Last June the Western Writers of America recognized Crutchfield with its highest honor, the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement in Western writing. Earlier awards from WWA include a Spur, three Stirrups and the Branding Iron for outstanding service. His latest work, the two-volume The Settlement of America: Encyclopedia of Westward Expansion from Jamestown to the Closing of the Frontier (2011, M.E. Sharpe), features his own writing and the work of dozens of others. A former executive director of WWA, Crutchfield makes his home in Franklin, Tenn. He recently spoke with Wild West.
‘The encyclopedia [covers] the country’s expansion from the earliest settlement through the closing of the frontier in 1890’
How does the frontier history from your neck of the woods relate to Western history?
[My ancestors] were among the early trans-Appalachian pioneers who crossed the mountains to settle new lands in what was then the West. This heritage has provided me with a keen sense of the West as it was before the later march to the Pacific.
Were men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett really the forerunners to the fur trappers?
The history of early Tennessee and Kentucky is full of stories of long hunters, men who banded together and explored new lands to the westward in search of game. Probably the best-known example was Daniel Boone, but scores of others—very prominent in their day—were responsible for the first exploration and white settlement of much of this region. Long hunters were, in fact, a kind of predecessor to the better known mountain men of the early to mid-1800s. Kentuckian Kit Carson, while not a long hunter, did go on to become a noted mountain man, while Crockett was neither but was born in Tennessee.
Which of the influential fur trade families fascinates you most?
Although not a family, one of the individuals in the fur trade I admire most was William Ashley. Another was Manuel Lisa. The two of them and their associates set the standard in the trade that others followed. I guess among the families the Chouteaus would be the most interesting.
Why do you admire Ashley and Lisa?
Ashley was such an entrepreneur and Renaissance man. He was at one time or another the lieutenant governor of Missouri, a general in the militia, a mover and shaker in lead mining, a U.S. congressman and, of course, the developer of the “rendezvous system” in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. His success was due in large part to the quality of men with whom he associated and took on board as employees: Jed Smith, Andrew Henry, Hugh Glass, Jim Beckwourth, Jim Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick, Moses “Black” Harris, David Jackson, Edward Rose, Milton and William Sublette and others. Lisa predated Ashley by about 15 years, but unlike Ashley he pretty much started out on his own, pushing far up the Missouri River where few white traders had been before. His years of labor and tedious work paid off when he organized the Missouri Fur Co. along with such noted Missourians as Andrew Henry, William Clark, Pierre Chouteau and Reuben Lewis.
How about individual trappers?
Jed Smith, Andrew Henry, Hugh Glass, Jim Beckwourth, the Bent brothers, the Sublette brothers (not in any particular order).
What are a couple of your favorite stories about the mountain men?
I love the one about Ashley’s run-in with the Arikara tribe on the upper Missouri River in 1823. Of course, the narratives of what went on at the various rendezvous are enlightening and interesting. I think the one thought that sticks with me above all, however, is the understated importance that mountain men had on the exploration of this country and the definition and furtherance of geographical knowledge of the trans-Mississippi West. These sentiments also extend to the contributions of the “long hunters” in the trans-Appalachian region during the mid-18th century and epitomized by the likes of Daniel Boone and dozens of others of whom most readers, even astute historians, have never even heard.
How did the It Happened in… series begin?
It was my idea for a series of books with Falcon Press that would trace a state’s story with 30 to 35 vignettes of history that dated from prehistoric times to the present. I produced Montana and then, over the next several years, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Georgia, the Mississippi River and the Old South. All of the states’ books have gone into a second, revised edition and negotiations are underway for three of them—Montana, Washington and Texas— to go into a third edition. Sales for all titles to date are approaching 250,000 copies.
Does any state particularly intrigue you?
I’m partial to New Mexico and Montana, but all of the states have stories that are very interesting. There are accounts of prehistoric buffalo hunts by ancient Indians in Colorado, Lewis and Clark’s involvement in Montana, the Taos Revolt in New Mexico, all the way down to the FBI standoff at Waco, the capture of the Unabomber in Montana and Hurricane Katrina. Throughout the series I have attempted to present the lesser-known events about which many readers might not be familiar.
What are some of your favorite stories from that series?
Well, my forte in history lies in the older stuff, so I’m partial to anything prior to 1850, the earlier the better. There is one story in It Happened in the Old South about a little-known slave uprising in Charleston, S.C., in 1822 that comes to mind, but out of the 300 or more episodes out of all 10 books, it would be difficult to pick a favorite.
What’s the story behind the slave uprising?
Denmark Vesey, a freed black man who was well thought of in the area and a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, along with some other black men, organized slaves for an uprising, believing if they kept their intentions secret until just before the revolt, they would be able to escape slavery, get support from other nations and perhaps flee to Haiti, where Denmark had spent his early life. The plan leaked out, however, and the governor called out 400 militia members, who put down the uprising. Vesey was subsequently hanged along with three co-conspirators. There are a lot of similar stories across the Old South, but often they are hard to track down. This one was well documented.
Has any of the It Happened in… research led to further writing?
I’m not sure whether any of the pieces inspired other works, per se, but I have turned out books based on some of the episodes in the It Happened in… series, to wit Tragedy at Taos and The Santa Fe Trail.
What sparked your interest in the Santa Fe Trail?
My wife, Regena, and I made our first trip to New Mexico in late May 1984, and we spent the entire week at a guest ranch in the Pecos Wilderness. I don’t even know how many times we’ve been back since, but needless to say we both became totally absorbed with all things New Mexico—the landscape, the culture, the arts and the history. Of course, I was aware at the time of the Santa Fe Trail’s place in American history (Josiah Gregg was a Tennessean), but actually following its course and visiting its important sites along the way simply provided more fuel. The Taos Revolt of 1847 soon captured my interest, and I was presented with a Spur Award for “Best Western Nonfiction Article” in 1991 for a magazine article about the American occupation of New Mexico and events leading up to the Taos incident. My book Tragedy at Taos: The Revolt of 1847 was published by the Republic of Texas Press in 1995 and was followed by The Santa Fe Trail a year later from the same publisher.
What was your role in planning for the 1996 Tennessee Bicentennial?
My most important achievement was the collaboration with two local women—Daisy King, a noted cookbook author, restaurant owner and TV personality, and Winette Sparkman, an educator and historian—to produce Miss Daisy Celebrates Tennessee. The book was a combination of Daisy’s Tennessee recipes, Winette’s profiles of Tennessee-based food companies (e.g., GooGoos, Jack Daniel’s, Little Debbie pastries, etc.), and my historical vignette of each of Tennessee’s 95 counties. The book was featured on QVC and sold through, I think, four printings for a total of around 100,000. For a while I also served as executive editor of The Tennessee Heritage Library, a collection of Tennessee-oriented titles published by Hillsboro Press.
What led you to compile the Encyclopedia of Westward Expansion?
I was taking a break from my duties at the WWA exhibit at the American Library Association’s 2005 Chicago annual meeting, and I struck up a conversation with the acquisitions editor for M.E. Sharpe Co., a publisher of scholarly reference books. I ran the idea of an encyclopedia of America’s westward expansion by him and he appeared interested. Back home, we exchanged considerable e-mail correspondence and, finally, in mid-2006 I signed the contract.
How does it differ from other encyclopedias that address expansionist/Western topics?
The two biggest selling points of my proposal were the fact that the encyclopedia would cover the country’s expansion from the earliest settlement through the closing of the frontier in 1890—not just the push west from the Mississippi River in the mid-1850s—and the fact that most of the contributors would be professional, published writers who were and are WWA members. It has been a long time coming, but the two-volume work was published during summer 2011.
Do you have a favorite title?
That is really hard to say. I really like Tragedy at Taos, since, as far as I know, it is the only book-length study of the incident. I also like The Natchez Trace: A Pictorial History, which has been continuously in print since 1985 and, according to the National Park Service, is the best-selling book on the subject in their shops. My first book, The Harpeth River: A Biography, will, of course, always be a favorite, since its publication in 1972 was the beginning of my writing career.
A biography of a river? Tell me more about the book.
It is truly the life story of a small river system near Nashville. The book covers the lay of the land, its prehistory, early times and the characters—good and bad—who frequented it. At the time Regena and I were shopping for houses we could not afford in that area, and it seemed that regardless of which highway or byway we took, we invariably crossed a stream that had the name Harpeth. There was a Little Harpeth, a West Harpeth, a South Harpeth and just a plain old Harpeth, sometimes called the Big Harpeth. I became intrigued about the river and its tributaries, and the more I tried to learn about them, the less documented information I found. So, I decided to investigate the river system myself, and the results were published in a book titled, The Harpeth River: A Biography, since I felt the contents really did tell the life story of the river. Needless to say, I was quite surprised when the book was awarded a prize from the American Association for State and Local History.
You won a second award?
The second [AASLH award] came in 2000 for Franklin: Tennessee’s Handsomest Town—A Bicentennial History, 1799–1999, co-written with Robert Holladay.
What’s next on your writing agenda?
I am working with a Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer who produces top quality, four-color coffee table books about various subjects. I research the subjects and write the historical treatises for the books. We have produced books on Nashville’s Opryland Hotel, the Tennessee walking horse, the University of the South at Sewanee, historic sites and buildings in Tennessee and Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. Works in progress are a book on the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich., and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.