“I must be the world’s luckiest historian,” says Will Bagley, 69, who is best known for monumental nonfiction books about the Mormon West and overland trails published by the University of Oklahoma Press. That may be, but the Salt Lake City–based author is also one of the world’s best historians of the American West. Western Writers of America (WWA) recognizes Bagley this year with its Owen Wister Award for lifetime contributions to Western literature, as well as induction into its Western Writers Hall of Fame, housed at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo. Bagley previously earned WWA Spur Awards for his narrative histories Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (2002); The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857–1858, co-written by David L. Bigler (2011); and With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849–1852 (2012). Two of his other books—So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812–1848 (2010) and South Pass: Gateway to a Continent (2014)—were Spur Award finalists. Bagley recently spoke with Wild West about his work and the august ranks he has joined.
Now that you’ve joined the ranks of Western Hall of Fame writers, would you share insight into others’ work?
A discussion of WWA greats should start with the “Old Bison,” Bob Utley, who is a force of nature and may be the best and most prolific Western historian of the last century. Like the rest of the men and women on this list, he’s also a profoundly decent person and a lot of fun. The Old Bison’s “addiction to writing about the history of the West” is still going strong—he’ll turn 90 on Halloween 2019. He published his first major book, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, 56 years ago but continues to produce a great book about once a year.
Being in Western Writers of America has let me meet and work with truly great writers, like Jim Crutchfield, who has made enormous contributions to WWA over the years. His The Settlement of America: Encyclopedia of Westward Expansion is big, sweeping history at its best.
The work of Alvin M. Josephy Jr. and Robert J. Conley taught a critical lesson for any Western writer: Put Indians at the center of the story, because it’s where they belong in their native land.
Other Wister winners I’ve been lucky to meet at WWA gatherings—Lucia St. Clair Robson, Win Blevins, Elmer Kelton, Loren Estleman, Don Coldsmith, David Dary and Dale L. Walker—were and are not only masters of the craft but seriously fine, fun folks. Western writers are standing on the shoulders of giants.
‘History strikes me as a series of random events stacked atop each other’
Who are your personal inspirations?
The writers and historians I owe the most to all happen to be Utah natives—Dale Morgan, Bernard DeVoto, David L. Bigler, Floyd A. O’Neil, Fawn Brodie, John Dizikes and Page Stegner. Page was the great Wallace’s son. He taught creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and put up with me from 1969 to 1972. Professor Dizikes told captivating anecdotes that captured entire epochs for generations of students and helped me get academic credit for taking a raft down the Mississippi. I never met him, but Morgan was my primary inspiration. His massive papers provided instructions on how to write virtually every one of my books. Brodie was one of the bravest and smartest women to ever put pen to paper. Finally, nobody ever wrote more compelling history than DeVoto did in his epic trilogy about the West’s discovery, exploration and settlement. I lost two major mentors this last year: David Bigler and Floyd O’Neil. Fearless Floyd taught me how to think like a historian. Bigler showed me writing is organization. Everything I’ve ever published reflects the influence of Floyd’s teaching and Dave’s thought-provoking storytelling.
Describe some of the remarkable documents you’ve unearthed.
What I love about being a research historian is that I learn something new every day. Historians are detectives. Thirty years ago I realized Utah’s overlooked archives were full of clues, secrets and unique insights into the conquest of the West. This proved true when I found dozens of overlooked sources about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Maybe my best find was the letter a New Mexican trader, M.S. Martenas, wrote in July 1853 reporting what the Ute leaders he had known for upward of 30 years told him: “They cannot live with the whites, for they cannot live in peace—the whites want everything and will give the Indians nothing.” What I would give to have 15 minutes to ask Martenas some questions. Franklin Benjamin Woolley’s autobiographical account of 1856 confirmed all my darkest suspicions about Brigham Young’s handcart scheme.
Was there a pivotal decade in the 19th century?
Without a doubt it’s the antebellum decade, 1850 to 1860, which paved the road to America’s bloodiest war. It’s filled with lessons for today, if anybody learns anything from history. I’m skeptical.
Why focus on overland travel and the Mormons?
I grew up with these great stories, which were all over 1950s popular culture, had a huge audience and inspired movies, television series, magazine and newspaper articles, and bestselling books. They inspired me, too.
Tell us about your autobiography.
I have been writing River Fever: Adventures on the Mississippi, 1969–1972 since it was happening and spent a half-century trying to find a publisher. Salt Lake City’s Signature Books releases it this June, and I’m currently recording the audiobook, which opens up a new frontier. Reading your prose out loud is the perfect acid test. There is no better way to spot long, clunky sentences and learn why shorter prose is better prose.
Why have you referred to yourself as a “one damn thing after another” historian?
I don’t believe in fate. History strikes me as a series of random events stacked atop each other. If there is a grand plan behind history, I can’t see it or figure out what that plan could be. There are always plots to turn the course of events, but they are almost impossible to pull off: Life is too complicated.
What are you writing now?
I’m working on The Long and Perilous Journey: Trails and the Transformation of the American West, 1853 to 1861. It’s the third volume of the series friend and editor Bob Clark named “Overland West,” which will take the epic up to the Civil War. WW