Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: Westward America

Driggs, Howard R., Westward America, American Pioneers Trails Association, New York, 1942; water colors by William H. Jackson.

This book is a fascinating read, and  just as fun is to browse the water colors.  The author, as well as the illustrator lived or knew those who had lived the.pioneer trail.  This story tells of U.S. Westward expansion from a 1942 mentality when it was OK to be proud of American accomplishments and manifest destiny. 

This book tells many stories from Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, to the coming of the railroad and the Golden Spike.  A few samples of the book follow:

Death took its heavy toll during these crowded years.  Thousands of men, women and children, unable to endure the strain, or seized with some dread scourge like the cholera, went into their graves all along the painful way.  Most of their resting places are unmarked, for the simple reason that there were few lasting materials on the prairie lands with which to erect enduring monuments, and precious little time while the trains were in the mountain lands to carve lasting inscriptions on any stone that might be set at a grave.  P 34

Education of a lasting kind was gained through this frontier experience.  The pioneer trail tested the mettle of every one, young or old, that dared to follow it.  It brought out the best and the worst in human nature.  Weaklings usually went down; wickedness was generally brought to swift and certain punishment.  Only strength of body and of character stood the test and came through strengthened and trained for the conquest that lay ahead.  P 35

These were the Mormons—a devout band of Americans—made homeless a second time by an un-American persecution.  Their youthful prophet leader with his brother had been slain two years before in Carthage jail—victims of religious and political intolerance.  P 37

Not all the stories, however, were of trouble and sorrow.  For the younger ones, and for many of their elders, the journey across the plains was one of thrilling adventure.  The prairie lands in spring and summer were bright with blossoms. There was the fun of gathering new flowers, and sometimes wild fruits, along the way.  Prairie dogs barking from their populous villages, buffalo and antelope on nearby hills, wolves and coyotes slinking about, all added to the excitement of travel.  Besides there were the various birds that brought life to the plains—wild geese and ducks, prairie chickens, owls and eagles, and such songsters as the meadowlark and the robin to cheer the way with their songs.

Camping out at night under friendly stars was another rich experience.  Evening stories and songs round the fires, with an occasional dance on the greensward to the tune of fiddle, accordion or banjo, all helped to chase the darker hours away.  Then came the rosy dawn and the great red sun, rising seemingly “right out of the ground,” to light up the old trail for another day’s journey towards a dreamed-of home…   p 67

The first of these bridges, built by a French frontiersman, Reshaw, spanned the river just east of the site of Casper.  It was there in 1857 [6] when the belated Mormon handcart companies trailed by.  Members of those companies have told the writer that they would have used this bridge, but they could not pay the high tolls.  As an alternative they had to pull their cars through the cold stream, which nearly swept some of the women and children down with it.  That same afternoon a bitter wind froze their water-soaked clothing and bedding; and a snowfall at night took a heavy toll of lives.  This was the beginning of one of the major tragedies of the plains.  P. 87

I have thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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