The story of how the West was won is often told from the perspective of the settlers who crossed the Great Plains in search of a better life. But Missouri S&T historian Diana L. Ahmad is bringing to light the role animals played in the westward migration of the mid-1800s.
Ahmad, an associate professor of history at Missouri S&T, discusses the relationship between pioneers and their stock — mainly oxen, mules, horses and cattle — in an essay published in the summer 2012 issue of the Great Plains Quarterly. Westward travelers’ success depended greatly on their interactions with the animals, she says.
“Domestic animals successfully brought thousands of emigrants to Utah, California, and Oregon,” Ahmad writes in her essay, “I Fear the Consequences to Our Animals’: Emigrants and Their Livestock on the Overland Trails.” As a result,”emigrants on overland trails forged new relationships with the domestic animals that accompanied them.”
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. These travelers learned how to care for their livestock, barter for fresh animals and perform veterinary procedures, Ahmad writes.
They also left behind a wealth of written materials, and Ahmad has mined their diaries, letters and other documents for insights into how the emigrants interacted with their beasts.
“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,” says Ahmad, who specializes in the history of the American West.
Settlers “wrote about their experiences … in a style that was meant to be read by others,” Ahmad says. “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.”
The significance of animals in history has been largely overlooked until recent years. 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 historians examining the role animals played in the westward expansion. 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,” Ahmad writes. “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.”