On the Edge of Civilization: The Life of a Frontier Emigrant

Historical archaeology, defined as “the study of the material remains of past societies that also left behind some other form of historical evidence” (Society for Historical Archaeology https://sha.org/), has the benefit of textual resources to enhance our understanding and interpretation of artifacts.  For the Steamboat Bertrand collection, documents such as journals provide invaluable insight into the daily life of frontier men and women.  While many of these are hard to find published and accessible, some do exist, such as Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford.  This diary chronicles the life of eighteen-year-old Indiana native Mollie Dorsey from her family move to Nebraska through her marriage and settlement in Denver, Colorado in the 1860s.  Her story begins in 1857 when she, along with her parents and eight siblings, board a steamboat bound for Nebraska territory, where her uncles are already settled.  Though aboard a different ship, Mollie’s account of her journey provides us with a sense of what the Bertrand passengers likely experienced until their trip was interrupted. Mollie writes of the diversity among the crowd of voyagers and of their diversions while aboard.  Aside from listening to the “creole porter” sing, Mollie engages in conversation with several male passengers and finds a friend among the women on board (7).  Her bold attitude shines throughout the text and, upon moving into a male-dominated community, quickly becomes the object of several amorous attentions. Despite being thrust into a home “away from the advantages of the world,” Mollie and her family quickly adapt to rural life and struggle to maintain both physical and abstract ideals connected to middle class values (32).  However, hard times, isolation, and impermanence prevent the accumulation of many middle-class goods, especially furniture.  Instead, Mollie frequently focuses on the “sanctuary of domestic happiness,” or home (33).  Home, to Mollie, is tied to people rather than a place, which makes her constitution well suited for nomadic life on the Western frontier.  Mollie’s confessions provide understanding of the values and motivations held by emigrants during the nineteenth century.  Research like this will enhance the analysis and presentation of domestic artifacts from the Bertrand collection.

For further reading:

Sanford, Mollie Dorsey

1915 Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories, 1857-1866.


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