The Best Classic History Books On American Western Migration Before The Civil War

Jim Rasenberger Author Of Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America
By Jim Rasenberger

The Books I Picked & Why

The Great Plains

By Walter Prescott Webb

The Great Plains

Why this book?

Originally published in 1932, this remains one of the most accessible and thought-provoking books ever written about the American West. Webb’s work rises to the level of literature, especially when describing early encounters by white Americans with the landscape and native people they met west of the 98th meridian. Few writers have captured so vividly the expansion of America from the humid and forested east to the arid west of the Great Plains. Some of Webb’s conclusions may feel a little dated, but this remains a very compelling and rewarding book.


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The Year of Decision 1846

By Bernard DeVoto

The Year of Decision 1846

Why this book?

A thrilling if bumpy ride through 1846, as DeVoto tracks multiple stories of Americans who headed west at the start of the great migration. Like Webb’s Great Plains, this book — published in 1942 — is a little dated in places, but DeVoto’s vivid descriptions and strong opinions make it highly enjoyable. The general subject is the “period when the manifold possibilities of chance were shaped to converge into the inevitable,” writes DeVoto. More plainly, the book is about "some people who went west in 1846." Many of them died on the way. Some found fortune. Altogether, they left behind extraordinary history.


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The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60

By John D. Unruh

The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60

Why this book?

Posthumously published in 1970 by the University of Illinois Press, this is a must-have for anyone interested in the early years of the western migration. Unruh — who died young shortly after completing the manuscript performs the essential task of assembling credible data about emigrants and Native Americans, and — most importantly — about their encounters with each other. Popular myths and Hollywood movies notwithstanding, Unruh makes clear that Native Americans seldom caused emigrants much harm. Indeed, emigrants of the 1840s were more likely to shoot themselves and each other by accident than require a gun for self-defense.


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The Oregon Trail

By Francis Parkman

The Oregon Trail

Why this book?

Published in 1849 to popular acclaim, this is the memoir — part travelogue, part bildungsroman  of a 23-year-old Harvard grad who went west in the summer of 1846. Parkman only made it as far as the Rockies before turning back, but he packed a great deal of adventure into those two months. While Parkman’s portrayal of the Sioux will strike readers today as ungenerous, if not racist, his descriptions remain fascinating as a first impression of the west by a young easterner.


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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

By Dee Brown

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Why this book?

There is no way to understand the impact of the western migration before the Civil War without considering it from the receiving end — from the perspective, that is, of the Native Americans whose lives and traditions were upended in a matter of years by white trespassers. When it was published in 1970, Brown’s book was a needed corrective to Hollywood depictions of cowboys (good) and Indians (bad).  In retrospect, Brown’s reversal of the old equation may have oversimplified matters a little (Peter Cozzens' The Earth is Weeping is more balanced in this regard). But Bury My Heart remains a powerful and eye-opening account of the suffering that went west with the first brave emigrants on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.


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