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Reading the West 1-4-10

Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

There is always a book for me under the Christmas tree … even if I have to put it there myself. This year’s selection was a title that has actually been available for some time, but which I did not have: “Violence Over the Land” by Ned Blackhawk. This history of Western expansion focuses on the Ute and Western Shoshone tribes … their interaction with each other, and the impacts they felt from development of country they had called home for generations when emigrants and other “interlopers” came through.

As Blackhawk, now a professor at Yale University, says in his introduction, “The violent transformation of Indian lands and lives characterizes European and American Expansion.” However, he also chronicles the conflicts involving the Spaniards who claimed the region of the Great Basin before any American encroachment. Indeed Spanish expeditions pushed into the territory affecting the seasonal migrations of the Utes and Western Shoshones decades before the first American trappers, explorers or emigrants.

The violence over the land also involved conflict between Indian tribes. The Utes and Comanches formed a coalition that opposed Navajos and Apaches, and their subsequent battles and raids were a forerunner to alliances and even attacks that would eventually involve the Americans. In the mountain man era, after Lewis and Clark make their epic journey to the Pacific and back, Ute leaders set out to attract mountain traders to their territory, no doubt recognizing the value of goods they could obtain by having such opportunity nearby.

Blackhawk, who is himself Western Shoshone, addresses the subsequent emigration period and its effect on the tribes and their territories in this very solid history. The book garnered him many awards including the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians, the Ermine Wheeler-Yoegelin Prize from the American Society of Ethnohistory, the Robert M. Utley Award from the Western History Association, the Lara Romero First Book Prize from the American Studies Association and the William P. Clements Prize for the Best Nonfiction Book on Southwestern America from the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.

I also recently received a copy of “Season Dreams: Bedtime Stories for Guys and Gals” written by Patricia Shannon, an Elk Mountain, Wyo., ranch wife. This thin volume has four stories – Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter – suitable for all ages so long as mom or dad, grandma or grandpa read it to younger children. This collection of myths is part history, part fantasy and pretty much all fun.

Each tale has a message – whether for the rebirth of the land as the sun warms it and grass begins to grow in spring, the need for a good shade tree in summer, the excitement that can happen in a small, nearly dying town as it gets a makeover for fall, and the threat of winter storms to residents in another small community.

Although there are some grammatical and typographical errors that could (should) have been caught by editors, this is still a book you will enjoy if only because it transports you to a new season.

Finally, I must begin the New Year with a book on the trails: “On the Western Trails: The Overland Diaries of Washington Peck.” To say he “got around” is quite an understatement. Peck was a cooper and farmer in Ontario, Canada, who became a seasoned wagon train traveler, leaving behind not one but two diaries of his journeys. One is a record of an 1850-1851 trip to the California gold fields over the route along the Platte River across Nebraska and Wyoming, the Mormon Trail into Utah, and then the southern route that extended from Salt Lake City south (roughly along Interstate 15 through Utah) to Nevada and eventually into Los Angeles.

Most people who made such a journey settled in California, but not Washington Peck. He returned east and made another overland trip in 1858 following the Santa Fe Trail from the Missouri River to Santa Fe and then taking the Beale Wagon Road west. His diaries provide first-hand accounts of the California Gold Rush, Mormon settlement of Great Salt Lake City and other historic events including the use of the Underground Railroad in Illinois and the development of New Mexico prior to the Civil War.

The book is edited by Susan M. Erb, a fifth-generation descendent of Washington Peck. It is published by the Arthur H. Clark Company (now an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press).


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