Chronicling the West

Fans of Western U.S. history will have their hands full with this essay collection

Before you settle in comfortably to peruse Western Lives: A Biographical History of the American West, block out a chunk of time. The 15 essays in this collection occupy 454 detail-filled pages with little space wasted on such niceties as illustrations. This is, after all, a compendium of stories telling how the West was discovered, claimed, settled, reclaimed and resettled from the first record of human habitation through the mid-19th century.

One third of the volume covers the period of initial contact between Europeans and Native Americans, who viewed new arrivals with skepticism. Because early archived documents offer a paucity of uncontestable fact, lots of opinion and subjective interpretation appear here. Two concepts quickly become evident: Indians didn't always extend a welcome mat for new neighbors, and those who did enter into peaceful dealings were often double-crossed by "the great white father in Washington" or his emissaries in the field. Of particular note for Arizona history buffs is a smoothly written essay on both Juan Bautista de Anzas, Spanish Basque father and son, and their leadership roles in the 18th-century Southwest.

The next five essays cover only half a century, but the time period--from 1850-1900--is replete with stories of a rapidly developing part of America. A quintet of scribes tell of mining camps, ranching, farming, cultural conflicts and dilemmas faced (and compromises made) by tribal leaders. Armchair historians will especially enjoy coverage of Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, and how they became emblematic figures of the emerging Wild West.

The final five chapters focus on the 20th century. Recognizable names like John Muir, Aimee Semple McPherson, Walt Disney, Cesar Chavez and J. Robert Oppenheimer get their stories told here--along with a record of the talents and tribulations of that mythical World War II wonder woman, Rosie the Riveter.

The volume is edited by Richard Etulain, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico, and author/editor of more than 40 books. "This essay collection," he advises, "is intended primarily for general readers, but with contributions based on scholarship, the content is appropriate for research or classroom use." If that kind of admonition doesn't squelch your ardor for pleasure reading, have at it.

Because of the plethora of facts presented, it takes almost as long to read this tome about settling the West as it did to actually accomplish the mission. This is a big-picture book without the pictures. As one author noted: "Exploration is heroic in accomplishments, but also heavy in consequences, which are more important to remember and understand."

Readers needn't be historians, however, to quickly recognize that more people got screwed in the settling of the West than usually takes place in an XXX-rated movie. Rage prevailed on both sides, with robberies, rapes and murders frequent notations to historical journals. This was a kill-or-be-killed world governed by the principle of retributive justice, and acts of bloodshed were repaid in kind.

Against this backdrop came the concept of "Manifest Destiny." This body of ideas and sentiments provided justification for territorial expansion by English-speaking settlers into land held, occupied or claimed by Indians and Mexicans. Disparate groups of settlers held a fervent belief that God had ordained their right to populate and govern a vast expanse of territory west of the Mississippi River. It took a lot of gunpowder, threats, litigation and downright chicanery to see this concept of "God's grand plan" through sufficiently to bring armed conflict to a halt.

Connecting newcomers from the East Coast to their new lives in the American Southwest was made possible by a transcontinental railroad, and the Old Pueblo is cited as an example of the resulting transformation. "Economic integration through railroad construction meant an end to regional isolation from distant metropolitan centers. Towns like Tucson increased in population as a result," writes essayist Richard del Castillo.

Although the biographies cover individuals and their exploits over all Western states, Arizona receives prominent mention. The development of irrigation systems to enhance regional agricultural efforts is cited. Territorial governor John C. Fremont (in 1879) opined that "without irrigation water, this country cannot be used for what it is worth." In our current drought cycle, Fremont's century-old contention still holds true.

Although we like to believe historic change takes place gradually, World War II transformed the West into a pace-setter for the rest of the country and the world.

If Western history is your thing--and it looks to be a long winter--this could be the only book you'll need to carry you through till spring.

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