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Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails


This is a stirring history of the settling of the American West, from 1840-49, the years between the era of the fur trappers and the beginning of the gold rush.

In all the sagas of human migration, few can top the drama of the journey by midwestern farmers to Oregon and California. Seeking the promised land, these travelers trekked two thousand miles by covered wagon from Missouri to destinations on the Pacific coast. Although they used mountain men as guides, they went almost ...

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Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails

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This is a stirring history of the settling of the American West, from 1840-49, the years between the era of the fur trappers and the beginning of the gold rush.

In all the sagas of human migration, few can top the drama of the journey by midwestern farmers to Oregon and California. Seeking the promised land, these travelers trekked two thousand miles by covered wagon from Missouri to destinations on the Pacific coast. Although they used mountain men as guides, they went almost alone into the unknown, braving dangers from hunger, thirst, disease, drowning, and Native Americans. The early migrants got through only after Herculean efforts, but later in the decade complacency set in, and the result was disastrous, especially in the case of the Donner party, marooned in the snow and reduced to cannibalism.

Using original diaries and memoirs, Frank McLynn underscores the incredible heroism and dangerous folly on the overland trails. His well-informed and authoritative year-by-year narrative tells of the events leading up to the opening of the trails, the wagons and animals used by the pioneers, the role of women and relations with Native Americans. This account of the pioneering years in the overland trails abounds with tragedy and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. It also brilliantly chronicles one of the principal chapters in the conquest of the North American continent, and the creation of the United States as we know it today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rarely has a book so wonderfully brought to life the riveting tales of Americans' trek to the Pacific. A prolific British writer taken by the complex aspirations and often desperate hardships of the saints and scoundrels who filled the Western trails, McLynn (Carl Gustav Jung; Napoleon) relates their travails with a brio and understanding too seldom encountered in books on this naturally compelling subject. He vividly paints the unforgiving geography and the obstacles of human nature that often daunted but rarely defeated these pioneers. And he overlooks few of the people. There are plenty of familiar characters here, their stories freshly told: the ill-fated Donner Party, the Whitmans on their way to Oregon, mountain man Jim Bridger, the historian Francis Parkman and the Mormons. What helps make this narrative distinctive is that McLynn doesn't limit himself to known pioneers. His pen captures characters and situations from almost every wagon train that crossed the continent in seven or so pivotal years (1841-1847). Women play a large role in his pages. The outsider's perspective that allows McLynn to offer shrewd comparisons between European and American conditions does make one wish for more analysis. Most of all, though, he leaves the reader with a fuller understanding of the grit and resolve that motivated waves of people seeking escape and opportunity to head West and make the United States a continental nation in fact as well as in name. 16 pages of b&w illus.; maps. (Jan.) Forecast: This could do very well regionally, like H.W. Brands's recent and equally engaging The Age of Gold. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
While the title implies that all westward trails will be covered, McLynn (literature, Strathclyde Univ.; Villa and Zapata) describes only the trail across the central United States to Oregon and California and only for the period from the Bidwell party of 1841 to the Mormon emigration of 1847-48. This allows him to explain why the emigration occurred and to put it into the context of Manifest Destiny. Drawing on numerous diaries and previously published research, he tells the story of each wagon train that set out from Missouri or Iowa during the early years but is selective for the later years, being careful to cover the Donner Party and the Mormon emigration of 1847-48 in detail. By putting both the California and Oregon trails together in one book and placing the story in a national context, McLynn provides a very useful starting point for undergraduates and general readers to begin their own investigations into this aspect of American history. He also provides an extensive bibliography to continue those investigations. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Detailed, intermittently interesting, but finally unrewarding study of America’s 19th-century overland expansion from (perhaps too) prolific biographer/historian McLynn (Napoleon, 2002, etc.). "The 19th century saw the American character at its best, and the best of that best was probably evinced on the wagon trains West." This cheering sentiment, like much else in McLynn’s sweeping study, is factually questionable and ultimately empty. The author is keen to demonstrate what the drive west says about the American character, marked in his view by "permanent rootlessness . . . spatial mobility, relocation, and the belief in the Fresh Start." In doing so, however, he overlooks a basic reality of 19th-century life: most of the men who went west (often accompanied by unwilling women and children) did so not out of some grand sense of Manifest Destiny or adventure, but because they wanted land, a commodity in short supply in the crowded East. Generations of American historians have established this fundamentally economic motivation for the acquisition of lebensraum, but McLynn persists in holding a romanticized and eminently European view of the era, as well as an eminently European lack of knowledge about the Native American cultures that Anglo pioneers encountered and battled. That said, he does a reasonable job of charting the rise and fall of such important overland routes as the Oregon and Santa Fe trails and of depicting some of the well-known pioneers and explorers who crossed them, such as Charles Frémont, Jedediah Smith, and the unfortunate members of the Donner Party. McLynn’s anecdotes and odd bits of fact, which make up the best parts here, are well chosen, particularly those havingto do with how newcomers to the West gouged, swindled, and otherwise mistreated those who arrived a day later, a constant of American history much worthier of examination than our supposed wanderlust. Only marginally useful for general readers, and likely to be dismissed by specialists and knowledgeable buffs.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802140630
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/15/2003
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 992,604
  • Product dimensions: 5.92 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Frank McLynn’s recent books include Carl Gustav Jung (shortlisted for the NCR Award), Napoleon, 1066 and Villa and Zapata.

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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix
Preface xi
Introduction 1
1 Manifest Destiny 5
2 The Reasons Why 19
3 To Boldly Go 49
4 The Woman in the Sunbonnet 92
5 The Great Migration 130
6 Through Flood and Famine 177
7 'Never Take No Cutoffs' 229
8 California Catches Up 282
9 Tragedy in the Snows 326
10 Saints and Sinners 371
Epilogue 427
Bibliography 443
Notes 477
Index 497
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