Lecture 11: Crossing the Plains


This lecture deals with the western movement of Euro-Americans during the generation prior to the Civil War. The emphasis is on the great trails by which travelers and emigrants crossed the Great Plains.


Outline of Lecture


Our subject in this lecture, the overland migration, is mythic, its scale epic. Crossing the plains parcel to westward migration, Anglo-Americans had a notable encounter with landscapes and peoples that were foreign to them. The two main routes across the plains were the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon (California, Mormon) Trail.

The Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail, pioneered in 1821 by William Becknell, followed the Arkansas River across the central plains in order to connect the border towns of the Missouri River with the Mexican towns of New Mexico. Its purpose was commerce—hence the title of Josiah Gregg’s classic travel narrative, The Commerce of the Prairies. Documents of the Santa Fe Trade, nevertheless, reveal much more about experiences on and attitudes toward the plains than just business considerations.

The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail is also known as the California Trail and also as the Mormon Trail. It began its history in the 1840s as the Platte River route across the plains for farm-family emigrants to Oregon. After 1849 it also was the principal overland route of argonauts heading for the California goldfields. Following the same general path, but trekking up the other bank of the Platte, came Mormon pilgrims bound for the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Singing “Sweet Betsy”

“Sweet Betsy from Pike,” a folksong of the California gold rush and the overland trail across the plains, is a primary document of a peculiar sort. As a folksong, it shows attitudes among ordinary people. It also exposes the dynamics of gender relations in America during the 1840s.

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41. How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes


In lecture on the overland trails, I'll be discussing gender relations on the trail, and even considering "Sweet Betsy from Pike" as an example of such. That's why you're reading Tocqueville on women in a democracy at this point.


·         What are the assumptions underlying gender relations in America, according to Tocqueville?

·         Clearly discernable in Tocqueville's remarks are the lines of what later historians would call "separate spheres." What are the "spheres" of authority, responsibility, and competence of men and women as here outlined?

·         Are the gender relations described by Tocqueville characterized by equality?


In regard to the California Gold Rush, we're going to study the traditional ballad, "Sweet Betsy from Pike."

To believers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the story of Joseph Smith is credible and important, but non-believers ridicule it. The story is one, however, of terrific narrative power. It is presented plainly at the website of the LDS.

Film Review

 How the West Was Won

An outrageously hokey film about the overland trails, but in its time, it was regarded as epic, and you can trace themes of the American mythic West through it.  Make a trip to the fridge when Debbie Reynolds starts to sing.

Book Review

 Trafzer & Hyer, Exterminate Them


Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty


Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail