Gerry B's Book Reviews

The Forgotten Founders: Rethinking The History Of The Old West, by Stewart L. Udall (Author), David Emmons (Foreword)

“ The real story of the settlement of the West was work, not conquest” ~ Stewart Udall.

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forgotten founders - coverStory blurb: This book by distinguished author, Stewart Udall, takes on what he calls “the harmful myths about western U.S. history,” myths that put the wrong people (fur traders and gold miners) and the wrong subjects (“Manifest Destiny” and armed violence) at the center of the history of the Old West. With a lively and sometimes personal take, he wants us to replace old folk tales with “reality”-with the known stories of a greater diversity of men and women, natives and newcomers, who gave the West its distinctive character. Udall is particularly compelling when writing of his own and his wife’s great-grandparents, among whom was the Mormon who led the infamous Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857. Unfortunately, this only tends to replace one set of “heroes” with another, “the forgotten founders” who take center stage here only as strong, religious, fearless, hard-working folk without shortcomings. The trappers, miners and politicians who did in fact play a role in the West are elbowed almost totally out of the picture. Nevertheless, Udall’s version of the West’s past fits well with recent scholarly views, and many who read this book because of its author’s renown will gain solid knowledge and much pleasure. Maps, photos. ~ Legends of America.

About the author: Stewart Lee Udall (January 31, 1920 – March 20, 2010)[1][2] was an American politician and later, a federal government official. After serving three terms as a congressman from Arizona, he served as Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969, under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

His previous books include: The Quiet Crisis, 1963; 1976: Agenda for Tomorrow, 1968; America’s Natural Treasures: National Nature Monuments and Seashores, 1971; To the Inland Empire: Coronado and our Spanish Legacy, 1987; The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation, 1988; In Coronado’s Footsteps, 1991; The Myths of August:–A Personal Exploration of Our tragic Cold War Affair with the Atom, 1994; Majestic Journey, 1995.

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Review by Gerry Burnie

Although published in 2002, I chose Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of the Old West by Stewart Udall [Island Press; 1 edition, September 1, 2002] because it so closely parallels my own thinking regarding the settlement of both U.S.A. and Canada. Indeed, Udall could be speaking for me when he writes:

“A shortcoming of histories that concentrate on broad outlines of events is the absence of human faces and stories of ordinary folk that would reveal what animated individuals and families and indicate the experiences they had. Yet only by considering individual human experience can we begin to develop a sense of what these men and women faced and an idea of the magnitude of their achievements.” p. 37.

And again at page 135 where he quotes Thomas Jefferson, probably one of the great populists of all time, i.e.

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds.”

He also credits religion as being one of the founding forces, a point on which I have some misgivings, but nonetheless it cannot be denied that in the 19th century it formed the spiritual heart of most communities, and in many cases the vanguard as well.

Most particularly, however, Udall downplays such historical stereotypes as Lewis and Clark and the fur traders, as well as the 49ers as having little enduring impact on frontier development. He also downplays the importance of mining, ranching and other large-scale activities after the needs of the Civil War were met. Moreover, he is critical of the U.S. Military’s campaign to “pacifying” the Indians, pointing repeatedly to their unjust and callous treatment, as well as that of Chinese immigrants in the early history of the West. He also dismisses dime novel and Hollywood-created legends, such as “Butch” Cassidy and Billy the Kid, as “transitive outliers.”

Udall’s point is that we have replaced the true heroes of the West with straw men, the romanticized creations of pulp novels and Saturday-afternoon movies, and that this is what has prevailed to the detriment of those who might have benefited from emulating the pioneer work ethic.

All of this I agree with almost uncategorically. However, Udall’s thesis is not without its overreaching assumptions and journalistic hyperbole. For example, the 49ers may have been an influx of opportunists flocking to the most “hare-brained ventures” in history (132), but of these many stayed to homestead in California and elsewhere. Likewise, miners lured to the prosperous discoveries went on to establish towns and cities that exist today. Therefore, they too form part of the faceless heroes who collectively settled the West.

Nonetheless, it is one of those books that needs to be read to truly understand the ying and yang of North American settlement. Four bees.

*Available from Legends of America Bookstore for $6.47 (basic).

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 It is a collection of people, facts and events in Canadian history, and includes a bibliography of interesting Canadian books as well. Latest post:  Miles Gilbert “Tim” Horton : The Tim behind Tim Hortons.

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April 20, 2014 Posted by | Academic study, American History, Non-fiction, non-GLBT | Leave a comment

   

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