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History. Why’s it such a big deal here?

April 19, 2010

When I first arrived in Scottsing, I was bemused by some of the boosterisms I heard about the area.

“This area has lots of history,” some folks gushed.

Well, duh. Everyplace has lots of history. Geologic history. Natural history. And of course human history. Art forms. Conquests. Governments. Diseases. Folk stories. Technology. Religion. Agriculture. The day-to-day changes in the means of human survival and in the ways we transcend those struggles.

But these folks had something more specific in mind.

“The Oregon Trail, California Trail, Mormon Trail, the Pony Express, and Union Pacific and Burlington railroads all passed through here.”

It’s a popular refrain in the tourism literature.

This, to me, was not necessarily a highlight. The overland migration implied that the area was not a destination, but an impediment for folks going elsewhere. Even back in the 1800s some people considered western Nebraska “flyover country”.

I just wasn’t getting it. Why were folks here so fired up about this specific thread of Euro-American history? I did not get this same sense of excitement about the past when I was living in Illinois and Iowa. Probably an equivalent level of history mania can be found in some southern states as regards the Civil War. (Interesting parallel in that both involved the usurpation of other people’s rights, Native Americans and African slaves, and that these shameful aspects tend to get brushed under the rug. But that’s another story for another time.)

I was a tough sell on the concept that an area’s history made it a good place to live. History was never one of my favorite subjects in school, and the phrase “Oregon Trail” conjured up memories of playing the pixelated, black-and-white, 1980s Oregon Trail video game in school. I never made it to Oregon in the game. Something always went frustratingly wrong: dysentery, cholera, dead oxen, broken axle.

Surely some of the folks around here were subjected to that video game in school. How did they manage to overcome the silliness and get so excited about the overland migration?

In my three months here, I’ve visited a number of museums and historical sites (Scotts Bluff National Monument, Chimney Rock, North Platte Valley Museum, Robidoux Trading Post) and watched a documentary at the Midwest Theater, In Pursuit of a Dream, and I’ve developed some hypotheses as to why so many people in the region work so hard to promote area history.

Tourism

So, what is there to do in western Nebraska? We have great arts and outdoor recreation opportunities, but, let’s face it, those aren’t quite as sexy as some of the resources in surrounding states. Case in point: Denver, Rocky Mountains. Ah, but we have something they don’t: stories about streams of people who once passed through this countryside. Yes, tourist-directed boosterism is a part of why history is such a big deal here, but I don’t believe it’s the main reason.

Recent history

To a European, celebrating a 100-year-old building may seem a little premature. They’ve got landmarks dating back hundreds of years. Yes, the history of Euro-Americans in this area goes back only about 200 years, with the bulk of the overland migration story rolling out about 150 years ago, and the booming of the Scottsing area dating to around 100 years ago. But there’s a twofold benefit in this abbreviated historical period. One, there are fewer events to clutter up the story, so the focus can rest primarily on the overland migration. Two, 150 years encompasses two or three human lifetimes. By the time these events were deemed “historical”, there were still people alive who could give personal accounts of the journey and help fill in the blanks.

It’s a good story

Another reason I think the overland trails history is popular is that it has an attractive narrative. In the beginning, there was a youthful nation with a burgeoning population eager to stretch its legs. Thousands of intrepid souls risked everythingto trek hundreds of miles through little-known dangers for the chance at a better life. Some failed, some succeeded. The ones who made it provided western ballast for the concept of Manifest Destiny that ultimately shaped what our country would become.

Preservation efforts

As I’ve learned in my visits around the region, being able to physically stand in the steps of history allows the human mind to loosen its grip on the present and to make connections with the past that are not possible through the dry text of history books (or even through many museums, in my opinion). This is the point of In Pursuit of a Dream: if sites along the California-Oregon Trail are lost, future generations will find it harder and harder to connect to the lessons of the past.

Hunker down in the reproduction Robidoux Trading Post and imagine how it might have been stocked with goods to accommodate the stream of pioneers. Stand on the windswept prairie next to Chimney Rock, and think of the excitement the westbound settlers felt as they saw something other than grasses for the first time in weeks. Walk up to the pioneer wagons in front of Scotts Bluff National Monument, and picture them, and thousands of others, rumbling through Mitchell Pass.

If these objects and sites had not been preserved from destruction and development, history would not feel so alive, so “touchable”. A recent CNN iReport assignment asked readers to merge historical photographs with present-day scenes (inspired by the Looking into the Past Flickr group), and I thought some of the results were fantastically thought-provoking. (What a great opportunity for a creative writing assignment!) Amazingly, my Chimney Rock submission for the assignment was among the 21 (out of 147 entries) to be featured in a story that made it to CNN’s main page.

I was able to take the present-day photograph because the land around Chimney Rock remains undeveloped (though the viewshed may still be at risk), thanks to the efforts of many individuals over the years. A few names that come to mind: Ezra Meeker, who appears in the 1906 Nebraska State Historical Society photo in my iReport submission, was an original westbound pioneer who retraced the Oregon Trail eastward to mark the path and raise interest in the historical journey; Paul and Helen Henderson, who meticulously collected and preserved information about the overland migrations in the 1920s and 1930s, when Oregon Trail history was not so popular; and numerous private landholders, like Gordon and Patty Howard of Oregon Trail Wagon Train, who preserve land around historic landmarks from housing and commercial development.

Spirit of individualism

But I’ve decided that the biggest reason I’ve been able to finally get excited about this California-Oregon Trail aspect of what I once considered to be dull, old history is this: “we, the people”. While history books will blah, blah, blah about the powerful white men who set in motion the policies that led to the great overland migration, the real story isn’t about them.

The real story is about the ordinary, everyday individuals who undertook or were affected by the journey. It’s about their fears and their hopes. It’s about the things they saw and the things they left behind.

Who among us, upon reading a pioneer diary entry describing daily hardships, doesn’t try to imagine ourselves in a similar situation? Would we be able to pull it off, or would we be one of the ones who “saw the elephant” and turned back?

The preserved remnants of history provide the backdrop for our imagination, and the individual stories of people involved in an epic migration allow us to place ourselves within that history.

It’s our responsibility

I’m finally understanding why California-Oregon Trail history is a selling point for living in western Nebraska. If you live here, you have direct access to the scenery, artifacts, and stories that comprise an essential part of the American character. But it’s more than that. If you live here, you get to know the area and the history better than other folks around the country, and you begin to develop a personal responsibility for maintaining those treasures.

Whether we choose to accept it or not, western Nebraska residents are entrusted with the solemn duty of protecting overland trail migration history from being subsumed by the concept of “flyover country”, a place with nothing worth seeing. And it might have become just that without the actions and dedication of individual people.

Living in western Nebraska means that you hold a key to the identity of American citizens. It’s our mission to let the nation know that it’s here and in good hands.

UPDATE: North Platte Valley Museum permanently closed in 2013 to join forces with the former Farm And Ranch Museum to become Legacy of the Plains Museum at 2930 Old Oregon Trail in Gering. See the Legacy of the Plains Museum website for the most recent updates.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2010 10:01 am

    Edifying/Enlightening! Love the way your mind works!

  2. Suzie permalink
    April 19, 2010 11:11 am

    Excellent blog!

    Shortly after I moved here, someone asked me what I loved about this area. I hesitated as I tried to explain– “because it still has the Old West feel”, but with a little more reflection, I said, “it feels ancient”. In my mind’s eye, the ancient sea still covers the landscape, and what looks flat to most people, looks like an ocean bed to me. I love learning about xeric qualities of most plants in this area. Most people see dry, rocky, and dusty– I see the beauty and toughness of the giant evening star plant.

    I think I prefer to be considered a “flyover”. The land, rocks, bluffs and even the people, feel authentic. This land is tough and I hope it always retains that untamed feeling.

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      April 19, 2010 11:57 am

      Suzie, you’ve touched on some more of the indistinct positives of living here. I agree, it is really hard to describe. There is a subtlety to the beauty of the landscape, and beauty in the subtlety. I also LOVE that you used the word “xeric”. I was majorly bummed when talking to a garden center employee recently who didn’t know what “xeriscaping” meant.

  3. Court Merrigan permalink
    April 19, 2010 1:07 pm

    I have a theory on why the employee didn’t know what you meant – a lot of people around here pronounce it “zeroscaping”, as in zero grass (I think). For years when I was a kid that’s how I thought it was pronounced. It was only later when I learned it was “xeriscaping”. Just a possibility.

    I also have a further theory on why folks are so ready to look to (recent) history around here: we’re differentiating ourselves from Back East (e.g., North Platte to Omaha). What do they got out there? Corn fields and hills. Practically the only scenery worth seeing in the state is out here, and the history is a part of that. Look at the traveler’s diaries – they all describe how deathly boring and endless the plains are until finally, finally, they come to a place where there is something to look at – Chimney Rock.

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      April 20, 2010 7:43 am

      Actually, I had a further conversation about “landscaping with local plants”, and they still didn’t click. But I like the term “zeroscaping”. It surprised me a little to see how many houses just gave up with the whole “lawn” idea and installed gravel. After wrestling with the UGS yesterday, I’m all for it!

      I would agree that western Nebraska *should* differentiate itself from the rest of the state. It’s not the same!

  4. April 20, 2010 9:23 am

    When I came out to visit western Nebraska, I thought I would see nothing but a “dry, rocky, dusty” landscape. I was wonderfully surprised by the feeling of awe inspired within me by the sights I beheld. I really did love it out there and want to return soon. And thanks for the new Scrabble word! Xeric!

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