The best books on the history of the American West

Who am I?

Born and raised in Ohio, the “First West,” I was trained by top historians of the American West at the University of Toledo where I received my doctorate in American History. I’ve worked as a university and research fellow, a writer in the business world, and a professor of history and department chair at Lourdes University. I left my teaching and administrative career to become a full-time writer. Along with Unlikely General, my recent books have included The Other Trail of Tears: The Removal of the Ohio Indians and Interrupted Odyssey: Ulysses S. Grant and the American Indians. Currently, I’m writing a dual biography of William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh.

I wrote...

Unlikely General: Mad Anthony Wayne and the Battle for America

By Mary Stockwell,

Book cover of Unlikely General: Mad Anthony Wayne and the Battle for America

What is my book about?

What made Anthony Wayne an “unlikely general”? He was not President Washington’s first choice to lead an army against the Ohio tribes in 1792. A womanizer, drinker, and spend-thrift, he had just been removed from Congress for voter fraud. Even worse, he had suffered a physical and mental breakdown fighting in Georgia during the Revolution’s final year. But no general was more dedicated to his country or to Washington than Wayne.

Unlikely General follows America’s most scandalous general from the moment Washington appointed him as the army’s commander to his victory over the Indians at Fallen Timbers. The book also describes Wayne’s life through flashbacks that reveal how he gave up his youth, his family and friends, his health and fortune to defend a people who, having forgotten everything he had done for them, remembered him only for his nickname: “Mad Anthony.”

The books I picked & why

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The European Discovery of America

By Samuel Eliot Morison,

Book cover of The European Discovery of America: Volume 1: The Northern Voyages A.D. 500-1600

Why this book?

Even before the New World was discovered, people dreamt of a legendary place west of the Atlantic. In his beautiful book, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, Samuel Eliot Morison tells the story of the many adventurers from Western Europe, starting with Saint Brendan and ending with Sir Walter Raleigh, who risked everything to find this place. Morison did this not just by studying every primary source he could find on these men, but by sailing his own boat or flying in a small airplane over the same routes they took. To this day, I can’t hear names of explorers like Leif Ericson, Jacques Cartier, or Martin Frobisher without wondering, “How could they have been brave enough to climb into their tiny ships and launch into the unknown?”

Westward Expansion

By Ray Allen Billington, Martin Ridge,

Book cover of Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier

Why this book?

In Westward Expansion, Ray Allen Billington takes up the story of the American West where Morison left off. This is a sweeping narrative with Billington acting as a travel guide across the successively moving frontiers beyond the Atlantic Coast. He leads us to the crest of the Appalachians, and then over Ohio and down to Tennessee toward the Mississippi. Next, we race to the Pacific and then come back over the Rockies before finally heading onto the Great Plains west of the Mississippi. Yet Westward Expansion is more than a travelogue. In its pages, we travel with everyone who ever lived on these many frontiers: farmers, workers, soldiers, Indians, immigrants, townspeople. The list goes on and on. It’s America’s story with every triumph and tragedy bound up in constant motion. 

The Frontiersmen

By Allan W. Eckert,

Book cover of The Frontiersmen: A Narrative

Why this book?

The best history books have a “you are there” quality, meaning you feel like you are actually living side by side with the people in the past. No one does this better than Allan Eckert, especially in The Frontiersmen, a tale of the battle for the Ohio Country, known as America’s “First West.” In this monumental work, Eckert combines the best research methods of a historian with the best writing techniques of a novelist. The result is a vivid account of the struggle between American frontiersmen, like Simon Kenton, and Indian warriors, like Tecumseh, to win Ohio for their people. This is no abstract fight, but is instead a life and death struggle between flesh and blood heroes. Everybody I have ever met who has read this book loves it!

The Patriot Chiefs

By Alvin M. Josephy Jr.,

Book cover of The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Resistance

Why this book?

Historians have written moving accounts of the discovery and settlement of the American West, but Alvin Josephy in The Patriot Chiefs tells the same story from the “other side,” meaning from the point of view of the many Indian chiefs who tried to stop the advance of first, the American colonies, and then, the American nation. One by one, their lives and their struggles light up before the reader. Although I read the book years ago, Josephy’s vivid portraits of Hiawatha, King Philip, Popé, Pontiac, Tecumseh, Osceola, Black Hawk, Crazy Horse, and Chief Joseph stay alive in my imagination to this very day. Their stories, like those of every daring explorer and hardy pioneer who made their way west, must be remembered as part of the great story of America.

The Grapes of Wrath

By John Steinbeck,

Book cover of The Grapes of Wrath

Why this book?

John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is the story of the American West once the excitement of discovery and settlement finally ended. It is a tale of the damage done to the Great Plains, the last frontier, as told through the eyes of the Joads, an Oklahoma farm family forced west to California during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. This book is so memorable because it’s not one story but three. The first describes the beauty of the Great Plains; the second describes the political and economic decisions that harmed the Great Plains; and the third describes the struggle of the Joads who are caught in the middle of the destruction. The book reminds me how precious the land is, and how we must work together to protect it.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American West, Native Americans, and explorers?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American West, Native Americans, and explorers.

The American West Explore 81 books about the American West
Native Americans Explore 105 books about Native Americans
Explorers Explore 66 books about explorers

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, William Clark and the Shaping of the West, and African American Women of the Old West if you like this list.