The perfect literary companion for your Old West vacations.
- Written by TW Editors
- Published March 01, 2008
Granville Stuart was a lot of things—merchant, miner, rancher, diplomat, vigilante—and an avid reader.
His Montana cabin was filled with books covering just about any topic you can think of, and he would travel far and wide to get them, as shown in his journal excerpt of a journey he undertook in 1860 with his brother James. The man was known to share his books with anybody who came along—a habit that would lead him to become the chief librarian in Butte, Montana in his later years. It’s said that when he died in 1918, Stuart had one of the largest private libraries in the Rocky Mountain region.
Books are intrinsically tied to the West, telling the stories (and myths) of the people and events that shaped the area. They tell us a great deal about the cities and towns of the West, some of which are no longer around. But in the pages of the classics, they live and thrive again.
So let’s go on a tour of the West—not by car or train or boat, but via the printed word. Enjoy these Great Destinations and Great Reads! But first, some words from the avid reader himself.
James and I were both great readers and we had been all winter  without so much as an almanac to look at. We were famished for something to read when some Indians coming from the Bitter Root told us that a white man had come up from below, with a trunk full of books, and was camped with all that wealth, in Bitter Root valley.
On receipt of these glad tidings, we saddled our horses and putting our blankets, and some dried meat for food, on a pack horse, we started for those books, a hundred and fifty miles away, without a house, or anybody on the route, and with three big dangerous rivers to cross, the Big Blackfoot, the Hell Gate, and the Bitter Root. As the spring rise had not yet begun, by careful searching we found fords on these rivers, but they were dangerous, and at times we were almost swept away.
Arriving in the Bitter Root valley we learned that the man who brought the books had gone back to the lower country, but he had left the precious trunk in charge of a man named Henry Brooks, whom we finally found living in a teepee, at a point on Sweathouse Creek, near where the town of Victor now stands. We gradually and diplomatically approached the subject of books, and “our hearts were on the ground” when Brooks told us that Neil McArthur, a Hudson’s Bay Company trader, who left the books in his care, told him to keep them until he returned. He gave him no authority to sell any of them.
We told him how long we had been without anything to read, and how we had ridden for days, seeking that trunk, and that we would take all the blame and would make good with McArthur when he returned. At last we won him over, and he agreed to let us have five books, for five dollars each, and if McArthur was not satisfied we were to pay him more.
“How we feasted our eyes on those books. We could hardly make up our minds which ones to choose, but we finally settled upon Shakespeare and Byron, both fine illustrated editions, Headley’s Napoleon and His Marshals, a Bible in French, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. After paying for them we had just twenty-five dollars left, but then we had the blessed books, which we packed carefully in our blankets, and joyfully started on our return of a hundred and fifty miles.
Many were the happy hours we spent reading those books, and I have them yet, all except the Wealth of Nations, which being loose in the binding, has gradually disappeared, until only a few fragments remain. McArthur never returned to the Bitter Root valley, and I do not know what became of the rest of the books, but I hope they gave as much pleasure to some others, as did the five to Brother James and myself.
—Forty Years on the Frontier as seen in the Journals and Reminiscences of Granville Stuart, edited by Paul C. Phillips, Arthur H. Clark Company
FORT SMITH, AR
“Fort Smith, Arkansas, was smaller than Saint Joseph, Missouri, but in many respects the towns were similar,” wrote Michael J. Brodhead in Isaac C. Parker: Federal Justice on the Frontier. “Like Saint Joseph at the time of Parker’s 1859 settling there, Fort Smith was a busy river town and was becoming a railroad and manufacturing center…. Fort Smith was also a border town with its share of disreputable inhabitants and shady businesses. Still, like Saint Joseph, it became a stable community of some importance within the state.”
Let’s face it—Fort Smith’s place in history has little to do with railroading, manufacturing or river transportation. Folks know of Fort Smith because of the work of Isaac C. Parker, the “Hanging Judge” who oversaw the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas from 1875 to 1896. It included some of the roughest areas and toughest characters in the Old West. Some of the top lawmen of the period reported to Fort Smith.
Much of that trial history is preserved at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, as well as Judge Parker’s courtroom and the jail that held so many doomed men over the years. Within a few years, the U.S. Marshals Museum will open there. It’s enough to make visitors hang around, so to speak.
Trip Lit: Isaac C. Parker: Federal Justice on the Frontier by Michael J. Brodhead
“On the last night of the second week they topped White Pass and dropped down the sea slope with the lights of Skaguay and the shipping boats at their feet. It was a record run. Each day for fourteen days they had averaged forty miles,” wrote Jack London in The Call of the Wild. “For three days Perrault and Francois swaggered up and down the main street of Skaguay and were deluged with invitations to drink, while the team was the constant center of a worshipful crowd of dogbusters and mushers. Then three or four western bad men tried to rob the town, were shot up like pepperboxes for their efforts, and people became interested in other things.”
Skagway was a gateway to the Klondike riches for many fortune seekers in the late 1890s. Author Jack London was one of them. For most, Skagway was a starting point, since they had another 500 miles or so to get to the goldfields. For others, Skagway offered its own opportunities—bars, bawdy houses, games of chance. Not coincidentally, one of the town’s “leading citizens” was conman Soapy Smith, who controlled the gaming, the telegraph office, the newspaper and a private militia
Today, cruise ships make regular stops at Skagway. You can hike the golden stairs of the trade route Chilkoot Trail, visit historic structures in downtown and take ranger-led tours of the Klondike Gold Rush park, where you can visit the homestead of steamboat captain William Moore who founded Skagway.
Trip Lit: The Call of the Wild by Jack London
“In the galaxy of frontier enclaves sparked into creation by colonialism, New Archangel was a map dot unlike any other,” wrote Ivan Doig in The Sea Runners. “Simultaneously a far-north backwater port and capital of a territory greater than France and Spain and England and Ireland taken together, the settlement ran on Russian capacities for hard labor and doggedness, and was kept from running any better than it did by Russian penchants for muddle and infighting.”
In 1852, according to Doig’s novel, New Archangel was populated by Russians and natives. For the latter, it was their home. For the former, it was something akin to a working gulag. In The Sea Runners, four of those indentured servants take a large canoe and try to escape to Astoria, Oregon, a distance of 1,200 miles.
In real life, New Archangel is the site where Russia handed Alaska to the U.S. in 1867. Its name became Sitka, a Tlingit word.
Getting in and out of Sitka is tough, isolated as it is on the coast of the Alaskan panhandle; your choices are: minimal plane service or a ferry. Maybe because of that, much of the town’s history is well preserved. Some 22 buildings are on the National Register. Several date back to the 1840s, including St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Russian Bishop’s House.
Trip Lit: The Sea Runners by Ivan Doig
GRAND CANYON, AZ
“We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above: they are but puny ripples, and we but pygmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders,” wrote explorer John Wesley Powell as his team floated down the Colorado and into the Grand Canyon.
A remarkable man, Wallace Stegner was a prolific writer who won a Pulitzer for his novel Angle of Repose in 1972. His 1954 biography of Powell is a classic—not only in its portrayal of Powell, but also in its examination of the politics of land development. The West, he said, remains “the New World’s last chance to be something better, the only American society still malleable enough to be formed.”
The Canyon’s South Rim is accessible for most of the year; the North Rim is open from June through September. The Inner Canyon is a hotbed of activity:?you can ride a mule to Phantom Ranch, go backpacking or take a few days to enjoy a river trip on the Colorado.
Best of all, the long-awaited glass Skywalk is finally open, operated by the Hualapai tribe and accessible from Grand Canyon West. Its 4,000-feet height above the floor of the canyon is twice that of the world’s tallest skyscraper. (The height will even beat Dubai’s skyscraper when it’s finally completed.)
Trip Lit: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner
“Fort Whipple was a very gay and hospitable post, near the town of Prescott, which was the capital city of Arizona,” wrote Army wife Martha Summerhayes in the 1870s. “The country being mountainous and fertile, the place was very attractive, and I felt sorry that we were not to remain there. But I soon learned that in the army, regrets were vain. I soon ceased to ask myself whether I was sorry or glad at any change in our station.”
Make no mistake about it—Summerhayes was generally sorry to be involved in the Army life, especially out West. The Massachusetts native wasn’t too thrilled by Indian attacks, snakes, polygamy and the heat. But she put up with all of it from 1873 until her husband retired in 1900 (they moved back East). In 1908, she wrote her memoirs, Vanished Arizona, and became a national celebrity.
Martha might enjoy Prescott a bit more today. It may no longer be the capital, but it features great museums (including one at Fort Whipple), lots of outdoor recreation and more than 600 buildings on the National Register, many dating back to the 1800s.
Some details that bugged her so much have vanished: no more Indian attacks or polygamy, the snakes are under control and air conditioning helps with the heat. What hasn’t changed is the beautiful terrain; it is still “mountainous and fertile.”
Trip Lit: Vanished Arizona by Martha Summerhayes
“A mining town in the heart of cattle country, it had the picturesqueness of a boom silver camp and the colour of a trail-end, cowboy capital. It was a town of lawlessness and law, saloons and schools, gambling halls and churches, lurid melodrama and business routine, red lights and altar candles,” wrote Walter Noble Burns in Tombstone, adding “It was all the hectic, mad romance of the old Western border, but in a stage setting of modern comforts and conveniences.”
If you’re looking for the book that started the Wyatt Earp legend, chances are you’ll start with Stuart Lake’s 1931 effort Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. Four years before that came out, Walter Noble Burns did his best to put Wyatt on a pedestal in his book Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest. It is not a nuanced look at the events in southeast Arizona.
The good guys (Doc Holliday and the Earps—especially Wyatt) are absolutely good; the bad guys (the Cowboys) are totally bad. Burns had gotten some of his material from Wyatt, but not much, so Iliad is more fiction than fact.
Along with Wyatt, the city of Tombstone became a legend, too tough to die. Buildings that survived the 1882 fire include Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, Bird Cage Theatre, Crystal Palace Saloon and the largest adobe building in the Southwest, Schieffelin Hall.
The Tombstone Epitaph is still in business (started in 1880), and the O.K. Corral still hosts gunfights—though the Earp Gang and Cowboy shoot-out is staged for your entertainment.
Trip Lit: Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest by Walter Noble Burns
LONE PINE, CA
“There are still some places in the west where the quails cry ‘cuidado’; where all the speech is soft, all the manners gentle; where all the dishes have chile in them, and they make more of the Sixteenth of September than they do the Fourth of July. I mean in particular El Pueblo de Las Uvas. Where it lies, how to come at it, you will not get from me; rather would I show you the heron’s nest in the tulares. It has a peak behind it, glinting above the tamarack pines, above a breaker of ruddy hills that have a long slope valley-wards and the shoreward steep of waves toward the Sierras.”
Mary Austin didn’t reveal where this place was in her 1903 book The Land of Little Rain. We will: Las Uvas, or the Town of the Grape Vines, is Lone Pine, California.
Beautiful, remarkable Lone Pine is just a few miles from both Death Valley and Sequoia National Park. Originally, the town was closely tied to the mining industry. That changed in 1920, when the silent Western The Roundup was shot nearby. Since then, more than 250 films/TV episodes/commercials have been shot in the area. The Lone Pine Film Festival—held each October—attracts thousands of enthusiasts to see classic movies (mostly Westerns) and meet stars of the present and past. You can get the history of the movies filmed here at the free-admission Lone Pine Film History Museum.
As far as the restaurant fare goes, we can’t guarantee that all the dishes will have chile in them.
Trip Lit: The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
LOS ANGELES, CA
“When Cap. Alexander Bell married a belle from Spain in 1844 he spent seventy thousand dollars in building and furnishing an adobe palace in Los Angeles. The building became the first capitol of California under American rule,” wrote Maj. Horace Bell in On the Old West Coast. “Commodore Stockton occupied it for a time in 1846 as military governor, [as did] General Fremont in 1847. The old building extended from Aliso to Commercial Street, on the east side of Los Angeles Street, and was quite an imposing structure.”
Horace Bell’s books are fascinating looks at Southern California throughout the 19th century. He participated in some of the greatest events on the West coast: as a Ranger, he chased after Joaquin Murrieta; as a soldier of fortune, he served in the army of Benito Juarez in Mexico and accompanied William Walker on the filibuster to Nicaragua; as a Union officer, he fought in the Civil War; and in Los Angeles, he understood the heart of the city and its people as a newspaper editor and lawyer.
On the Old West Coast, published in 1930, was his second memoir—Reminiscences of a Ranger came out in 1881. Taken together they’re an important chronicle of life in the West.
Your best bet for the “historic” LA?tour is to get in touch with the folks at the Los Angeles Conservancy. They offer group tours, podcast tours and self-guided tours of historic architectural gems in the city. The podcast tour is our favorite. It’s free to download at laconservancy.org, and it also includes a printable map!
Trip Lit: On the Old West Coast by Maj. Horace Bell
“The house was adobe, low, with a wide veranda on the three sides of the inner court, and a still broader one across the entire front, which looked to the south. These verandas, especially those on the inner court, were supplementary rooms to the house. The greater part of the family life went on in them. Nobody stayed inside the walls, except when it was necessary. All the kitchen work, except the actual cooking, was done here, in front of the kitchen doors and windows. Babies slept, were washed, sat in the dirt, and played, on the veranda,” wrote Helen Hunt Jackson in Ramona.
A typical southern California home back in the late 19th century, in a place and time when Mexicans still held sway is the setting of Ramona, one of the most popular novels of the 1800s, telling a story of love, racial discrimination and hardship. The book’s influence stretched so far that a community, not far from San Diego, was named after it in 1886. That same year, the first home was built in Ramona; it is still around, housing the historical society and a museum. You can visit the original town hall, as well.
The annual Ramona Festival has run for 85 years, and it’s presented on the weekends in late April and May each year. Be warned—it is not held in the town of Ramona, but instead at a natural amphitheater about 75 miles northeast near Hemet. The pageant shown here, based on the novel, is also the official play of the state of California.
Trip Lit: Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson
SAN FRANCISCO, CA
“They spent the rest of the evening listening to the captain’s wondrous stories about California, even though he hadn’t been there since the discovery of gold and the only thing he could say about San Francisco was that it wasn’t much of a town but that it did sit on the most beautiful bay in the world…. There was no comfortable or quick way to get to San Francisco; a sailing ship took months, under the most precarious conditions, the captain explained, but traveling across the American continent, defying the immensity of the land and the Indian raids, took longer, and there was even less chance of getting there alive,” wrote Isabel Allende in Daughter of Fortune.
Eliza Sommers is half Chilean, half English, and living in South America in the 1840s when she’s drawn to San Francisco, a booming Gold Rush town. Her trials and travails (and her connection to bandit Joaquin Murrieta) move the plot of Isabel Allende’s novel Daughter of Fortune.
Allende made a similar move in 1988, moving from her native Chile to San Francisco (she became a U.S. citizen in 2003). Of course, unlike Eliza, she was already an adult, a successful writer and had been to the U.S. prior to that move. Still, it’s likely that there’s more than a little of the author in the heroine.
You can still see many historic Gold Rush sites that Eliza would have seen. And you luck out this year because it’s the tenth anniversary of the Barbary Coast Trail, a walking tour of the city’s historic sites, which include the western terminus of the Pony Express and the birthplace of the Gold Rush.
Museums found along the way offer stagecoach history (Wells Fargo History Museum), the largest collection of historic ships in the nation (Maritime Museum) and exhibits on the 1906 fire and earthquake (City of San Francisco Museum) and the history of Asians on the frontier (Chinese Historical Society Museum of America).
Podcasts of the tour are available on barbarycoasttrail.org for free download, along with other tour options for walking the history.
Trip Lit: Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
“Now I had never heretofore been a great admirer of civilization, but I figured that was because I had no hand in building such of it as I had come in contact with. It was different with Denver, which growed before your very eyes. There was a real town there by the following summer, for people kept arriving from across the plains and while not many of them struck significant gold, and others got busted, by God, and went on home, there was a good deal who stayed, too, and permanent buildings replaced canvas,” wrote Thomas Berger in Little Big Man.
Thomas Berger really hit a home run when he came up with the story of Jack Crabb, the kid from Evansville, Indiana, who made the trek West with his family and experienced adventures like no other (that’s why it’s a novel). He keeps switching between life as an adopted Cheyenne named Little Big Man and various attempts to fit into the white world. Somehow, he runs into practically every big name in Old West history (Custer and Wild Bill, for example—say, most of these folks ended up dead, didn’t they?).
While Jack liked Denver, the Mile High City wasn’t that good to him—a failed business, a new wife and child who are lost in an Indian attack. But that’s Jack for you….
Denver may be good for you, though, especially if you are into ranching, rodeo or horses. The city hosts the premiere National Western Stock Show every January. But even if you miss that show, there’s events scheduled year-round, ranging from Quarter Horse circuits to train expos. Free downtown tours sharing the city’s early history are offered during the summer.
Thanks to the good citizens running Historic Denver, restored architecture can be viewed at LoDo, which features turn-of-the-20th-century commercial buildings, and Ninth Street Historic Park, with its 19th-century homes.
For the full Victorian experience, find out about the teas, luncheons and dinner parties offered at the home of the unsinkable Molly Brown. Denver’s high society may have shunned Molly Brown, but the stewards of her home welcome you with open arms.
Trip Lit: Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
LA JUNTA, CO
“The fort hummed,” wrote David Lavender in Bent’s Fort. “Trade had been prodigious during the winter. Eleven hundred huge bales of buffalo robes, upward of fifty tons total weight, another ton or more of glossy beaver pelts were loaded into the wagons. In the corrals scores of horses and wild and foolish mules were being starved to tractability, many of them from California…. Herded with them outside the walls were two or three hundred coarse-wooled Mexican sheep. There were cattle, also.”
In 1833, William and Charles Bent built an adobe fort in southern Colorado. For most of the next 16 years, it was the only major white settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and the Mexican settlements in what became New Mexico. It was a place to get supplies, wagon repairs, livestock, food, water and protection—and since it included an impressive billiard room, it was a place for sport. It was a staging area for Col. Stephen Kearny’s troops in 1846 during the Mexican-American War. In short, Bent’s Old Fort was a vital outpost in the pioneer West.
For a variety of reasons—including disease and natural disasters—the fort was abandoned in 1849. Jump ahead to 1960, when the Old Fort was established as a National Historic Site. The re-created adobe structure offers a living history experience for visitors. So it’s still an important place on the Santa Fe Trail, preserving the history of the old Southwest.
Trip Lit: Bent’s Fort by David Lavender
“Lewis’s River [the Snake River]…has two forks which fall into it on the South. The Countrey about the forks is an open Plain on either side. I can observe at a distance on the lower Lard. side a high ridge of Thinly timbered Countrey the water of the South fork is a greenish blue, the north as clear as cristial,” wrote William Clark on October 10, 1805.
The Lewis and Clark expedition remains one of the most extraordinary exploratory projects in history. The mere fact that the Corps of Discovery traveled all the way from Ohio to the Pacific Ocean and lost only one man is astounding—especially considering all the pitfalls they faced—from illness to natural barriers to wild animals to potentially hostile Indians.
By October 1805, the group was close to reaching its objective when it came upon an area that the leaders called “a paradise”—the forks of the Snake River near the present-day city of Lewiston, Idaho (and its sister town, Clarkston, Washington), named after Corps co-leader Meriwether Lewis. Lewiston dates back to the gold rush of 1860, and for a brief time, it was the capital city of the Idaho Territory.
Today, the region is well known for outdoor recreation—hunting and fishing, camping and boating, and whitewater rafting on the river. Much of the city pays homage to the original explorers, with statues and historic markers marking their trail. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center lies directly across from the campsite where Lewis and Clark stayed that October day, where they feasted on dog flesh purchased from the Nez Perce. All except for Clark, who could never bring himself to “relish the flesh of the dogs.”
Trip Lit: The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
“‘These first cabins are the Chinatown,’ Jim said, bringing the packstring to a halt. He pointed across the creek to a huddle of irregular, steep-roofed shanties set down in a clearing surrounded by mountain and forest. ‘That’s the white section of Warrens. Hong King’s saloon is the first one on the left-hand side of the road. You can’t miss it.’”
The story of Polly Bemis and thousands of other Chinese who came to this country in the 1800s is not often told. Bandits shipped her to San Francisco in 1872, where she was sold into slavery for $2,500. Her “owner,” Hong King, ran a saloon in Warrens (now Warren), Idaho. Polly worked there for more than a decade before she bought her freedom. She then ran a boarding house; in 1894, she married local resident Charlie Bemis and they moved to a ranch along the River of No Return.
That story is told in the biographical novel Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, published in 2003. It’s a remarkable work.
As for Warren, it’s still around. About 15 people live there full time, and the population jumps to more than 50 in the summer. A few of the buildings date back to the days of Polly Bemis. You can still visit her ranch and grave, about 44 miles east of Riggins. The Historical Museum in nearby Cottonwood houses some of Bemis’ possessions, along with other belongings of early Chinese settlers.
The nearby ghost town Burgdorf offers rustic cabins for lodgings and hot springs. Shipwrecked sailor Frederick Burgdorf read of the goldfields in Warren, but when he arrived, his dreams of gold did not pan out. One door closed but another opened when he discovered this nearby hot springs. He built a pool, hotels, cabins and barns, and made a nice living selling milk and meat to the miners in Warren who did strike it rich.
Trip Lit: Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn
“Abilene in 1867 was a very small, dead place, consisting of about one dozen log huts, low, small, rude affairs, four-fifths of which were covered with dirt for roofing; indeed, but one shingle roof could be seen in the whole city,” wrote Joseph G. McCoy in 1874. “The business of the burg was conducted in two small rooms, mere log huts, and of course the inevitable saloon also in a log hut, was to be found.”
In spite of that—or maybe because of it—McCoy set up stockyards in Abilene, convinced the railroad to come to town and encouraged Texas cattlemen to drive their herds to Kansas via the Chisholm Trail. Almost overnight, Abilene’s population zoomed to more than 3,000 and featured several hotels, gambling houses, saloons and mercantile businesses.
Abilene has more than doubled in size since the cowtown days, but it can’t shake off its history (not that it wants to). Old Abilene Town is a reminder of the town’s early residents like marshals Wild Bill Hickok and Bear River Tom Smith, Ben Thompson and—no surprise, the real McCoy, old Joseph G. himself. The town features about 20 historic buildings—log cabins, churches, commercial buildings and barns.
The Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad, based out of the 1887 Rock Island Depot, takes riders on a 10-mile roundtrip to Enterprise. Also check out the Heritage Center of Dickinson County, a collection of museums with their own set of historical buildings dating back to the 1850s.
Trip Lit: Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest by Joseph G. McCoy
DODGE CITY, KS
“In Dodge in ‘82 it took money to see the elephant. There were several variety theatres, a number of dance halls, and other resorts which, like the wicked, flourish best...
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