The West

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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.