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Westward Bound — Warts

As a historian, what do you do with passages that don’t always hold the subject in a good light?

One might chalk it up to feeling “a little shopworn with our journey” but that’s probably not it. Trying to fill the long hours of the layover in Ogden, Ella and Oscar took the family back to the depot early and let the children go to sleep. The family boarded their train at the scheduled time and went to sleep soon afterward while the train made its way into Nevada. Oscar saw and heard Salt Lake roaring and splashing over the car windows. He didn’t awaken Ella, knowing how tired out she was.

You should have seen the car windows next morning. They were covered with dried salt and so they turned the hose on them and washed them off.

We were in Nevada now, which is not noted for beautiful scenery on the Southern Pacific R. We could see mountains all day in the distance, but, Oh, such a desert as we passed through. Most of the little places we passed through were full of Mexicans and they are so evil looking.

We passed through Elko at some time in the afternoon. We saw a sandstorm about a mile away, spouting into the air. The wind was loud, very hot and dry, making one feel very irritable indeed.

Soon darkness began to steal on us again and so this uncomfortable Saturday afternoon merged into twilight and our little brood began to chirp for bed so we composed ourselves to sleep. A family of foreigners got on the train soon after and began to tut a rut to tut tut so loudly that it soon decomposed our sleep.

Ella Hile Diary, 11-13.

Obviously this is not the most flattering portrayal of Ella and probably not something the reader was expecting. As a great-grandson it is tempting to simply hit the delete key and erase the offending passages; almost no one would ever know I had done that. As a historian, however — a family historian, no less — one cannot be so cavalier with the unpleasant. The role of the historian is not to lay blame or pass judgment, and I will not do so here. Ella was a product of her times, just as we are products of our own, and I do consider it the province of the historian to help explain progress from one point in time to another in all its many complexities and contexts.

If Ella Smith Hile was fully consumed by racism the approach to her story might be different, but anyone who has read her words and known her personally knows that would not be a true reflection of her being. If her views had stayed solely within her and not filtered their way down to her children and their descendants, telling of the story might also be different, but I have personal knowledge that would not be accurate, either. I am also convinced that race — in all its contours and manifestations, both good and bad — is one of the prime components, if not the prime factor that defines the American experience, so Ella’s story must be told — warts and all — if for no other reason than to demonstrate progress and growth, something I can also attest to personally.

There was a bit of humor left in the day. Ella described the feature photo as Lois, Dallas, and Wilbur insisting they be photographed as Oscar was taking the photo seen below. And then …

The train depot in Elko, Nevada wasn’t actually on fire when the Hiles passed through but winds and the sun almost made it seem that way.

We had passed through Reno about dusk but not caring much about a divorce at this time, we did not stop. We learned that we were about to pass through the most thrilling interesting places that night and I wished for owl or cat eyes, for a time, for I couldn’t sleep much on account of those foreign voices.


What happened next, came as a total shock to me …

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