Nineteenth Century Armchair Travel

Nonfiction—and especially narrative non-fiction—is the historical novelist’s secret weapon while researching. Well-written narratives take us back centuries where the American West lives on in aura and story. Whether it’s images of intrepid explorers, emigrants in miles-long wagon trains, or the hard work of homesteading once travelers reach their destination, we follow in the footsteps of American pioneers and look back on a time that in some ways is much simpler, and in other ways, much more difficult.

Add these five reads to your library, grab an armchair, and be prepared to be kept up nights as you’re immersed in all facets of pioneer life: the good, the bad, and the very ugly.

The Pioneers by David McCullough (Simon and Schuster, 2019).

Drawing from letters and diaries, McCullough crafts the story of the first group of pioneers to leave New England for the American West. The entourage, led by Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War hero, settles in Ohio. Layered with intrigue, this narrative sheds light on the first Americans who left the comfort of civilization to carve out a new life in the wilderness.

The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis (Liveright, 2017).

This saga is narrative non-fiction at its best. Detailing the difficulties and horrors of the ill-fated Donner Party as they trek westward in 1846, Wallis weaves acute research and unique story telling to insert the reader directly into the day-to-day misfortunes in this calamitous American tragedy.

Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier by Peter Stark (Ecco, 2015).

Stark tells the fast-paced and harrowing tale of two groups of men who travel from the East Coast to the far reaches of the American continent in the early 19th century to wrest the fur trading empire from the grasp of the British. Told in alternating chapters from the perspective of the overland group and the seagoing crew, Stark unravels the disturbing tale of men battling starvation and calamity to claim Astoria—and the rights to worldwide fur trading—for the United States.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Undoubtedly, this title belongs on every bookshelf. Chronicling the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition west in 1803-05, Ambrose’s book reads like biography-meets history lesson-meets adventure tale. Everything you think you know about Lewis and Clark’s journey will come under scrutiny, including President Thomas Jefferson’s interests and motives, the Indian guide Sacagawea’s role in the expedition, and insights into the lives of a whole host of others on the trek: fur traders, naturalists, and military men tasked with opening up a water route to the Pacific.

So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California 1812-1848 by Will Bagley (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).

This title is the first in a proposed four-part epic series titled Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trails. Through use of letters, journals, newspaper accounts, and previous historical texts, Bagley describes in great detail the earliest years of westward migration.