The Essential West: Collected Essays

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Scholars and enthusiasts of western American history have praised Elliott West as a distinguished historian and an accomplished writer, and this book proves them right on both counts. Capitalizing on West’s wide array of interests, this collection of his essays touches on topics ranging from viruses and the telegraph to children, bison, and Larry McMurtry. Drawing from the past three centuries, West weaves the western story into that of the nation and the world beyond, from Kansas and Montana to Haiti, Africa, and the court of Louis XV.

Divided into three sections, the volume begins with conquest. West is not the first historian to write about Lewis and Clark, but he is the first to contrast their expedition with Mungo Park’s contemporaneous journey in Africa. “The Lewis and Clark expedition,” West begins, “is one of the most overrated events in American history—and one of the most revealing.” The humor of this insightful essay is a chief characteristic of the whole book, which comprises ten chapters previously published in major journals and magazines—but revised for this edition—and four brand-new ones.

West is well known for his writings about frontier family life, especially the experiences of children at work and play. Fans of his earlier books on these subjects will not be disappointed. In a final section, he looks at the West of myth and imagination, in part to show that our fantasies about the West are worth studying precisely because they have been so at odds with the real West. In essays on buffalo, Jesse James and the McMurtry novel Lonesome Dove, West directs his formidable powers to subjects that continue to shape our understanding—and often our misunderstanding—of the American West, past and present.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Calling this book a collection of essays makes as much sense as calling the Rocky Mountains a collection of rocks. On the contrary, The Essential West is a collection of riveting stories, original reflections, witty aphorisms, innovative perspectives, and insights that go straight to the heart—of the West and of the reader.”—Patricia Nelson Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

“No one has written about western history with more insight, compassion, wisdom, and wit than Elliott West.  Everything he writes is worth reading, and these essays are West at his best.”—Virginia Scharff co-author of Home Lands: How Women Made the West

“Elliott West is the best historian of the American West writing today.”—Richard White

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806142968
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 931,947
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Elliott West, Alumni Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, is the award-winning author of numerous articles and books, including Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the Far-Western Frontier; The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado; and The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story.

Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is author of It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West and Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family's Past.

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Read an Excerpt

The Essential West

By Elliott West


Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8879-9


Lewis and Park

Or, Why It Matters That the West's Most Famous Explorers Didn't Get Sick (or at Least Not Really Sick)

The Lewis and Clark expedition is one of the most overrated events in American h istory—and one of the most revealing. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark failed in their main assignment, to find a serviceable route to the Pacific. For most of the journey they simply followed rivers, which required no particular talent at exploration, and the one time they left them, they nearly starved. They did bring back a fine map, and they managed mostly good relations with Indian peoples, but anyone would be hard-pressed to argue that the expedition had the slightest immediate impact on much of anything, save for some fur trapping and trading. For a full century after its return the Corps of Discovery dropped out of our national awareness, partly because Lewis chalked up yet another failure. It was his job to compose an account of the great adventure, but in 1809 he committed suicide. Besides alcoholism, a failed romance, and possibly syphilis, one conjectured reason is terminal writer's block. Three years after his return to St. Louis, Lewis apparently had not put one word on paper.

Nonetheless, the expedition offers extraordinary insights into those years when our youthful nation was, paradoxically, both changing rapidly and coming into focus. Its story is a primer in imperial geopolitics. It takes us into the mind of the remarkable president who was curious in two senses of the word—hungry to learn about the unseen West, and driven by an odd mix of idealism, canny calculation, and voracious ambition. The captains' Indian encounters are revelations of Native life, and their misreadings of Native cultures anticipate the botched relations just ahead. The Lewis and Clark expedition might not have amounted to much when it happened, but as a wide window back onto its time, few episodes can match it. Quite rightly, historians have given it as much attention as any event in western history.

One angle, however, has been mostly neglected. Its cue is what seems an odd question: What problems did Lewis and Clark not face? Plenty of answers (samurai warriors, king cobras) need no attention. One absent danger, however, is worth a close look—disease. With one exception, the men of the Corps survived their long journey without suffering much more than fatigue and stomachaches. Partly that was a tribute to the captains as seat-of-their-pants doctors, but there is much more to learn than that. The Corps's freedom from diseases is especially revealing when the expedition is set in its widest context, that of global discovery, exploration, and colonization.

Among other things, that global context introduces a striking coincidence. As Lewis and Clark were moving to and from the Pacific, another explorer on another continent was leading another expedition. Mungo Park was a Scot physician, an accomplished naturalist, and an adventurer already experienced in probing new lands. In 1795–97 he had captained an expedition into the West African interior. Malaria had nearly killed him then, but when the British government asked him to return in 1805, he agreed. His instructions were startlingly similar to Lewis's from Jefferson. He too was to puzzle out the course of a great river and its relation to its continent. The Niger is the third longest river in Africa (and almost exactly the same length as the Missouri, 2,590 versus 2,540 miles). It passes through what today is Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, but although Park had spent time on its upper reaches, no one in the West knew where it went from there, nor even where it emerged into the Atlantic, so while Lewis and Clark were told to find the Missouri's headwaters and the easiest route from there to the Pacific, Park's order was to march back to the upper Niger and follow it to its mouth. His other instructions were virtually the same as those for the Corps. He was to observe the region's resources. He was to open relations with the peoples he met and explore the chance of trade with them and of English settlement.

For the journey, Park assembled a crew of forty-four, eleven more than Lewis and Clark's. Like the Corps, they were mostly soldiers, including Park's surgeon brother-in-law, a few artisans, and a guide—like Sacagawea, a native to the area. On the last day of January 1805, while Lewis and Clark and their men were wintering at the Mandan and Hidatsa villages in present North Dakota, Park set sail from England for an island off the coast of Senegal. From there he was to strike out overland to the upper Niger and follow it back to the Atlantic. In one more parallel to Lewis and Clark, Park kept a journal, his from April to November 1805. For those seven months we can lay the accounts of the two expeditions side-by-side and follow the journeys, their trials, surprises, victories, and troubles day-by-day. Merely as serendipity, the parallel stories are a precious stroke of historian's luck. As insight into how empires were made, especially their shaping forces beyond human control, the paired journals are a revelation.

At the start the parallels continued, almost exact. On April 7, 1805, the Corps set off up the Missouri River from the Mandan villages. Lewis wrote that his men were "in excellent health and sperits [sic] ... and anxious to proceed." One day earlier Park had written the same of his crew as they departed their island garrison to start their own journey: "They jumped into the boats in the highest spirits, and bade adieu ... with repeated huzzahs." As the Corps paddled their canoes up the Missouri, Park and his crew made their landfall and began beating their way through dense jungle toward the Niger. That was when the two stories, so alike in so many other ways, began radically to diverge.

How they did, and why, can teach us plenty about the making of empires around the earth, including America's rise as a world power. More particularly, the twinned stories of Lewis and Park are reminders that the nation's prodigious growth in size, strength, and wealth came in part through outrageous strokes of luck. Those lessons hinge on the seemingly strange question of the threats unencountered by the West's most famous explorers, specifically infirmities beyond the aches and disorders peppered through accounts of the journey. Seeing the connection in turn calls for another sort of trip, a lengthy digression into how diseases have influenced the course of empires in the era of modern exploration.

Getting sick is a natural part of living, but when unusual numbers of persons fall ill in unusual ways, it can be a historical force. Epidemics have played roles in the shifting of civilizations from as far back as the record goes. In the last thirty years historians have come to appreciate the crucial and awful part diseases played in the history of imperialism after 1492. Their numbers thinned, their economies battered, their psyches shaken, New World natives put up far less resistance than they would have otherwise, easing the way of European expansion. But this grim scenario, now part of any legitimate history of the world since Columbus, is oddly imbalanced. Some of history's most voracious killers have never gotten their historical due. This would have puzzled the empire builders at the time, including those who sent Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. They knew those devouring contagions, sometimes from afar, sometimes first-hand in their cities, their neighborhoods, their homes. All were properly impressed. Some were haunted.

Diseases of empire can be roughly divided into two types. Contact, or "crowd," diseases pass directly from person to person, usually via human bodily fluids, most commonly feces that contaminate water sources or tiny droplets of moisture coughed or sneezed out by one person and taken in by another. Contact diseases range from smallpox and cholera to HIV-AIDS and the common cold. The second sort, vector diseases, spread not directly but by mediators, usually insects, that carry a virus or parasite from one human or animal host to another. Examples are bubonic plague, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus, passed respectively by fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. Vector diseases flourish especially well close to the equator where their insect carriers swarm year-round. Contact diseases are all over the place.

If vector diseases can be said to have a home turf, it would be Africa south of the Sahara Desert. Tropical Africa is humanity's birthplace. There humans and their hominid ancestors have spent the great majority of their time on earth, so it is there that the complicated relations among microbes, insects, and animals, including people, have had the scores of millennia needed to coevolve into their modern arrangements. Some vector diseases have remained at home. Trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, transmitted via the tsetse fly, is found only in Africa south of the Sahara and north of South Africa. Others have made the jump to colonize other parts of the world.

Two of those have shaped profoundly the history of imperialism. Malaria, caused by a parasite of the genus Plasmodium, invades red blood cells and periodically bursts out, causing the famous bouts of high fever and bone-rattling chills. Of the four species of malaria, the two most common are Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum. The first is debilitating but rarely fatal, but P. falciparum, which can obstruct the flow of blood to the brain, often kills its host. Its toll is especially high among infants. The vectors for malaria are mosquitoes, specifically about sixty of the nearly four hundred species of the genus Anopheles.

The other vector disease important to the history of imperialism is yellow fever. Caused by a virus of the family Flaviviridae, it is also transmitted through mosquitoes, though only by one species, Aedes egypti. The virus attacks various organs but especially the liver, with the resulting jaundice giving the disease its common name. As the liver shuts down, its flow of blood is diverted elsewhere, much of it into the stomach, and when that organ's overtaxed vessels rupture, the victim regurgitates the blood—the source of another name for the disease, the "black vomit." Some victims feel only vague flulike symptoms, but mortality rates can range from 50 to 80 percent of those infected.

For us humans, contact and vector diseases offer both bad news and good. Because we are the native homes of their pathogens, contact diseases go wherever we do, but because they can live only in us, we gain an advantage, too. Once a contact disease is gone from our bodies and from those of our neighbors, we have a safety zone around us. No one in a crowded auditorium need worry about getting the flu as long as nobody there has the flu. But not so with vector diseases. They get along fine without us, and consequently a person living alone, far from any other person, is still vulnerable. The next mosquito buzzing by might carry in its gut and saliva a yellow fever virus or malaria's parasite. But that problem is also an advantage. That third actor, the vector, is the only means the diseases have to make the jump to us. So even if someone in that crowded auditorium is dying from yellow fever, no one else has anything to worry about—as long as no Aedes egypti mosquitoes are flying through the crowd.

In thinking about empires, a couple of implications are obvious. Any contact disease among an empire-building people will go anywhere they go. Vector diseases, however, can colonize only where its vector can too. With yellow fever and malaria, that means only where the Aedes egypti and Anopheles mosquitoes can live and play their parts. There is a finer distinction. Mosquitoes, and therefore malaria and yellow fever, really get down to business only when the temperature rises above seventy degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity stays above 50 to 60 percent, and when the temperature drops below fifty degrees, they die or go dormant. So yellow fever and malaria can be endemic—always present, lurking, ready to strike—only in the tropics, earth's hot and muggy belt reaching twenty-three or so degrees of latitude on either side of the equator. In temperate regions, where temperatures swing with the seasons, the diseases can flare up, but only during the warmer months.

On the eve of modern empire making, there was another crucial distinction as to where diseases were and were not. As Columbus set sail from Spain, smallpox, cholera, influenza, malaria, yellow fever, and many other familiar modern maladies were exclusively in the Eastern Hemisphere. Because many contact diseases are variants of animal illnesses, they appeared only after people began living in close quarters with cattle, horses, chickens, and the rest of the modern barnyard—essentially during the most recent five to seven thousand years—and because New World peoples had very few domesticates, they had none of those spinoff illnesses. Vector diseases had appeared in Africa much earlier—the prototype of vivax malaria, for instance, may have appeared as early as three million years ago and its contemporary form two to three hundred thousand years ago—but they thinned out steadily to the north and never made it to the Arctic. When the first immigrants to the Western Hemisphere crossed from Siberia to Alaska fifteen to eighteen thousand years ago, they left those insect-borne diseases behind.

Being free of the scourges on the other side of the Atlantic was a grand plus for residents of the Western Hemisphere—as long, that is, as the two hemispheres were not in contact. Meanwhile peoples of the Eastern Hemisphere were gaining a vital, painfully won advantage. Living with diseases can lead to two sorts of protections—acquired and innate immunities. By the first, anyone surviving a virus, such as measles or chickenpox or yellow fever, will not get it again, and because so many persons in the Old World had taken on such viruses as children, much of the adult population stayed well when diseases came around again. Surviving other maladies does not grant immunity, but with some, notably the malaria parasite, repeated bouts, especially when young, gives a person some resistance and weakens the impact of later doses.

Innate immunities are ingrained genetic defenses that evolve in a population over long spans of time. Once in place, they are part of each generation's biological equipment. Such protections are most apparent where people and diseases have coevolved the longest, in the tropics. Nearly all Africans below the Sahara, for instance, lack the "Duffy antigen," something found elsewhere in the walls of red blood cells. Its absence bars entrance to the P. vivax parasite, thus protecting "Duffy-negative" persons from one form of malaria. In tropical Africa and parts of Asia red blood cells evolved into the sickle cell, which blocks invasion of all forms of the malarial parasite in a considerable portion of the population. (Unfortunately, inheriting the sickle cell gene from both parents means a child will probably die before maturity due to anemia.) And although the evidence is hotly debated, sub-Saharan Africans also may have evolved some genetic resistance to yellow fever.

So in 1492 one hemisphere was relatively free of contagions, while the other teemed with them, but exactly because the Old World had suffered so much for so long, its peoples, hardened veterans of the germ wars, had gained some protections, while the millions in the other half of the planet had none. Again, however, there was a distinction. People in the temperate Old World had less exposure than those in the tropics to the vector killers that had long plagued the steamy regions around the equator. Malaria's less malignant form, P. vivax, had spread its chills and fevers well to the north, including to the British Isles and northern Europe, but its much deadlier cousin, P. falciparum, had remained mostly in Africa. Yellow fever still has never appeared in Asia, and it had struck only occasionally in southernmost Europe.

Think of zones. One, in temperate Europe, crawled with contact diseases. The other, in Africa between the Sahara and the Tropic of Capricorn, had plenty of those and was also rife with insect-borne vector diseases. Europeans and Africans had developed defenses against what was in their respective zones, but not necessarily against what was in the other, and consequently, when lines were crossed, bad things could happen.


Excerpted from The Essential West by Elliott West. Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Foreword Richard White xi

Introduction 1

Part I Conquest

1 Lewis and Park; Or, Why It Matters That the West's Most Famous Explorers Didn't Get Sick (or at Least Not Really Sick) 15

2 Golden Dreams: Colorado, California, and the Reimagining of America 44

3 Called-Out People: The Cheyennes and the Central Plains 57

4 Wired to the World: The Telegraph and the Making of the West 78

5 Reconstructing Race 100

Part II Families

6 The West before Lewis and Clark: Three Lives 129

7 Child's Play: Tradition and Adaptation on the Frontier 154

8 Becoming Mormon 176

9 Listen Up: Hearing the Unheard in Western History 194

Part III Myth

10 Bison R Us: The Buffalo as Cultural Icon 213

11 Jesse James, Borderman 230

12 American Pathways 258

13 On the Trail with Gus and Call: Lonesome Dove and the Western Myth 277

14 Stories 290

Index 313

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