The Old West, by Stephen G. Hyslop, National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 2015, $40
Those of us passionate about the history of the American West can often point to one treasured volume, or perhaps a series of books, that propelled us down the rabbit hole. Some recall such American Heritage compendiums as William Brandon’s Book of Indians (1961) or David Lavender’s History of the Great West (1965). Many still own the leatherette-bound books from Time-Life’s 27-volume series The Old West (1973–80). Younger readers might suggest Geoffrey Ward’s companion book to Ken Burns’ PBS series The West (1996) or The Story of the West (2003), edited by prolific Western author/historian Robert Utley. And in recent years we recommended Michael Wallis’ visually striking The Wild West: 365 Days (2011). Each has its strengths, and all contribute to an understanding of the era that holds our imagination in sway.
The latest volume to land on the general interest shelf is our own HistoryNet contributor Stephen G. Hyslop’s The Old West, which in 320 richly illustrated pages steps the reader through broad-brush periods that transformed the region and its diverse peoples. Hyslop lays his foundation with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, marking the book as a largely American history of the region. He does dip a toe into the preceding Indian, Spanish and French periods, but the bulk of the book relates the Westward sweep of American explorers, scouts, trappers, soldiers, cowboys, prospectors, pioneers and entrepreneurs who shouldered into the region through the 19th century.
For the uninitiated Hyslop covers such obligatory highlights as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Texas Revolution, the Mexican War, the California Gold Rush, the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Oklahoma Land Rush. But he intersperses profiles that may surprise even Old West old hands, including a pocket treatise on mountain man customs, another on life in the mining camps, a sketch of celebrated widows Elizabeth Custer and Jessie Benton Frémont, and a peek at the founding of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park. Wild West junkies will appreciate a chapter titled “Law and Disorder,” devoted largely to the legendary lawmen and infamous outlaws regularly splashed across the pages of this magazine. For those who want to know the rest of the story, Hyslop closes with a “What Became of Them” gallery of famous figures like Wyatt Earp, Quanah Parker and Kit Carson, our August 2016 cover subject.
It is, of course, impossible to fully relate a century of human history in a few hundred pages, but Hyslop deftly summarizes the major events and primary players. Another strength of the book is the wealth of period photographs and illustrations drawn from many of the leading Western history archives. Aside from a few rookie errors (e.g., a Colt Dragoon revolver identified as a Colt Walker), the editors and design staff at National Geographic have done a good job of compiling the material. If you can find room between those leatherette Old West standbys, add this new one to your collection.