Southwestern Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction
Previous Chapter | Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest | Next Chapter

Guide to Life and Literature
of the Southwest

Surge of Life in the West

THE WANDERINGS of Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, De Soto, and La Salle had long been chronicled, although the chronicles had not been popularized in English, when in 1804 Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark set out to explore not only the Louisiana Territory, which had just been purchased for the United States by President Thomas Jefferson, but on west to the Pacific. Their Journals, published in 1814, initiated a series of chronicles comparable in scope, vitality, and manhood adventure to the great collection known as Hakluyt's Voyages.

Between 1904 and 1907 Reuben Gold Thwaites, one of the outstanding editors of the English-speaking world, brought out in thirty-two volumes his epic Early Western Travels. This work includes the Lewis and Clark Journals, every student of the West, whether Northwest or Southwest, goes to the collection sooner or later. It is a commentary on the values of life held by big rich boasters of patriotism in the West that virtually all the chronicles in the collection remain out of print.

An important addendum to the Thwaites collection of Early Western Travels is "The Southwest Historical Series," edited by Ralph P. Bieber -- twelve volumes, published 1931-43, by Clark, Glendale, California.

The stampede to California that began in 1849 climaxed all migration orgies of the world in its lust for gold; but the lust for gold was merely one manifestation of a mighty population's lust for life. Railroads raced each other to cross the continent. Ten million Longhorns were going up the trails; from Texas while the last of a hundred million buffaloes, killed in herds -- the greatest slaughter in history -- were being skinned. Dodge City was the Cowboy Capital of the world, and Chicago was becoming "hog butcher of the world." Miller and Lux were expanding their ranges so that, as others boasted, their herds could trail from Oregon to Baja California and bed down every night on Miller and Lux's own grass.

Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832-1918) was massing in San Francisco at his own expense the greatest assemblage of historical documents any one individual ever assembled. While his interviewers and note-takers sorted down tons of manuscript, he was employing a corps of historians to write what, at first designed as a history of the Pacific states, grew in twenty-eight volumes to embrace also Alaska, British Columbia, Texas, Mexico, and Central America, aside from five volumes on the Native Races and six volumes of essays. Meantime he was printing these volumes in sets of thousands and selling them through an army of agents that covered America.

Collis P. Huntington (1821-1900) was building the Southern Pacific Railroad into a network, interlocked with other systems and steamship lines, not only enveloping California land but also the whole economic and political life of that and other states, with headquarters in the U.S. Congress. Then his nephew, Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927), taking over his wealth and power, was building gardens at San Marino, California, collecting art, books, and manuscripts to make, without benefit of any institution of learning and in defiance of all the slow processes of tradition found at Oxford and Harvard, a Huntington Library and a Huntington Art Gallery that, set down amid the most costly botanical profusion imaginable, now rival the world's finest.

The dreams were of empire. Old men and young toiled as "terribly" as mighty Raleigh. The "spacious times" of Queen Elizabeth seemed, indeed, to be translated to another sphere, though here the elements that went into the mixture were less diverse. Boom methods of Gargantuan scale were applied to cultural factors as well as to the physical. Few men stopped to reflect that while objects of art may be bought by the wholesale, the development of genuine culture is too intimately personal and too chemically blended with the spiritual to be bartered for. The Huntingtons paid a quarter of a million dollars for Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy." It is very beautiful. Meanwhile the mustang grapevine waits for some artist to paint the strong and lovely grace of its drapery and thereby to enrich for land-dwellers every valley where it hangs over elm or oak.

Most of the books in this section could be placed in other sections. Many have been. They represent the vigor, vitality, energy, and daring characteristic of our frontiers. To quote Harvey Fergusson's phrase, the adventures of mettle have always had "a tension that would not let them rest."


The Life of Stephen F. Austin, Dallas, 1925. Republished by Texas State Historical Association, Austin. Iron-wrought biography of the leader in making Texas Anglo-American.


Reminiscences of a Ranger, or Early Times in California, Los Angeles, 1881; reprinted, but OP. In this book and in On the Old West Coast, Bell caught the lift and spiritedness of life-hungry men.


(1819-1900). Echoes of the Past, Chico, California (about 1900). Bidwell got to California several years before gold was discovered. He became foremost citizen and entertained scientists, writers, scholars, and artists at his ranch home. His brief accounts of the trip across the plains and of pioneer society in California are graphic, charming, telling. The book goes in and out of print but is not likely to die.


Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, Macmillan, New York, 1949. This Alpha to Omega treatise concludes with a seventy-five-page, double-column, fine-print bibliography which not only lists but comments upon most books and articles of any consequence that have been published on frontier history.


On the Border with Crook, New York, 1891. Now published by Long's College Book Co., Columbus, Ohio. Bourke had an eager, disciplined mind, at once scientific and humanistic; he had imagination and loyalty to truth and justice; he had a strong body and joyed in frontier exploring. He was a captain in the army but had nothing of the littleness of the army mind exhibited by Generals Nelson Miles and O. O. Howard in their egocentric reminiscences. I rank his book as the meatiest and richest of all books dealing with campaigns against Indians. In its amplitude it includes the whole frontier. General George Crook was a wise, generous, and noble man, but his Autobiography (edited by Martin F. Schmitt; University of Oklahoma Press) lacks that power in writing necessary to turn the best subject on earth into a good book and capable also, as Darwin demonstrated, of turning earthworms into a classic.


Scouting on Two Continents, New York, 1926; reprinted, Los Angeles, 1942. A brave book of enthralling interest. The technique of scouting in the Apache Country is illuminated by that of South Africa in the Boer War. Hunting for life, Major Burnham carried it with him. OP.


The Year of Decision 1846, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1943. Critical interpretation as well as depiction. The Mexican War, New Mexico, California, Mountain Men, etc. DeVoto's Across the Wide Missouri is wider in spirit, less bound to political complexities. See under "Mountain Men."


Notes of a Military Reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California, including Part of the Arkansas, Del Norte, and Gila Rivers, Washington, 1848. Emory's own vivid report is only one item in Executive Document No. 41, 30th Congress, 1st Session, with which it is bound. Lieutenant J. W. Albert's Journal and additional Report on New Mexico, St. George Cooke's Odyssey of his march from Santa Fe to San Diego, another Journal by Captain A. R. Johnson, the Torrey-Englemann report on botany, illustrated with engravings, all go to make this one of the meatiest of a number of meaty government publications. The Emory part of it has been reprinted by the University of New Mexico Press, under title of Lieutenant Emory Reports, Introduction and Notes by Ross Calvin, Albuquerque, 1951.

Emory's great two-volume Report on United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, Washington 1857 and 1859, is, aside from descriptions of borderlands and their inhabitants, a veritable encyclopedia, wonderfully illustrated, on western flora and fauna. United States Commissioner on this Boundary Survey (following the Mexican War) was John Russell Bartlett. While exploring from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific and far down into Mexico, he wrote Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora and Chihuahua. published in two volumes, New York, 1854. For me very little rewritten history has the freshness and fascination of these strong, firsthand personal narratives, though I recognize many of them as being the stuff of literature rather than literature itself.


The Journal of Jacob Fowler, 1821-1822, edited by Elliott Coues, New York, 1898. Hardly another chronicle of the West is so Defoe-like in homemade realism, whether on Indians and Indian horses or Negro Paul's experience with the Mexican "Lady" at San Fernando de Taos. Should be reprinted.


Anson Jones: The Last President of Texas, Garden City, New York, 1948; now distributed by Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, Texas. Anson Jones was more surged over than surgent. Infused with a larger comprehension than that behind many a world figure, this biography of a provincial figure is perhaps the most artfully written that Texas has produced. It goes into the soul of the man.


Wild Life in the Far West, Hartford, 1872. Hobbs saw just about all the elephants and heard just about all the owls to be seen and heard in the Far West including western Mexico. Should be reprinted.


Forty-Niners: The Chronicle of the California Trail, Little, Brown, Boston, 1931. Hulbert read exhaustively in the exhausting literature by and about the gold hunters rushing to California. Then he wove into a synthetic diary the most interesting and illuminating records on happenings, characters, ambitions, talk, singing, the whole life of the emigrants.


Irving made his ride into what is now Oklahoma in 1832. He had recently returned from a seventeen-year stay in Europe and was a mature literary man -- as mature as a conforming romanticist could become Prairie life refreshed him. A Tour on the Prairies, published in 1835, remains refreshing. It is illuminated by Washington Irving on the Prairie; or, A Narrative of the Southwest in the Year 1832, by Henry Leavitt Ellsworth (who accompanied Irving), edited by Stanley T. Williams and Barbara D. Simison, New York, 1937; by The Western Journals of Washington Irving, excellently edited by John Francis McDermott, Norman, Oklahoma, 1944; and by Charles J. Latrobe's The Rambler in North America, 1832-1833, New York, 1835.


The Raven, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1929. Graphic life of Sam Houston.


Journal of Rudolph Friederich Kurz: . . . His Experiences among Fur Traders and American Indians on the Mississippi and Upper Missouri Rivers, during the Years of 1846-1852, U.S. Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin 115, Washington, 1937. The public has not had a chance at this book, which was printed rather than published. Kurz both saw and recorded with remarkable vitality. He was an artist and the volume contains many reproductions of his paintings and drawings. One of the most readable and illuminating of western journals.


The Big Four, New York, 1938. Railroad magnates.


Arizona Characters, Los Angeles, California, 1928. Fresh sketches of representative men. The book deserves to be better known than it is. OP.


John Marsh Pioneer, New York, 1930. Prime biography and prime romance. Laid mostly in California. This book almost heads the list of all biographies of western men. OP.


The Oregon Trail, 1849. Parkman knew how to write but some other penetrators of the West put down about as much. School assignments have made his book a recognized classic.


Personal Narrative, Cincinnati, 1831; reprinted, but OP. Positively gripping chronicle of life in New Mexico and the Californias during Mexican days.


The Southwestern Expedition of Zebulon M. Pike, Philadelphia, 1810. The 1895 edition edited by Elliott Coues is the most useful to students. No edition is in print. Pike's explorations of the Southwest (1806-7) began while the great Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-6) was ending. His journal is nothing like so informative as theirs but is just as readable. The Lost Pathfinder is a biography of Pike by W. Eugene Hollon, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1949.


Roughing It, 1872. Mark Twain was a man who wrote and not merely a writer in man-form. He was frontier American in all his fibers. He was drunk with western life at a time when both he and it were standing on tiptoe watching the sun rise over the misty mountain tops, and he wrote of what he had seen and lived before he became too sober. Roughing It comes nearer catching the energy, the youthfulness, the blooming optimism, the recklessness, the lust for the illimitable in western life than any other book. It deals largely with mining life, but the surging vitality of this life as reflected by Mark Twain has been the chief common denominator of all American frontiers and was as characteristic of Texas "cattle kings" when grass was free as of Virginia City "nabobs" in bonanza.

Previous Chapter | Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest | Next Chapter
Southwest Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction

Online Edition Copyright © 1997 Lone Star Junction. All rights reserved.