Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

Ol’ Robbo has been doing a good bit of historickal reading lately, with an emphasis on the American frontier in its various stages.  Some short reviews:

The Pioneers:  The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought The American Ideal West by David McCullough.  The story of the settlement of the Northwest Territory (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, etc.) in the late 18th Century.  Long-memoried friends of the decanter will recall that Ol’ Robbo wrote about this book some months ago after a heavily-annotated copy was presented to him by his genealogy-obsessed cousin, our family having been amongst the first ‘Muricans to populate Ohio back in the day.

It’s an okay book, I suppose. The explanation of why the settlement of Ohio and the other eventual states was orderly and slavery-free as opposed to the catch-as-catch-can movement into western Virginia and Kentucky was illuminating.  (Long story short, the Northwest Territory land-grant was negotiated and implemented by New England Puritans.)  Later, Aaron Burr’s movement around the area trying to stir up possible secession, about which I either had never heard or completely forgot, was surprising.  And the perils, both mundane and signal, of taming the frontier are amply illustrated. (St. Clair’s Defeat, anybody?)

In the end, though, the book seemed…..rather flat. And I’m not sure I can explain why.  Perhaps it just got too bogged down in some of the day-to-day of the individual pioneers.  (Then Rufus Putnam went to Pittsburgh.  Then Ephraim Cutler left Marietta to visit Athens.  Then….etc.) Perhaps it was the air of gosh-darn righteousness (drink bad, taxpayer-funded public education good) probably inevitable given the people involved.  Whatever it was, I found myself drumming my fingers from time to time.

All in all, though, I’m glad I read it.  (And I’m prepared to be cross-examined by my cousin next time we meet.  I discovered from her notes, among other things, that I have an ancestor who was a drummer in the War of 1812 who seems to have died of battle wounds.)

Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma by Camilla Townsend.  This was one of Eldest Gel’s college texts to which I glommed on when she came home.  I found myself both surprised and pleased by it because despite some occasional slides into strawman-creation and pop-psychology, the author is generally quite clear-headed in her treatment of the realpolitick interaction between Powhatan and the incoming English.  His “dilemma” referred to in the title is this:  The Virginia tribes were semi-nomadic, economically near subsistence level, and technologically primitive.  The Brits had an eleven-thousand year sedentary agrarian history stretching back to the Fertile Crescent and all the population expansion, cultural organization, and technological advancement that went with it.  How was he, Powhatan, going to master their inevitable invasion.  (Short answer:  He wasn’t.  Hence the dilemma.)  As for Pocahontas herself, the author is quite honest about the fact that there’s only so much we can piece together about her based on contemporary English accounts and what we know more generally about her people, and for the most part refrains from imposing any kind of “image” on her.  (I’d forgotten, by the bye, that she and John Rolphe had a son who not only survived but fathered a blood line which is still (I think) in existence.)

Well worth the read.

Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride by Michael Wallis.  I can’t remember when I picked up this book or even if I’ve read it before.  Something of a  disappointment.  Unlike Townsend, who presents early 17th Century Virginny relatively neutrally, the author here uses his subject to bash what he clearly believes to be an awful corner of ‘Murican history (which, to be fair, was certainly a brutal one) from his contemporary perch.  He rails about “gun culture”.  He takes an apparently uninformed swipe at the founding of the NRA.  He looks down his nose at “stand your ground” doctrine.  He sneers at disgruntled ex-Confederates.  And he lays about him over evil, greedy, racist, capitalist pigs.  Yada, yada, yada.

He also spends a lot of time on the mythology of William Bonney, which I find to be a fascinating subject out of the Old West akin to that which surrounds Wyatt Earp.  When it comes down to it, again we know very little about the Kid’s background and life, including where and when he was born and even who his father was, and practically nothing about what went on inside his head.  Indeed, he was Nobody until the last year or so of his life when he suddenly rocketed to fame as a result of the Lincoln County War.  Since then, the man has been portrayed variously as an innocent saint, a Robin Hood, a lunatic, and a blood-thirsty savage in popular culture.  You have your choice as to how you want to see him.  Unfortunately, after the author denounces others for molding Billy as they see fit, he seems to fall into that trap himself, painting the Kid as a kind, caring, culturally-sympathetic (he spoke Spanish!) young man who simply got caught in the toils of the above-referenced eeeeevil world.  (True, he relies a good bit on interviews given in later life by sympathetic witnesses, but how are these people any less biased than anyone else?  They’re simply part of the same game.  Townsend recognized and acknowledged that about her sources on Pocahontas.  Wallis doesn’t seem to.)  Again, I found myself drumming my fingers.

I think this one is a one-and-done for me.

So there you have it.