The most recommended American frontier books

Who picked these books? Meet our 61 experts.

61 authors created a book list connected to American frontier, and here are their favorite American frontier books.
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Book cover of The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

Thomas Leo Ogren Author Of Cowboys Don't Shoot Magpies

From my list on that are packed with action.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am best known for my books on allergies and horticulture. But my first love was always writing fiction, and the first two books I ever sold, were both novels. I know a lot about exciting historical novels because I’ve read so many of them. I read; I don’t watch TV. I love history, and historical fiction that has good, strong characters that I can give a hoot about. And I love books that are full of action, where something exciting is always happening or just about to. A plug: I believe I’ve now written some books myself that fit that bill.

Thomas' book list on that are packed with action

Thomas Leo Ogren Why did Thomas love this book?

Elmore Leonard wrote a ton of books, and almost all of them were darn good. He’s most famous for his more modern books, Get Shorty, etc. His stories are raw, edgy, and exciting. Toward the very end of his career, he did crank out some novels that were, I thought, junk. But for the most part, his writing is terrific, easy to read, page-turning books. What many don’t know is that when he was young, he was writing Westerns. And wow, what fabulous Westerns, too! If you’re lucky enough to get a copy of this collection, you’ll both love it, and feel kind of bad when you get to the end. One of the very best Western writers of them all.

By Elmore Leonard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bull's-eye of a short fiction collection that spans the master's career.

In 1950, fresh out of college and keen to make his name as a writer, Elmore Leonard decided he needed to pick a market, a big one, which would give him a better chance to be published while he learned to write. In choosing between crime and Westerns, the latter had an irresistible pull - Leonard loved movies set in the West. As he researched deeper into settings, Arizona in the 1880s captured his imagination: the Spanish influence, the stand-offs and shoot-outs between Apache Indians and the US…


Book cover of Butcher's Crossing

Alison L. McLennan Author Of The Secret Story of a Mormon Turned Madam

From my list on existential and experimental historical fiction.

Why am I passionate about this?

My imagination opened a portal into the past. And then I found myself spending years researching, reading, and traveling to historical sites across the western United States. Upon visiting historical places, I sometimes become overwhelmed by a visceral sense that is difficult to describe but has compelled me to write about people and places whose stories and spirits are lost and forgotten. An anecdote about a madam in a local museum stirred around in my consciousness for many years before I started writing Ophelia’s War as my MFA thesis. 

Alison's book list on existential and experimental historical fiction

Alison L. McLennan Why did Alison love this book?

Vivid details and excellent writing bring the Western frontier to life in this unique novel that avoids cliché.

A greed-driven frenzy for buffalo hide based on market speculation decimated the species in the late 1800s.

The tragedy of the buffalo is paralleled by the plight of William Andrews who, inspired by transcendental philosophy, sets out to find his true self on the Western Frontier, yet ends up losing more than his innocence as he follows the buffalo into the abyss.

The tragedy of the buffalo is conveyed through story and is in no way pedantic or political. This novel taught me a lot about the economic forces of Western expansion in narrative form. 

By John Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Butcher's Crossing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his National Book Award–winning novel Augustus, John Williams uncovered the secrets of ancient Rome. With Butcher’s Crossing, his fiercely intelligent, beautifully written western, Williams dismantles the myths of modern America.

It is the 1870s, and Will Andrews, fired up by Emerson to seek “an original relation to nature,” drops out of Harvard and heads west. He washes up in Butcher’s Crossing, a small Kansas town on the outskirts of nowhere. Butcher’s Crossing is full of restless men looking for ways to make money and ways to waste it. Before long Andrews strikes up a friendship with one of them,…


Book cover of Northwest Passage

Norman Gilliland Author Of Sand Mansions

From my list on dropping you into another time and place.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in Gainesville, Florida, and read every history of the area I could get my hands on, all the while imagining who lived there and what their lives were like. I got three degrees from the University of Florida and applied the skills learned there to Sand Mansions. The novel covers the years 1876 to 1905, a time in which a get-rich-quick frontier mentality slowly gave way to a more stable approach to community building. Sand Mansions won a prize for Best Adult Fiction from the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.

Norman's book list on dropping you into another time and place

Norman Gilliland Why did Norman love this book?

When I was 11 years old, there was a TV show called Northwest Passage, which was an eye-opener for me because it took place at a time when the American frontier was somewhere in New York State. At the end of each episode the image of a book appeared, and I pestered my parents to get me a copy. A few days before my birthday, I caught sight of the book in a bag on my dad’s dresser. I was thrilled. I loved the adventures of Rogers’ Rangers as they fought their way through an endless forest during the French and Indian War and searched for the fabled shortcut to the Orient. In school, my book report on Northwest Passage was so long and enthusiastic that the teacher called time on me.

By Kenneth Roberts,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This classic novel follows the career of Major Rogers, whose incredible exploits during the French and Indian Wars are told through Langdon Towne, an artist and Harvard student who flees trouble to join the army.


Book cover of Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, On the Stage, Behind the Badge

Jim Motavalli Author Of The Real Dirt on America's Frontier Outlaws

From my list on Wild West Desperados.

Why am I passionate about this?

I wrote my first cover story on climate change circa 1996, when the computer modeling made clear what would happen. Then I began to see clear physical evidence that the planet was warming, and not much was being written about it outside academic circles. That led to the book Feeling the Heat. I recruited a bunch of experienced environmental journalists, sent them around the world, and they came back with very detailed and important reporting based on what they’d seen—melting glaciers, rising seas, changing ecosystems.

Jim's book list on Wild West Desperados

Jim Motavalli Why did Jim love this book?

By some estimates, a quarter of the cowboys on the frontier were African-Americans. I tell some of their stories in my Outlaws book, but this is a much more complete account. Some of the prominent figures of color—Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Rufus Buck, Cherokee Bill, Jim Beckwourth—are portrayed in the 2021 Netflix movie They Harder They Fall, but any resemblance to actual history in that film is purely coincidental. 

By Bruce A. Glasrud (editor), Michael N. Searles (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Cowboys in the American West as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Who were the black cowboys? They were drovers, foremen, fiddlers, cowpunchers, cattle rustlers, cooks, and singers. They worked as wranglers, riders, ropers, bulldoggers, and bronc busters. They came from varied backgrounds - some grew up in slavery, while free blacks often got their start in Texas and Mexico. Most who joined the long trail drives were men, but black women also rode and worked on western ranches and farms.

The first overview of the subject in more than fifty years, Black Cowboys in the American West surveys the life and work of these cattle drivers from the years before the…


Book cover of Alaska

Laura Galloway Author Of Dalvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra

From my list on life changing books on life in the Arctic (and other cold climates!).

Why am I passionate about this?

Why I chose to write about cold climates: I spent nearly seven years living in the North of Norway in the Sámi reindeer herding village called Guovdageaidnu, or Kautokeino in Norwegian. I cherish my time in that part of the world. 

Laura's book list on life changing books on life in the Arctic (and other cold climates!)

Laura Galloway Why did Laura love this book?

I first read this novel when I was 11–my parents had it in the study, and for some reason, I picked it up one day–probably because there was nothing on TV, and I couldn’t stop reading. I was captivated by this book; it was like nothing I’d ever read, describing a place that was so different from my midwestern home.

It’s the story of Alaska and its history–told in a pacy, thrilling way. I still remember this book 40 years on, which says something! 

By James A. Michener,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this sweeping epic of the northernmost American frontier, James A. Michener guides us through Alaska’s fierce terrain and history, from the long-forgotten past to the bustling present. As his characters struggle for survival, Michener weaves together the exciting high points of Alaska’s story: its brutal origins; the American acquisition; the gold rush; the tremendous growth and exploitation of the salmon industry; the arduous construction of the Alcan Highway, undertaken to defend the territory during World War II. A spellbinding portrait of a human community fighting to establish its place in the world, Alaska traces a bold and majestic saga…


Book cover of Soapy Smith: The Life and Legacy of the Wild West's Most Infamous Con Artist

Jim Motavalli Author Of The Real Dirt on America's Frontier Outlaws

From my list on Wild West Desperados.

Why am I passionate about this?

I wrote my first cover story on climate change circa 1996, when the computer modeling made clear what would happen. Then I began to see clear physical evidence that the planet was warming, and not much was being written about it outside academic circles. That led to the book Feeling the Heat. I recruited a bunch of experienced environmental journalists, sent them around the world, and they came back with very detailed and important reporting based on what they’d seen—melting glaciers, rising seas, changing ecosystems.

Jim's book list on Wild West Desperados

Jim Motavalli Why did Jim love this book?

Why isn’t Soapy Smith better known? He was one of the most outrageous con men who ever lived, and would make a fine subject for a film. After a colorful life of fleecing people with three-card monte and bunco of every description (and getting run out of Denver), he turned up in Skagway, Alaska during the Gold Rush of 1896, and his gambling parlor took the miners for every penny. He was finally gunned down in 1898. 

By Charles River Editors,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

*Includes pictures
*Includes a bibliography for further reading
Before there was Charles Ponzi, there was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II. The famed Old West con artist and gangster's criminal career ranged from Texas to Alaska, from Denver to the Klondike. But Smith was not predestined to become a criminal; if genetics and environment typically determine one’s destiny, he could have become a farmer, a lawyer, or a politician. He was born in Coweta County, Georgia, on November 2, 1860, to Jefferson Randolph Smith, Jr., and Emily Dawson Smith, right as the Southern society his family was a part of was…


Book cover of Hondo (Louis L'Amour's Lost Treasures)

Stan R. Mitchell Author Of Little Man, and the Dixon County War

From my list on the Wild West.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been fascinated by the Wild West since I was a little boy, playing Cowboy vs Indian with a plastic six-shooter and bow-and-arrow set. I grew up watching movies and reading books about the Wild West, and probably that sense of adventure and necessary courage required in such settings helped build the foundation that led me to join the Marines. It took guts to move out West. (Or desperation.) But either way, the settling of the Wild West is one of our core American stories. To me, the stories of the West are even more enthralling today than they were even fifty years ago.

Stan's book list on the Wild West

Stan R. Mitchell Why did Stan love this book?

This book is a great read by Louis L'Amour, who’s arguably one of the greatest Western writers to ever live.

L'Amour executes the book brilliantly, placing a woman and her six-year-old son in grave danger from some angry, fired-up Apaches, who are on the warpath.

All that stands between them and their safety is one tough man and his dog.

By Louis L'Amour,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hondo (Louis L'Amour's Lost Treasures) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As part of the Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures series, this edition contains exclusive bonus materials!

He was etched by the desert’s howling winds, a big, broad-shouldered man who knew the ways of the Apache and the ways of staying alive. She was a woman alone raising a young son on a remote Arizona ranch. And between Hondo Lane and Angie Lowe was the warrior Vittoro, whose people were preparing to rise against the white men. Now the pioneer woman, the gunman, and the Apache warrior are caught in a drama of love, war, and honor.

Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures is…


Book cover of Eyewitness to the Old West: Firsthand Accounts of Exploration, Adventure, and Peril

Dennis L. Peterson Author Of Christ in Camp and Combat: Religious Work in the Confederate Armies

From Dennis' 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Historian Teacher Sharer Christian

Dennis' 3 favorite reads in 2023

Dennis L. Peterson Why did Dennis love this book?

In 124 chronologically arranged short chapters, the editor presents exciting, entertaining, and educational accounts of the real-life adventures of those who blazed the pathway to the West.

The places mentioned in the stories were especially exciting for me since I had recently taken two trips to different parts of the West and could see or envision exactly the environment the various eyewitnesses talked about.

The chapters are relatively short (typically two to four pages), so it made excellent reading material for spare moments when long reading sessions were not possible.

By Richard Scott (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eyewitness to the Old West as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A collection of over 150 vignettes from the journals and diaries of people who lived or traveled in the Old West, these accounts begin with the sixteenth-century collisions between the Spaniards and the Indians and conclude with Black Elk's mournful description of the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. Storytellers include explorers, missionaries, Indian leaders, a poet, an artist, and a future president.


Book cover of Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90

Jan Mackell Collins Author Of Behind Brothel Doors: The Business of Prostitution in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma (1860–1940)

From my list on historical prostitution.

Why am I passionate about this?

Having grown up with an older generation—my great-grandparents, great-great aunts and uncles, and a godmother, all who were born between 1877 and 1900—I learned to appreciate how they lived and what they went through. As a child, I found a hand-written poem about a brothel queen who caused a gunfight between her paramour and a stranger. Then, in college, I met a wonderful old man who told me stories about the former red-light district right in my own neighborhood. Once I learned the often tragic, but also successful stories of these ladies, I decided to be their voice and remind America how important they were to our history.

Jan's book list on historical prostitution

Jan Mackell Collins Why did Jan love this book?

Of the six books the late Ms. Butler authored in her lifetime, this one is by far my favorite. Her academic account of the prostitution industry is all facts, with plenty of sources to back them up. There is no flowery talk here, just the truth of how women of the demimonde lived during the late 1800s.

By Anne M. Butler,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is in good used condition. Ex-library book. History of prostitution in the American West 1865-1890. Good book for anyone interested in learning more about: Prostitutes -- West (U.S.) -- History -- 19th century.


Book cover of Black as Death

Jack Nevada Author Of A Man Called Bone

From my list on the Wild West from London and Playboy.

Why am I passionate about this?

It would be fair to say that the deconstruction has firmly taken hold of the Western genre in movies. But while an appreciation of Sergio Leone is omnipresent to the point of cliché for cinema buffs, in literature, Louis L’Amor, Zane Grey, and William W. Johnstone reign supreme. Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic Western horrors being the exception that makes the rule.

But Western books have their own subversion, and I wanted to spotlight those. The men’s adventure, the pulp fiction, the outright smut. These are the books that inspired my own novel, A Man Called Bone, and I hope it does right by its muses.


Jack's book list on the Wild West from London and Playboy

Jack Nevada Why did Jack love this book?

Before settling into the chronicle of the title character, this first entry in the Undertaker series (from the author of the much longer-running Edge books as well) follows a circuitous course involving an unfaithful wife and a vengeful husband. I won’t spoil the surprises along the way, but the Undertaker himself pushes the Western antihero to its limit. He’s all but emotionless, very nearly a sociopath, but with a certain competence and honor that gives him an appeal. (Even though he’s further saddled by the lame catchphrase ‘Bye-bye.’) I actually find his semi-autistic callousness more bearable than Steele’s more willful nastiness, since it seems the Undertaker was simply born the way he is, rather than choosing it.

You’ll recognize certain plot points from these books remixed into my book, though I found the Undertaker’s continued lack of character development a bit grating from one book to the next. That’s the…

By George G. Gilman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

mass market paperback book