The best books for reimagining our mythic American West and its cast

Who am I?

At some point I decided that if I was going to teach US history, I better have a good sense of what the place looked like. So I drove across the country—and then back again—and then again, and then once more, each time at a different latitude. I drove through North Dakota and South Dakota, Montana and Idaho, Nebraska and Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, up and down California, Oregon and Washington, and on and on. I got addicted to seeing the landscape in all its amazing variety and vastness, and seeing the landscape made the histories come alive. 


I wrote...

Making a Modern U.S. West: The Contested Terrain of a Region and Its Borders, 1898-1940

By Sarah Deutsch,

Book cover of Making a Modern U.S. West: The Contested Terrain of a Region and Its Borders, 1898-1940

What is my book about?

The West played a far larger role in national politics and constructing a “modern” U.S. than is usually thought. It helped shape not only racial formations and key industries, but definitions of modernity itself. Oil workers, migrant laborers, women’s rights activists, corporate moguls, revolutionaries, and others duke it out in these pages. 

Their legacy was complicated—a reliance on precarious low-wage labor and at the same time large-scale public enterprise and a powerful state. Those who struggled, from across the globe and the nation, also kept alive an American dream and American belonging, a notion of democracy that was broader than political participation. Contests over who would participate in that democracy, who would define “American”—would be carried into the 21st century.

The books I picked & why

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I've Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land

By Alaina E. Roberts,

Book cover of I've Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land

Why this book?

I had always known that Oklahoma was home to the “Five Civilized Tribes,” but I had not known much about the enslaved people they brought West with them. Alaina Roberts weaves her own family’s history into the history of Indian Territory and the state of Oklahoma, and made me rethink what I knew about African Americans in the West.

I've Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land

By Alaina E. Roberts,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I've Been Here All the While as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Perhaps no other symbol has more resonance in African American history than that of "40 acres and a mule"-the lost promise of Black reparations for slavery after the Civil War. In I've Been Here All the While, we meet the Black people who actually received this mythic 40 acres, the American settlers who coveted this land, and the Native Americans whose holdings it originated from.
In nineteenth-century Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), a story unfolds that ties African American and Native American history tightly together, revealing a western theatre of Civil War and Reconstruction, in which Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and…


Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush

By Susan Lee Johnson,

Book cover of Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush

Why this book?

Surely the Gold Rush is one of the first things we learn about the West, but who were these people? Where did they come from? Susan Johnson is a great storyteller, and this story is peopled with men and women from across the globe, radicals and racists, Chinese, Mexicans, Germans, Irish, and everyone else, how they worked, loved, and made a life.

Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush

By Susan Lee Johnson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The world of the California Gold Rush that comes down to us through fiction and film is one of half-truths. In this brilliant work of social history, Susan Lee Johnson enters the well-worked diggings of Gold Rush history and strikes a rich lode.

Johnson explores the dynamic social world created by the Gold Rush in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Stockton, charting the surprising ways in which the conventions of identity-ethnic, national, and sexual-were reshaped. With a keen eye for character and story, she shows us how this peculiar world evolved over time, and how our cultural memory of…


Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

By Richard White,

Book cover of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

Why this book?

I remember driving across a barren southwestern landscape and suddenly, in the distance, miles away, seeing a train snake across the desert. Trains are sort of magical to me. They change the relation of space and time. And they create and destroy fortunes. Richard White lays bare the era of massive railroad building, financial shenanigans, and the players at all levels. With his signature humor, he reveals the absurdity behind the mythology of the railroad barons and how the West got built.

Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

By Richard White,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This original, deeply researched history shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success.


Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

By Miroslava Chávez-García,

Book cover of Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

Why this book?

Miroslava Chavez Garcia’s parents were tragically killed when she was very young. As an adult, already an accomplished historian, she came across a trunk in her uncle’s closet filled with their letters to each other. Using those letters, she builds a deeply personal history. Her story adds dimensions we usually cannot know about migration and the emotional bonds it strains and sustains.

Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

By Miroslava Chávez-García,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Drawing upon a personal collection of more than 300 letters exchanged between her parents and other family members across the U.S.-Mexico border, Miroslava Chavez-Garcia recreates and gives meaning to the hope, fear, and longing migrants experienced in their everyday lives both ""here"" and ""there"" (aqui y alla). As private sources of communication hidden from public consumption and historical research, the letters provide a rare glimpse into the deeply emotional, personal, and social lives of ordinary Mexican men and women as recorded in their immediate, firsthand accounts. Chavez-Garcia demonstrates not only how migrants struggled to maintain their sense of humanity in…

The Apache Diaspora: Four Centuries of Displacement and Survival

By Paul Conrad,

Book cover of The Apache Diaspora: Four Centuries of Displacement and Survival

Why this book?

When we think of slavery in American History, we mostly think of African Americans enslaved by white settlers. Paul Conrad tells a different story. Focusing on the Apache and through the often poignant stories of particular Apache women and men over the course of four centuries, he details their experience as shifting webs of alliance led to their enslavement by the Spanish and the Mexicans on the North American mainland and Cuba, and imprisoned and held in unfreedom by the United States through the 1880s, and yet still holding onto their identity as a distinct people with a distinct culture.

The Apache Diaspora: Four Centuries of Displacement and Survival

By Paul Conrad,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Apache Diaspora as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Across four centuries, Apache (Nde) peoples in the North American West confronted enslavement and forced migration schemes intended to exploit, subjugate, or eliminate them. While many Indigenous groups in the Americas lived through similar histories, Apaches were especially affected owing to their mobility, resistance, and proximity to multiple imperial powers. Spanish, Comanche, Mexican, and American efforts scattered thousands of Apaches across the continent and into the Caribbean and deeply impacted Apache groups that managed to remain in the Southwest.
Based on archival research in Spain, Mexico, and the United States, as well Apache oral histories, The Apache Diaspora brings to…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Apache, trains and railways, and African Americans?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Apache, trains and railways, and African Americans.

The Apache Explore 6 books about the Apache
Trains And Railways Explore 22 books about trains and railways
African Americans Explore 481 books about African Americans

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Imperial San Francisco, Our Better Nature, and Pictures of a Gone City if you like this list.