Crucial role of animals in US expansion west explored

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Image from Diana L. Ahmad's Great Plains Quarterly article: "Wagon in the Desert," courtesy of the University of California-Berkeley, Bancroft Library.
Image from Diana L. Ahmad’s Great Plains Quarterly article: “Wagon in the Desert,” courtesy of the University of California-Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Settlers who embarked on the great westward expansion in the United States forged a special relationship with the animals on which they relied for the journey, a researcher says.

“They developed a companionship with the animals that likely surprised even the emigrants,” said Dr Diana Ahmad, an associate professor of history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

“’They learned that their success depended in large measure on the treatment of their animal traveling companions.”

The story of westward expansion in the United States is often told from the perspective of the men and women who crossed the Great Plains in search of a better life in the west.

But Ahmad set out to cast light on the role settlers’ animals played in the westward migration of the mid-1800s.

Ahmad discusses the relationship between pioneers and their stock – mainly horses, mules, oxen and cattle – in an essay published in the summer 2012 issue of the Great Plains Quarterly.

She noted that the westward travelers’ success depended greatly on their interactions with the animals.

“Domestic animals successfully brought thousands of emigrants to Utah, California, and Oregon,” Ahmad wrote in her essay, entitled I Fear the Consequences to Our Animals: Emigrants and Their Livestock on the Overland Trails.”

In doing so, emigrants on overland trails forged new relationships with the domestic animals that accompanied them, she said.

Between 1840 and 1860, some 300,000 people emigrated to California, Oregon and Utah. Many were in search of gold, new farmland or religious freedom.

The westward travelers learned how to care for their livestock, barter for fresh animals and perform veterinary procedures, Ahmad wrote.

They also left behind a wealth of written materials Ahmad mined for insights into how the emigrants interacted with their animals.

Diana L. Ahmad, assistant professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology
Diana L. Ahmad, assistant professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology

Ahmad, who specializes in the history of the American West, reviewed numerous diaries, letters and guidebooks written by these emigrants.

“Their writings add to the knowledge not only of the rigors and challenges along the overland trails but also of how the emigrants manifested a new relationship with their livestock,” she said.

The authors of these writings “wrote about their experiences … in a style that was meant to be read by others,” Ahmad said. “They understood the significance of their undertaking, that their journey was history-making.

“They also wrote about the livestock that accompanied them, often in great detail and with emotion.”

Those writings were sent back east and became valuable tools for future emigrants, she said.

Excerpts were republished in newspapers and publishers produced guidebooks for future settlers.

But prospective settlers viewed information passed along from family members and friends as more credible than the guidebooks or other published materials, she noted.

The significance of animals in history has been largely overlooked until recent years, Ahmad explains.

Much of the scholarly work over the past 40 years has focused on the role of animals during the British colonial era in North America.

Ahmad is one of the few researchers examining the role of animals during the westward expansion of the mid-1800s. She is working on a book on the topic.

“Emigrants developed techniques to deal with the creatures because, in most cases, they had no alternative but to learn to work with the situations they encountered.

“They also developed a companionship with the animals that likely surprised even the emigrants.

“They learned that their success depended in large measure on the treatment of their animal traveling companions.”

 

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