Although the present edition of Wahto-yah and the Taos Trail was published a few years ago, it was not widely reviewed at the time. As the book is a minor classic of great charm, which has never had anything like the currency or critical recognition it deserves, there seems some point in reviewing it even so late in the day. Fanciers of Western literature have always praised it, and in 1938 Ralph P. Bieber published an excellent scholarly edition of it in the Southwest Historical Series. But it has qualities of language and observation that should recommend it to a more general literary audience. To respond to its vitality of language and description it is no more necessary to be an addict of the frontier than one must be a cultural primitivist to respond to similar qualities in Melville’s Typee.
Wah-to-yah is above all else a book by a very young man. Lewis Garrard was seventeen when he lived through the experiences it recounts; he was twenty-one when it was finally published in 1850. A stepson of a justice of the United States Supreme Court, he set out in 1846, with parental permission, for an extended trip into the West. In what is now Kansas City he joined a caravan headed for Bent’s Fort in southeastern Colorado near the Spanish Peaks (the Indian name for which was Wah-to-yah). From there he traveled south to Taos in New Mexico, and returned East the following year.
While Wah-to-yah could not formally be described as an initiation book recounting the hero’s exposure to experience in the sense that Melville’s Redburn, for example, may be, it has many qualities of that genre, and Lewis Garrard in some respects recalls the image of the young Wellingborough. Like Redburn, he has an attractive tolerance for the peculiarities of others, and an appealing sympathy with their difficulties. And like Melville’s young hero, he is sometimes inclined to think a little sentimentally of the comforts and kindnesses of home. Even along the Santa Fe Trail he is able to speak in the accents of the well-brought-up boy of proper, decent sentiment. Coming across a lonely grave, he writes:
On the top of the rock, near the edge, was a deposit of earth, where the remains of some poor fellow had been placed. To die anywhere seems hard, but to heave the last breath among strangers, on the burning, desolate prairie, with no kind mother or sister to pay those soothing attentions which divest the bed of sickness of many of its pangs, is hard indeed.
He was in Taos not long after the murder of Charles Bent, the United States governor by appointment of the newly conquered territory. He attended the trial and the mass execution of the six Mexicans who had been convicted for Bent’s death. His description of the hangings, which comprises the whole of Chapter XVII, is an extraordinarily vivid and moving piece of reportage which comes to a …