Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Dr. Michael L. Tate

Second Advisor

Dr. Harl Dalstrom


Between 1841 and 1866, the years of heaviest traffic on the overland trails, approximately 500,000 people uprooted their families, departed their homes in the East and began the search for a new life in Oregon, California or Utah. During these three decades, eager pioneers pushed their way across half a continent and participated in one of the greatest of modem pilgrimages. The westward movement has been studied from the viewpoints of men, and, especially in recent years, from the viewpoints of women, but few historians have looked at the massive migration from the perspectives of younger emigrants. In the preface to his book Growing up with the Country, historian Elliott West has written that the study of western children, including those who made the journey west, is at best “embryonic.” With the exception of the peak California gold rush years of 1849 and 1850, the movement was comprised mostly of families, which meant that a substantial number of overlanders were children and teenagers. Many of these young emigrants were the sons and daughters of risk-takers whose ancestors had continually pushed the borders of America westward, and their stories contribute significantly to the overall history of the westward experience. Importantly, the perceptions of young pioneers often differed from their older counterparts. In general, younger children felt fortunate to be a member of a family who had chosen to travel west, but they often had no cpi^ept of where they were going. They were less attached to their homes in the East than were older children and adults who sensed that they were leaving relatives and friends forever. Young emigrants of all ages, unlike adults, were less concerned about the future than the present. Leave-taking was less emotional for them and they approached their journeys with a heightened sense of adventure, often lacking awareness of the vast scale of such an undertaking. Even under the best of circumstances, the trip was demanding, and a successful journey hinged on the contributions of all family members. Many young emigrants were unaware of the immense amount of work that would be required of them or the emotional crosses they would have to bear. Each phase of the journey meant additional pressures for traveling families. Some families became closer, while others were tom apart. Still, most children adapted to their lives on the trail and arrived at their destinations in good spirits. These young pioneers were not mere observers, but rather were participants in a journey of over two thousand miles in which they endured incredible hardships with their families. The lives of those young emigrants, who were a vital part of the American westering process, deserves greater attention from historians and the public at large.


A Thesis Presented to the Department of History and the Faculty of the Graduate College University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts University of Nebraska at Omaha. Copyright 2000, Molly Kizer

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