Share This Article

The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West, by Michael L. Tate, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1999, $34.95.

When most of us consider the army that made its presence felt in the Rockies and the Plains more than a century ago, we think first of the fighting men of the Indian wars. Rarely do we think of the explorers, cartographers and road builders who were associated with the frontier army or recall that the Western army also collected scientific data, provided schools and hospitals and even protected Indian rights.

Michael Tate, a history professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, challenges many of the stereotypes that the 19th-century frontier army has been saddled with and stresses the extensive roles it had besides that of Indian fighting. Consider a few of the chapter titles in this well-researched 454-page work: “Uncle Sam’s Farmers: Soldiers as Agriculturalists and Meteologists,” “Dining at the Government Trough: Army Contracts and Payrolls as Community Builders,” and “Reform the Man: Post Chapels, Schools, and Libraries.”

Of course for some Western aficionados, it is the blood and guts–the fighting between soldiers and Indians–that attracts them to that era. If you aren’t in danger of losing your scalp to a coup-counting brave, you might find it all rather romantic. But that’s not the whole story or, as Tate tells it, not even a very large part of the story. “For all its virtues and faults,” he writes, “the ‘multipurpose army’ served as the ‘right arm’ of the federal government in its nineteenth-century expansionist policies, and it is in this larger context that the institution must be evaluated.” Commissary sergeants at Fort Robinson, Neb., who acted as grocery store clerks and the privates who raised a bumper crop of vegetables at Fort Assinniboine, Mont., must be considered along with the lieutenant colonel who attacked an Indian village on the Little Bighorn River.

The Western army was involved in so many different things that it is hard to go into very much detail in one volume. But Tate does a good job of introducing us to–or reminding us of–the concept of a multipurpose army, and he offers an enormous bibliography for further reading. It’s hard to argue against the notion that the army had many different functions during the settlement of the West. After all, Indian warriors weren’t fighting all the time, either.

Alexander Cook