The Unknown West


A few years ago I grumbled in these pages that until around 1970 historical studies having to do with the American West were mainly the work of semipros: “Country editors, prairie schoolmarms, county historians, retired lawyers, lone professors here and there, and not a few raving eccentrics” who left us a few good books while operating in a kind of conceptual emptiness, with neither much rigor nor much reach.

What a difference thirty-five years makes! The country editors and prairie schoolmarms no longer have a chance, and even the raving eccentrics are living on borrowed time. Several university presses—Yale, the University of Nebraska, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of California—have poured forth a steady stream of western studies that are conceptually combative and far from lacking in reach. The scholars who have produced these studies, a kind of new Wild Bunch, now mostly growing somewhat long in the tooth, have so shot up the old discipline that those such as myself who have mainly investigated the American West through casual reading sometimes feel as if they might as well forget everything they once thought they knew and just start over, if only we could figure out where the beginning is.

When that feeling began to grow in me perhaps five years ago I tried to start over by immersing myself for a year or two in the superb recently completed thirteen-volume University of Nebraska edition of the Journals of Lewis and Clark. That was certainly good fun, but, as the two books under review and quite a few others make clear, Lewis and Clark were in fact latecomers to the West, unable to witness or even guess at most of the many great dramas that took place there one thousand or even ten thousand years before they embarked on their journey in 1804.

In their contact with various tribal societies as they passed on their way to the Pacific, they at least glimpsed people who practiced a corn economy, a buffalo economy, and a salmon economy but they knew little of the evolution of these never-static ways of life.

They saw plenty of arrowheads but had probably never seen a Clovis point—neither had we until the early 1930s when a road crew working near Clovis, New Mexico, dislodged a number of fluted projectile points, along with the bones of an extinct bison that these distinctive points had killed perhaps ten thousand years back. (Folsom points had been unearthed a few years earlier.) Nowadays a long and useful career can be devoted just to the complexity and the distribution of projectile points in North America alone.

Lewis and Clark of course saw plenty of beaver on their trip but were happily not troubled by the notion that in the time of Clovis Man the beavers might have been the size of bears, though still among the least fearsome of the megafauna that lumbered over the plains in those years, most of which Clovis Man ate.

Lewis and…

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