Usually you pick up a history book on some interesting subject and you read about the historical facts, the interpretations, and ramifications. Those are all supported by evidence which may come in the form of speeches, writing, pictures, maps, etc.
In Look of the Elephant it is just the opposite. There is a little context. Almost the entire book is made up of the evidence, the actual words of the emigrants along with some pictures and maps. This book is meant for those who already know about the westward migration and now want to put a human face on it and explore what the actual migration was like.
The book introduces travel and trails, has biographies of the dozens of diarists and covers the “jumping off places.” Then it is emigrants’ diary quotes, “Ho for the Elephant” with the quotes being divided by the routes. So if the reader has an interest in a particular route like Donner Summit (there is a whole chapter of Truckee Route quotes), she can go to the relevant section.
Seeing the “elephant” is a euphemism for seeing the real thing. The emigrants were lured by opportunity, the “land flowing with milk and honey “in Oregon the pigs are running about… round and fat, and already cooked, with knives and forks sticking in them so that you can cut off a slice whenever you are hungry.” Lansford Hasting’s Emigrant Guide said that that in California immense herds of domestic animals are raised with little or no expense. They don’t require feed or housing. The “purity of the atmosphere, is most extraordinary, and almost incredible.” Of course there was the lure of gold too.
The reality of the emigrants’ experience was something else.
It is the quotes that give the book its power as the emigrants write about beauty and pathos, being run over by wagons, being bitten by rattlers, how to cook a coon – be sure to walk ten miles to work up an appetite, passing graves by the dozens, Indians, dust, lots of dying, mosquitoes – “Musketoes in any quantity of all sizes ages from the size of a Gnat up to a Humingbird, with their bills all freshly sharpened, and ravenous appitities (sic)”, wasted buffalo, birth, murder – “he drew his pistol & shot Dunbar dead. He was tried & hung on our old wagon at sundown”, family relationships, ice – “every man was clad in an armor of ice; the mules, too, were harnessed in ice…”, accident, oxen – “how the teamsters would whip those poor oxen until their sides were be covered with gashes and the blood driped down so. O you poor creatures!”, human nature – one man offered a barrel of sugar for sale for three times the usual cost. When no one would pay that he poured turpentine in it an “burnt it up. The spirit of selfishness has been here beautifully developed” with discarded objects being broken up with hatchets so no one could use them, and July 4th celebrations.
The hardness of the emigration experience is shown in the many quotes about the dead and dying animals littering the trails, the graves, and the emigrants reduced to nothing “a man and his wife…who were on foot, toiling through the hot sand, the man carrying the blankets and other necessaries, and his wife carrying their only child in her arms, having lost all their team.”
At the end there is a section about what happened to many of the diarists which is satisfying.
With all the misery and trial, despite human nature and Mother Nature, the emigrants succeeded and helped build a country. The quotes of the emigrants are eloquent testimony far more than any historical interpretation. They were really tough but also a lot like us.
On reaching California “Strangers in a strange land – what will the future be?"
“I crawled into the wagon, and lay helpless as a child. This was my birth0day, and it was the hardest one of all my life, for without sleeping I had walked fifty-five miles.”
“Wagons, harness, stoves, and all kinds of property we find strewn along the road now.”
The abandonment and destruction of property …. is extraordinary….bacon in great piles,….good meat, Bags of beans, salt, &c. &c. Trunks, chests, tools of every description clothing, tents, tent-poles, harness, &c. &c.” as well as a “Diving Bell,” “heavy anvils,” forges,” etc.
“This day only 7 graves, 33 broken down wagons, 49 head of dead stock.” Contrast to “Weather glorious and heartsom – roads splendid & all things right.
Both sides of the road for miles were lined with dead animals and abandoned wagons. …The owners had left everything, except what provision they could carry on their backs, and hurried on to save themselves…no one stopped gaze or to help.”
All the bad traits of the men are now well-developed, - their true character is shown, untrammeled, unvarnished. Selfishness, hypocrisy, &c.
“young pines….in the most splendid order of natural elegance & profusion,…so many faithful sentinels watching their most treasured care. Such a scene I never saw before nor need to see again to brighten my remembrance of so much Beauty and magnificent Grandure combined.” (sic)
“Oh! the pleasure of lying by on this river for wind, to feast our eyes on the high peaks and cliffs that adorn the banks of this river on either side. Sublime landscape, views that Raphael or Correggio would have given thousands and endured any fatigue to have seen,…’tis enchanting indeed!