The Perilous West: Seven Amazing Explorers and the Founding of the Oregon Trail

Article excerpt


by Larry E. Morris

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Landham, Maryland, 2013. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.

257 pages. $39.95 cloth.

In 1963, William Goetzmann published a short essay in American Quarterly entitled "The Mountain Man as Jacksonian Man." Larry E. Morris does not cite Goetzmann's essay, but The Perilous West is written from a similar perspective. In this interpretation of western history, the West becomes the backdrop for an exciting story of heroic and entrepreneurial men (usually Euro-Americans with an occasional French Canadian or French-Indian making an appearance) who overcome great obstacles--namely landscape, weather, and Indians--to expand the reach and operation of American society, economy, capital, and governance. In the process, they discover "new" geographies, blaze "new" trails and contribute to "new" Eurocentric cartographies of the trans-Mississippi West. For this iteration of western history, Native peoples, women, and French North Americans are bit players in the more interesting story of Euro-American expansion.

Although Morris includes one woman, Marie Dorion (Marie Iowa) among the seven "amazing explorers," The Perilous West is largely a male story. It presents a narrative (1806-1814) on the competitive efforts of Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians to mount overland expeditions into the Mountain West and the Pacific Northwest with the aim of capturing new resource fields for the expanding fur trade. Morris quotes heavily from the well-known primary sources of the period, tending to eschew critical readings of these texts. As such, this account will appeal to general readers and others interested in an older tradition of fur-trader history. …