1999-03-28: Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey

Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (1982)

by Lillian Schlissel (?)

Schlissel has collected and analyzed about a hundred diaries, reminiscences, and letters by women who emigrated overland to Oregon and California from 1841 to 1867. Her intent was to find the women’s view of the journey, and particularly how it compared to men’s views. My intent in reading the book was to discover the motivations (beliefs and desires) that could make people undertake the enormous effort needed to depart civilization, accept the hazards of the overland journey, establish themselves in the frontier, and transplant their part of civilization.

My questions were answered quickly. Schlissel found that the motivation of the women in undertaking the journey was their husbands’ and fathers’ decisions. Of course this was not the answer I was looking for, even though it is interesting in itself.

Shlissel treats the journeys in three periods, divided at 1850 and 1855. The earliest travelers were appallingly ill-informed, even misinformed, about the nature of the journey, the route and landmarks, and the length of time that would be required. Many thought it would take about three months, whereas they often left in April and reached Oregon in October.

The women relate encounters with Indians along the way, nearly all in the form of barter benefiting both sides. The Indians often provided guidance, and sometimes food and assistance in crossing rivers. The last stage in Oregon often required abandoning the wagons and taking canoes down the Columbia River.

Only in the 1860s did Indian attacks become common enough to constitute a general danger to the emigrants. By far the worst enemy was illness, including the cholera epidemic that began in the late 1840s.

The special interests of the women diarists appear to be those connected with establishing and maintaining their families and relations with other women. In those cases where one of them was isolated, the resulting despair or depression is very evident. Most of the women recorded the number of new and old graves they passed. Shlissel identifies this as a difference between the men’s records.

Shlissel has attached four samples, very interesting for their content, and also for the range of education evident in their authors. She also summarized the diaries in a table at the end, noting such things as their ages and marital status, number and ages of children, the occurrence of births among the diarists or other women,  accidents and deaths among children, death of husband, and reports of Indian threats or attacks.

It is clear that I must seek other sources to get answers to my main questions. Nonetheless, Schlissel has provided some interesting insights to an aspect I might not have sought out for its own sake.

Here is a table of the number of persons who participated in the Westward Migration.

Westward Migration

Year

Estimate

Year

Estimate

Year

Estimate

1841

100

1851

10,000

1861

5,000

1842

200

1852

50,000

1862

5,000

1843

1,000

1853

20,000

1863

10,000

1844

2,000

1854

10,000

1864

20,000

1845

5,000

1855

5,000

1865

25,000

1846

1,000

1856

5,000

1866

25,000

1847

2,000

1857

5,000

1848

4,000

1858

10,000

1849

30,000

1859

30,000

1850

55,000

1860

15,000

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