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Take five: Animal-human connection grew on the overland trail

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2012 - As anyone who’s ever played the Oregon Trail computer games can attest, animals – oxen, mules, horses and cattle – were extremely important on the long and difficult journey west. They helped settlers hunt for food, carried their luggage and hauled their wagons.

But according to Diana Ahmad, a professor of history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the animals didn’t just help the settlers survive the journey. Separated from society by thousands of miles and several weeks, many settlers found companionship in their animals, too.

“What I found is that they cared about their animals,” said Ahmad, who has spent the past three years studying hundreds of diaries and other documents left by the pioneers.

But Americans in the 19th century weren’t supposed to care about animals at all. “The ministers are all going ‘No, no, no,’ – because of the belief that God gave the earth to humans, and the animals were there to do their bidding – and even philosophers are going, ‘Who cares? They have no feelings. They cannot reason, so don’t worry about them,’” Ahmad said.

Ahmad estimates that 85 percent of the diaries she’s read make some mention of animals. Some were gushy from the beginning – two were filled completely with poetry written about the animals – but others were more prosaic, with entries like “Oxen died today.”  

As their journeys wore on, Ahmad saw even the more level-headed diarists “start to get more romantic. Not a mushy kind of romantic, but they get much more concerned about their animals. … [I]t’s as much a realization that they need the animals in a way that they never dreamt they’d need the animals.”

Unfortunately, there wasn’t usually a happily-ever-after ending for most of the animals and their owners. Once the settlers reached their destination, the first thing many did was turn around and sell their animals.

“You think, ‘Wait! He was your buddy! … You did this, you did that. And you’re just going to sell him?’” Ahmad said. “But practicality kicks in at the end, because by the time they get to wherever they’re going, these animals take on a huge economic value because there aren’t that many horses or mules out in Oregon or in California.”

After publishing a few papers on the subject, including one released this summer in the Great Plains Quarterly, Ahmad is at work on a book scheduled to be published by a university press next year. She’s still unsure of the title.

Ahmad said her interest started with the 11 volume "Covered Wagon Women" series. Wondering if she could fine something for a conference paper, she went through and found a real connection between the people going West and their animals. 

She tells of a man who was taking his dog, Tiger, with him and couldn't find the animal at his first stop. Se he goes back for the dog and is, eventually, reuinted. In his diary, he "spends all his time talking about Tiger – he licked his face, and oh, it was so wonderful, blah blah blah. Well, they get all the way to Oregon, and the night before they get to their very last place, where they’re actually going to live – Tiger drinks some alkali water and dies," Ahmad relates. But what grabbed her attention wasn't the sadness of that ending, but that "I didn’t even know he brought his wife with him until the last day. He spent the whole time talking about Tiger, and oh by the way I’ve got a wife. What wife?!"

Why is this important to her? "There is a sense that the domestic animals had become companions in the adventure. So Tiger was not just a dog; Tiger was his buddy," she said.

Part of what she discovers is the companion element. Another is the importance of the animals. "If you start with six or seven oxen pulling the wagon, and you’re down to four, and one of your animals literally collapses and dies, which happened a lot, what are you going to do?" Ahmad said. "So they talk about the animals, they talk about the impact on their families – they apologize to the animal in many cases.

"And again, why did they care? God said you didn’t need to care. So it goes beyond what’s necessary."

Part of the enjoyment of writing the book, Ahmad said, is in fulfilling a life-long passion: "I’ve been in love with the American west literally since the first grade. It’s really given me a sense of how spectacular these people were. I mean, mind-boggling what they did."

Neel Thakkar is a Beacon intern.