This volume collects three works by Western American research historian Dale L. Morgan. In the broad field of Americana, Morgan has acquired almost a cult following among the historically minded. Partly because he may be regarded as the last great amateur historian of the West, partly because his research was so thorough, partly because the period and resources in which he did his research and on which he chose to write inform so many other areas, the work of Dale L. Morgan is still cited in virtually any writing involving the early American West.
As a researcher and writer, Morgan’s busy and prolific career provides us with a bit of a puzzle. He wrote or edited some two dozen books which retain their scholarly value today, but by his personal standard of historical importance he managed to complete only two works he considered to be of “substantial value”: Overland in 1846 in 1963 and The West of William H. Ashley the following year. Conversely, the seminal projects for which Morgan was awarded two John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowships hardly reached beginning stages. A history of the Latter-day Saints remained incomplete at his passing, despite thirty years of intention lavished on it, and a planned history of the American fur trade between 1760 and 1840 had barely made it to the stage of being a working project before he passed away from colon cancer at age 56 in 1971. Everything else among his many accomplishments he relegated to the status of either preparatory or tangential.
Dale Morgan’s career must be understood not in terms of his accomplishments but in terms of his intentions. Employing the benefit of hindsight, his choice of activities marks him chiefly as a researcher who wrote. “My main objective is to have a reader say, not ‘what a brilliant writer this fellow Morgan is,’ but ‘so that’s the truth of the matter,’ “he once informed a friend. To live up to that standard, he read millions of pages of manuscripts and source material, and transcribed
1 Despite the intense work Humboldt and Great Salt Lake required, Morgan felt that as publications the books were literary rather than historical ventures and thus, “merely stakes in my education” (Morgan to John Selby, 1949 Sep. 19, Dale L. Morgan Papers, Bancroft Library, Univ. of California, Berkeley). Actually, the research behind them was equal to any backing the documentary work he later produced and, perhaps more important, it was with these early works that he established both his habits as a researcher and his credentials as a factually informed writer.
2 Morgan to [Madeline McQuown], 1950 Feb. 27, Madeline McQuown Papers, Univ. of Utah Manuscripts Division.