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Good Reading

July 2024
2min read

The Plains Acrossi The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60

by John D. Unruh, Jr. University of Illinois Press Illustrations, tables, maps 565 pages, $20.00

The overland migration—that extraordinary journey to California and Oregon made by a quarter of a million Americans in the 1840’s and 1850’s—was “palpable suicide” or a trip “merry as a marriage bell,” depending on whom the emigrant consulted before setting forth. The truth, as we learn in this fascinating and definitive study, was somewhere in between. Unruh shows that the mortality rate on “the plains across” was probably not much higher than for those who stayed home. And disease was the main killer, not Indians. In fact, “many overlanders rarely saw an Indian during the entire trip.” On the other hand, the journey was grueling work, particularly for migrating urban dwellers who weren’t accustomed to hard physical labor.

Outfitters in the jump-off towns—notably Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri—vied for the emigrants’ trade. Groups could hire a “pilot” to guide them, or for two hundred dollars an individual emigrant could join a “passenger train.” The usual method of travel was by covered wagon, but some emigrants used pack animals, and one group successfully made the trip pushing wheelbarrows.

The overland migration spawned almost as many diarists as the Civil War, and Unruh has steeped himself in these rich contemporary sources. His fine book should be savored slowly.

Hollywood’s Children! An Inside Account of the Child Star Era

by Diana Serra Cary Houghton Mifflin Company Photographs, 290 pages, $11.95

“A child star’s life expectancy was roughly equivalent to that of a dog,” Diana Gary says in this sad and intriguing book. As Baby Peggy, a top child star of the early 1920’s, her own heyday was even shorter than most; it ended when she was seven and shed her two front teeth. Weaving in her own story with those of other child stars, she writes swift, revealing biographies of the infant royalty that brought money pouring into Hollywood before World War II. She concludes that almost without exception, these children—and their parents, too—were severely traumatized by their unnatural, inverted roles.

The Florida Wars

by Virginia Bergman Peters The Shoe String Press Maps, illustrations 319 pages, $22.50

With impressive scholarship, this low-key book relates one of the most disgraceful episodes in the long history of our subjugation of the Indians. Off and on from 1810 to 1858, the United States Army fought the Florida Indians—a mixed population, mostly Creeks, that whites lumped together under the name of Seminoles—and a few hundred Negroes who lived among them. The government, stubbornly citing “national honor,” rejected any compromise. By the end of the wars, fifteen hundred American soldiers had been killed, and more than $30,000,000 had been spent to remove six thousand people to Arkansas.

The usual arguments about “civilizing” the Indians were particularly hollow in this case, as the Seminoles were already accomplished farmers. But the fact that blacks—both freemen and runaways—lived amicably among the Indians, accepted both as warriors and friends, was intolerable to neighboring Georgian slave owners, who stirred up friction whenever the miserable war simmered down. Treaties were broken and native leaders were seized when they came in under flags of truce to negotiate new ones. As this poignant book makes clear, the Seminoles were “guilty of one basic crime. They were in the way.”

The Day America Crashed

by Tom Shachtman G. P. Putnam’s Sons 336 pages, $10.95

“A sad day, a foolish day, a day of … cupidity … of pain.” This was October 24,1929, which is detailed hour by hour in this illuminating story of the first shocking day of the stock market crash—half a century ago this year. The author deftly combines accounts of powerful men manipulating money, of the chaotic scene on the floor of the Stock Exchange, and of the bewilderment of small speculators. One bitter, ruined investor committed suicide, willing “his body to science, his soul to Andrew Mellon, and his sympathy to his creditors.”

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