U.S. Frontier Letters and Diaries

From the time of the first colonial settlers in the mid-15th century, through even almost until the 20th century, what is now known as the United States always had a "frontier," the very limit of what had been explored or settled by European immigrants. In almost Biblical terms, what lay beyond the frontier was regarded as wilderness. For those living on the eastern seaboard, and in the wider world, the frontier held an ongoing fascination and some terror, as a place of excitement, endless possibilities, but also danger. The conquest westward had a profound effect on shaping the American national identity.

People who traveled to the west together with all their belongings and family members, faced various dangers — robberies, hunger, cold, diseases. The journey often took months, by wagon train, boat or basic raft, and much of it on foot, and not everyone survived the ordeal. But through the journeys, the settlers had plenty of time to write letters and diaries to give account for their daunting experiences.

One of the invaluable sources of information on life beyond the frontier is A Journey to Ohio in 1810: As Recorded in the Journal of Margaret Van Horn Dwight. The complete account was published in 1991. It is one of the few surviving journals of such an early period; the majority of letters and diaries date from the 1840s. Dwight traveled from Connecticut to Ohio and not only did she describe the route and the weather, but also revealed what she thoughts of her companions and a description of their language, the sounds and the smells of the times.

The journal starts with Dwight's revelation of the pain she was going through for having to leave her family and head west. The reason for the journey is not known, but her distaste for it is obvious. The first days of the journey are quite "unsocial," because most of the settlers are engulfed in their thoughts about what and who they have left behind. A week later, though, spirits are high and Dwight seems to be enjoying herself. "5 or 6 hundred miles appears like a short journey to me now- indeed I feel as if I could go almost any distance- My courage & spirits & both very good—one week is already gone of the 4," she writes.

When traveling beyond the frontier, people who took the journey often did not know each other in advance and were forced to spend a significant part of their time with individuals they may not like. Such is the case of Asa Bowen Smith, a Christian missionary who traveled to the Pacific north-west in 1838. According to Smith, three of his enforced traveling companions were pleasant and liked to stay out of trouble, whereas the rest of the men were not the most affable people. In Smith's letters to his parents and siblings, he tells all about the fights they had. Those on the journey were united by the same "glorious and scared mission," but they were also disunified by their character clashes.

Other settlers had to face much more serious troubles. Betsey Bayley, who traveled with her family from Missouri to Oregon in 1849, wrote to her sister telling about all the difficulties they had to endure. The company consisted of 64 wagons, traveling along the Meek Cutoff, a harsh and dangerous trail. Bayley said that they ran out of water and men were sent 50 miles in every direction to find some. Eventually, they found water but people started to get ill and die as they continued their journey. In her letter, Bayley expresses her amazement that her family remained intact after the journey and tells her sister how lovely Oregon is and how bright their future in the new land will be.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849
Kenneth L. Holmes; Kenneth L. Holmes.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.1, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Questia has multiple volumes in this series
Overland in 1846: Diaries and Letters of the California-Oregon Trail
Dale Morgan.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.1, 1993
Journals of Forty-Niners: Salt Lake to Los Angeles: with Diaries and Contemporary Records of Sheldon Young, James S. Brown, Jacob Y. Stover, Charles C. Rich, Addison Pratt, Howard Egan, Henry W. Bigler, and Others
Ann W. Hafen; Leroy R. Hafen.
University of Nebraska Press, 1998
First White Women over the Rockies: Diaries, Letters, and Biographical Sketches of the Six Women of the Oregon Mission Who Made the Overland Journey in 1836 and 1838
Clifford Merrill Drury.
A. H. Clark Co., vol.1, 1963
The Mountains We Have Crossed: Diaries and Letters of the Oregon Mission, 1838
Clifford Merrill Drury; Sarah Gilbert White Smith.
University of Nebraska Press, 1999
The Gold Discovery Journal of Azariah Smith
David L. Bigler; Azariah Smith.
Utah State University Press, 1996
Osborne Russell's Journal of a Trapper
Aubrey L. Haines; Osborne Russell.
University of Nebraska Press, 1965
The Colonel's Lady on the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson
Shirley A. Leckie; Alice Kirk Grierson.
University of Nebraska Press, 1989
The Adventures of the Woman Homesteader: The Life and Letters of Elinore Pruitt Stewart
Susanne K. George; Elinore Pruitt Stewart.
University of Nebraska Press, 1992
Buckskin Joe: Being the Unique and Vivid Memoirs of Edward Jonathan Hoyt, Hunter-Trapper, Scout, Soldier, Showman, Frontiersman, and Friend of the Indians, 1840-1918
Edward Jonathan Hoyt; Glenn Shirley.
University of Nebraska Press, 1988
Daughter of the Regiment: Memoirs of a Childhood in the Frontier Army, 1878-1898
Mary Leefe Laurence; Thomas T. Smith.
University of Nebraska Press, 1996
Emily, the Diary of a Hard-Worked Woman
Emily French; Janet Lecompte.
University of Nebraska Press, 1987
A Journey to Ohio in 1810: As Recorded in the Journal of Margaret Van Horn Dwight
Max Farrand; Margaret Van Horn Dwight.
University of Nebraska Press, 1991
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