Editor's note: The below column reviews a book by Philip Anschutz, the proprietor of the Washington Examiner.
History may know Thomas Hart Benton best as a newspaper editor and long-time U.S. senator who helped open the West to settlers and pushed for Pacific ports to enable trade with China.
But there was a dark side to Benton's determination. In his upcoming book, Philip Anschutz describes Benton as "egotistical, often brusque, (and) highly sensitive of his honor." That sensitivity earned him a reputation for violence.
"In one notorious episode," Anschutz writes, "Benton and a rival attorney agreed to settle their courtroom dispute with a duel. When Benton only wounded his opponent in the first meeting, he demanded another one. The second time, he killed his opponent with a shot through the neck."
Anschutz doesn't include such gory details for titillation, but rather as a means of making Benton and other historical figures more interesting and human. In the first volume of his "Out Where the West Begins" books, Anschutz focused on 50 business leaders whose entrepreneurial spirit, risk-taking and wise decisions opened up the West for development.
In the second volume, set for release on Sept. 8, Anschutz expands his vision to include 100 people who played significant roles in "creating and civilizing the American west."
These include policymakers, military and American Indian leaders, legislators, religious figures, black entrepreneurs, suffragists, writers, artists, explorers, mountain men, physicians, architects and inventors, among others. They are some of the men and women who helped the wobbly new republic — which was by no means certain to survive — rise to its feet, take tentative steps and then run westward to the Pacific shores.
The scope of "Out Where the West Begins, Volume 2: Creating and Civilizing the American West" makes it a more ambitious project than the first volume but equally successful. In ways, it's even better.
The writing is exceptional. Even those who are generally disinterested in the West will keep turning pages, because the language is unchallenging, the ideas clear, and the chapters brief. It is difficult to reduce someone's biography to five or six pages of narrative highlights, but Anschutz produces dense material that somehow seems light and airy.
Anschutz, a Denver businessman whose holdings include The Oklahoma Publishing Company, has a keen sense of history, and the inclusion of folks such as Carry Nation, Willa Cather, and Jedediah Smith, among others, prove the book isn't just about the rich and powerful.
Nation, for example, grew up on a relatively affluent farm in Kentucky until the Civil War and emancipation diminished the family's fortunes. A bad marriage to an alcoholic forged in her a resolve against strong drink, which grew into activism once she moved to Kansas and formed a branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Her techniques for closing saloons and eliminating liquor moved from the innocuous (praying and singing outside taverns) to the aggressive.
"Her militancy against liquor dealers increased," Anschutz writes. "Directed, she claimed, by a vision from God, she smashed up her first saloon in Kiowa, Kansas, in June 1900, and then heaved brickbats through the windows of two others. A tornado struck the transgressing town soon after. To Nation, it was a sign of divine approval for her work."
At 6 feet tall and dressed all in black, Nation was a formidable woman, especially when armed with her preferred weapon: a hatchet.
Even she was an entrepreneur, though. "She sold souvenir hatchet pins," Anschutz writes, "using the money from sales to pay her jail fines."
Nation lingers in history by paving the way for prohibition and highlighting the domestic problem of male alcoholism, Anschutz writes. Despite her sharp instrument, she was a blunt object who became a radical and famous force in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Anschutz paints similarly memorable pictures of Cather and Smith. The former grew up in a homesteading family in Nebraska but achieved fame for the Prairie Trilogy she wrote from the comfort and civilization of Pittsburgh, Pa., where she moved after college. Later she won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for "One of Ours," a post-World War I novel.
As for Smith, he was an unlikely mountain man, religious and abstemious — and disfigured by a bear. A trapper and explorer, Smith was among the first Americans to enter California overland in 1826, Anschutz writes, but that was just one feat among many. Smith discovered the South Pass and traveled "into the Snake River Valley, along the Oregon Trail, and to the western banks of the Great Salt Lake." He also "explored Oregon's Willamette Valley and the Columbia River, then probed the Powder, Yellowstone, Tongue, Little Bighorn, and other Missouri tributaries." He died at 32 years old after a muddled encounter with a band of Comanche Indians.
The stories that Anschutz spins are interconnected, if not always in obvious ways. Taken as a whole, they provide an excellent overview of the growth of our nascent nation. Anschutz certainly isn't the first to provide context for history, but the fairly brief essays and clear prose make this book accessible and informative to students and adults alike. The detailed timeline at the front of the book makes it even easier to follow along.
"In 1800," Anschutz writes, "almost nothing was known about anything by almost anyone from a line west of the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, and yet by 1920 the lands had been occupied, civilized, and fully integrated into the nation. In the annals of history, this has no precedent — nothing like it had ever happened before with such surprising speed."
The American experiment succeeded better than anyone could have expected — but not, perhaps, better than anyone could dream.
Ken Raymond is the book editor at The Oklahoman, which is also owned by Philip Anschutz. This piece originally appeared at The Oklahoman.
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