The best books about the American West

61 authors have picked their favorite books about the American West and why they recommend each book.

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Ghost Riders

By Richard Grant,

Book cover of Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads

The first line of the description roused my curiosity with this one: "Richard Grant has never spent more than twenty-two consecutive nights under the same roof." Curious about his own wanderlust, and theorising that America is full of wanderers, he went out to prove it. Delving into the whys of nomads and travellers, I now understand my own nomadic tendencies.


Who am I?

Keith Foskett has hiked around 15,000 miles on classic hiking trails including the Pacific Crest Trail, El Camino de Santiago, and the Appalachian Trail. He has written four books, and contributes to various outdoor publications. Having once been described as an anomaly (it was apparently a compliment), he now divides his time between walking, cycling, and delving into the merits of woollen underwear.


I wrote...

The Journey in Between: Thru-Hiking El Camino de Santiago

By Keith Foskett,

Book cover of The Journey in Between: Thru-Hiking El Camino de Santiago

What is my book about?

Keith Foskett was the definition of restless. Drifting aimlessly, he knew a piece was missing from his life. But when a stranger in a Greek bar tells him about a world-famous pilgrim's trail, the chance encounter sets Foskett's life in a new 1,000-mile direction. On El Camino de Santiago, the hiker copes with extreme temperatures, fake faith healers, and kleptomaniacs. Threatened with arrest for 'not sleeping' and suffering with excruciating blisters, Foskett pushes himself to new limits. Can he find what he's looking for and reach the finish in Santiago de Compostela?

Into the Wild

By Jon Krakauer,

Book cover of Into the Wild

Why do we make decisions that put our lives at risk? Why do we have such a deep connection with nature? To what lengths would we go to find peace, especially when recovering from a traumatic relationship? I love exploring questions such as these in what I read and in the stories I write, and this extraordinary mixed-genre non-fiction account of self-discovery abounds with philosophical and suspenseful debate, constantly driving us towards its ending in a lethal Alaskan wilderness. As well as the book’s sublime depictions of the unconquerable nature of snowy mountains, glaciers, and rivers, what I loved most about this story is its presentation of the illusory nature of self-reliance. However much we might value independence and inner strength, we all need the help of others, even strangers, to live our best lives.


Who am I?

I’m an award-winning speculative fiction author who loves logic and reason, so when philosophising over life’s greatest mysteries I often layer debate with scientific knowledge, and I found my way to the afterlife theories behind Towards White in my late teens. I was reading English at university at the time, but it wasn’t until I went to Iceland in 2001, and fell in love with the stark beauty of its lonely lava plains, steamy natural springs, glaciers, and auroras, that I was inspired to turn my ideas into a story. I then spent years thoroughly researching my theory, and wove it into a grippingly suspenseful arctic adventure. I hope you enjoy reading the result!


I wrote...

Towards White

By Zena Shapter,

Book cover of Towards White

What is my book about?

They know what’s going to happen to you…after you die.

Scientists in Iceland think they’ve figured out one of our greatest mysteries—where the electrical energy in our brains goes after we die. According to the laws of physics, one form of energy must always become another form. So the electrical energy in our brains and nervous system can't simply disappear... But when ex-lawyer Becky Dales travels to Iceland to track down her missing brother, she doesn't care about the groundbreaking discoveries or the positive thinking practiced by the Icelanders—she just wants her brother back. Having stumbled on something she thinks the Icelandic government wants covered up, Becky must piece together the answers fast…before she becomes a victim herself.

A Terrible Glory

By James Donovan,

Book cover of A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - The Last Great Battle of the American West

James Donovan combined impeccable research with an engaging style to produce the best book about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The battle is the subject of more books than just about any other fight in American history, but Donovan’s has set a new standard. I referred to the book regularly while writing my biography of Custer. You can’t really begin to understand a complex battle like the Little Bighorn without a seasoned guide. But Donovan doesn’t just explain the battle. He writes in a way that gives his book the feel of a novel rather than a dry recitation of facts. A Terrible Glory will take you on an exciting ride and teach you everything you need to know about Custer’s Last Stand.


Who am I?

As a journalist, the Little Bighorn fascinates me because it has all the elements of a great story: larger-than-life characters, conflict, fighting against the odds, and mystery. I turned that fascination into research when I left newspapering to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Texas. I wrote a number of articles about press coverage of Custer and the Last Stand, and this research eventually led to two books, most recently a biography of Custer focusing on his artistic personality, especially his writing career. I’ve continued to explore the history of war reporting, always looking for topics that make good stories.


I wrote...

Ambitious Honor: George Armstrong Custer's Life of Service and Lust for Fame

By James Mueller,

Book cover of Ambitious Honor: George Armstrong Custer's Life of Service and Lust for Fame

What is my book about?

George Armstrong Custer, one of the most familiar figures of nineteenth-century American history, is known almost exclusively as a soldier, his brilliant military career culminating in catastrophe at Little Bighorn. But Custer, author James E. Mueller suggests, had the soul of an artist, not of a soldier. Ambitious Honor elaborates this radically new perspective, arguing that an artistic passion for creativity and recognition drove Custer to success—and, ultimately, to the failure that has overshadowed his notable achievements.

What Ambitious Honor provides is the context for understanding how Custer's theatrical personality took shape and thrived, beginning with his training at a teaching college before he entered West Point. Teaching, Mueller notes, requires creativity and performance, both of which fascinated and served Custer throughout his life.

The Year of Decision 1846

By Bernard DeVoto,

Book cover of The Year of Decision 1846

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.


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 Plains Across

By John D. Unruh,

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

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.


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.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

By Dee Brown,

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

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a broad, well-researched tale of the indigenous people of the American West, chronicling the destruction of their way of life and their relocation to reservations amid the gradual encroachment of western civilization across the continental United States in the 19th Century. Describing the tribes and their leaders, Dee Brown captures the hardships and persecution of Native Americans, evoking an appreciation for their legacy and compassion for their plight. This book ignited my passion for painting the visual diversity and unique differences of various native nations.


Who am I?

Greg Shed is a self-taught California illustrator specializing in Americana. In addition to commercial work and portraits, he has illustrated more than a dozen children’s books—several of which are about American history. A dedicated researcher, Greg has traveled from the Plymouth colony to the American prairie in search of authenticity and details. He has consulted with Native American craftsmen on the manufacture of native period attire. He is known for capturing golden light in his paintings, which often depict Native American cultures, wildlife, and landscapes.


I illustrated...

Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving

By Joseph Bruchac, Greg Shed (illustrator),

Book cover of Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving

What is my book about?

It has a deep and thoughtful understanding of Native American traditions through the almost mythical life of Tecumseh from the Shawnee Nation. With a colorful and descriptive view of language as if a Native American is speaking to the reader.

Calamity

By Karen R. Jones,

Book cover of Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane

If you’re a fan of Deadwood or, going further back, the 1953 Doris Day movie, Calamity Jane, you will be fascinated by Jones’s book about the buckskin-wearing Martha Jane Canary, a.k.a. Calamity Jane. Details about her life are either sparse or exaggerated, so Jones tells us what the frontier legend has symbolized, both in her own time and in ours. Dressing like a man made her stand out and made her the object of both derision and decades of bad biographies. She still serves as a symbol of the way that women could defy expectations in the West, and Jones’s book gives us a Calamity Jane we can root for.


Who am I?

I have loved the history of the West since I was a child, as my family has lived here for over a century. I devoured historical fiction about pioneer girls in grammar school (including the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder), and as I got into college, I expanded my reading universe to include books about women’s roles in the West, and the meaning of this region in overall American history. This concept is what drew me to study the cultural influence of dude ranching, where women have always been able to shine -- and where I placed the protagonist of my first novel.


I wrote...

Dudes Rush In

By Lynn Downey,

Book cover of Dudes Rush In

What is my book about?

In 1952, restless war widow Phoebe McFarland decides to leave her home in San Francisco to spend six months on her sister-in-law’s dude ranch in Tribulation, Arizona, called the H Double Bar. But Tribulation soon lives up to its name when secrets from the town’s past collide with a shocking revelation of her own, leading Phoebe down a trail to both discovery and danger.

Dudes Rush In is my first novel, written after over 35 years of publishing non-fiction works about California and the West. It combines my love of western history, the unique culture of dude ranching, and my desire to amplify the lives of women of the West.

Twenty Thousands Roads

By Virginia Scharff,

Book cover of Twenty Thousands Roads: Women, Movement, and the West

When we think of the West, we so often think about people moving and traveling, but rarely do women come to mind, except as pioneers in covered wagons. But ever since Sacagawea walked with the Lewis and Clark expedition, women have not only traveled West, they often led the way, both physically and metaphorically. Scharff’s book is a fascinating look at how hard it was for women to actually move through the region, whether stumping for suffrage or civil rights. Scharff’s book is especially valuable because she includes so many women of color, and you can feel their pain and their exhilaration on the page.


Who am I?

I have loved the history of the West since I was a child, as my family has lived here for over a century. I devoured historical fiction about pioneer girls in grammar school (including the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder), and as I got into college, I expanded my reading universe to include books about women’s roles in the West, and the meaning of this region in overall American history. This concept is what drew me to study the cultural influence of dude ranching, where women have always been able to shine -- and where I placed the protagonist of my first novel.


I wrote...

Dudes Rush In

By Lynn Downey,

Book cover of Dudes Rush In

What is my book about?

In 1952, restless war widow Phoebe McFarland decides to leave her home in San Francisco to spend six months on her sister-in-law’s dude ranch in Tribulation, Arizona, called the H Double Bar. But Tribulation soon lives up to its name when secrets from the town’s past collide with a shocking revelation of her own, leading Phoebe down a trail to both discovery and danger.

Dudes Rush In is my first novel, written after over 35 years of publishing non-fiction works about California and the West. It combines my love of western history, the unique culture of dude ranching, and my desire to amplify the lives of women of the West.

Writing the Range

By Elizabeth Jameson, Susan Armitage,

Book cover of Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women's West

This hefty tome is a comprehensive and valuable collection of articles about women who were bound by race and class, and who also defied the expectations of these categories. Native American, Latinx, Asian, and Black women fill this fascinating volume, with stories that span colonial New Mexico to modern-day Hollywood. If you need a reference work on women of color, this book is not only your starting point, but it also has an extensive bibliography for further reading.


Who am I?

I have loved the history of the West since I was a child, as my family has lived here for over a century. I devoured historical fiction about pioneer girls in grammar school (including the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder), and as I got into college, I expanded my reading universe to include books about women’s roles in the West, and the meaning of this region in overall American history. This concept is what drew me to study the cultural influence of dude ranching, where women have always been able to shine -- and where I placed the protagonist of my first novel.


I wrote...

Dudes Rush In

By Lynn Downey,

Book cover of Dudes Rush In

What is my book about?

In 1952, restless war widow Phoebe McFarland decides to leave her home in San Francisco to spend six months on her sister-in-law’s dude ranch in Tribulation, Arizona, called the H Double Bar. But Tribulation soon lives up to its name when secrets from the town’s past collide with a shocking revelation of her own, leading Phoebe down a trail to both discovery and danger.

Dudes Rush In is my first novel, written after over 35 years of publishing non-fiction works about California and the West. It combines my love of western history, the unique culture of dude ranching, and my desire to amplify the lives of women of the West.

The Hanging Tree and Other Stories

By Dorothy M. Johnson,

Book cover of The Hanging Tree and Other Stories

Once upon a time, writers could make a good living selling short stories to American magazines. Those days are almost as long gone now as the Wild West. But the stories live on…provided you find the right used book store. First published in 1957, The Hanging Tree and Other Stories collects some of the best work by a prolific specialist in short fiction about the frontier: Dorothy M. Johnson. Years before Little Big Man, she was writing sympathetically and convincingly about Native Americans. Her stories could also be funny, thrilling, and surprising. It’s no wonder Hollywood turned to her for inspiration so often: The classic Westerns The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and A Man Called Horse are based on Johnson stories.


Who am I?

Although I grew up with a fondness for Western movies thanks to my John Wayne-loving dad, I never seriously explored the genre until I began writing my Holmes on the Range mystery series. What I discovered when I began regularly reading books about the West took me a bit by surprise: I loved them! Since then I’ve read dozens of history books, novels, and short story collections that bring the Old West to life.


I wrote...

Holmes on the Range: A Mystery

By Steve Hockensmith,

Book cover of Holmes on the Range: A Mystery

What is my book about?

The Wild West gets even wilder when cowboy brothers Otto “Big Red” Amlingmeyer and Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer set out to catch a killer using the methods of the late, great Sherlock Holmes. The only thing standing between them and the truth: stampedes, rustlers, Holmes-hating English aristocrats, and a cannibal named “Hungry Bob.” Entertainment Weekly calls this Edgar Award-finalist mystery/Western hybrid “hilarious” and “delightfully offbeat.”

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