People who have visited my webpages on the 1852 and 1853 McCully wagon trains often ask how to find a family or a person who came west on one of the overland trails. Below, I've presented some aids that may help you with such a search. Please feel free to contact me if you have specific questions that you think I might be able to help with.
Don't be surprised if you don't find much about your people. It has been estimated that 50,000 people came overland in 1852, alone ("The Great Platte River Road," by Merrill J. Mattes - 1969) Yet, probably no more than 1000 eye-witness accounts covering all the years of the great overland migration have found their way to museums and other archives. Many of these are brief reminiscences, and only a few give many names of travelers. If you find an account that gives you good information, consider yourself very lucky. If, by any chance, you have family papers that tell about the westward movement, be sure to get copies into libraries or museums where others can see them, and so they won't be tossed out by some disinterested descendant of yours in the future.
If I've discouraged you about your chances of finding information, take heart. There are a number of good ways to search, and the searches can be very rewarding. Of the four overland trips in which my wife's ancestors participated, we have found good, informative journals for two of them, and some pretty good latter-day reminiscences for the other two.
Courthouse Rock, Nebraska, one of the looked-for landmarks
STEP ONE: Figure out what you already know. This is the same first step you should take in any genealogical research (or any kind of in-depth investigation, for that matter). You may have more than you think you have. The more names, dates, and places you know about, the more productive your future searches will be.
-Family papers may tell the year of travel, family members on the trip, names of other people on the trip, route traveled, places visited, unusual events, where they started and finished, dates traveled, etc.
-Obituaries (even in the next generation after the travelers) may say things like "he was a member of Mr. Ikenberry's party," or "his grandparents were among those who arrived at Sacramento in October of 1852."
-If you have census records, they can give clues to years of travel; for instance, you might see that one child was born in Ohio in 1852 and the next one was born in Oregon in 1854, giving you a pretty good window to search. (And if you know the actual dates of the census, you might be able to use ages to narrow the window a little more.)
STEP TWO (and all subsequent steps): Start building. The following suggestions are not meant to exhaust the field of possibilities. They represent either specific things you can do, or ideas of the kinds of resources that may be available for your area of interest.
Check lists of manuscripts - There are a number of bibliographies of overland narratives, and some of them include indexes to the names mentioned in the journals and reminiscences. Two that I use a lot are:
-"Overland Passages: A Guide to Overland Documents in the Oregon Historical Society" by K. White and M. Cuthill (1993, Oregon Historical Society Press). This publication lists the 233 manuscripts of overland travel that OHS had in their archives at that time (they have more, now), gives a brief summary of what is included, and has over 50 pages of names from those 233 manuscripts (given by the journal name and the year of travel).
-"Platte River Narratives" by Merrill Mattes (1988, University of Illinois Press). This is by far the most comprehensive list of overland trail documents so far compiled. Mattes gives a brief description of each journal, and where it is archived. The indexes give lots of information on years of travel and travelers identified.
Check out pioneer files - For example, the Oregon Historical Society library in Portland has a card file with thousands of names of pioneers. Some contain just a traveler's name. Others have extensive information on the person and their family. The Genealogical Forum of Oregon library in Portland has a less comprehensive, but similar file. County historical museums may have such compilations for their local areas.
For Oregon travelers, check the Donation Land Claim (DLC) records - Probably the majority of settlers who arrived in Oregon in the mid-19th Century claimed land. The Genealogical Forum of Oregon has provided a wonderful service by abstracting the genealogical data from all these claims (the originals of which are on file in the Oregon State Archives), and publishing them in a series of books. An application often included the person's name, where and when he was born, when and where naturalized, who he married and when, the date he got to Oregon, and of course the location of the claim. This kind of information is available even if the claim was ultimately rejected (for example, if the land in question was already claimed, or if the claimant decided not to settle there, after all).
One piece of information that may ultimately be the key to finding more about your ancestors' wagon train is the date of "arrival in Oregon." This usually means when they got to the Willamette Valley (Oregon City or Salem, often). Even if you don't find the specific name you are looking for in a journal, you may find other names in the DLC records of people who arrived on the same day as your ancestors. Those manuscripts would be worth checking for starting points, and dates and routes of travel.
I suspect some other states have this type of information, but I haven't used it yet. I'd like to hear about any such resources.
Have a search done by COED (Census of Overland Emigrant Documents). Available through the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) is a computerized database of names included in overland documents. For a small fee, you can have a name searched for a specified number of years. The search gives you a lot of sound-alike names, which is useful because names are not always spelled correctly in the original manuscripts, and are not always interpreted properly when somebody later tries to decipher handwriting. COED is accessible through the OCTA website. It is also now available for purchase on CD-Rom.
Check the "Portrait and Biography" books - From about 1880 to 1920, almost every county (sometimes a multi-county area) had a book of biographical sketches done. Some are very good, particularly for well-known family members or for families that stayed in the area for several generations. Many of these were subscription publications, paid for by the individuals who gave the biography for inclusion. The sketches usually are pretty self-glorifying or ancestor glorifying (hey, are you going to pay for anything less?), and consequently the information presented may not be entirely objective (or accurate), but some are very good on details of the person's life. For example, in a Willamette Valley biography, I found several paragraphs of description of an 1849 trip from Iowa to the California gold fields, the same trip on which some of our ancestors had gone.
A particularly useful book for Oregon emigrants, done along the lines of the "biographical record" books, is: "History of the Willamette Valley" by H. O. Lang (1885 - Himes and Lang, Portland, OR). Lang gives many short sketches of Oregon pioneers, and has organized them under the year that they reached Oregon. (Note: some of these years are incorrect, but that is the usual caveat with historical books - maybe all books!)
See if there are local history/genealogy compilations - Linn County, Oregon, has an excellent set of publications (about 20 of them, now, I think) called "Linn County, Oregon, Pioneer Settlers to 1855" compiled by J. Miles and R. R. Milligan. The authors have created family charts and have compiled obituaries and other personal records of these early families. At the Genealogical Forum of Oregon library in Portland, I've seen a similar typewritten series on Yamhill County families. These stand out as being particularly useful, but there are others out there, too.
Check for sites on the World Wide Web that specialize in overland trail topics - For example, this site has a number of webpages devoted to lists of travelers who arrived in California or Oregon on various dates. Another excellent site is Liz Larson's Overland Trail Pages. There are others.
Subscribe to e-mail lists devoted to overland trail topics - For example, the Rootsweb site Oregon-Trail-L is fairly active. You can subscribe by e-mailing <email@example.com> and typing "subscribe" in the message area (no subject line needed).
As I noted at the top of this page, this is not an exhaustive list of resources, but merely a compilation of some of the sources I have found most helpful. It strongly favors Oregon Trail research. If you know of good sources for overland research, please let me know about them, and I'll add them to the page. Good hunting to all!