Thanks to my job brokering ranches throughout the American West, I’m constantly visiting areas that are rich with fascinating histories. Whether it’s driving along Lewis and Clark’s route in Montana, visiting Kit Carson’s home in Taos, or spending the night at Theodore Roosevelt’s “little Whitehouse of the West” in Glenwood Springs, understanding and appreciating the history of western landscapes has become an important part of my profession.
Of course land values, recreational attributes, and agricultural production take precedence, but I firmly believe that being able to effectively communicate an area’s historical significance adds a deeper level of meaning to certain ranch properties. For the right buyer, the additional layer of historical significance can translate into an emotional connection to the land, which can then translate into a sale.
While I could easily suggest dozens of books on land, conservation, and the history of the American West, below are seven that I highly recommend. These books have positively influenced my personal outlook and professional development, and they are all worth a read, no matter where you live or work.
If I missed any of your personal favorites, please leave your suggestions in the comments below. I’m always looking for more great books!
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, by Wallace Stegner – With its perfect combination of adventure, natural history, geography, and conservation, this book should be mandatory reading for everyone living in the American West. It’s the story of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed, self-educated Civil War vet who was the first to lead a descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He was a tough, brave explorer who subsequently became an expert on the watersheds of the American West. Powell went on to spend much of his life advocating for the responsible, sustainable settlement of the most arid regions of the United States. Unfortunately, the expansion-at-all-costs government of the day failed to heed Powell’s warnings, and today many of the consequences he predicted are coming home to roost.
For the Love of Land: Global Case Studies of Grazing in Nature’s Image, by Jim Howell – On the cover, this book bills itself as a compilation of “case studies of grazing,” but it is a far cry from a dry, boring, academic discussion of cows eating grass. The book starts with an overview of North American natural history, describing how the continent’s large mammals and prairie grasses evolved together and formed a symbiotic relationship. The grasses evolved to depend on large grazing herbivores to eat old growth, stimulate new growth, and assist with planting their seeds. Howell argues that even though the large herds of grazing animals have disappeared, modern day ranchers can use their livestock to mimic this pattern of grazing in “nature’s image.” It is a compelling and necessary read, especially for those who are misinformed about the importance of grazing for a healthy ranch ecosystem.
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen Ambrose – To fully understand and appreciate the settlement of the American West, one must start at the beginning – Lewis and Clark’s first transcontinental exploration of North America. Without the forethought of Thomas Jefferson and the bravery and effectiveness of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the United States could very well have never extended much beyond the Mississippi River. The dynamic duo’s expedition opened the doors for further exploration, commerce, and well-trampled trade routes that eventually allowed America to claim and settle all of the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West, by Roger Di Silvestro – If there’s been a book written about or by TR, chances are that I’ve read it, and TR in the Badlands is one of my favorites. It focuses exclusively on the time he spent ranching, hunting, and living in the Dakota Territories during the late 1880s. On Valentine’s Day 1884, both TR’s mother and wife died within hours of each other, from unrelated causes. The tragic event caused the young TR to take a break from political life, become a cattleman, and devote his time and energy to “the strenuous life” of the American West. There’s no question that TR’s time in the Badlands shaped his views on conservation and gave him a lifelong love of the West and its people.
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan – Anyone who has spent time in southeast Colorado, western Oklahoma, or northwest Texas needs to read this book. It’s the story of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and it describes the settlement of the Great Plains, the boom and bust of the wheat markets, and the eventual drought that destroyed both the land and many of the hard-working homesteaders who lived there. It’s truly unbelievable what hardships these people endured, and it’s shocking to learn about the huckster businessmen and government crooks who played such an active role in creating the disaster. The story serves as a powerful cautionary tale about the consequences of out-of-control speculation and blatant disrespect for the land.
Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides – Usually mainstream history books are either overwhelmingly dense or highly entertaining…but rarely both. Amazingly, Sides manages to fit an overwhelming amount of information into this book – Kit Carson, Navajos, the U.S. military, and the overall settlement of the American West – all while keeping it engaging and fun to read. One of the top five books I’ve read in years, and I’ve gifted it to many friends and colleagues. Very highly recommended.
The Wire That Fenced the West, by Frances and Henry McCallum – Who would ever think that a book about nothing but barbed wire could be interesting? I was skeptical at first, but since reading it, I’ve found myself thinking about this book on a regular basis. Be forewarned, it starts out a little dry with an overly detailed history of the invention and patenting of barbed wire. But it’s worth pushing through the minutia, because what follows is a fascinating discussion of how barbed wire affected the settlement of the West, private property rights, and the rise of the cattle industry, and allowed the West to become an economically viable landscape. I finished this book with a new appreciation for barbed wire – one of the most influential, game-changing, and highly underrated inventions of the last 200 years.
Written by Ed Roberson, a Colorado-based ranch broker and land conservation consultant who has worked extensively throughout the Rocky Mountain West. For additional book recommendations, visit his blog www.mountainandprairie.com.
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