Writing Home: Commentary

1. Patterson Fletcher Luark and Michael Fleenan Luark, 1853 Oregon Trail Diaries

The travels of overland migrants toward the Pacific Coast, especially between 1840 and 1860, became one of the nation’s great epics, retold in fiction and film for much of the twentieth century.  The writings of the migrants themselves formed the basis of that epic.  Those who moved by land to California, Oregon, Washington, and Utah, in particular, proved to be an especially literate group.  They left behind a voluminous record of their travels, written in diaries, journals, and letters at the time of the journey; and later in their lives they generated a vast array of autobiographical texts created from memory or from writings produced on the trail.  The result was one of the best documented, mass migrations in history.  Using this richness of primary sources, scholars have written extensively about the overland westward migration (Unruh 1979; Mattes 1988) and its impact on the Pacific Northwest (Bowen 1978; Meinig 1968).

For all that has been written about the experience of overland travelers, most of the migrants themselves were not especially prolific writers while on the trail.  Their daily entries in diaries and journals were frequently terse, recording little more than comments on distances traveled, basic environmental conditions, place names, the health of people and livestock, and, from time to time, memorable events.  Like explorers, these migrants were establishing both the fact of place and the fact that they had been in the place.  Yet in contrast to explorers these travelers did not write because they had been the first non-Indians to visit places along the trail.  Rather, they seemed conscious that they were participating in an important large-scale event, and they also wanted to be able to share records of their experiences with friends and family.  Some migrants wished to correspond with relatives and acquaintances they had left behind, but many others wrote as links in a chain migration that moved extended families and communities westward.

The brothers Patterson Fletcher Luark (1814-1901) and Michael Fleenen Luark (1818-1901) migrated westward along the Oregon Trail with their families in 1853.  The two grew up in a poor household that moved frequently.  As adults the two men married (Patterson twice), produced eight children between them, and had bouts of poor health.  By the 1850s they both dwelled in the Midwest, whence they decided to move together to the Northwest.  Leaving Illinois, Patterson and Michael Luark crossed the Mississippi River and traveled up the Missouri to the Platte River, which they in turn followed into the Rocky Mountains.  After crossing South Pass, the brothers followed the Snake River into northeastern Oregon.  The account included here takes up their journey in the vicinity of the Umatilla River.  In this final stage of their cross-country travels, the brothers parted ways at the Columbia River, with Patterson taking the families’ wagons west by land to Portland and Michael journeying downstream to Portland by boat.  The brothers later reunited and went to settle in the area around Olympia, in the newly created Washington Territory.

Having the two brothers’ accounts side-by-side enables readers to compare and contrast styles.  Patterson wrote considerably less than did Michael, who described the country and its resources in much greater detail and penned many more observations of other migrants and of Native Americans.  This difference played out as well over the two men’s lifetimes.  Between 1846 and 1899 Michael Luark produced twenty-five volumes of diaries, and even recopied his overland trail journal.  It is doubtful that Patterson Luark left anything besides his trail diary, the only known copy of which survives on microfilm.  More information about the Luarks may be found in Jablon and Elkins (1998).

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