By Tony Bandy
From Conestoga wagons on long, dusty trails to pioneers struggling for success on a homestead in Oregon – America’s westward expansion in the latter part of the 1800’s has long held promise for genealogists.
There’s a lot to consider when investigating your ancestor’s movement into the American West, primarily because no singular resource or database has it all. In fact, the sheer number of options in this category can make for some very trying research, especially if you are new to the topic.
Tracking Down American Pioneers
If you’re wondering where to start, what to search, or how to separate fact from fiction – here are some basic facts and solid sources to help you on the way to success.
Before beginning your research in online indexes, databases, or primary source materials, it’s important to have a grasp of the basic trail systems that lead East to West in the mid-to-late 19th Century. You will want to note is that there were networks of trails, roads, and paths split up between the northern part of the United States and the southern part, and not just one or two.
The Oregon Trail, Mormon Pioneer Overland Trail, and California Trail were highly popular with northern emigrants; in the southern part of the U.S., trails with names such as the Santa Fe, the Old Spanish Trail, and the Southern Emigrant Trail were used.
If you are new to this information, it is important to take note of what trails led where and your ancestor’s interaction with them. You can learn more about the basics of these trails here, including important background information and facts about the small towns or settlements travelers may have encountered along the way.
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Next, you will want to locate resources that have the information specific to your family’s movements westward:
You might consider starting at a familiar location such as Ancestry or other paid sites, all of which do have some collected records on this topic – as in the case of Ancestry’s California, Pioneer and Immigrant Files. However, this can be an expensive route initially if you do not already have a subscription.
You can also try the resources at FamilySearch for some excellent free information. For your best bet, however, consider starting with either (or both) HathiTrust or the Internet Archive.
At HathiTrust, you can search either by full-text or category such as author, title or subject. Consider starting with some basic searches first – such as “emigrant trail,” “wagon trail,” “pioneer genealogy” or others to retrieve initial record sets.
From here, you can find new keywords or other data that can be used to with your favorite search engine (or even within HathiTrust) to uncover even more information.
Using this method I was able to gain access to rich sources such as The Trail Blazers: Historical and Genealogical Record of Early Pioneer Families of Oregon, Missouri and the South and Early Days in Kansas. In each of these, I could find details on surnames and family information, trip and trail details, and other tidbits of helpful information.
At Internet Archive – a familiar site to many genealogists – a similar search approach can prove fruitful. Try the same keyword search and include specific trail and other information, if you can, in order to retrieve sources such as:
- An Excursion to California Over the Prairie, Rocky Mountains, and Great Sierra Nevada
- The gold seekers of ’49; a personal narrative of the overland trail and adventures in California and Oregon from 1849 to 1854.
- The Great Salt Lake Trail.
- Virginia City and Lewiston Wagon Road
It may take a fair amount of research time to pull this all together, but with millions of digitized book, maps, and serials available, you could absolutely find success – especially with some primary source information from persons who lived during this time.
The key here is to extract as much information as possible from the sites above before proceeding to the second set of resources.
Secondary resources can be gained by using your favorite search engine to retrieve results from general sites available across the Internet. This runs the gamut from personal sites to academic, governmental, and more.
Be careful with the sites that you do find, especially with outdated information and sites that may not be legitimate. Always try to verify any information that you find though multiple sources whenever possible. That being said, you can certainly find many good sites offering both general and more specific information on westward expansion – much of which you may be able to connect with your family’s specific journey.
Here are few particularly helpful places to check out first:
- Roster of California Pioneers (The Native Daughters of the Golden West)
- The Oregon Territory and Its Pioneers
- Society of California Pioneers
- Digital Public Library of America
- Bureau of Land Management Homestead Act Records
As with most of these secondary sources, you may find multiple records and detailed information or maybe just a surname or two. The real value comes when cross-check the data you find at these locations with a detailed keyword search on HathiTrust or the Internet Archive – this should help you verify, or expand on, your research.
While it can be easy these days to get used to huge databases or easy search methods when looking for our ancestors, when it comes to connecting America’s westward expansion to your family history, this is often not the case. While it may not always be quick or easy, by slowing down and taking advantage of all available resources, you are bound to find something worth your while.
You might also like this related article about westward expansion: Millions of Homestead Act (and Other) Land Records Are Free Online from the BLM
Freelance writer, family researcher, and librarian/historian, Tony Bandy can be found at Adventures in History.
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