The West: From the Mighty Mississippi to the California Gravel: With Emigrants Across the Great West

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

The inspiration for this essay comes from June Carter Cash's Press On, compact disc of Risk Record Group/Small Hairy Dog (1999) with beautiful renditions of such greats as"Diamonds in the Rough," written by A. P. Carter,"Gatsby's Restaurant," by June herself and Rosie Carter, and"I Used to Be Somebody," composed by June alone. June, who married Johnny Cash in 1968, is one of three daughters of Mother Maybelle (Addington) Carter. The latter, who died in 1978, was one of a talented threesome (the two others were A. P. Carter and Sara (Dougherty) Carter, his wife) from Maces Spring, Virginia, who together, as the legendary Carter Family, revolutionized (almost by themselves) the playing and singing of old-time country music.

Another debt, in this case for my title, derives from the reverse side of a record-album cover The Wilderness Road and Jimmie Driftwood (LPM-1994), recorded in Nashville, Tennessee (26 and 27 November 1958) on label of Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and released in 1959. From the comments for one folk song thereon, the"First Covered Wagon" (also called at times"Swing That Golden Gate," to be accomplished, of course, with the proverbial Yankee Doodle hinges) came the words for my title.

With those preliminaries let me proceed to recount the advance of emigrants across the Great West, ultimately to California and Oregon, not to mention Washington. It should be remembered that the story of America's westward migration really begins in the East, with the likes of Daniel Boone, where trails (often following those of the Indians) were blazed into and across such places as the bluegrass country of Kentucky, once known as the"dark and bloody ground" for the struggles waged there between Native Americans and the Euroamerican newcomers.

One of the principal routes into Kentucky and from there into what became the Old Northwest Territory in 1787, with its southern boundary on the Ohio River, was the Cumberland Gap, a defile through what the Indians called the"Endless Mountains"--the Appalachians. My mother's family for one (the Borahs), which includes Senator William E. Borah (1865-1940), entered Kentucky in 1793 by way of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and thence through the Cumberland Gap. They were Jacob and Abigail (Aumiller) Borah and children, including the eldest John (1787-1842), my great-great-great grandfather.

The Borahs took up abodes in Kentucky, first in Bourbon County, later Butler. Then, led by George Borah (1789-1860), second son of Jacob and Abigail, the Borahs for the most part moved on to Illinois, where they put down deep and lasting roots in Wayne County in the southeastern portion of the prairie state. In fact, George entered 80 acres of land in the southeast part of Wayne in 1817 (the year before statehood for Illinois). He and his family there worshiped in the Shiloh congregation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, to which denomination the Borahs adhered for generations.

In the early days of George Borah and his close relatives in Illinois, including those of his older brother John, who began the Borah Settlement, anchored at the Old Tom's Prairie Cumberland Presbyterian Church, of Jasper Township, a church begun on land donated by John, and which my great-grandfather John woods Borah (1842-1934) co-founded in 1823 and where he often preached, after his ordination in 1875, the principal urban center in the region was Shawneetown on the Ohio River. There the Borahs and everyone else in southeastern Illinois purchased their holdings at the land office, which had opened in 1814.

In those days as well, in the early 1800s, Shawneetown was the entry point for practically all emigrants into the prairie state from the south and east. Not until the incorporation of Chicago (destined to become, and paraphrasing Carl Sandburg slightly, the"hog butcher for the world") in 1833, did waves of settlement into Illinois shift from the southern extreme to the northern limits of the state. It should be added, the establishment of that future metropolis on the shore of Lake Michigan had been spurred in the main by the completion of the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo, New York, the latter town on Lake Erie. From there it was with relative ease that a burgeoning number of people reached Chicago.

Having presented a little lore from my family's history, along with references to major arteries for travel into America's interior, it is appropriate to state a truth--many people, who settled in Illinois (but not the Borahs, who remained for the most part in Wayne County), soon joined an untold number of adventuresome and hardy pioneers, generally moving in wagon trains, who set out (the peak years for migration spanned 1849-1852) for points west from St. Louis and other townsites near or along the Missouri River, prominent among them being Independence, Westport Landing, St. Joseph, and Council Bluffs (this last-named place though in Iowa, not Missouri). From those jumping-off points the main overland route westward, known to history as the Oregon Trail (and immortalized by Francis Parkman in his book The Oregon Trail (first published in 1849, as The California and Oregon Trail), followed the Platte River, after leaving the Missouri. From the north fork of the Sweetwater River, the trail traversed South Pass, a wide declivity through a watershed of the Rocky Mountains, well-named the Great Divide.

From there to a short distance west of Fort Hall on the Snake River, emigrants continued their trek. But, then a choice had to be made. A left fork in the trail headed on toward California, while the right-hand fork pointed the way to Oregon. Whatever the destination, the Oregon Trail, which was the most often traveled pathway westward throughout the 1840s, had seen the passage by the close of 1849 (the first year of the Gold Rush in California) of more than 27,000 would-be and actual settlers to that state. Moreover, in 1852, the year which proved to be the high tide for travel over the Oregon Trail, 50,000 more emigrants, also destined for California, negotiated the plains and Rockies.

Oddly enough, the Indians of the Great Plains, even the powerful and often warlike Cheyenne and Sioux, whose lands were crossed by the Oregon Trail, for the most part, offered little in the way of resistance to the Euroamerican intruders. To the year 1849 less than 50 emigrant deaths were attributed to Indian assaults, and even by 1860, when thousands upon thousands of pioneers (mainly of Anglo-Saxon descent) had trekked westward along the Oregon Trail, total emigrant casualties numbered but 400. In the same period, the Indians had suffered by far the most deaths along the trail.

Perhaps the limited attacks by Native Americans on the invaders through their lands west of the Missouri River can best be explained by the failure of the Indians to fully comprehend the threat, namely that of additional hordes of Euroamericans poised, as they were, in the East for a coming onslaught. Whatever the reason(s) for Indian complacency, their later uprisings came much too late to forestall (at least for long) the wholesale takeovers of much tribally-owned land in the West.

When Native Americans, especially the Cheyenne and Sioux of the northern plains, did mount some stiff resistance to incursions on their lands, certainly in evidence by the 1870s, the deaths on both sides (Indian and Euroamerican) had reached alarming proportions. Regarding that, and so far as the latter peoples are concerned, a climax of sorts came on 25 June 1876 (the Centennial Year for the U. S.) at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The fatalities there to the last man of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his band of men, as Vine Deloria, Jr., so eloquently phrased the matter in his engaging title for his book Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), resulted, in fact, from the persistent, often remorseless, advance of white civilization across the American landscape to the Pacific Slope and beyond.

In closing this panoramic view of the Great West from the Appalachian to and beyond the Rocky Mountains, let me reflect somewhat on what had transpired in a little over a century--thoughts prompted by the account of Dewey Beard, an Indian warrior at the Little Big Horn on that fateful afternoon of 1876. He described the battle in a vivid manner, not failing to mention that he had heard, from time to time,"bullets whizzing past [his] ears." Without showing any fear, and not having any apparently, he continued to charge at Custer and the embattled men of the Seventh Cavalry. And, by way of evidence for his scorn for death, he yelled repeatedly, it was"a good day to die."

Many brave men did die that day in the Black Hills of South Dakota (in the heart of Sioux country). What is more, many others had died and would continue to die (of all ages and both sexes) across the West, both in battles and massacres on both sides, with a culmination, it might be argued, at a place called Wounded Knee. There 350 men, women, and children of the Minneconjou Sioux, under the leadership of Big Foot, had been gathered. Suspicious, even fearful, of their participation in the Ghost Dance religious movement, as revived by the Pauite prophet Wovoka in the late 1880s, the U. S. troops on the scene at Wounded Knee slaughtered 300 of those 350 men, women, and children. Strangely enough, the officer, who gave the order, Colonel James W. Forsyth, was a successor to Custer's former command. Also of interest, the date (1890) for that massacre occurred in the same year often considered to be, even to this day, as the closing year for the American frontier.

Who can say why any of those unfortunate Indians had to die so tragically at the Pine Ridge Agency in 1890, not to mention all the others on both sides, in numerous bloody battles and various other confrontations across the Great West. But, just perhaps, on a day to come (the hour unknown as well), if the lives of people on planet Earth are players in a drama of cosmic dimension, and I believe that they are, in the fullness of time, we shall know all. For, Luke in Acts 3:21 (King James Version of the Bible) held out the promise, far be it for me to say when or how, there will be on one day of glory to come a"restitution of all things." Should that prove to be the reality, beyond all our earthy minds and their often limited expectations, then indeed, as A. P. Carter wrote, and June Carter Cash sings so well in the CD Press On:"the diamonds will be shining, no longer in the rough." To put it another way, one can at least hope that people, and all people at that, have not lived and died for nothing.

The standard work for the trek of the pioneers across the Great Plains and beyond has become John D. Unruh, Jr., The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1860 (1979). But, no one should fail either to consult (and gaze as well at the scenic photographs, along with view the large fold-out map) in John G. Mitchell's"The Way West," National Geographic 198 (September 2000):34-63. The mention of visual images of the American West brings to mind a marvelous compendium of western art, indispensable to an understanding of the westward migration of the nineteenth century, specifically, William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann, The West in the Imagination (1986), including fine paintings (many in full color) of the likes of George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Alfred Jacob Miller, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran. The text for that volume is well crafted too, especially the brief account in chapter 19 (pp. 217-227) of Custer's Last Stand. Regarding the Wounded Knee massacre, one ought to read Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970). It does not make for pleasnat reading at times, but it should be required, especially for those, who don't believe, as Vine Deloria, Jr., expressed the matter, that Custer Died for Your Sins (1969).

For my own family's part in the settling of the West (albeit the Great West), particularly on the Kentucky and Illinois frontiers, I drew upon the"remembrance of things past" of my grandfather Frank D. Borah (1887-1966), a fine amateur historian, who had me join the Wayne County (Illinois) Historical Society, at the age of 12 (both of us being charter members in 1954). For the Borahs and the family of my grandfather's mother (the McLins), one of whom, the Reverend David W. Mclin (1784-1836) founded the first Cumberland Presbyterian churches in southern Illinois, I also benefited from material drawn from an old ledger book (a prized possession of mine), compiled many years ago by Emma (Borah) Hunter (1878-1977), a sister to my grandfather Borah, which (in Aunt Emma's own handwriting) records much of priceless value.

It would be remiss on my part, before closing this note, if I failed to cite Camden Borah Meyer, who published on his own the Borah History (a copy of which I also have). That voluminous study begins with my direct line, beginning with Peter Bohrer, who emigrated from Germany to America, dis-embarking a ship at port of Philadelphia in 1750. Mr. Meyer conducted interviews with my grandfather Borah and Aunt Emma on our line at their residence at Fairfield, Illinois (Wayne County) in the early 1960s. Such works, as the Borah History, when nicely done (as this one by Meyer's), make abundantly clear why the study and compiling of genealogies (too often disparaged, even discounted entirely by professional historians) must never be neglected.

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