rusq: Vol. 51 Issue 3: p. 297
Sources: The Settlement of America: Encyclopedia of Westward Expansion from Jamestown to the Closing of the Frontier
Eric Novotny

Eric Novotny, Humanities Library, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

This is a non-traditional reference work in a familiar package. The slim two volumes (totaling just over 600 pages) contain the expected alphabetical arrangement of essays on major topics and individuals. What is different is the composition of the contributors. Instead of a lineup of academics, the majority of the essays are written by independent scholars and professional writers affiliated with the Western Writers of America, an organization devoted to “the preservation and propagation of Western history and literature” (xv). Since the introduction does not state the purpose or intended audience, this must be inferred from the content, which seems aimed at informing a general readership and promoting popular interest in Western history. The chronological coverage is more explicitly defined, extending from the Jamestown settlement in 1607 to the massacre at Wounded Knee and the “closing” of the frontier in 1890. Despite this broad conception of the West, the majority of the content concerns expansion west of the Mississippi river.

The contributors’ passion for history comes through in their dramatic accounts of colorful characters and historical conflicts. When in doubt the authors opt for the interesting anecdote over dry historical summations. Many readers will likely find this style more engaging than the cautious, measured tones typically employed in academic reference works. Occasionally the author's enthusiasm crosses the line into triumphalism. While noting the negative connotations that the phrase “Manifest Destiny” holds today, the author still concludes that “its basic tenets of the greatness of freedom and democracy remain paramount in the American social and political system” (318). Another essay documents the rampant prejudice and economic segregation endured by Chinese immigrants, then optimistically asserts that “most Chinese lived the American dream—they were independent business owners” (129).

Traditional political and military topics dominate, along with biographies of explorers, politicians and businessmen (almost exclusively male). This is not the reference work to consult for a discussion of everyday life in the American West or for multicultural perspectives. While Native American experiences are well documented, the voices of others who settled the west are largely absent. There are no entries in the index for “Immigrants,” “Japanese, “Germans,” “Latino,” or “Hispanic.” There is no overview discussion of women's contributions to American westward expansion and only a handful of women appear among the biographical entries. By contrast, there are over eighty entries for individual forts in the index. Libraries receiving questions on the diversity of westward expansion are advised to consult the Encyclopedia of Women in the American West (Sage, 2003), or the Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West (Sage, 2006). Everyday life and popular culture are covered by Sara Quay's Westward Expansion (Greenwood, 2002).

This work will be most suitable for libraries serving a general readership, although it will have limited value for readers interested in social and cultural topics. It does provide a readable complement to the more scholarly Encyclopedia of the American West (Simon and Schuster/Macmillan, 1996), which treats many of the same topics but is now somewhat dated.



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