The best books on the history of the American West

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Samuel Eliot Morison

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?”


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier

By Ray Allen Billington, Martin Ridge

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. 


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Frontiersmen: A Narrative

By Allan W. Eckert

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!


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Resistance

By Alvin M. Josephy Jr.

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Grapes of Wrath

By John Steinbeck

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Random Book Lists