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Posted April 20, 2014
Your understanding of 'how the west was won' until you read this version.
Although published in 2002, I chose Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of the Old West by Stewart Udall [Island Press; 1 edition, September 1, 2002] because it so closely parallels my own thinking regarding the settlement of both U.S.A. and Canada. Indeed, Udall could be speaking for me when he writes:
"A shortcoming of histories that concentrate on broad outlines of events is the absence of human faces and stories of ordinary folk that would reveal what animated individuals and families and indicate the experiences they had. Yet only by considering individual human experience can we begin to develop a sense of what these men and women faced and an idea of the magnitude of their achievements." p. 37.
And again at page 135 where he quotes Thomas Jefferson, probably one of the great populists of all time, i.e.
"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds."
He also credits religion as being one of the founding forces, a point on which I have some misgivings, but nonetheless it cannot be denied that in the 19th century it formed the spiritual heart of most communities, and in many cases the vanguard as well.
Most particularly, however, Udall downplays such historical stereotypes as Lewis and Clark and the fur traders, as well as the 49ers as having little enduring impact on frontier development. He also downplays the importance of mining, ranching and other large-scale activities after the needs of the Civil War were met. Moreover, he is critical of the U.S. Military's campaign to "pacifying" the Indians, pointing repeatedly to their unjust and callous treatment, as well as that of Chinese immigrants in the early history of the West. He also dismisses dime novel and Hollywood-created legends, such as “Butch” Cassidy and Billy the Kid, as “transitive outliers.”
Udall’s point is that we have replaced the true heroes of the West with straw men, the romanticized creations of pulp novels and Saturday-afternoon movies, and that this is what has prevailed to the detriment of those who might have benefited from emulating the pioneer work ethic.
All of this I agree with almost uncategorically. However, Udall’s thesis is not without its overreaching assumptions and journalistic hyperbole. For example, the 49ers may have been an influx of opportunists flocking to the most "hare-brained ventures" in history (132), but of these many stayed to homestead in California and elsewhere. Likewise, miners lured to the prosperous discoveries went on to establish towns and cities that exist today. Therefore, they too form part of the faceless heroes who collectively settled the West.
Nonetheless, it is one of those books that needs to be read to truly understand the ying and yang of North American settlement. Four bees.