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The West

June 2024
5min read

Americans have always envisioned a West. When they won independence from England in 1783, the West lay just beyond the Appalachian Mountains, a West celebrated in the adventures of Daniel Boone. Then people began to thread through the Cumberland Gap to make new homes there. Boone felt crowded, so in 1799 he moved across the Mississippi River to take up residence in Missouri.

Only four years later President Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana from Napoleon, and the West suddenly leaped the Missouri River and left Boone behind. Gradually this West yielded its contours to Lewis and Clark, explorers, mountain men, and covered-wagon emigrants. Its boundaries expanded as the war with Mexico and diplomacy with England transformed the United States into a continental nation. By mid-century, popularized by the California gold rush, a geographical West had fixed itself in the American mind: the plains, mountains, deserts, and plateaus that separated the Missouri River from the Pacific shore.

Geographically the West endured unchanged in American perceptions. Historically it sprawled into two overlapping Wests—the Real West and the Mythic West. The people who gave life to this vast and varied expanse of geography were real, and historians argue endlessly over exactly who they were, what they did, and why. For the broader public, however, these people also take on fantastic qualities that unite the Real West and the Mythic West. Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse, and others have ascended to immortal legendry. But another dimension is the painters, illustrators, and writers who cast both landscape and people in a romanticism that began to color the public image early in the nineteenth century. Perhaps no other geographic region merges the real and the mythic in such vivid combination. Both fact and fantasy make up the history of the American West.

These people, whatever their mythic content, won the West. But the other half of the story is of the people who lost the West. From Atlantic to Pacific, every West was already inhabited when the first invaders arrived. Indian tribes (sometimes fashionably labeled Native Americans) confronted the newcomers in peace and war, in friendship and hostility, in coexistence, in commerce, in diplomacy, and in a host of other relationships. Unlike the intruders, they recognized no geographical West, only the ever-shifting edges of their tribal domain. For the non-Indian public, however, they are vital players in the history of the West. And in the popular mind they too are both real and mythic and varying combinations of the two.

The history of the West is not alone human. It also embraces what humans did to the West. All, whether resident or invader, historic or prehistoric, imposed constant change on the land and its water, its flora and its fauna. The hugely varied ways of life of humans, from hunters of mastodons to miners, loggers, farmers, dam builders, and others of more recent times, transformed the Real West and even the Mythic West.

For the general reader who would learn of the regional West—the West lying between the Missouri River and Pacific Ocean—10 books are here identified as offering a comprehensive story from the advent of the first humans to the present day. They combine scholarly authority with readability. Anyone who reads them all will have acquired an extensive knowledge and understanding of the Real West and the Mythic West.

The Oxford History of the American West

edited by Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss (1994; Oxford). Inclusive in its coverage, this big, profusely illustrated and mapped book consists of 23 essays by leading historians of the West. All major topics, from prehistoric to modern times, are dealt with by authorities who draw on long study and thought. A final group of essays presents the latest professional interpretations of the Western legacy.

The American West: A New Interpretive History

by Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher (2000; Yale). Matching the inclusiveness of the Oxford History , Hine and Faragher narrate an unfolding story instead of assembling a series of topical essays. The two have joined to revamp Hine’s 1973 history to incorporate interpretive perspectives that have emerged since then.

Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West

by William H. Goetzmann (1966; Texas State Historical Society). A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, this sweeping history of the men who made the West known sets forth the achievements of both the mountain men and the official explorers of the U.S. government through most of the nineteenth century. An important theme highlights the official explorers’ intimate relationship with the scientific community, which gave learned meaning to their findings. This book takes on added value if read in association with the collaboration of the author and his son in The West of the Imagination .

Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History

by Paul Morgan (1954; Wesleyan). The Rio Grande rises high in the Rocky Mountains, flows the length of New Mexico, forms the international boundary between Texas and Mexico, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Paul Morgan’s literary and historical masterpiece, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, re-creates the centuries of life influenced by the great river. The timeline extends from ancient peoples through Spanish colonizers and Pueblo Indians to the Mexican War. Readers who want a more recent and scholarly treatment should consult David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America or John L. Kessell, Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California.

Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth

by Henry Nash Smith (1950; Harvard). This classic, long regarded as basic to an understanding of the westward movement, explores the Real West to discover how it generated the Mythic West. Characters range from Daniel Boone to Buffalo Bill, from Kit Carson to Deadwood Dick, but the focus is on the West as Utopia, the West as Garden, and thus the West as imaginary symbol of reality.

The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado

by Elliott West (1998; University of Kansas). This groundbreaking history of the interaction of Indians, prospectors, and the environment on the High Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado exemplifies in microcosm what happened all over the West. Cultures collided and changed one another as well as the environment, which in turn influenced the cultures. The exploration of the interaction of Plains Indian culture and the environment over many centuries, and how each transformed the other, is especially infused with insight.

Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West

by Donald Worster (1985; Oxford). Worster tells how aridity affected the West and its people and the effect on the West of the building of dams, irrigation systems, and other intrusions on the scarce water resources. His probing environmental history surpasses an earlier, widely acclaimed work by Walter Prescott Webb, whose The Great Plains dealt with the radical change and innovation wrought in the patterns of life of people who migrated from watered woodlands to arid plains. The validity of many of Webb’s examples has been challenged, and Worster more compellingly addresses the underlying generality of the interaction of cultural change and environmental change.

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

by Patricia Nelson Limerick (1987; Norton). Dismissing the triumphalist approach to the history of the West, this seminal work spawned the so-called New Western History. It rejected in its entirety the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, which declared that free land and westward migration determined the American character. Amid continuing controversy, the Turner hypothesis influenced scholarly thought for nearly a century. Limerick, however, denied the significance of the close of the frontier in 1890 and postulated a continuity in Western history from the nineteenth century to the twentieth. She also emphasized women and minorities and pointed to failures and victims. Although greatly refined by others since 1987, Limerick’s interpretation pointed the way.

The Indian Frontier, 1846-1890

by Robert M. Utley (revised edition: 2003; University of New Mexico). In the perhaps biased judgment of the author, this work, first published in 1984, still offers the most authoritative and readable history of the Indian-white relationship in its political, diplomatic, military, and cultural aspects and from the perspective of both sides.

Wah-To-Yah and the Taos Trail

by Lewis H. Garrard (1850; many editions). The reader who has absorbed all the histories cited above may now wish to sample an authentic voice of the Western experience by one who lived and wrote about it. Francis Parkman, Josiah Gregg, Kit Carson, Mary Hallock Foote, John C. Frémont, Susan S. Magoffin, and George Armstrong Custer all come to mind. But for sheer delight in “seeing the elephant,” for fresh and compelling prose, for observation of detail, and for the sincerity and enthusiasm with which this youth of 17 recounted his journey over the Santa Fe Trail in 1846, none is so evocative of the real West.

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