The West

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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 .