Motivations for Westward Movement

The majority of women who made the journey westward did so because the men in their lives decided to go. [1] Women were not allowed much say in the matter due to the largely patriarchal society of the early to mid nineteenth century. [2] Of the surviving diaries and letters written by the women, the response to westward movement was overwhelmingly negative. [3] Men often saw the west as an opportunity to prove themselves and were tempted by the abundance of land. [4] However, women generally made the journey with “hopelessness and frustration,” according to Lillian Schlissel. [5] This was often due to reservations about the opportunities of the west [6], the hardships of the road [7], and particularly their dread of leaving behind friends and family [8].

In order to cope with the move westward many women, including Kate Dunlap, kept diaries or wrote letters. Unfortunately, due to society’s view of women, many of these sources do not survive. [9] However, those diaries that do survive, including Kate Dunlap’s, are often written as a sort of “family history…meant to be handed down through generations.” They were written with information that would be valuable to relatives who planned on making the journey another season, such as places safe to stop, quality of grass for livestock, and general conditions. It is difficult to get the entire picture of the author of the diary due to the general lack of intimate feelings expressed in them. [10] The diary of Kate Dunlap certainly fits this general description of overland diaries. She constantly wrote of the places the horse team stopped, conditions of the road, and the experiences of the group. She even prefaces her diary with an entry concerning life and qualities of Bannack, written about a year after the journey. This information would have been invaluable to relatives planning to move west and would have been a family history to future generations.

Diary Preface

January 1865

[1] Lillian Schlissel, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, ed. Gerda Lerner (New York: Shocken Books, 1982), 10.

[2]William Forrest Sprague, Women and the West: A Short Social History (Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1940),100.

[3] Lillian Schlissel, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, ed. Gerda Lerner (New York: Shocken Books, 1982), 155.

[4] Lillian Schlissel, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, ed. Gerda Lerner (New York: Shocken Books, 1982), 14.

[5]William Forrest Sprague, Women and the West: A Short Social History (Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1940),113.

[6] Lillian Schlissel, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, ed. Gerda Lerner (New York: Shocken Books, 1982), 14.

[7]William Forrest Sprague, Women and the West: A Short Social History (Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1940),100.

[8]William Forrest Sprague, Women and the West: A Short Social History (Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1940),30.

[9] Roger L. Nichols, ed., American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 180.

[10] Lillian Schlissel, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, ed. Gerda Lerner (New York: Shocken Books, 1982), 11.

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