Dr. Sarah Keyes announces the publication of American Burial Ground: A New History of the Overland Trail (University of Pennsylvania Press), a sweeping reinterpretation of one of the great epics of American History.
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 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.
American Burial Ground: A New History of the Overland Trail is available now.