of tents and wagons" at the crossing of the South Platte, with "thousands of cattle, hundreds of horses, and more than a thousand human beings" crossing the river in a single day. Like Kelly, Herndon describes encounters with bad weather, but for the 1865 emigrants, they were nuisances. For Kelly's 1849 expedition, they were life threatening.

While the elements posed a greater risk for Kelly, resistance from Indians were a greater threat to Herndon. Kelly describes encounters with the Pawnee, the Sioux, the Crow, the Utah, and the Digger Indians. His assessment of each group was a reflection of their wealth and hostility. Kelly found the Sioux, contrary to reports, quite dignified and amiable. The Crow were clearly the most hostile. Kelly scorned the impoverished Diggers, who eked out a meager existence in the deserts of Nevada.

In contrast, Herndon had few direct encounters with Indians. Certainly, the size of the wagon trains crossing the continent by 1865 and the hostilities between emigrants and natives made encounters less likely, but the fear of Indian attacks was great among many in Herndon's party and Herndon recounts reports of massacres.

Both narrators describe the encounters with Mormons and are repelled by their polygamy, but Kelly acknowledges their hospitality and industry, coming away with no small respect for them. Herndon's interactions are more superficial and likely less forgiving of their gender relations from the start.

After crossing the Rocky Mountains, their journeys take different paths. Kelly proceeds through Utah and Nevada to cross the Sierra Nevadas, while Herndon travels north through Idaho to Montana. Both parties were drawn by the allure of recently discovered gold.

Reading the two accounts back to back provides a clear picture of how conditions changed for emigrants during the intervening years. It is hard to imagine how wagons could have been pulled across the continent in the spring and summer of 1849 and amazing how civilized the trail had become in 16 short years. It is also striking how unaware most of the Native Americans were in 1849 of the pending consequence of white emigration through their lands, but by 1865, the disaster must have been clear to them. What does not change is the racist views of the white emigrants and their inability to see beyond the values of their own culture.

After reading these two accounts, I was moved to pick up Francis Parkman's classic work The Oregon Trail, an account of a historian making a journey across the plains to the Rocky Mountains, then south to New Mexico and back to Missouri. As Parkman was not an emigrant himself, his perspective on the emigrants and the people of the West is more objective and rather disparaging. From the several score pages that I have read in The Oregon Trail, Parkman's literary style is far more refined than either of the authors reviewed here. It promises to be very engaging.

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