The supply of stories has perhaps been the American West's only reliable bounty. The difficult thing has been finding people to notice them, let alone tell them well. The Indian wars, still unfinished as tribes continue to struggle for rights, territory and cultural survival; the resource rushes, the Gold Rush in particular, which turned San Francisco into a cosmopolitan city standing alone in the wilderness; the once astonishingly abundant salmon runs that sustained soil and trees, as well as birds, bears and humans; the timber wars; the rangeland wars; the radical labour and environmental movements; the attitudes people adopted towards a harsh, unfamiliar, often sublime landscape; the evolution of European cultures in a non-European terrain and the arrival of Asian and Latin American immigrants to shape a hybrid culture: all these have had their occasional historians, though most Americans were raised to believe that history happened somewhere else. The San Francisco Public Library has an overflowing case of books on the East's Civil War, but only a handful on the war that transferred a million square miles or so of Mexico to the United States, including California and most of what we now call the West.
LRB 3 December 2009 | PDF Download