Candy Moulton: Reading the West 4-25-11
James A. Crutchfield, whose career has included writing about the early frontier and the American West, is the 2011 recipient of the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature. The award is given by Western Writers of America as its highest honor and will be presented during the organization’s annual convention in June in Bismarck, N.D.
The Franklin, Tenn., resident won a Spur award for “Best Western Nonfiction Article” in 1991 for a magazine article about the American occupation of New Mexico and events leading up to the Taos Revolt of 1847.
Crutchfield’s newest published work, “The Settlement of America: Encyclopedia of Westward Expansion from Jamestown to the Closing of the Frontier,” will be released this summer by M. E. Sharpe. The two-volume encyclopedia includes essays about the trans-Appalachian West as well as the region extending to California and Oregon.
Former WWA President Cotton Smith says Crutchfield “is one of those exceptional author/historians who turns earlier times into reality for all of us. We are blessed to have his talents focused on Americana, coupled with the tenacity and insight to make them into important books.”
Adds WWA Past President and four-time Spur Award winner Johnny D. Boggs, “Jim Crutchfield knows more about the early American frontier than Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone. The trails Crutchfield has blazed as an historian has provided a wealth of information we novelists who sometimes explore this period are fortunate to have.”
Crutchfield’s books include “A Primer of the North American Fur Trade;” “Mountain Men of the American West;” “George Washington: First in War, First in Peace;” “The Battle of Franklin: Twilight of the Army of Tennessee;” “The Santa Fe Trail” and “Tragedy at Taos.”
Crutchfield’s skill in writing short nonfiction led him to launch the “It Happened In” series with Falcon Books in 1992 with publication of “It Happened in Montana.” He quickly followed that title with books for Colorado (1993), Arizona and Oregon (1994), Washington and New Mexico (1995), and Georgia (2005). He also wrote “It Happened on the Mississippi River” (2008) and “It Happened in the Old South” (2009). The state books have gone into second editions and some are now being considered for a third edition. In all nearly 250,000 copies of the series titles have been sold. The series itself has been expanded and other writers have contributed titles on additional states and regions.
While Crutchfield says he is partial to New Mexico and Montana, all of the states he has written about have engaging stories. “The concept of each book was to trace the state’s story with 30-35 vignettes of history that dated from prehistoric times to the present,” he said. The books include stories of prehistoric buffalo hunts by ancient Indians in Colorado, Lewis and Clark involvement in Montana, the Taos Revolt in New Mexico, and more recent events including the standoff with the FBI at Waco, Texas, the capture of the Unabomber in Montana, and Hurricane Katrina.
The author says his forte in history lies in the older stuff. “I’m partial to anything prior to 1850, the earlier the better,” he said. There is one story in “It Happened in the Old South” about a little-known slave uprising in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, that he particularly likes. Denmark Vesey, a freed black man who was well thought of in the area and a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, along with some other black men, organized slaves for an uprising believing if they kept their intentions secret until just before the revolt they would be able to escape slavery, get support from other nations, and perhaps flee to Haiti where Denmark had spent his early life. The plan leaked out, however, and the governor called out 400 militia members who put down the uprising. Vesey was subsequently hanged along with three co-conspirators.
What Crutchfield likes about that story is that it is representative of many other slave revolts in the Old South. However he admits “out of the 300 or more episodes out of all 10 books, it would be difficult to pick a favorite. Throughout the series I have attempted to present the lesser-known events about which many readers might not be familiar.”
Two of his books, “The Santa Fe Trail” and “Tragedy at Taos,” came about because of earlier research for his “It Happened In” series, and they also relate to one of the regions Crutchfield most likes to visit in the West: New Mexico.
He and wife Regena made their first trip to New Mexico in late May 1984, spending a week at a guest ranch in the Pecos Wilderness. They returned on many more vacations and research trips. “We both became totally absorbed with all things New Mexico: the landscape, the culture, the arts, and the history,” he said. “Of course, I was aware at the time of the Santa Fe Trail’s place in American history (Josiah Gregg was a Tennessean), but actually following its course and visiting its important sites along the way simply provided more fuel for our interests.”
Crutchfield won a Spur award for “Best Western Nonfiction Article” in 1991 for a magazine article about the American occupation of New Mexico and events leading up to the Taos Revolt of 1847. His book, “Tragedy at Taos: The Revolt of 1847,” was published by the Republic of Texas Press in 1995 and was followed by “The Santa Fe Trail” a year later from the same publisher.