Friday, September 25, 2009

Deadwood and the West

Despite my urban inclinations, I have always had a love for the expanse of the American West, feeling a fondness such as Thoreau wrote, “We go westward as into the future with a spirit of enterprise and adventure” (Walking, 1862), which seems to sum up the Westward expansion of the United States.

The future is not complete without an understanding of the past, and I have also always had a love for the history of the American West. This love was rekindled when I set about watching all 3 seasons of HBO’s Deadwood in succession. This set me off on another adventure to the Austin library. There I picked up Deadwood: the Golden Years by Watson Parker and Oh What a Slaughter by Larry McMurtry. These have been the first books on the history of the American West which I have read in quite some time (the last I recall being about Cochise, Geronimo and Gen. Crook).

The latter is a rather short work, approximately 160 pages, which covers 6 different massacres in the history of the American West:
  • The Sacramento River Massacre, Spring 1846
  • The Mountain Meadows Massacre, 11 Sept. 1857
  • The Sand Creek Massacre, 29 Nov. 1864
  • The Marias River Massacre, 23 Jan. 1870
  • The Camp Grant Massacre, 30 Apr. 1871
  • The Wounded Knee Massacre, 29 Dec. 1890
McMurtry spends a good portion of his book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which inspired the movie September Dawn, and the massacre at Wounded Knee, of which there was a good miniseries on HBO. McMurtry does not just cover the history of these massacres, but relates them to modern massacres, which may be higher in body count, but no less brutal thereby. He also regrets the lack of knowledge by Americans about the history of the West and its figures. It is true that Americans seem to know little about the American West aside from what is popularized in movies and on television. Oh What a Slaughter is a great introduction to that history for all Americans; it is an easy read and acquaints one with the basic facts, mincing no illusions about either side in these occurrences.

After watching all 3 seasons of Deadwood, I went to the library and picked up Deadwood: The Golden Years. It's not exactly what I was looking for, which was more insight into the people of Deadwood, such as Seth Bullock. Nonetheless, it's a very interesting survey of the businesses, groups and society of Deadwood from 1876-1945 (and somewhat thereafter). The author covers the geological formations found in the Black Hills and this history of the mining processes used to extract the ores. I don't consider myself to be even an amateur geologist, but I enjoyed the description of how the gold formed in the Black Hills and the various methods by which it was extracted, whether by panning, crushing, or the later chemical methods. The mineral rich hills are what brought the people, kept them and made the area a thriving hub of economic activity for several decades. Some of the mines were still extracting ore as late as the 1980's when the book was written. He doesn't leave out the personalities which existed in Deadwood, which were much popularized, but not the nature of the town.

As an aside, I've been reading Lyndon Johnson and Modern America, which focuses on how LBJ's policies effected the American West. The author seems quite enamoured of the New Deal, but his chapter on the Cold War West is very illuminating. It's not an in-depth examination of LBJ or his policies, but it is a good read.

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