“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” -Ernest Hemingway
A recent family vacation brought to mind the many ways to travel across the country to the Pacific Northwest. One might make the journey by bicycle or perhaps by plane, train or automobile. It is even possible to ascend the Continental Divide and then travel westward by watercraft down a river. An adventurous person might even make the trip on foot.
In the mid-nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of pioneers traveled west across the United States and its territorial lands. Some made the journey on foot, while others traveled on horseback or in wagons. Many of these adventurers traveled at least some portion of the Oregon Trail, a 2,000 mile wagon route from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley in modern-day Oregon, which primarily coursed westward along major tributaries such as the Platte River and Snake River.
Today one can follow much of the Oregon Trail across the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River, which separates Oregon and Washington. The wagon wheel ruts that still remain along much of the historic trail map the route of the pioneers and provide evidence of the important role the rivers played in their journeys across the continent.
The rivers along which the pioneers traveled provided a pathway as their water courses descended from and cut through the formidable mountains and foothills. Perhaps more importantly, the rivers provided life sustaining water for the adventurers and their livestock on the long and exhausting travel across the arid plains and deserts of the west.
The lives of the pioneers depended on sustenance as they made their way westward. The water provided by the rivers was essential to the pioneers’ survival and the success of their journey.
And so it is with every step in life, every journey down a pathway of exploration and search for new meaning. While genealogy may not involve life risking travel, the search for ancestors is often strengthened by, if not dependent on, the nourishment and other sustenance that comes from experiences and relationships developed with others who share the passion for family history.
The genealogical community in its many manifestations provides not only a pathway but also nourishment for the family historian. Societies and associations link individual genealogists with fellow travelers. Conferences, institutes, literature and resources equip researches for the challenges along the way. Libraries and archives serve as guide posts to the road ahead and as travel diaries of the past.
Ancestors often seem to be on the other side of dry deserts and tall mountains. For genealogists, the search for family history is long and often difficult, but the genealogical community serves as inspiration and support. Just as the pioneers almost never crossed the country alone, the genealogist’s search for the past often is better with company along for the journey.