Friday, February 10, 2012

Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion by Robert Morgan

Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion by Robert Morgan is a fascinating biography of many of the known and unknown giants that helped to make the westward migration of Americans possible. This book provides brief biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, David Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Kit Carson, Nicholas Trist, and John Quincy Adams. The biographies focused on how each of these men helped the western expansion. Morgan stressed though that he believed that the expansion was really through the hard work and determination of the massive amount of pioneers that headed west and were an unstoppable force.

What was interesting in this book was that Morgan also looked at Mexican sources to explain many of the events including the battle at the Alamo. It was fascinating. So much of history has been whitewashed when you first learn about it in grade school. It is always intriguing to me to read books that delve more into the meat of what occurred, and it isn’t usually as black and white as you learn when you are young.

There were a few quotes that I enjoyed in this book, one was as follows: “Jefferson had a precise and detailed sense of geography. Had he not been so busy with all of his other interests and obligations, one might imagine him as an important mapmaker, with his passion for accurate representation, his draftsmanship and devotion to the study of land.” I’m currently teaching a drafting class at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and I think its inspiring that even among all of the other things Jefferson was he was a great map maker.

Andrew Jackson is a complex man. “As Robert Remini says, ‘Jackson seemed to gain interior strength by his many misfortunes. He was one of those extraordinary men who flourish with adversity. . . A strong, obstinate streak surged within him whenever his situation seemed hopeless.’” It’s great to be a person that flourishes with adversity instead of just getting beaten down by life. Jackson’s stubborn streak made me realize that I probably would not have liked him as a person or have voted for him for president. He really seemed to like to fight in duals over any other thing. He didn’t value human life that much, which is concerning in a commander in chief.

Along those lines, I was also dismayed that Jackson had Native American allies that helped him to win his decisive battle at Horseshoe Bend, but then he turned on his allies and forced them from their homelands. “Chief Junaluska, who fought at Horseshoe Bend, later said that had he known Jackson would drive the Cherokees from their beloved Smoky Mountains, he would have killed the general himself at the Bend.”

Whenever people complain about the illegal immigration problem in the United States, I’m going to pull out this quote. We Americans were once the illegal immigrants to Mexico. “There were already more than twenty thousand English-speaking immigrants in the province (Texas). Fearing rebellion, the Mexican government had stopped legal immigration into Texas. This served only to keep the most desirable immigrants away. Outlaws, con men, deadbeats, and adventurers continued to arrive from the east and slip across the border.”

And then we poured over the borders so much that Texas eventually became ours. “The real reason Texas could be, would be, and was annexed was that so many Americans had already gone there, and more were on the way.”

Nicholas Trist is the most important man you have never heard of. He married Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter, Virginia, and was mentored by Jefferson himself, Madison, and Jackson. During James K. Polk’s presidency, he was mentored by Polk’s Secretary of State, James Buchanan. Polk and Buchanan sent Trist on a secret mission to fail in securing peace with Mexico, during the American war with Mexico. The general of that war, Winfield Scott, and Trist did not get along well at first and I loved how they wrote very long and scornful letters to each other, but once they met face to face, they discovered that they liked each other. Without much support from the Polk administration, Trist negotiated with Mexico over the southern boundaries of what is now Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona and also the price for this new American real estate. After all of his hard work, Polk did not even reimburse Trist and he lived out a life of obscurity and poverty with his family. When he became an old man in his seventies, the U.S. government finally awarded him his back-pay for his work in Mexico.

This book provided much interesting discussion at my Kewaunee Library book club meeting last month. Lions of the West is a very interesting look at how the American West was won and I learned a great deal from it. I will agree with one of my book club members though that stated that she was annoyed by some of the repetition in the book. Morgan was trying to link all of the historical figures in the book together, which caused for repetition of some detail. Overall though, if you would like to read a captivating book and learn more about American history, I highly recommend Lions of the West.

Book Source: The Kewaunee Public Library


  1. Thanks for this review. I'm pretty sure I saw this title awhile ago when I was looking up information on James Polk. It sounds like a fascinating introduction to the movement west. This will be going on my reading list.

  2. Very interesting review. I did not know that Jefferson was a mapmaker.

  3. Wonderful review! This is exactly the type of book I love, and will be a good book to read after the Andrew Jackson bio I have promised myself. I really know so little about the early 1800s. Enjoyed your selection of profiles and quotes.