Review: The American West, Patrick N. Allitt

Rating: 4 out of 5

This was a really interesting read for me: trying to understand how the United States came to be and what choices had to be made during that process helps in understanding the modern world. Prof Allitt’s work is a mix of the factual and the anecdotal, with the latter helpfully adding colour to the former.

What struck me about this was the logical order that the author managed to establish from the very beginnings of the colonial period to the end of the 19th century. Dispelling the many misconceptions of the American West, such as it being a paradise of gunslingers, was an important part of this which should be repeated as much as possible because of how much Hollywood loves that trope.

Beyond this, the author’s nuanced style wove together the interminable Westward expansion, as empowered by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, and continued by the repression and suppression of the indigenous peoples of the Plains. The position and status of the buffalo in this process, first described to me in Stephen Ambrose’s ‘Crazy Horse and Custer’, was reinforced here with very good descriptions.

Further, it’s common for people to overlook the Mexican–American War, but fortunately the scope of Prof Allitt’s work allowed him to think about these in detail. Meanwhile, the relevance of railroads to this process was also included in a fairly big sweep at trying to explain how this great western area was populated and developed.

Overall, this is a very good and thorough look at the time and period. It should be clear, however, that this means that for an in-depth consideration of any one of the covered topics one should find a book on that specific topic.

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