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The Far Western Frontier 1830-1860

Ray Allen Billington
Out of Print
Little, Brown and Company (1968)

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This entry created 19 May 2023. Last revised on 19 May 2023.

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The Far Western Frontier 1830-1860

324 pages. Foreward, editor's introduction, preface. 32 black-and-white illustrations on 16 central pages. Bibliography, index.

This book, once considered the classic text on its subject and used in college courses for three decades, came out in 1956 and had a revised edition in 1995. The author was widely recognized as a Western historian.

The time frame for this history runs from the Texas Revolution to the brink of the American Civil War. The twelve chapters are somewhat chronological, but also geographical and by subject matter:

  1. The Mexican Borderlands
  2. The Road to Santa Fe
  3. The Era of the Mountain Men
  4. The Coming of the Pioneers
  5. The Overland Trails
  6. Texas: Revolution and Republic
  7. Manifest Destiny
  8. The West in the Mexican War
  9. Mormons Move Westward
  10. The California Gold Rush
  11. The Miners' Frontier Moves Eastward
  12. The Reuniting of East and West

The writing style is highly readable, and the author is good at providing anecdotes which enliven the subject matter. He does a laudable job of covering a lot of material concisely.

A recurring thesis of the author is that the frontier acted as a refining ground for American concepts of society and democracy, stripping things down to basics and then rebuilding new structures, thus creating a unique American West.

This book, at the time it was written, was considered an improvement on previous histories of the American West, which tended to celebrate the 'triumphal progress' of Manifest Destiny. However, from a modern perspective, this book too suffers from limitations in viewpoint. The author is writing for a white Protestant readership. Native Americans are regarded as barbarians and receive little treatment. California Spanish culture is described as inferior, and Mexicans are 'lazy' (which he explains as due to lack of societal incentives). Persecution of the Mormons receives surprisingly unsympathetic coverage, but Brigham Young is portrayed as an important historical figure. Women receive little mention.

I didn't buy into the author's 'Western democracy' theory, and I thought his treatment of the Mountain Men was too sympathetic.

All in all, this is a useful overview for this historical period. It had utility for me personally, as I had family members in the Mexican War, on the Oregon Trail, as Mormon pioneers, and as gold prospectors. For the wargamer, there is a useful overview of the Mexican War, but little coverage of Indian wars of this period.

Reviewed by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian.