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'Westward I Go Free . . . ,' Henry David Thoreau : THE WEST: An Illustrated History. By Geoffrey C. Ward (Little, Brown: $60, 446 pp.)

September 15, 1996|Russell Frank | Russell Frank is a folklorist and journalist who spent 11 years writing about the West while living in California's Mother Lode region. He worked briefly as a researcher on the television version of "The West" and now lives in central Pennsylvania

The West has always been about hunger and thirst--for gold, land, cattle, timber, fur, adventure, freedom, blood, water. Water most of all. Even now, the habitability of the region is open to question, as the ashes of another disastrous fire season smolder.

Vast and resource-rich as it is, the West was never meant to support a large population, which is why it has always been fought over and fought with, why it is a land of dams and damnation. All settlement is precarious where the natural cycle is one of winter torrent and summer lightning, yet Westerners have settled on sea cliffs, in canyons, on stream banks and in forests, only to be washed away by Pacific storms, flooded out by rivers of mud or burned out by wildfire.

Forty-niner William Swain, stumped by the problem of irrigating the Sacramento Valley with Sierra Nevada water, was both fool and prophet when he wrote to his brother back in "the states," that California "lacks the essential elements of national prosperity and will be one of the poorest states of the Union." Obviously, men who came after Swain did channel the water from the mountains to the valley, agriculture flourished, and the state grew rich. Just as obviously, the problems of drought and flood (to say nothing of earthquakes) have never been solved, and the state continues to lurch from boom to bust.

The main character in J. S. Holliday's classic 1981 gold rush history, "The World Rushed In," Swain is only a bit player in Geoffrey C. Ward's "The West," the companion volume to the Ken Burns documentary of the same name that begins airing tonight on PBS.

"We believe that history really is biography," Burns and producer-director Stephen Ives write in their preface, and the book gets at the great events of Western history via "the individual experiences of men and women" who participated in them. Thus we meet the usual dramatic personas--Lewis and Clark, John Sutter, Kit Carson, John Fremont, Brigham Young, George Custer and Sitting Bull--and some less familiar ones, such as conquistador Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Tiwa Indian spiritual leader Pope, missionary Narcissa Whitman, Mormon John Lee, Mexican American rancher Juan Cortina, cowboy Teddy Blue Abbott, homestead wife Mattie Oblinger and the indefatigable diarist Swain.

A great strength of "The West" is that the inclusion of the stories of once-invisible white and American Indian women, Chinese miners and railroaders and Mexican American farmers doesn't seem forced but essential. In keeping with this biographical approach, portraits--many of them jaunty portraits of young men armed to the teeth--dominate the photographic record that accompanies the text.

The approach is further reinforced by the use of pull-out quotes from the personages who figure so prominently in the narrative. Regrettably, and typically when it comes to the coffee-table book genre, there are no chapter-by-chapter notes at the end of the book to indicate where these quotes come from.

Where "The West" goes beyond the Time-Life books it otherwise resembles is in the inclusion of thoughtful essays by historians Richard White, Julie Roy Jeffrey, David G. Gutierrez, Patricia Nelson Limerick, John Mack Faragher, T. H. Watkins, N. Scott Momaday and Dayton Duncan at the end of each of the book's eight chapters. By exploring the abiding spiritual, ethnic and environmental issues raised by the conquest of the West, these writers free Ward to indulge his own appetite for rip-roaring tales of how the West was won. Limerick's essay on religion sheds new light on the tangle of religious, economic and political motives that drove America west. Duncan's meditation on Monument Valley as pop cultural icon and enduring symbol provides a fitting close.

Like its subject matter, "The West" is gorgeous and grand, stretching from the arrival of gold-seeking conquistadors on Galveston Island in 1528 to the arrival of Owens River water in Los Angeles in 1913. As the only history of the West that many people may ever read, Ward's volume is a good gauge of the region as Manifest Destiny or as conquest. Walt Disney's "Pocahontas" provided incontrovertible evidence that "the march of civilization" was out as the story of the West and "invasion and conquest" was officially in.

Reaction to the dippiness of the Disney version suggests it was time for a more even-handed approach: After all, both the white man and the American Indian were in the scalp-collecting business.

Ward's take on the clash of cultures is clear from the opening scene. The 1528 landing of Spanish soldiers on Galveston Island is not told from the point of view of the invaders, but from the view of the Cocos who lived there: "None of them had ever seen men like these before: Most of them were pale and hairy. . . . all spoke a barbarous, incomprehensible tongue."

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