History teachers and students can now access an online library to take a more personal look at the lives of their ancestors and other trailblazers who trekked westward during the Gold Rush and Mormon migration.
The Trails of Hope digital collection, developed at Brigham Young University, contains 59 diaries penned on the Mormon, California, Oregon and Montana trails between 1846 and 1869. Interactive maps, photos and essays supplement the diaries, most of which were previously unpublished.
"I can see teachers downloading sections and pieces to be viewed in the classroom," said Susan Fales, curator of digital historical collections at the Harold B. Lee Library. "We hope school children can read and see the actual handwriting as well as the transcripts."
The youngest of the diarists was Emmeline B. Wells, who at 18 years old was part of the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, Ill. After settling in Utah, Wells became known for her work as an advocate of women's suffrage and as the fifth general president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But she first experienced the hardships of trail life.
"It looked like pictures I have seen of the ancients pitching their tents and journeying from place to place with their cattle and their goods," wrote Wells when she joined the pioneer camp.
As time passed, punctuation vanished from her diary but vivid description remained. "Just across the creek someone had set the prairie on fire how we were to cross this was a question it ran like lightning through the grass making a crackling among the bushes resembling the noise of burning crackers."
"The fact that both the original manuscript and a typed manuscript are provided makes the collection a very reliable source," said professor Richard Rieck of Western Illinois University, who used the site to research geography and death on the overland trails. "One day when using Google to look for any trail diaries I could find, up popped one from the collection and that day I dropped everything else and began to 'mine' it for everything I could use."
The Web site also features brief biographies of each of the diarists and search options to locate journal entries about specific names, places and events.
Construction of the collection began in 1998 when the Lee Library won a $65,000 grant from the Library of Congress/Ameritech Digital Library Competition. Library staff then combined materials from their Special Collections department with resources from other institutions. The finished product consists of 9,350 scanned images of the writings along with the searchable, text-based transcripts of each diary. The information is also hosted on the Library of Congress Web site.
Producing digital versions of the diaries not only protects the original diaries from overuse but also makes the writing and history accessible to a broader audience, Fales said.
"One of the key components is that we developed this for everybody," Fales said. "We want to reach out to people who would never walk through our doors."
The collection is also sponsored by the Utah Academic Library Consortium. Institutions contributing to the collection include the Church Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Utah State Historical Society, the Churchill County Museum in Fallon, Nev., the University of Utah, Utah State University, Idaho State University, and the University of Nevada-Reno.
In addition to Trails of Hope, the Lee Library hosts 12 other digital collections, such as the BYU Museum of Art Collection and the journal Marriage and Families. All of these can be found through the library's main page, www.lib.byu.edu/hbll/.