Candy Moulton: Reading the West 5-9-11
Will Bagley has been researching and writing about western migration for decades and his new narrative history “So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California 1812-1848,” published by the University of Oklahoma Press is testament to his dedication.
While he is one of the foremost historians working and writing today, Bagley is above all a good storyteller. He begins “So Rugged and Mountainous” by describing eagles circling canvas-covered wagons as the first pioneers depart the Missouri River headed overland. This allows him to quickly draw you into the adventure, hardship, and opportunity the West presented in the early half of the 19th century. And he notes that it took the pioneers six months to cross the same amount of land – from the Missouri River to the Willamette Valley – that an eagle could cover in just six days.
Drawing from his incredible research library and literally hundreds of primary documents, he talks of Yankee seafarers, known as “Bostons” who reached the Pacific Northwest in 1812. He writes of the fur traders in Hudson’s Bay Company, New York’s Astorians, the “enterprising men” of William Ashley’s fur brigade. He further sets the scene of “difficulties and hardships attending travel across the Continent,” as pioneer John Henry Brown wrote of his trek in 1845.
However, it is the period of emigrant travel, beginning in 1841, that is the heart of Bagley’s research and narrative in this book. As he notes, “We owe our knowledge of the trails to Oregon and California to a hardy band of letter writers, journal keepers, and memoirists who chronicled their experiences crossing the continent.”
The pioneers, as Bagley shows and tells us, were for the most part not only literate, but also somewhat socially superior. As a result their stories don’t necessarily reflect the full range of economic and social status in America’s population at the time. And because many of those overland travelers wanted their reports to see publication they no doubt made the effort to include interesting, and important details. The accounts of illiterate and poorer people who crossed the continent during the period come through the recollections of other pioneers and the few journalists who made the journey.
Bagley relies on a vast amount of the journals, letters, and reminiscences provided by those early travelers which makes this book an exceptionally full-bodied historical account.
Bagley’s skill as a writer means that while every detail is documented, it is anything but dry, scholarly history. It’s no wonder that this book won the Wrangler Award as outstanding nonfiction history from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and was finalist for the Spur Award from Western Writers of America.
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