- Empires, Nations & Families: A History of the North American West, 1800–1860
I often think back to my American frontier-history classes taught by a wonderful professor, John Clifford. With his tailored suits and polished cowboy boots, he came into the classroom each day, placed a file folder on the podium (never opening it) and presented a fact-filled, fascinating lecture. I was constantly amazed at his instant recall of books and authors, all suggested as further reading into the topic of the moment. In the years before the “new western history” and debates over the use of the word “frontier,” I remember lectures about the many peoples who inhabited the trans-Mississippi region. Never was this region presented as a virgin wilderness denude of people and never was the westward movement of peoples presented as anything but conquest. Looking back, yes, I was quite fortunate to have a professor ahead of his time. He was all about people and places, and telling a good story. And that is exactly what Anne Hyde does in this volume—a history of the North American West.
Hyde, professor of history at Colorado College, focuses on family relations in four western regions: St. Louis, the Great Lakes, Santa Fe and the Arkansas River, and the Pacific Coast. The economics of the fur trade tied the families together. These are families that lived and worked in the regions decades before Anglos migrated there, before the land became a part of the United States. To any reader [End Page 107] of frontier/western history the family names are familiar and they include Chouteaus, McLoughlins, Sublettes, Vallejos, Austins, Bents, and Wilsons. As Hyde skillfully and brilliantly writes, these families had “incredibly broad sets of connections” (pp. 17–18). The stories span the generations and intertwine when family members marry into families of other regions. It is truly fascinating and at points throughout the book, it becomes a true page-turner.
The book is divided into three parts. Part one focuses on the web of families and the business of the fur trade. Family connections across the West fostered the growth of the fur trade with its global implications. Part two looks at the Native American nations that inhabited the regions and their relations and intermarriages with the prominent families in St. Louis and beyond. The final section of the book covers the years 1840–65 and examines the process of conquest and its impact on the families and their businesses. Topics in these chapters include the Mexican Revolution, the Mormon migration to the Great Basin, Anglo migration to the Oregon Country, gold in California, and the Civil War, including the Minnesota uprising and the Sand Creek Massacre. There is an epilogue, “How It All Turned Out,” which ties up loose ends with the families readers have come to know in the pages of this volume.
Hyde uses a plethora of sources, including family papers, Hudson’s Bay Company papers, journals, territorial documents, Office of Indian Affairs documents, and a wide range of published primary and secondary sources. The notes section is thorough and quite interesting for anyone interested in research. Black-and-white photographs are scattered throughout the book and are used by the author as part of her storytelling.
This is a story of families and of communities woven together with political and military history of the United States as it crossed the Mississippi River. Hyde’s volume is a superb telling of a tale familiar to students of the American West but presented in a new, enlivening manner that will make readers remember why they love frontier American history so very much. [End Page 108]
Patricia Ann Owens teaches history at Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel, Illinois. Her research interests are the nineteenth-century American West, the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln.