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  • Success Depends on the Animals: Emigrants, Livestock, and Wild Animals on the Overland Trails, 1840–1869 by Diana L. Ahmad
  • Robyn Hederman (bio)
Success Depends on the Animals: Emigrants, Livestock, and Wild Animals on the Overland Trails, 1840–1869. By Diana L. Ahmad. (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2016. 132 + xii pp. Hardback. $31.95. ISBN 978-0-87417-997-2.)

"Nearly three hundred thousand men, women, and children" crossed the American continent seeking new opportunities in the American west from the 1840s throughout the 1860s (p. ix). People from the United States and Europe traveled to California, Oregon, and Utah to find fertile lands, new homes, and religious freedom. In this concise book, Diana L. Ahmad tells the story of the "tens of thousands of horses, mules, oxen and cattle" accompanying the emigrants on their journey. This story unfolds through seven chapters. Drawing on primary sources, including diaries and later reminiscences of the settlers, Ahmad seeks to show how the emigrants' relationship with their animals grew from "one of utility to one of friendship and companionship" (p. ix).

Religious, philosophical, legal, and cultural ideas influenced the emigrants as they readied themselves for their journey. The emigrants read advice books that taught them to have "love for all innocent creatures" (p. 12). Authors Lydia Maria Child and Lydia Sigourney emphasized the importance of teaching children to be kind to animals. Ministers instructed the emigrants that although humans ruled over animals, "wanton cruelty against animals demonstrated 'impiety towards their Creator'" (p. 8).

The emigrants soon discovered their fate was tied to the well-being of their animals. [End Page 225] Extensive attention to the needs of the animals dominated their preparation for the trip. Guidebooks, newspapers, and letters from friends recommended that the greatest attention should be paid to the animals (p. 25). Emigrants purchased food for their animals in anticipation of a lack of grass along the trails. In May 1856, Finley McDiarmid from Wisconsin purchased "an extra wagon specifically for hauling grain for his animals" (p. 23).

As the emigrants became overlanders, they learned to identify and treat the diseases of their animals. Veterinarians recommended medicinal opium for horses, to act as an "antispasmodic, sedative, and astringent while also encouraging muscular strength" (p. 61). Overlanders also brought home remedies for ailing animals; they used a mixture of brandy and laudanum to treat colic, and soap and lard to treat snakebites. As the overlanders continued their journey, they looked for trails with easily accessible grass and water. Being mindful of their ministers' advice to let the animals rest on Sunday, most emigrants incorporated Sunday as a day of rest "unless it was actually necessary," to keep traveling (p. 31).

Ahmad brings to life the challenges faced by the emigrants and the animals during their journey. Overlanders going to Oregon faced "mountains with dangerous ascents and descents," while those going to California "faced a river that disappeared in western Nevada, a forty-mile desert, and trails through Sierra Nevada" (p. 45). Thunderstorms caused the livestock to stampede, animals wandered off, and animals became lame or sick. Emigrants and animals drowned on a regular basis while attempting to cross rivers.

The number of abandoned and dead animals grew as the overlanders crossed the desert. The emigrants described this part of the California Trail as "the hardest part of the route for both men and beast" (p. 46). According to Ahmad, animals died in the thousands between the Humbolt Sink and the Truckee River or the Carson River (p. 48). Many overlanders were forced to abandon their sick and injured animals. After being unhitched from the wagons, one animal collapsed on the road, and other animals gathered around their fallen companion and "gave utterance to a sad wail" (p. 53). Some emigrants returned to their animals several days later, hoping to find them recovered. Not all overlanders expressed sadness at leaving the animals behind, but others shed tears as they passed "those starved and worn out creatures that have rendered for the benefit of man their last staggering effort" (p. 53). While some shot the animals "to terminate their sufferings," others allowed them to live because of a "mistaken feeling of...


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