on April 26, 2009
This book won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize. It is easy to understand why. Nothing less than a compendium of all of the major explorations of the American West, the author leaves you with a sense of wonder as he covers 120 extensive journeys. Detailing the time period from Lewis and Clark (1803 - 1806) to the final work of John Wesley Powell (1890), William Goetzmann covers all major exploration influences from the fur trapping days, to the Army's extensive topographical studies and Border examinations, to the exacting surveys conducted by the Department of the Interior.
I never realized how many expeditions were conducted or the complex, scientific nature of them. No matter who headed these efforts, the personnel always included topographers, geologists, astronomers, ethnologists, physicists, landscape artists and painters, paleontologists, engineers, surveyors, etc. These were not casual undertakings but included some of the best scientific minds of the time. Nor were these expeditions taken in the latter part of the 19th century when things were relatively safe. For the most part, the majority of these surveys were between 1840 - 1870, when the Army's war with the American Indian was in full swing.
Nothing was missed and many of these undertakings met with severe personal tragedy, loss of life and privation. Yet no part of the American West was too obscure for critical evaluation and we see the purpose of these efforts evolve from simple observations to extensive mappings not just of the country under examination but also the inhabitants, mineral deposits and geologic structures to include their environmental and agricultural evaluation for water, aridity, likelihood of irrigation, vegetation and potential uses. From mountain tops to canyon bottoms we see the launching of brand new fields of science such as paleontology, anthropology and hydrology. We see egos and the politics that egos spawn, especially within the intense competition between the Army, who began these efforts, and the Department of the Interior, who finished them.
This is a remarkably complete rendering of the exploration of the American West. If there is a constructive criticism, it is that the author bit off too much. 120 ventures in a net 600 page book leaves relatively little time to do much more than the author did for many of these undertakings, list the survey's participants and outline their specific objectives. But make no mistake, this is a masterful work. Drawing on a wealth of primary sources, William Goetzmann offers a remarkable overview of the opening of the American West, as well as a fascinating study of the nature of exploration and its consequences for civilization.