Source Report on the "Western Americana" Collection
The Western Americana Frontier History of the Trans-Mississippi West 1550-1900 is a vast compilation of personal accounts detailing the exploration, settlement, and culture of the 19th century American West. The collection contains a wide range of sources, including, but by no means limited to; the journals of Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike, many stories of mountain men, emigrant guidebooks, tales of the Oregon Trail, taller tales of gold mining success, accounts of incidents with Native Americans, as well as the ubiquitous reports of Mormon encounters. Originally published in the 1800's, these books and journals are stored together on microfilm in the Bowdoin College library.
The origins of this collection remain a mystery to me and to the librarians. The library catalogue lists the author of each narrative, but the often-incomplete citations provide little insight into who put the collection together. Likewise, nobody knows when the collection was created. I can therefore only guess that the collection was created as a way to preserve these accounts and at the same time make them available to a much larger number of people.
This collection is somewhat tedious to use. To initiate my search, I word-searched the library's catalogue for "western americana." This produced an unreasonably large 280 hits, leading me to try a fruitless subject-search. A title-search located the collection, retrieving 244 entries under the heading Western Americana Frontier History of the Trans-Mississippi West 1550-1900. I attempted to narrow down the number of hits by combining "western americana" with other terms related to my topic, such as "women," "Mrs.," "church," or "religion." Adding "women" to the search produced zero hits and illustrates the success I had with these attempts. I decided, and the reference librarians later confirmed, that my only option was to look through all 244 hits to see if there were any related to my topic. There is no index or finding aid for this collection that magically tells a researcher what entries are related to his/her topic. The only option is to look through the catalogue, find a relevant entry, and then skim over the microfilm to see if it is actually related to the topic. To me, there is no apparent organization in the order of the entries. The librarians could find none either. The few entries concerning women or religion were spread throughout the collection. Some were on their own spools whereas others were mixed in with various other narratives. While looking through the microfilm and trying various other searches, I found new books that I had not seen on the library catalogue's original return. This collection is frustrating to use because its poor organization and inefficient search methods almost guarantee that a researcher will overlook good sources.
This source was not quite as productive as I had hoped. The collection is overwhelmingly orientated toward white males. While I am sure that the male accounts must mention women and religion in some places, lacking an index, it is impossible to go through all of them looking for something related to my topic. I therefore looked at all of the entries that appeared to be written by or about women, as well as others. Many of the hits that originally looked promising turned out to be disappointments. I did find a few narratives that will be of some use. One relates Ann Coleson's days as a Sioux captive and another is the posthumously published journal and letters of the missionary Dolly E. Hoyt. I also looked at many diatribes against the Mormons, the most promising of which was Mrs. B. G. Ferris' The Mormons at Home, an account of her time in Salt Lake City. All of the sources are highly opinionated and will help me divine the sentiments of westerners toward Mormons and of missionaries toward Native Americans. Dolly Hoyt's diary provides an insight into what motivated some women to leave their secure homes in order to preach to Native Americans. Books like Ferris' relates how non-Mormon women reacted to polygamy and other Mormon customs. While these may end up being large parts of my paper, I was hoping to find more journals recounting the everyday lives of female pioneers, so that I could see what part religion and church played in them. I have had much more success finding these types of sources in the college's stacks than in this collection.