The Youngest Pioneers

For many children who accompanied their parents west across the continent in the 1840s and '50s, the journey was a supreme adventure

The historian Francis Parkman, strolling around Independence, Missouri, in 1846, remarked upon the “multitude of healthy children’s faces … peeping out from under the covers of the wagons.” Two decades later a traveler there wrote of husbands packing up “sunburned women and wild-looking children” along with shovels and flour barrels in preparation for the long journey west. In the goldfields of California in the 1850s, a chronicler met four sisters and sisters-in-law who had just crossed the Plains with thirty-six of their children.Read more »

Does The West Have A Death Wish?

Before there were Western states, there were public lands—over a billion acres irrevocably reserved for the people of the United States. The Sagebrush Rebels are the most recent in a series of covetous groups bent on “regaining” what was never theirs.

So, at the very moment when the West is blueprinting an economy which must be based on the sustained, permanent use of its natural resources, it is also conducting an assault on those resources with the simple objective of liquidating them. The dissociation of intelligence could go no farther, but there it is—and there is the West yesterday, today, and forever. It is the Western mind stripped to the basic split. The West as its own worst enemy. The West committing suicide.

—Bernard De Voto “The West Against Itself” Harper’s Magazine, January, 1947 Read more »

Canines To Canaan

The Story of Some Forgotten Four-Footed Pioneers

Until recently the history of the American West has been dominated by the elite, the spectacular, and the gaudy, not by the ordinary folk—the “little people with dirty faces,” who are only now beginning to get their due. The same generally has been true of canine history.Read more »

The Wilder West Of George Lawton

By the 1890’s, when Denver telegrapher George Lawton began collecting the curious photographs on this and the following pages, the era of the Western badmen was coming to an end. The old hiding places were no longer secure: marshals, sheriffs, Pinkerton agents, and bounty hunters swarmed everywhere, eager to claim the rewards posted by banks, railroads, and stockmen, and descriptions of outlaws and their movements could be flashed across the West in an instant by telegraph. Scores of bandits fell to posse bullets; many more were hanged or jailed.Read more »

Ursus Horribilis In Extremis

The Last Stand of King Grizzly

Bears and people have been at war for a long time-possibly longer than two predatory mammals should be, with any hope of mutual survival. In the beginning, the bears won almost every time, though not as often as the great cats did. Together with the great cats, bears provided spice to the human experience. People were obliged to defend themselves, were forced to think . Fires were lit at the mouth of the cave. Weapons were invented. Then the bears began to lose. People pictured them on the walls of caves.Read more »

Route 66: Ghost Road Of Okies

People who have been turned out of their homes make keen historians. Forced from the land of their ancestors and onto the open road without a destination, they have a way of remembering—often to the minute of the day—the trauma of departure.Read more »

Charlie Russell’s Lost West

Charles Marion Russell, born outside St. Louis, in Oak Hill, Missouri, of a locally prominent family in 1864, came west to Montana Territory four days short of his sixteenth birthday. Charlie Russell, the “Cowboy Artist,” died there in Great Falls forty-six years later, in 1926.Read more »

The Late, Late Frontier

What started as fun and games at spring roundups is now a multi-million-dollar sport called rodeo

The crowd roars. The bell clangs. The chute gate swings wide and a beleaguered animal dashes into the arena to put on an exciting exhibition of pain and panic.

The rodeo is presented as a colorful epic of the cattle industry in the days of the Chisholm Trail, evoking the sturdy moral values of frontier life or, as the Pendleton (Oregon) Round-Up recently rephrased the idea, “Four Big Days of Fun in the Ol’ West.” But what is rodeo, really? Read more »

Pioneers In Petticoats

Legend says the frontier was “hell on women,” but the ladies claim they had the time of their lives

I once had a conversation about the ways of the West with a wise and literate old man who had been a cowpuncher in Montana in the golden days of Charlie Russell and Teddy Blue. John R. Barrows was the author of a book called Ubet , describing the adventures of his parents who ran a stage station rejoicing in that typically jaunty frontier name. They had gone west with a wagon train from Wisconsin in 1879, taking several small children.