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Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails Hardcover – December 10, 2002

4.5 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Rarely has a book so wonderfully brought to life the riveting tales of Americans' trek to the Pacific. A prolific British writer taken by the complex aspirations and often desperate hardships of the saints and scoundrels who filled the Western trails, McLynn (Carl Gustav Jung; Napoleon) relates their travails with a brio and understanding too seldom encountered in books on this naturally compelling subject. He vividly paints the unforgiving geography and the obstacles of human nature that often daunted but rarely defeated these pioneers. And he overlooks few of the people. There are plenty of familiar characters here, their stories freshly told: the ill-fated Donner Party, the Whitmans on their way to Oregon, mountain man Jim Bridger, the historian Francis Parkman and the Mormons. What helps make this narrative distinctive is that McLynn doesn't limit himself to known pioneers. His pen captures characters and situations from almost every wagon train that crossed the continent in seven or so pivotal years (1841-1847). Women play a large role in his pages. The outsider's perspective that allows McLynn to offer shrewd comparisons between European and American conditions does make one wish for more analysis. Most of all, though, he leaves the reader with a fuller understanding of the grit and resolve that motivated waves of people seeking escape and opportunity to head West and make the United States a continental nation in fact as well as in name. 16 pages of b&w illus.; maps.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

While the title implies that all westward trails will be covered, McLynn (literature, Strathclyde Univ.; Villa and Zapata) describes only the trail across the central United States to Oregon and California and only for the period from the Bidwell party of 1841 to the Mormon emigration of 1847-48. This allows him to explain why the emigration occurred and to put it into the context of Manifest Destiny. Drawing on numerous diaries and previously published research, he tells the story of each wagon train that set out from Missouri or Iowa during the early years but is selective for the later years, being careful to cover the Donner Party and the Mormon emigration of 1847-48 in detail. By putting both the California and Oregon trails together in one book and placing the story in a national context, McLynn provides a very useful starting point for undergraduates and general readers to begin their own investigations into this aspect of American history. He also provides an extensive bibliography to continue those investigations. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.
Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 509 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; First Edition edition (December 10, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802117317
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802117311
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #622,179 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I have enjoyed reading Wagons West by Frank McLynn. However, as a teacher of American history who has done many hours of reading and research on this subject, I wouldn't necessarily recommend this to the average reader. First, being from the Kansas City area, I noticed that McLynn has made some factual/geographical errors. None are major, but even if they are only typos, it possibly calls into question the accuracy of the rest of his research. Second, although I personally found his continuous analogies between US and British/South African history interesting, I think the average American (certainly my students) would be swamped by the whole Boer War, Zulu, etc. Third, his writing style (rather like my review) is a bit verbose and the book doesn't really take off until the third chapter. All things considered, I would recommend this book for history buffs. The stories of the early years on the California and Oregon trails are very fascinating.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a class act look into the overland emigration movement to Oregon and California during the 1840's. Dr. McLynn seems to have somewhat of a mental metal detector as he meticulously sifts through and unearths the numerous journals, diaries and biographies of early day pioneers who blazed their way westward.
After a captivating introduction on Manifest Destiny and reasons why these adventurers left their homes and ventured out into the wilderness, McLynn then chronolgically guides the reader through the 1840's decade of the Oregon/California/Mormon Trails.
Beginning with the first attempt of its kind westward emigration of the Bidwell/Bartleson wagon party in 1841, we then read of the 1842 White/Hastings party; the 1843 Applegate/Overton Johnson wagon train; the six major companies of 1844 such as Andrew Sublette, Stephens, Gilliam, Nathaniel Ford and others; the 1845 parties of Joel Palmer, Samuel Parker and others, along with a detailed account of the disastrous and deadly Stephen Meek Cutoff incident; the various 1846 wagon companies, with an entire chapter devoted to the gruesome, ghastly and grisly Donner Party tragedy in the Sierra Nevada mountains; an in depth study of the Mormon's mass migrations from 1847-1848; and culminating with how the California gold rush of 1849 blew life on the trails all helter skelter.
A very articulate and keenly written book, the reader certainly acquires a feeling for the many hardships, sacrifices, sufferings, endurance levels, etc. that these early pioneers endured to get to the land of their dreams.
An excellent book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Frank Mc Lynn had written one of the finest pieces of literature on the subject of the United States' westward migration that has been written. Focusing on the pre California gold rush western expansion, he starts the book with the question, why? He then takes the reader sequentially through each year, 1841-1848, weaving from diaries and journals this epic story of our country's geographic growth. To say that these people were tough is to perfect the English art of understatement.

It is a complex story. The basic drivers are as different as are the dreams that were pursued. Yet this amazing story is unraveled in such incredible detail that the reader is truly left very informed of the events and people, large and small, that make up the fabric of this phase of our Nation's Manifest Destiny. As you turn each page you know that this work took time. The fortitude of the emigrants, the concentric, enabling combination of the mountain men, the missionaries and Britain's Hudson Bay Company and the surprising, early support of the Native Americans, all combine to describe a very different story than that which occurred after the discovery of California gold.

McLynn takes his time but makes sure each moment of the reader's time is satisfying. The result is a really remarkable work, unparalleled anywhere, by anyone else. But in the end there remains the question of why? Why did they do it? Why did they endure? Why did they continue to come, year after year, and in increasing numbers? This is an amazing tale told by a very gifted historian. You will not be disappointed.
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Format: Hardcover
Wagons West: The Epic Story Of America's Overland Trails compiles original diaries and memoirs of pioneers along with other resources to paint a vivid picture of an era in United States history, from 1840 to 1849, between the time of the fur trappers and the gold rush when pioneers dared to brave the elements to settle land. Sparing no details of risks and horrors, Wagons West tells of disaster as well as success, from the fiasco of the Donner party to the tragedy that beset the Mormon treks. An amazing true account that practically transports the reader through time, and a welcome contribution to American and pioneer history shelves.
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Format: Paperback
Perhaps mirroring the western emigrants own journey, Wagons West takes a bit of time to reach its pace, but upon reaching full speed the reader is duly rewarded. The multi-faceted story of those most early emigrants through the beginning of the gold rush, where the nature of the emigration changed materially, is brought forward in a compelling storyline that leverages what appears to be an extensive body of research.

In spite of exceptionally compelling subject matter and the apparent and impressive body of research, the work suffers a bit from a few distracting elements and innuendo, the bulk of which appear early on. Undocumented, but sensational claims such as New Mexico as a territory "riven by grotesque social inequalities" and ascribing the motivation of explorers "whose psychological wellsprings tend to be sexual or pathological" early in the book, are not able to be validated based on notes or references and leave the reader wondering how much will be verifiable fact and how much opinion. Links to other emigrations in the time period (South African Boer) are tenuously made and do not add to the topic at hand. Fortunately, this style fades latter in the book as the story and content provide sufficient material to fill the page without such distracting side commentary.

For this reader, additional and more detailed maps would have helped more strongly amplify the highlighted characters and stories. The same can be said of footnotes within the chapters as opposed to a loose collection of notes at the back of the book.

Were it not for the distractions noted above, as well as a somewhat verbose style overall, Wagons West would be a five star book. The early chapters are somewhat grueling, but the book is saved by the latter two-thirds and ends up a worthwhile and comprehensive read of a pivotal period in U.S. History.
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