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Settling the West

Settling the West

Josiah Gregg ...97
Henry N. Copp ...107
Fanny Kelly ...117
Elise Amalie Wærenskjold ...131

Between 1800 and 1870, nearly half a million Americans set out across the frontier on the many trails that led westward. Using the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon-California Trail, the Mormon Trail, or one of the many other trails, these trappers, traders, farmers, and families set out on a journey of discovery. For many the western frontier represented the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to take control of their lives, to strike it rich, to make their own rules, or to claim their own land. Lured by promises—of gold, of lucrative trade, or of fertile farmland—pioneers endured weeks and even months of arduous travel in order to reach their destination and build the communities that defined the American West. The trails they blazed helped pave the way for the civilizing of the West.

The pioneers who journeyed west in the middle of the nineteenth century left their mark on the landscape and on the American character. Physical traces of the trails remain to this day: deep wagon wheel ruts are still visible in deserted stretches of the mountainous West, and many forts that are still standing attract curious tourists. As the pioneers reshaped the western landscape, they also created what is recognized as the American character. The hardships they endured to make a new life in the West left indelible marks on their temperaments, which came to embody the very spirit of America: brave, persistent, and tough.

The first pioneers to venture onto the frontier were guided only by a sense of adventure; those who followed were more cautious and pragmatic, hoping to make a life out West. Fortunately, the first western explorers and settlers offered advice on a variety of topics, from packing a wagon to meeting with Native Americans. Josiah Gregg (1806–1850) became one of the most respected authors to write about overland travel. In 1844 his book, Commerce of the Prairies , introduced readers to Indian groups, the flora and fauna of the prairies, and the new western way of life. The popularity of Commerce of the Prairies stemmed from Gregg's ability to bring "alive a world as unknown in that day as the back of the moon is to Americans today" and to give practical advice to the settler, according to David Freeman Hawke in the introduction to Commerce of the Prairies.

With the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, many settlers were interested in claiming their own land. In addition to books like Commerce of the Prairies that would help them get to their destinations, people needed information that would help them claim the land the Homestead Act offered. To that end, Henry N. Copp's The American Settler's Guide was published in 1892. The American Settler's Guide clearly explained the public land system of the United States in great detail. Copp described the Homestead Act as legislation that made the United States a true land of opportunity. He explained every aspect of finding and claiming a plot of land, from gaining American citizenship and entering a claim to obtaining government relief for crop-devastating grasshopper infestations.

While guidebooks were popular reading in the middle of the century, letters from frontier settlers also attracted the interest of friends and family at home. The millions of letters from frontier settlers recounted their everyday existence and their new way of life, their struggles and successes on their own land, and their interest in creating supportive communities. Elise Amalie Wærenskjold, an emigrant from Norway, was one of the millions who wrote home. Her letters, translated and reprinted in Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home, create a clear picture of life in Texas in the mid-1800s: her amusement with the many different religions, the common buildings on a Texas farm, and the daily challenges of breeding cattle and mowing hay.

Rarer than letters, testimonial books were first-person accounts of some of the most extraordinary experiences on the frontier. An Indian captive for five months, Fanny Kelly wrote an exciting tale of her adventure titled Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians. Kelly's book provides rich insight into the terrible conflict between Indians and whites. Although her experience was unique, Kelly's descriptions highlight the dangers of overland travel and paint a vivid picture of how Indians responded to the encroaching mass of settlers.

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