Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Personal experience narratives are those that relate an event from the first-person perspective. In the folk tradition of the Great Plains, such narratives have been preserved and transmitted in a variety of modes–via letters and diaries as well as orally–and often function to document the history of the region in miniature.

The most significant contrast between personal experience narratives and other folknarrative genres has to do with the sense of "private ownership" often attached to personal experience narratives. While other narrative genres follow fairly stable structural and thematic patterns, personal experience narratives– being rooted in the teller's own experiences and perceptions—tend to be idiosyncratic in their form and content, although such narratives can become more traditional in the sense that their form often stabilizes with repetition. Thus, one of the critical functions of personal experience narratives is the role they play in shaping and conveying the identity, values, and aesthetics of their respective tellers. Personal experience narratives play a crucial role in constructing identity; they are one of the primary means by which individuals "perform" their identity for others, and also one of the vital ways in which people construct their own internal sense of identity.

Taken collectively, then, such stories can form a life history of one person, or–if examined in broader contexts–they can help shape family, local, and regional histories. In particular, personal experience narratives as a genre have been taken up for study by those interested in women's history; since the dominant tellers of many traditional folk-narrative genres have been men, scholars have looked to personal experience narratives as an overlooked genre by which women express themselves.

This trend is especially important in terms of the Great Plains, as evidenced by the many recently recovered and published diaries by women journeying west during the age of expansion, as well as by more contemporary life histories of Great Plains women. As Lillian Schlissel notes, aside from the Civil War, "no other event of the [nineteenth] century . . . evoked so many personal accounts as the overland passage." While formally different from orally transmitted personal experience narratives, such literary accounts nevertheless form a critical part of our understanding of Great Plains history and heritage. These historical personal experience narratives, represented in diaries and letters, document perceptions of the Plains and early multiethnic encounters. In her comparative study of women's diaries of the westward journey, for example, Schlissel excerpts the journal of Rebecca Ketcham, a single woman traveling from Ithaca, New York, to Oregon to become a school-teacher, who–upon realizing she has been charged more than other travelers in her group and made to work as well–decides that she "shall find more time to write hereafter." Schlissel also relates the story of Clara Brown, a slave who–after purchasing her own freedom and setting up a laundry in the mining camps of Colorado–sponsored wagon trains to help other freed slaves to migrate west after the Civil War. These narratives include evocative descriptions of the Plains during this era that capture the sense of newness and inspiration they could evoke, such as this passage recorded by Lydia Allen Rudd during her crossing in 1852: "Left the Missouri river for our long journey across the wild uncultivated plains. . . . As we left the river bottom and ascended the bluffs the view from them was handsome! In front of us as far as vision could reach extended the green hills covered with fine grass."

Many of the personal narratives recounted in such texts can be found in oral tradition and family histories as well. The multitude of similar narratives suggests that the stories are probably apocryphal; even so, they can be very accurate barometers of historical development and change. One such narrative has become so prevalent that it earned its own title of sorts, "Goldilocks on the Oregon Trail." The story recounts the allegedly historical fact of a Native American chief becoming so enamored of a young woman (who invariably has beautiful blonde or red hair) that he offers the men in the party an entire herd of horses, cattle, or some other treasure in exchange for the "exotic" beauty. While this story is told in many families as "true," it clearly cannot be documented; nevertheless, its popularity and themes tell us much about how both early settlers and their contemporary descendants wish to remember, or imagine, Native American reactions to white encroachment. Captivity narratives– again, whether transmitted verbally or in writing–also document one side of the story of early encounters. As such, these types of narrative, true or not, become a significant part of our understanding of Plains history.

Since the inception of the American Folklore Society in 1888, folklorists have been interested in documenting and preserving the customs and oral traditions of Plains Indians, an interest that has resulted in fieldwork recordings and transcriptions that work to balance out Anglo-American narratives of settlement. One of the great ethical dilemmas in early fieldwork with Native Americans, however, was that fieldworkers' own biases led them either to misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent their informants' narratives. Contemporary folklorists and anthropologists collecting personal experience narratives from individuals of all groups, but particularly from traditionally underrepresented groups, are making a more concerted effort to collaborate with their informants in a reciprocal way that allows the person's words to stand on their own. Anthropologist Sally McBeth's collaborative work with Shoshone elder Essie Burnett Horne, for example, represents an attempt to voice a traditionally underrepresented aspect of Great Plains history in as direct and unmediated a way as possible. Horne's life story, which begins on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, traces the development of one woman's pan-Indian and pan-Plains identity through her years as a student at the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas, to her becoming a teacher herself at Indian schools in Oklahoma and North Dakota, before retiring to the White Earth (Chippewa) Reservation in Minnesota. All along she offers a counternarrative to the Indian schools' policy of assimilation by showing how, instead, the schools allowed "multitribal alliances" to be forged.

Thus, the personal experience narrative, while seemingly simple and limited in scope, can lend tremendous insight not only into the identity of a single person but into the history of the Great Plains itself.

See also AFRICAN AMERICANS: Brown, "Aunt" Clara / GENDER: Captivity Narratives.

Rosemary V. Hathaway University of Northern Colorado

Horne, Esther Burnett, and Sally McBeth. Essie's Story: The Life and Legacy of a Shoshone Teacher. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Schlissel, Lillian. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

Stahl, Sandra Dolby. Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

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