Forgotten Founders, The (Rethinking the History of the Old West) by Stewart Udall - This collection of spirited essays is, says its distinguished author, his "final" book. But since serious works of thought like this rarely issue from the pens of former cabinet members, we should hope not. Udall, who served as Interior Secretary under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and before that as a congressman, is no typical politician, having written many serious books, among them the celebrated Quiet Crisis (1963). This one takes on what Udall considers the harmful myths about western U.S. history, myths that put the wrong people (fur traders and gold miners) and the wrong subjects ("Manifest Destiny" and armed violence) at the center of the history of the Old West. With a lively and sometimes personal take, he wants us to replace old folk tales with "reality"-with the known stories of a greater diversity of men and women, natives and newcomers, who gave the West its distinctive character. Udall is particularly compelling when writing of his own and his wife's great-grandparents, among whom was the Mormon who led the infamous Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857. Unfortunately, this only tends to replace one set of "heroes" with another, "the forgotten founders" who take center stage here only as strong, religious, fearless, hard-working folk without shortcomings. The trappers, miners and politicians who did in fact play a role in the West are elbowed almost totally out of the picture. Nevertheless, Udall's version of the West's past fits well with recent scholarly views, and many who read this book because of its author's renown will gain solid knowledge and much pleasure. Maps, photos.
Review by Gerry Burnie (Gerry B's Book Review)
Although published in 2002, I chose Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of the Old West by Stewart Udall [Island Press; 1 edition, September 1, 2002] because it so closely parallels my own thinking regarding the settlement of both U.S.A. and Canada. Indeed, Udall could be speaking for me when he writes:
%u201CA shortcoming of histories that concentrate on broad outlines of events is the absence of human faces and stories of ordinary folk that would reveal what animated individuals and families and indicate the experiences they had. Yet only by considering individual human experience can we begin to develop a sense of what these men and women faced and an idea of the magnitude of their achievements.%u201D p. 37.
And again at page 135 where he quotes Thomas Jefferson, probably one of the great populists of all time, i.e.
%u201CCultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds.%u201D
He also credits religion as being one of the founding forces, a point on which I have some misgivings, but nonetheless it cannot be denied that in the 19th century it formed the spiritual heart of most communities, and in many cases the vanguard as well.
Most particularly, however, Udall downplays such historical stereotypes as Lewis and Clark and the fur traders, as well as the 49ers as having little enduring impact on frontier development. He also downplays the importance of mining, ranching and other large-scale activities after the needs of the Civil War were met. Moreover, he is critical of the U.S. Military%u2019s campaign to %u201Cpacifying%u201D the Indians, pointing repeatedly to their unjust and callous treatment, as well as that of Chinese immigrants in the early history of the West. He also dismisses dime novel and Hollywood-created legends, such as %u201CButch%u201D Cassidy and Billy the Kid, as %u201Ctransitive outliers.%u201D
Udall%u2019s point is that we have replaced the true heroes of the West with straw men, the romanticized creations of pulp novels and Saturday-afternoon movies, and that this is what has prevailed to the detriment of those who might have benefited from emulating the pioneer work ethic.
All of this I agree with almost uncategorically. However, Udall%u2019s thesis is not without its overreaching assumptions and journalistic hyperbole. For example, the 49ers may have been an influx of opportunists flocking to the most %u201Chare-brained ventures%u201D in history (132), but of these many stayed to homestead in California and elsewhere. Likewise, miners lured to the prosperous discoveries went on to establish towns and cities that exist today. Therefore, they too form part of the faceless heroes who collectively settled the West.
Nonetheless, it is one of those books that needs to be read to truly understand the ying and yang of North American settlement. Four bees.