Go West, Young Man!

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

My family was not afflicted with wanderlust. Once they arrived in this country, their traveling energy seemed to evaporate. To be sure, they moved around a bit within Massachusetts, and a few made the “long trek” from New Haven, Connecticut, upriver to Springfield, Massachusetts. Otherwise, they hunkered down in the same location for generations. My own relocations, first to Pennsylvania, then to West Virginia, and finally to Virginia, have been a familial rare exception since the 1860s, although these moves were motivated by graduate school and my first husband’s career. Once I got to Virginia, however, I reverted to type and have remained here for thirty-eight years, with residences in only two different locations within the commonwealth. This lack of migratory ambition has made some of my family research relatively (no pun intended) simple. People in my family definitely didn’t get lost because they moved to parts unknown!

Over the years, my several research projects into the families of friends and clients have made me realize that other families were much more adventurous. This fact is always emphasized when I travel. Looking down from the airplane window as I fly over the Midwest, I cannot imagine the level of trust and courage that it took individuals to set out across country. When I am in Salt Lake City, my east-coast soul is excited by the phrase “crossroads of the golden west.” It sounds exotic.

Learning more about ancestors who migrated westward, therefore, can be very interesting.

That said, sometimes you discover, in actuality, they didn’t move at all! I have recently been researching a Nelson County, Virginia, family for an individual who lives in Minnesota. The family’s story was that the man and his second wife, along with some of the children from the first marriage, migrated to Missouri in the mid-1840s. The second wife was said to have died in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, while en route. Even allowing for the fact that West Virginia wasn’t a separate state until 1863, the location is very specific (?). Research here in Nelson County, however, has documented that not only did she not accompany her husband as he migrated to Missouri, but she died in Virginia in 1881. A chancery court suit, filed the year after their marriage, will hopefully provide the details of “the rest of the story.”

Other stories are more straightforward. In order to learn more about a family’s experiences during its westward journey, a first step is to learn what land routes they might have taken. One useful source is the web site, “Migration Trails.” Click on the first choice, “Migration Trails,” which leads you to a map of the United States illustrating the route of 144 migration trails. It is particularly interesting to note the large number of eastern routes leading to the “jumping off point” across the Mississippi River, and the very few trails that then led westward. If you click on one of the numbered routes listed across the top and bottom of the map, you will find a detailed description of that particular route. For example, route #93, the Pamunkey-New River Trail was used between 1680 and 1717, and then later between 1800 and 1820. It served as a migratory route for English, French, German, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, Scots-Irish, Scottish, Swedish and Welsh families. Beginning in Hanover, Virginia, it traversed through Louise, Albemarle, Augusta and Bath counties, and then moved through what would later be the West Virginia counties of Greenbrier and Fayette. The Nelson County family might have started their journey along this route, connecting with other trails along the way to their Missouri destination.

While at the Family History Library this month, I looked at a subscription database called Paper Trail: a Guide to Overland Pioneer Names and Documents. This resource was created by the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) and provides a searchable index of journeys, and the names, places and documents that pertain to them. These documents, which form a Census of Overland Emigrant Documents database (COED), vary from expedition to expedition, but may include not only names, but also descriptions of Indian encounters, modes of travel and other such information for travelers on the Oregon National Historic Trail, the Mormon Pioneer Historic Trail, the California Historic Trail, and the Pony Express Historic Trail.

My Barclay surname search identified twenty-seven entries for Barclays, providing the year of migration, gender, state (and sometimes county) of origin, and type of traveler (emigrant, name on roster, turned back, death, non-emigrant mention, etc.). In one interesting entry, I discovered excerpts from a journal kept by John Woodhouse Audubon during his two-year expedition from New York to Texas and then through Mexico and Arizona to the gold-fields of California in 1849-1850 (originally published in 1869), a time when many men went West to make their fortune. A list of all of the forty-eight men on the journey is included, with their relationship to the author noted in some instances. One of those listed was a William B. Barclay, of New York, who is described as having turned back once the company reached the Rio Grande. (It would have been nice to know why he turned back and why he was categorized as a “non-emigrant.”) Further information on the Audubon expedition indicates that the group first saw Apaches on 9 June 1849, were robbed in both August and September 1849, and were worried about Indians (Yumas), although they traded with them a few months later in October. A listing of locations from Rio Grande City, Texas, to Jamestown, California, and “Chinese diggings,” as well as map images from the journal, provide background detail for any ancestor who either might have accompanied Audubon on his trip, or who might have taken a similar route with another expedition. Another entry referred to a journal kept by M. Littleton while migrating from Independence, Missouri, from May to October 1850. Again, a list of emigrants was provided, including a Mary Barclay (no place of origin noted), who died June 10, 1850, and was buried along the Platte River.

Subscriptions to this database are available to individuals on a twenty-four-hour, monthly or annual basis, and to institutions (separate pricing for libraries with fewer than ten locations) at a very reasonable cost. Each entry that I reviewed provided a list of libraries and archival institutions that owned the original manuscript material.

For earlier time periods, an essential resource is William Dollarhide’s, Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815 (Heritage Quest, 1997). While frontiersmen had always traveled where they wished by foot or horse, the migration of entire families with their belongings required a system of roads that could accommodate wagon or stagecoach travel. While they may not have been roads in the modern sense, given the prevalence of mud, pot holes, tree stumps, and other impediments to comfortable travel, early roadways allowed for the movement of families, or groups of families, to new locations. Dollarhide describes routes that were used prior to the industrial revolution, when the introduction of steamboats, canal boats, and then railroads changed the migration experience. The author discusses the routes in chronological order, furnishing maps as well as comparisons with contemporary, co-terminus interstate, state and national roads.

Not all of our westward bound ancestors traveled by land. Some sailed from eastern ports, traveling around Cape Horn, bound for San Francisco. The Maritime Heritage Project includes information about steamships that sailed around Cape Horn, and provides names and descriptions of ships, their owners, cargo, and passenger names. By 1854, more affluent emigrants, were able to reduce ocean travel time by disembarking at the eastern end of the Isthmus of Panama, crossing the isthmus, and then re-embarking on a ship on the western coast of Panama. In 1854, a year before it was fully complete, a railroad carried 30,108 passengers on the completed portions of the four-hour rail crossing. Records of the Panama Canal Railroad Company are available in National Archives Record Group 185: Records of the Panama Canal (1848-1984).

I’m still amazed by the pioneer spirit that burned brightly in many families. Such curiosity is a great motivator to learn more about the migration experience in order to better understand the life of those hardy and adventuresome individuals who followed the exhortation to “Go West, young man.”

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