In popular mythology, the Overland Trail is typically a triumphant tale, with plucky easterners crossing the Plains in caravans of covered wagons. But not everyone reached Oregon and California. Some 6,600 migrants perished along the way and were buried where they fell, often on Indigenous land. As historian Sarah Keyes illuminates, their graves ultimately became the seeds of U.S. expansion.
By the 1850s, cholera epidemics, ordinary diseases, and violence had remade the Trail into an American burial ground that imbued migrant deaths with symbolic power. In subsequent decades, U.S. officials and citizens leveraged Trail graves to claim Native ground. Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples pointed to their own sacred burial grounds to dispute these same claims and maintain their land. These efforts built on anti-removal campaigns of the 1820s and 30s, which had established the link between death and territorial claims on which the significance of the Overland Trail came to rest.
In placing death at the center of the history of the Overland Trail, American Burial Ground offers a sweeping and long overdue reinterpretation of this historic touchstone. In this telling, westward migration was a harrowing journey weighed down by the demands of caring for the sick and dying. From a tale of triumph comes one of struggle, defined as much by Indigenous peoples’ actions as it was by white expansion. And, finally, from a migration to the Pacific emerges instead a trail of graves. Graves that ultimately undergirded Native dispossession.
Sarah Keyes is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Reno.
"The great overland migration was one of the true epics of American history. In American Burial Ground, Sarah Keyes gives us a fresh and decidedly darker view of life and death on the trails to California and Oregon—what one traveler called this ‘boundless city of the dead.’ The story was as well a struggle between newcomers and Natives for the possession of sacred lands in the West."
~Elliott West, author of The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado
"Anyone who thought there was nothing left to say about the Overland Trail is wrong. By focusing on death, Sarah Keyes brilliantly shows how the Overland Trail became a national cemetery that allowed white Americans to claim Indigenous territory for themselves. Against this erasure, Keyes also provides a deep engagement with Indigenous history, giving voice to Indigenous counternarratives opposing separation from their ancestors’ bones, revealing how their removals were marked by graves as well as tears, and registering how Indigenous people engaged with white nationalist politics in an effort to retain and regain their homelands. A sobering look at western history and a profound meditation on how deaths are remembered and forgotten."
~Jeffrey Ostler, author of Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas
"American Burial Ground reminds us how much we can learn when a wise-eyed historian takes a new approach to the classic story of westward migration. Sarah Keyes deftly shifts the focus from the heroic pioneers who crossed the continent on the Overland Trail to the bodies of those they buried along the way. The dead, she tells us, bolstered white claims to the West, helping to turn Native places into an American place. But the Native dead have served their communities too, registering the costs of conquest and helping to fuel resistance to white settlement."
~Ann Fabian, author of The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead