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Shaking Your Family Tree!

Hit the Trail for Tales of Old West


If your ancestors traveled on the great overland trails to the West, you probably wish you knew more about their journeys.

James A. Michener consulted about three dozen narratives of emigrants who made the historic journey from St. Joseph, Mo., to Oregon or California in researching material for his novel, "Centennial." In the foreword to an exciting new book, "Platte River Road Narratives" by Merrill J. Mattes, he praises the author's work, which contains more than 2,000 accounts of this dramatic period of Western expansion.

"Platte River Road Narratives" will be of immense value to genealogists, as well as to historians, writers, researchers, educators, collectors, Western Americana buffs, libraries and historical societies.

This large book is a descriptive bibliography of travel over the Great Central Overland Route to Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado, Montana and other Western states and territories from 1812 to 1866. Platte River Road was a term frequently used by emigrant diarists, and, according to the author, is "a legitimate common denominator for all the variously labeled roads following the central corridor"--thence the name of the book.

The Bidwell-Bartleson expedition from Missouri was the first organized band of emigrants to follow the Platte in 1841. The party split at Soda Springs, Ida., with half going via Ft. Hall, Ida., and the Snake River to blaze the Oregon Trail and half going via the Humboldt River to explore a route to California. In the latter group was Nancy Kelsey, the first white woman to enter California from the east.

In "Platte River" the emigrant-author's name appears with identification as to the type of narrative represented. These include diaries, journals, letters or recollections. Following each entry number are one to five stars, a rating system of historical and literary value assigned by the author.

The book is extremely valuable to researchers because of Mattes' notations of whether an account is published, and if so, where the printed source is. He also annotates each entry and significant highlights of the journey and includes comments, comparisons and explanations to help the reader in evaluating literary and historical merits, as well as shortcomings, of the emigrant's account.

The account of James D. Lyon, found in letters that appeared in the Detroit Daily Advertiser on Sept. 10, 1849, and Feb. 2, 1850, tells about the Fourth of July celebration held 10 miles east of Ft. Laramie, Wyo., "on the 73d anniversary of the birth of our country's liberty." The group placed wagons in two lines, 12 feet apart, and stretched covers from one to the other for a banquet, procession, oratory and a cotillion party on the sod.

In the recollections of Mary Elizabeth Howard, a typescript account available at the California State Library in Sacramento, she relates her trip as a 15-year-old from Kenosha, Wis., to Amador County, Calif., and relates that after Ft. Laramie, the oxen had to be fitted with leather shoes. Mattes notes that their family dog made it all the way to California, because it too was fitted with leather shoes. Most emigrants' dogs died en route, the author explains.

Godfrey C. Ingrim's recollections, located at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, includes tales of how whiskey drinkers capsized their wagon at South Fork ford; the hanging--from upraised wagon tongues--of a murderer; and of a man who drowned at Upper Platte while swimming because he was weighted down with $3,000 in gold coins.

"Platte River Road Narratives" reads like a novel, and you may find your ancestor's account of adventures on the overland trails. It is an expensive book ($95), available from University of Illinois Press, 54 E. Gregory Drive, Champaign, Ill. 61820.

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