- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005


Edited by James A. Crutchfield

Tor, $25.95, 304 pages


“The Way West: True Stories of the American Frontier,” an anthology edited by James A. Crutchfield, is a good introduction to the West for the general reader. Mr. Crutchfield, author of a number of books about the West, has gathered essays from 27 prominent western writers and historians, including Robert Utley, Elmer Kelton, Larry Brown and Lori Van Pelt, and the pieces certainly live up to the book’s subtitle. In fact, a common theme is murder, mayhem and death in general, the stuff of a thousand Hollywood horse operas.

Mr. Crutchfield’s own essay “Is Not This the Red River?: Zebulon Pike, James Wilkinson, and the Search for the Far Southwest” is, somewhat differently, the story of Zebulon Pike’s 1805 exploration of the Colorado region (he discovered Pike’s Peak). It also takes up the question of whether Pike was a co-conspirator in ex-Vice President Aaron Burr’s notorious plot to establish his own American empire detached from the United States in the Spanish Southwest. Mr. Crutchfield leaves it to the reader to decide after he analyzes surviving letters that were exchanged between Pike and Gen. James Wilkinson, Burr’s primary agent provocateur.

Author David Dary is fascinated by woodland trails, and in “Western Trails” expands on that passion to examine the myriad routes (the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Chisholm Trail, et al.) that were first game trails used by buffalo, and then by Indians, Spanish missionaries and solitary fur trappers, before leading a nation west. These trails are yet traveled today, as they are literally underneath out Interstate highway and railroad routes.

Trail travel is also the main theme of JoAnn Levy’s “The Intrepid Females ofForty-Nine.” Ms. Levy examined the journals and letters of many westering women and found them vividly rendered, and their authors steely, especially when considering the dangers of the trails. One Lucena Parsons wrote: “I found the skull of a man by the roadside. I took it on and buried it at the point.”

The Texas Rangers are the subject of historian Robert Utley’s “Images of the Texas Rangers,” and he focuses on the likes of John Salmon “Rip” Ford, John Coffee Hays and Ben McCulloch, storied 19th century Ranger “captains,” whose lives were full of wild bandit pursuits and Indian warfare. McCulloch was a noteworthy scout in the Mexican War. Hays and Ford conducted large-scale operations involving hundreds of men against “The Lords of the Plain,” the fearsome Comanches. These old style Rangers — half cavalrymen, half Special Forces-type commandos — later morphed into the much imitated and sophisticated law enforcement agency that we know today.

Another Texan — though one gone bad — was John Wesley Hardin (1853-1895), a psychopath reputed to have killed some 40 men, including one who had offended him by snoring too loud. Leon Claire Metz chronicles every death, whether murder or self defense, in “Fast Guns and Dead Men.” Hardin was finally dispatched by four shots from El Paso lawman John Selman. One of the ironies of Hardin’s life was that during his bloodsoaked career he pursued periods of “going straight.” He studied law in prison and upon his release passed the Texas bar examination, and even practiced law in Junction, Tex. shortly before his death.

Janet E. Graebner’s “The Last War Cry: Battle Butte, January 8, 1877” details the 11 months from the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876) to the final surrender of Crazy Horse and his remaining 900 Oglala Sioux to Gen. George Crook at Fort Robinson, Neb. on May 5, 1877.

The Sioux chief was proud to the end, causing the exasperated Crook to exclaim: “This is a triumphal march, not a surrender!” The “Battle Butte” of the title is a landmark in eastern Montana, and was the scene of Crazy Horse’s last armed resistance. Fought in a ferocious blizzard, it was the beginning of his end, which came when he was killed under dubious circumstances while trying to “escape” imprisonment four months after the surrender (Sept. 5, 1877).

For a short essay, William Groneman’s “The Alamo” is a thorough retelling of that episode of early Texas history. This is true, too, of Bill Gulick’s “Pacific Northwest Steamboat Days,” which proves that the Northwest was essentially properly settled thanks to the Columbia River as much as the Oregon Trail. Candy Moulton’s “The Fourth Company” tells the tale of British Mormons and the harrowing adventures they encountered crossing both an ocean and a continent to reach their “Zion” in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. And Darrel Arnold’s “Survival of the Cowboy” is a scholarly look at that American icon — mostly romanticized and misunderstood — from the 19th century “Old West” to the “New West” of today, a West of hobby ranchers like Ted Turner, not to mention subdivisions and strip malls.

Near the end of “The Way West” is Dale L. Walker’s: “RIP: The Whereabouts of Forty Celebrated Westerners.” In it he tells us where the likes of Doc Holliday (Glenwood Springs, Colorado), Wild Bill Hickok (Deadwood, South Dakota), Buffalo Bill Cody (Lookout Mountain, Colorado), and the more recently interred such as Gary Cooper (Southhampton, Long Island, New York) are planted.

It seems not all Westerners “rest” in the West. William Barclay “Bat” Masterson lies in WoodlawnCemetery in the Bronx, New York. George Armstrong Custer is not found at the Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana with the rest of his command, but next to his wife Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon Custer in the cemetery at West Point. Mark Twain sleeps in Elmira, New York. Annie Oakley in Dayton, Ohio.

As previously noted, “The Way West” is a good primer for the general readerwho wants a taste of Western history. But there’s also quite a bit of arcane miscellany to surprise even the most knowledgeable devotee of the subject. Who knew that the legendary lawman Bat Masterson spent the last 20 years of his life as a sportswriter for the old New York “Morning Telegraph”? I sure didn’t.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.

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