Historical Perspectives-American Westward Expansion
Historians must engage in and contextualize primary and secondary sources to understand the differences between the perspectives of the people at that time and our current perspectives. Primary sources are valuable and necessary when it comes to taking a historical perspective, in any case. Some limitations of taking historical perspectives can be because of limited resources or bias within the sources. When it comes to historical paintings like the one we examined, one definitive point of view could be depicted, and sometimes it is not always factual.
In this module, we learned a bit about what moving west was like in the 19th century and manifest destiny by examining primary sources. I chose to engage in diary entries of Oregon pioneers as one of my primary sources. These entries provided first-hand accounts of some of the things travelers encountered and went through when traveling out west. Travelers kept track of the time they started moving, how many miles they traveled, updates on other members of their families or other groups, and records of encounters with Indians. In some of the diaries that I read, I did not see any direct dialogue relating to any of these people moving because they felt they had a divine obligation to do so. I only recall one diary from a missionary who stated that at the end of his trip a school had commenced starting teaching Indian children, “They have now acquired a sufficient knowledge of the language to teach and communicate religious instruction on the Sabbath. They have quite a large school — children quite interested to learn. The collection for a school is yet a novelty with them — How long they will continue to be as deeply interested no one knows.” Converting Native Americans to Christianity and spreading Christianity throughout the United States was apart of manifest destiny.
Emanuel Leutze created a painting depicting his ideology of “manifest destiny”. This is a historical painting, these types of paintings are valuable but they also have limitations when it comes to studying history. Historical paintings can show us a few things; they can include significant moments in history and they create an artistic rendition of how people viewed their time. A limitation of this painting is it is produced by an artist who used his (possibly biased) perspective to create what he thought manifest destiny was. And the images are not always completely factual, exaggeration of an event can be common in the artwork.
We were also told to try the famous Oregon Trail video game. While this game is in no way a first-hand account of what it was like to travel the Oregon trail, it did give a general idea of what people did and encountered. When it comes to decision-making, there are similarities. Travelers had to decide what was the best way to move across rivers was but there were no pop-up screens letting them know how deep the river was that day. The diseases and injuries present in the game are also accurate, Cholera was common as they encountered bad drinking water during their journeys. There are limits to how realistic a game made in the 90s can be. I think the biggest difference with what occurred in real life as opposed to in the game is the fact that you are traveling by yourself with your family. Many travelers chose to move in large groups for different reasons. Overall, this game can be a fun way to educate students on how difficult it was to navigate the Oregon Trail but it should not be used as a primary source because of its limitations.
Historians must be careful when taking a historical perspective. Not everyone in a particular period of time held the same beliefs or perspectives, which is why sifting through multiple primary and secondary sources is a key part of taking on a historical perspective.