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

Who am I?

Jim Rasenberger is a writer and author of four books - Revolver, The Brilliant Disaster; America, 1908, and High SteelHe has contributed to the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, and other publications. A native of Washington, DC, he lives in New York City.


I wrote...

Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America

By Jim Rasenberger,

Book cover of Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America

What is my book about?

Revolver is the biography of Sam Colt, inventor of the legendary Colt revolver (a.k.a. six-shooter). Patented in 1836, the Colt was the first practical firearm that could shoot more than one bullet without reloading. Colt’s gun had a profound impact on American history, including industrial, economic, and demographic changes. Most immediately, starting in the 1840s, the revolver spurred white expansion into the American west, where emigrants came to depend on it and Native Americans came to dread it. Revolver is the story of a man and his gun, but it is also a portrait of America at a time of tremendous transformation.

The books I picked & why

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The Great Plains

By Walter Prescott Webb,

Book cover of 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.

The Great Plains

By Walter Prescott Webb,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This classic description of the interaction between the vast central plains of America and the people who lived there has, since its first publication in 1931, been one of the most influential, widely known, and controversial works in western history. Arguing that "the Great Plains environment. . .constitutes a geographic unity whose influences have been so powerful as to put a characteristic mark upon everything that survives within its borders," Webb singles out the revolver, barbed wire, and the windmill as evidence of the new phase of civilization required for settlement of that arid, treeless region. Webb draws on history,…


The Year of Decision 1846

By Bernard DeVoto,

Book cover of 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.

The Year of Decision 1846

By Bernard DeVoto,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Year of Decision 1846 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Year of Decision 1846 tells many fascinating stories of the U.S. explorers who began the western march from the Mississippi to the Pacific, from Canada to the annexation of Texas, California, and the southwest lands from Mexico. It is the penultimate book of a trilogy which includes Across the Wide Missouri (for which DeVoto won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes) and The Course of Empire. DeVoto's narrative covers the expanding Western frontier, the Mormons, the Donner party, Fremont's exploration, the Army of the West, and takes readers into Native American tribal life.


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

By John D. Unruh,

Book cover of 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.

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

By John D. Unruh,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

One of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in History and the winner of seven awards, including the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association, the Ray A. Billington Book Award of the Organization of American Historians, and the National Historical Society Book Prize.


The Oregon Trail

By Francis Parkman,

Book cover of 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.

The Oregon Trail

By Francis Parkman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Keen observations and a graphic style characterize the author's remarkable record of a vanishing frontier. Detailed accounts of the hardships experienced while traveling across mountains and prairies; vibrant portraits of emigrants and Western wildlife; and vivid descriptions of Indian life and culture. A classic of American frontier literature.


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

By Dee Brown,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Dee Brown,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The American West, 1860-1890: years of broken promises, disillusionment, war and massacre.

Beginning with the Long Walk of the Navajos and ending with the massacre of Sioux at Wounded Knee, this extraordinary book tells how the American Indians lost their land, lives and liberty to white settlers pushing westward. Woven into a an engrossing saga of cruelty, treachery and violence are the fascinating stories of such legendary figures as Sitting Bull, Cochise, Crazy Horse and Geronimo.

First published in 1970, Dee Brown's brutal and compelling narrative changed the way people thought about the original inhabitants of America, and focused attention…


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Interested in the American West, the Great Plains, and the American Civil War?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American West, the Great Plains, and the American Civil War.

The American West Explore 105 books about the American West
The Great Plains Explore 17 books about the Great Plains
The American Civil War Explore 233 books about the American Civil War

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