31 July 2017

Great Surveys of the American West, by Richard A. Bartlett

Posted by Callan Bentley

After reading Passing Strange, I found myself wanting to learn more not only about Clarence King, but also about the other great surveys of the American West – those of Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler. I’ve read Powell’s account of descending the Colorado River, and I’ve been delighted this decade past to explore Hayden’s territory in the northern Rockies (but didn’t know the details of his work). Of Wheeler, I knew next to nothing. So I was glad to find there was a volume dedicated to the history of all four surveys – Richard Bartlett’s Great Surveys of the American West, published in 1962. The book is a useful compilation of each survey, its personnel, personality, adventures, and output. However, it suffers from a serious case of mid-last-century perspective. The author’s perspective is both sexist and racist. For example: early in the book, he likens exploring the west to undressing a beautiful woman. Native Americans were the original inhabitants of this “unexplored” land, and Bartlett paints them with a broad brush, sneering that they were “bloodthirsty” or “dirty, sullen, not to be trusted.” He has a similar attitude towards predatory animals – delighting in the killing of grizzly bears and describes a coyote as “a scraggly, sneaking little yellowish cur with its tail between its legs, a symbol of perpetual guilt.” Not exactly ecologically enlightened! These flaws, casually inserted in many places throughout the narrative, make for distasteful reading. It may be unrealistic of me to expect a book by a white man in the early 1960s to share the relatively egalitarian attitudes of 2017, but despite that, I found myself wincing repeatedly as I read and learned. So: caveat emptor. Coming away from reading it, I feel as though the insight i gained was tainted with a distasteful set of attitudes. This history tastes spoiled.