It’s Getting Western Real Fast Now: Four Histories of the American West

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History has been my life and career.  I decided in 9th grade, back in 1970, that I wanted to be a history teacher and never swerved off that path through the years that followed.  I have also been other things, such as a newspaper reporter, a convenience store worker, a pastor, a school administrator, and a teacher of other subjects, but I have always at heart been a history teacher.  The realm of history is, however, vast so I have my areas of focus, or what we might call specialization.  That is a fancy way of saying that some parts of history are of more interest to me than other parts.  Generally, I prefer 20th Century history to anything Medieval.  Always, I prefer political history over social or economic history.  I have read and taught the War Between the States without ever acquiring the ability to know when I should end the topic and move on.  Being one of the most non-military type people in the universe, I have, nevertheless, read and taught enough military history to at least get honorary rank of private, no class.

As a teacher of American history in most of my classroom ventures, I have tried to avoid getting too interested in the history of the American West.  On the one hand, that is impossible because the American West was originally the lands just past the coastlines of the original colonies.  The western frontier was a moving, fluid concept with different boundary lines, different cultural events, and different settlers all the up to 1890.  On the other hand, there are too many events that are directly tied to the west, as defined by the areas across the Mississippi River that were settled, fought over, and brought into the union from the time of the Louisiana Purchase and beyond.

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I tried to avoid the numerous Indian Wars, except the Nez Pearce’s ill fated skirmishes with the U. S. cavalry when they were led by Chief Joseph.  I tried to keep cowboys and cattle drives, saloons and settlements, outlaws and sheriff’s posses all confined to the television shows I loved as a kid and still enjoy on occasion.

But recently, I slipped away by night from the 20th Century, from Puritans, from Confederates, and from all other realms of history, and headed out west.

It all started with Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West by H. W. Brands.  This book was published by Basic Books in 2019, and I acquired it with a gift card from Christmas.

I have several books by University of Texas (Austin) history department chairman Dr. Brands.  He is not only quite prolific as an author, but he has written on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from both Roosevelts, to Benjamin Franklin, to Andrew Jackson, to books on western settlement.  He is one of those few authors who is both an academic professor and a writer of popular narrative histories.  In short, I would not hesitate to pick up any book that he has written (which total over 30) and would find them enjoyable reading.

This book goes back to the earliest of American (here meaning United States) explorations.  The western (here meaning west of the Mississippi River) expansion began with the fur trade.  For certain, the western man was rugged, tough, engaged with weather and conflicts, and resilient.  We have lots of myths about frontiersmen, but the myths exist only because there were actual people bearing mythic qualities.

The west is a complex story, filled with fur traders and Indian conflicts, religious migrations and Indian conflicts, wagon trains and Indian conflicts, gold strikes and Indian conflict, cattle drives and Indian conflicts, the Civil War and Indian conflicts, railroads, buffaloes, untamable lands, impassible mountains, raging streams, frontier justice/injustice, territorial expansion, broken hearts and bodies, and Indian conflicts.

As a non-specialist in American western studies, I was continually amazed at how much I was familiar with.  There is no study of American history without a Conestoga wagon being pulled (hopefully) by oxen and mules and heading toward the direction of the setting sun.  While El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, was never found, many El Dorados were found.

Brands’ book might be bypassed by the college professor who wants a more scholarly, footnote laden, “this scholar contends, while that scholar objects,” politically correctly, and horrendously overpriced university press book for a 300 or 400 level history course.  I disagree.  This book is good history and good reading.  Add on, Mr. or Madame Professor, a few more in-depth monographs, but assign this book.  Historians must never forget that story is essential to history, and that story must be engaging.

Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862–The Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History by Gary Clayton Anderson is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Dr. Anderson is an authority on western, Native American, and U. S. history, with having authored a dozen books.  He even wrote one criticizing Texas.  That is one brave historian, and I hope he has had facial recognition surgery to protect himself from some of my Texas friends.

This book was for me what reading history must be like for many people.  I was largely unfamiliar with most of the names, places, and events in the book.  My knowledge of Minnesota history basically begins with the late 1940s and 1950s when Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy began rising to prominence as leaders in the Democrat Party.  I had heard of the mass hanging, eerily photographed and often reprinted, that was part of the outcome of this event.  The Dakota tribe was just a name that merged in with the several dozen Indian tribes that I have read over and past through in many surveys of American history.

After feeling frustrated for not grasping more of the details of this event (and surprise that I never really knew about it), I remembered that Dr. Anderson began the book by telling that how he had been studying, thinking through, and researching this story for four and a half decades.  Why should I expect that one book read over a period of a few weeks would fast forward me through what he has spent a lifetime studying?

There are basically three stories in this book, and all three of them are sad, tragic, and painful to read about.  History is not for sissies.  If you want knights rescuing damsels in distress, pure heroes and heroines, and truth, justice, and the American way, go to some source other than history.  (Hence, referring back to Dr. Anderson’s book on Texas, even the Lone Star State is a collective sinner in need of grace.)

The first story is one that is overall familiar.  Treaties, reservations, and corruption were endemic problems.  No one wishing to make a case for government involvement in human affairs would want to call in examples from how the Dakota tribes were dealt with.  Some people benefited greatly from these actions, but they were usually the government agents who were mishandling funds.  The Dakota people had few resources and means to combat and certain few, if any, to correct the abuses.

That led to the second story which was an outbreak of hostilities between Indians and whites.  As has often been said, when whites fought and won a conflict, it was called a battle, but when Indians won, it was called a massacre.  This part of the story is a horror story equal to the best/worst accounts that we have read about or watched on old television westerns and movies.  White communities were attacked, men, women, and children were killed, torturous methods were used on human beings.  In many cases, the news accounts became exaggerated and accounts were tweaked to satisfy the morbid curiosity of those far from the scenes.  Then there were the stories of rapes and abuses of women.  White people who had co-existed near Indian tribes were victims of the attacks; militia units hastily formed to stop the attacks suffered as well.

This was all happening during 1862, so the United States was so focused on what were the worst years of the Civil War for the Union that few resources were available to rescue the area.  In what was the only bit of humor found in the book, one U. S. soldier said that the weapons he and others were issued were so bad that they  should have been given to the Indians to help defeat them.  As expected, as is the case in every book and account of white and Indian civilizations at war, eventually, the power, numbers, and resources fell to the whites.

The third story may be accounted as the most tragic and horrible of them all.  It is the story of injustice.  Indians were not reckoned as a military enemy in the traditional sense.  Nor were they citizens.  There were trials of large numbers of the captured warriors.  These trials sounded more like things I have read about “justice” in Stalinist and Nazi regimes than what I would have expected in America.  Bereft of counsel, deficient in understanding of the English language, totally lacking knowledge of the justice system, one after another, Indian men were hauled before the courts, given a brief (often less than an hour) of trial, and sentenced to death by hanging.

This world is complicated.  Understanding doesn’t always excuse evils, but it often helps explain why things happened.  In many cases, Indian men took white women and made them their wives.  That was their way.  In the white world, this was abuse and rape.  I honestly felt grief for both sides in this situation.  I could wish that mercy had triumphed over justice.

Over three hundred Indian men were sentenced to hang, but President Lincoln pardoned most of them.  Granted, some who died had been criminal in their war waging, but again, the system was complicated.  Thankfully, there were Christians among both white and red peoples who sought to do right; however, these instances were far too few.

I wish I were convinced that we actually learn from history and correct the wrongs of the past.  There is so much to learn here.  Grievous though this story is, it needs to be read, remembered, and mourned over.

The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains by Christopher M. Rein is published by the University of Oklahoma Press

I am still reading this book so I will limit my remarks.  First, this book is a useful follow up to reading Thomas W. Cutrer’s Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River.  That book is my “go to” work on any of the campaigns and battles that took place in that most neglected part of the Late Unpleasantness.

Second, Colorado was a territory, along with New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and other places in the far west.  Like the California Gold Rush of a few years earlier, Colorado had drawn hordes of men interested in finding gold.  Some came out of the South, some from the North.  In some ways, the small battles, whose numbers pale before the fight going on along the eastern and middle parts of the country, seem inconsequential.  The Confederacy tried, unsuccessfully, to extend the boundaries of their nation to the western regions.  Units like the Second Colorado Cavalry tied into battle and stopped them.

What difference did it make?  Or could that have turned the course of the war?  Interesting questions, but those who fought, died, were injured, or maimed in those battles were just as much dedicated soldiers fighting for beliefs and visions as were those who are buried at Gettysburg.

I hope to report more on this book later. Perhaps it is of interest only to those who are really engaged in not just the Civil War but the less known theaters of the war.

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Author Stephen Harrigan standing outside the Alamo holding his book.

 

Big, Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas by Stephen Harrigan is published by the University of Texas Press.

Weighing in at close to 1000 page, this history of Texas promises to be fun.  I reckon that like the two books immediately preceding this one, there are some terrible tales that will make even Texans humble themselves into a repentant attitude.  But this book, which I have yet to start, looks to simply be lots of fun.

I count it as a near miracle that I survived 7th grade Texas history class.  I even became a history teacher, not because of, but in spite of that class.  It was terrible.  The “bless her heart” teacher apparently knew nothing about Texas, 7th grade boys, or teaching.  (I warn’t no saint either.)  When I taught Arkansas history, I often told my Arkansawyer students that most of their (now mine as well) state’s history was the story of people passing through on the way to Texas.

James Michener wrote a fat novel called Texas.  The very state just demands BIG.  Granted that Michener’s writing tended toward obesity of prose, he would have made a novel about Monaco at least 500 pages.  I have often taught a portion of Michener’s draft that got cut out and then was revised to make a separate book.  Titled The Eagle and the Raven, that historical novel compares and contrasts the careers of Santa Anna and Sam Houston.  But, I have read far too little about the state I grew up in.  In fact, I know far too little about the state.  Unfortunately, when I was able to travel, we usually opted to head north to north east to find cooler climates and mountains.  Living in the corner of northeast Texas and now southwest Arkansas, Texas was too hot during the summer to draw me into traveling there.

I hope Emily Dickinson was right in saying, “There is no frigate like a book to take us miles away,” because I am going to travel across geography and time to visit the great state of Texas in this book.

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