The best biographies of army officers who wrested the West from the Indians & the elements

Who am I?

I’m a retired English prof with a lifelong interest in history. My father fostered my fascination with Civil War battlefields, and growing up in Florida, I studied the Seminole wars in school and later at FSU. While teaching at the University of Idaho (nearly 50 years), I pursued my interest in the Indian wars of the mid-19th century and developed a curiosity about tribes in the inland Northwest, notably the Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, and Nez Perce. My critical biography of Blackfeet novelist James Welch occasioned reading and research on the Plains tribes. I recommend his nonfiction book, Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate the Plains Indians.


I wrote...

Edward J. Steptoe and the Indian Wars: Life on the Frontier, 1815-1865

By Ron McFarland,

Book cover of Edward J. Steptoe and the Indian Wars: Life on the Frontier, 1815-1865

What is my book about?

Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Jenner Steptoe (1815-1865), born in Lynchburg, Virginia, graduated West Point (1837) served in Florida during the Second Seminole War, was twice brevetted during the Mexican War, declined the governorship of the Utah Territory, and built three forts at Walla Walla, Washington Territory. Heavily outnumbered by a force of Upper Plateau tribes (Coeur d’Alene, Palouse, Spokane), he narrowly escaped possible annihilation of his command at the Battle of Tohotonimme in 1858. Colonel George Wright’s retaliatory battles a couple of months later ended the threat to the region and enabled safe completion of Captain John Mullan’s military road from Fort Benton (Montana) and construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Disabling strokes prevented Steptoe from serving in the Civil War.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike

Ron McFarland Why did I love this book?

Aside from the Colorado landmark, Pike’s Peak, most of us know little of Zebulon Pike. A relative passed along the tee-shirt, but that’s as close as I got before reading Jared Orsi’s account of Lieutenant Pike’s 1805-07 fascinating expeditions to the headwaters of the Mississippi and to the Rockies. Pike strives to establish friendly relations among the Ojibway and Dakotah and later among the Osage and Pawnee while introducing the tribes to their new landlords, the U.S. government under President Jefferson. In attempting to ascend the peak, Pike and his men suffer near starvation and death in bitter cold and waist-deep snow, only to be rescued and arrested by the forces of New Spain. Orsi approaches the expeditions from an environmental perspective.

By Jared Orsi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Citizen Explorer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Today Zebulon Pike's name is immortalized at Pikes Peak, the second most visited mountain in the world after Japan's Mount Fuji. It overlooks the town of Colorado Springs, where historian Jared Orsi teaches. Orsi was inspired to take up this biography not just by geography but also because there has been no modern interpretation of the life of this key explorer in American history. His life sheds considerable life on the early national period and on the American
frontier.

Born during the Revolution Zebulon, Pike came of age with the nation. Trained as a soldier and stationed at various frontier…


Book cover of A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont and the Claiming of the American West

Ron McFarland Why did I love this book?

As a boy, I encountered Kit Carson via the Landmark Books, and I could not resist rediscovering him in juxtaposition with his friend but non-kindred spirit, John C. Frémont, who nearly became president in 1856. Although Roberts mercifully spares us from exposing Frémont’s Civil War blunders, his account of the disastrous 1848-49 expedition renders the “Pathfinder” in his grandiosity a less sympathetic figure than the laconic scout. As Roberts notes in his epilogue concerning the feats of his two flawed subjects, “pure heroes or villains do not exist outside the pages of bad literature.” He likens the evolution of Carson as “thoughtless killer of Apaches and Blackfeet” to “defender and champion of the Utes” to a similar reversal in the case of General George Crook.

By David Roberts,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Newer World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In A Newer World, David Roberts serves as a guide through John C. Frémont's and Kit Carson's adventures through unknown American territory to achieve manifest destiny.

Between 1842 and 1854 John C. Frémont, renowned as the nineteenth century's greatest explorer, and Kit Carson, the legendary scout and Indian fighter, boldly ventured into untamed territory to fulfill America's "manifest destiny." Drawing on little-known primary sources, as well as his own travels through the lands Frémont and Carson explored, David Roberts recreates their expeditions, second in significance only to those of Lewis and Clark. A Newer World is a harrowing narrative of…


Book cover of Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn

Ron McFarland Why did I love this book?

Any set of books dealing with the wresting of the West from the elements and Native American tribes must include at least one account of the flamboyantly outrageous George Armstrong Custer and his 1876 disaster at Little Bighorn. Evan Connell’s ranks among the most readable and reliable, offering vivid portraits of the cast of characters involved on both sides. At West Point, Connell writes, Custer “unfurled less like a flower than a weed.” Rarely does a historian write with the panache of a novelist: “For Custer’s troops, locked inside a twisting circle, this show concluded as it did for those who watched the writhing hair of Medusa.” The prolific Connell blends details from before, during, and after the battle.

By Evan S. Connell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Son of the Morning Star as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On a scorching June Sunday in 1876, thousands of Indian warriors - Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho - converged on a grassy ridge above the valley of Montana's Little Bighorn River. On the ridge five companies of United States cavalry - 262 soldiers, comprising officers and troopers - fought desperately but hopelessly. When the guns fell silent, no soldier - including their commanding officer, Lt Col. George Armstrong Custer - had survived. Custer's Last Stand is among the most enduring events in American history - 130 years after the fact, books continue to be written and people continue to argue…


Book cover of General Crook and the Western Frontier

Ron McFarland Why did I love this book?

Because Crook (not Custer!) was probably the most successful and thoughtful general officer to lead troops in the West. Robinson traces Crook’s career from the 1850s Rogue River War in the Oregon Territory, through the Great Sioux War of the 1870s, concluding with the pursuit of Geronimo in the 1880s, where he achieved his greatest fame. And because, as indicated in an epigraph, quoting Oglala Chief Red Cloud, “He, at least, never lied to us.” I found comments on Crook’s employment of tribal scouts especially informative. Robinson concludes, “In war, he could be as cruel as they, but he always respected them as human beings.” He doesn’t apotheosize Crook, who reflected the views of his era in advocating assimilation to make Indians useful and productive citizens “by white standards.”

By Charles M. Robinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked General Crook and the Western Frontier as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

General George Crook was one of the most prominent soldiers in the frontier West. General William T. Sherman called him the greatest Indian fighter and manager the army ever had. And yet, on hearing of Crook's death, the Sioux chief Red Cloud lamented, "He, at least, never lied to us." As a young officer in the Pacific Northwest, Crook emphasized training and marksmanship--innovative ideas in the antebellum army.

Crook's career in the West began with successful campaigns against the Apaches that resulted in his promotion to brigadier general. His campaign against the Lakota and Cheyennes was less successful, however, as…


Book cover of Grant

Ron McFarland Why did I love this book?

I’m admittedly self-impressed, having read this volume of nearly a thousand papers, poky reader that I am. The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer strikes me as little short of brilliant with this masterpiece on Ulysses S. Grant, whose military career began with distinguished service in the Mexican War and overlaps with that of Steptoe, subject of my biography. Chernow focuses much of his book on Grant’s Civil War service, but his relevance to my theme is the subject of Grant’s presidency, taken up in later pages. Like many officers who served in the West before and after the Civil War, Grant recognized that white incursions on Indian lands were largely to blame for the violence out West, and he was sympathetic to their plight. Custer’s defeat occurred during Grant’s second administration.

By Ron Chernow,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Grant as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The #1 New York Times bestseller and New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2017

"Eminently readable but thick with import . . . Grant hits like a Mack truck of knowledge." -Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow returns with a sweeping and dramatic portrait of one of our most compelling generals and presidents, Ulysses S. Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant's life has typically been misunderstood. All too often he is caricatured as a chronic loser and an inept businessman, or as the triumphant but brutal Union general of the Civil War. But these stereotypes don't…


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Book cover of An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

Clifford A. Wright Author Of An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

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