Before I found my way to land management agencies and the world of wildfire and incident response, I wanted to be a history professor. My undergraduate degree is in history and I went off to grad school for an MA in US History, writing a scintillating thesis on the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916--still a big hit at cocktail parties. By the time I started PIO work, I had a decent general knowledge of western US history but soon found myself reading more on the topic because I wanted to understand the communities I would be serving. I always feel more confident and empathetic when I head into an incident carrying knowledge of the history of the place. I think it also helps build credibility if you show the locals you know about their history or if you're able to frame statements in a way that reflects and aligns with the local history. (Maybe it's just me and my inclination towards history though.)
“Towns are like people. Old ones often have character, the new ones are interchangeable.”
Of course, not every town has a published history, but you could often make solid assumptions based on general histories written about the region. Then there is Wikipedia, which is always worth a glance before you head out as it has at least demographic information on every census-identified community and usually a little history that you can plug into your broader knowledge.
Anyway, for those of us who work on wildfires west of the Mississippi, here are 10 books I found to be helpful in understanding the history and human geography of the West. This is by no means a comprehensive list and I intentionally left off books about wildland fire (Pyne!), which we should all be reading anyway. With an exception or two, it is also aimed at the general reader. I know there are many good books on many topics not covered here. This is merely a no-particular-order list that resonates with me. If you are in crisis communications with a different emphasis, I encourage you to learn the history of your communities.
In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest by David Roberts. This is a good and readable general intro into ancient cultures of the Southwest. There are a few places left in the United States where you can still feel the past and most of those are in the Southwest. Pre-history and history definitely influence today's culture across many communities in the Four Corners. Roberts followed this up with a sequel titled The Lost World of the Old Ones which is also a good read.
Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History by Paul Horgan. Winner of the 1954 Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes, this is a classic example of history as literature. Your knowledge of New Mexico starts here. The book was originally two volumes, with the first covering Native Americans and the Spanish while the second addressed the period of rule by Mexico and the United States. Be prepared as it is not a quick read. It's a book that needs to be regularly put down and thought about.
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner. Before there was "The West" there was John Wesley Powell. Powell influenced just about everything in the West from boundaries to irrigation principles, but in many ways the story of Powell and his failures is more telling than his successes. (There are many Stegner books worth reading. Angle of Repose is excellent.)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown. Native American history from 1860-1890. Classic. Read it if you haven't already. His other major book is a general history of the West titled appropriately, The American West.
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick. Perhaps too specific for this list, but I include it because it is a great read and it deals with part of the mythology of the West.
Mormonism And The American Experience by Klaus J. Hansen. This is a volume in the University of Chicago's History of American Religion series. There are many good histories, both scholarly and popular, dealing with the LDS faith and Mormon influence on Utah and the West. I like this one because the author is Mormon and tries to be objective about the history of his faith while recognizing that forces other than faith have driven the church. The author's conflict is a stand-in for all of the West in the sense that there is what really happened and then there is what people want to believe happened. Both influence current attitudes. Not the easiest of books to read.
Maxwell Scott: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Western Water Made Simple by High Country News. This collection of essays is part history and part non-lawyer legal writing about water. I don't think this is still in print, but if you can find a copy, grab it. (I found my copy at Tattered Cover in Denver.) The book has four parts covering basic legal aspects of water law, and illustrating those concepts through examinations of the Columbia, Colorado, and Missouri river basins. Can't be beat and I hope HCN eventually updates the book.
Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. Another water book and not quite history, but packed with info. One of the most influential books about the West in the last 50 years. He makes water politics exciting.
The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Probably the current go-to book on the overarching history of the West. If you have some knowledge of the historiography of the Western US and in particular, Frederick Jackson Turner's influential work, you get more out of her work but it is still a worthwhile read for the generalist.
Books by John McPhee. McPhee's style is not really history, but more history travelogue with a heavy dose of geology and cultural observation written by a master of nonfiction. He writes beautifully. Books of note: Assembling California, Basin and Range, Encounters with the Archdruid, Coming Into the Country, and Rising from the Plains. All of his stuff is really good and much of it involves the West. Any resident of the West should read at least one but be warned: If you read one you will want to read more.
I could go on a for a few more pages, which is the main reason I limited myself to ten. I'd be interested to see what additional titles other PIOs put forth.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.