Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Research in Nebraska's Legacy of the Plains Museum for Answer Creek, an essay by Ashley E. Sweeney

Research in museums and archives can reveal important details for historical novelists. Contributing an essay on this topic is author Ashley Sweeney, whose second novel, Answer Creek, is published by She Writes Press today.


Research in Nebraska's Legacy of the Plains Museum for Answer Creek
Ashley E. Sweeney

On a broad swath of prairie grassland just outside Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska, there’s a little-known gem of a place that’s a veritable mother lode for western memorabilia and research.

The Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, Nebraska houses The Paul and Helen Henderson Collection, an amazing compilation of the Hendersons' 50 years documenting the Oregon Trail. In addition to 100 boxes filled with slides, maps, photographs, manuscripts, pioneer diaries, guides, and letters spanning the 19th century, the collection also includes notes, correspondence, maps, diagrams, and photographs from the Hendersons themselves.

As I was traveling the length of the Oregon-California Trail doing research for Answer Creek, I made an appointment at the museum to check out their collection. My parameters: reading original journals and diaries from 1845-1859. Little did I know that what might have taken a couple of hours turned into an entire day! So it was, for more than six hours on a sweltering day in mid-July 2018, I spread out the contents of seven boxes of material in the museum’s conference room and raced the clock to copy, photograph (with permission), and cite document after document. Hour turned to hour and I didn’t even have time—or the inclination—to take a break.

Thursday, June 12 1845
The weather being extremely hot, and there being not a single drop of water to be obtained before we got to the gorge, we suffered a great deal from the thirst, as did our poor animals . . .
—J. Henry Carleton

April 23 1847
Made 19 miles; traveled until dark. Ate a cold bite and went to bed chilly and cold, which is very disagreeable with a parcel of little children . . .
—Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer

June 29th 1847
To day our cattle complained; much of the dust is very bad. The road to day is very uneven, and winds amongst the Black Hills. The emigrants now begin to see that they have loaded too heavy . . .
—Chester Ingersoll

Thursday, May 26th 1859
Rather cold. Continued our journey up the South Side of the South Platte. We haven’t anything to lose by going, and nothing to make by going back . . .
—J. A. Wilkinson

Quite a bit of the information I gleaned from my day at Legacy of the Plains found its way into Answer Creek. My favorite was a passage where the journal writer describes emigrants “swilling rot-gut whiskey for spiritual consolation.” Through the words of tired and dust-covered overland pioneers, I could almost taste it.

All the while, my husband (and usual research assistant), toured the museum, videotaped an authentic threshing bee on the museum grounds, and shot the breeze with some older locals. Michael spent his summers as a child in nearby Bayard, Nebraska on his great aunt and uncle’s farm so there’s a deep connection for him in that particular part of the world.

I was also particularly taken with western Nebraska—its wide skies, unusual monoliths, and amazing cloud formations. At the top of Scott’s Bluff National Monument, you can almost touch the sky. And then we bedded down at a bed and breakfast that rivals any we’ve ever stayed at, with each guest room appointed with authentic trail memorabilia and antiques. And the hospitality! As a native New Yorker, I’d never given Nebraska the time of day before then. Not anymore.





About Answer CreekShaped by Sweeney’s thorough research and vivid prose, this memorable and moving novel of the Donner Party rises above the scandalous to deliver a compassionate portrayal of families pushed to the edge of their humanity and of a determined young woman carving her own path toward love and independence.

 Award-winning author Ashley E. Sweeney received the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. Sweeney is a former journalist and educator. A native New Yorker, she now divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Tucson, Arizona. Answer Creek (She Writes Press, May 2020) is her second novel. Find her online at ashleyesweeneyauthor.com, @ashleysweeney57, facebook.com/ashleysweeney57, and Instagram at ashleysweeney57.

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