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A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific

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Early in the nineteenth century, the mountain men emerged as a small but distinctive group whose knowledge and experience of the trans-Mississippi West exted the national consciousness to continental dimensions. Though Lewis and Clark blazed a narrow corridor of geographical reality, the West remained largely terra incognita until trappers and traders--Jim Bridger, Kit Car Early in the nineteenth century, the mountain men emerged as a small but distinctive group whose knowledge and experience of the trans-Mississippi West exted the national consciousness to continental dimensions. Though Lewis and Clark blazed a narrow corridor of geographical reality, the West remained largely terra incognita until trappers and traders--Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jedediah Smith--opened paths through the snow-choked mountain wilderness. They opened the way west to Fremont and played a major role in the pivotal years of 1845-1848 when Texas was annexed, the Oregon question was decided, and the Mexican War ed with the Southwest and California in American hands, the Pacific Ocean becoming our western boundary.


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Early in the nineteenth century, the mountain men emerged as a small but distinctive group whose knowledge and experience of the trans-Mississippi West exted the national consciousness to continental dimensions. Though Lewis and Clark blazed a narrow corridor of geographical reality, the West remained largely terra incognita until trappers and traders--Jim Bridger, Kit Car Early in the nineteenth century, the mountain men emerged as a small but distinctive group whose knowledge and experience of the trans-Mississippi West exted the national consciousness to continental dimensions. Though Lewis and Clark blazed a narrow corridor of geographical reality, the West remained largely terra incognita until trappers and traders--Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jedediah Smith--opened paths through the snow-choked mountain wilderness. They opened the way west to Fremont and played a major role in the pivotal years of 1845-1848 when Texas was annexed, the Oregon question was decided, and the Mexican War ed with the Southwest and California in American hands, the Pacific Ocean becoming our western boundary.

30 review for A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific

  1. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    A very detailed and informative account of the exploration of the American West. Not as well-written as "Across the Wide Missouri," but with much greater scope. Until I read this book, I'd never heard more than passing mention of the remarkable Jedidiah Smith, who emerges as truly important figure in American history.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Alvin

    Taken purely as a secondary historical resource, A Life Wild and Perilous is a book that deserves attention. A well-studied historian can find, here, a vast and mostly complete picture of the early development of the western territories, the understanding of the lay of the land, and the men who contributed to that herculean effort. Utley achieves his goal of bringing these men to life, and the level of detail is well balanced. The book’s organization follows roughly the progression of exploratio Taken purely as a secondary historical resource, A Life Wild and Perilous is a book that deserves attention. A well-studied historian can find, here, a vast and mostly complete picture of the early development of the western territories, the understanding of the lay of the land, and the men who contributed to that herculean effort. Utley achieves his goal of bringing these men to life, and the level of detail is well balanced. The book’s organization follows roughly the progression of exploration, conquest and settlement of the territories west of Missouri, it is extraordinarily convoluted, and this is the book’s primary weakness. The lives of many of these men spanned the entire time period covered (roughly 1803-1857), and it is therefore difficult to follow the events of the exploration linearly without having to move from person to person, within each time period, only to do it again during the next time period. Utley is very careful in most cases not to get “too far ahead” of his story. His organization, however, if one believes the chapter titles, is not linear but individual. Each chapter is titled with the name of the person it is about – or that’s what we hope. In practice, he doesn’t follow this pattern. What results is confusion. The chapters rarely spend much time talking about the chapter’s namesake, and more time explaining what everybody else was doing at the same time everywhere else. In a chapter on Jedediah Smith, he spends time detailing what happens to John Ashley, Hugh Glass, Colonel Henry Leavenworth, and other men who worked for Ashley. The chapter would be more aptly entitled “Ashley’s Men” rather than anything to do with Jedediah Smith, as he is only a small part of the chapter. Unfortunately, the book’s major weakness makes it inaccessible to a large audience. Its lack of organization necessitates multiple re-readings to be able to follow the events clearly, and to be able to piece together the life of any one of these mountain men, or a single period of time within the period covered, or a single historical event, would require a detailed extraction of information from many different sections of the book. Utley could have done a much better job organizing the book, and had he done so I would have no hesitation in recommending it without reservation as the first book to be read on the subject. With its detriments, however, I would only recommend this book to those who have an intense desire to know about the events and time covered, and not for the casual reader of western history.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Robert Mckay

    I’ve seen Utley on different PBS history shows over the years, and found him articulate and interesting (unlike a great many highly educated people who wind up on TV, but clearly never managed to learn English along the way to their advanced degrees). This book is also articulate and interesting, and covers a period in American history that perhaps many know happened, but probably few know anything about. I’ve known of the mountain men for decades, but this is the first time I’ve ever read a his I’ve seen Utley on different PBS history shows over the years, and found him articulate and interesting (unlike a great many highly educated people who wind up on TV, but clearly never managed to learn English along the way to their advanced degrees). This book is also articulate and interesting, and covers a period in American history that perhaps many know happened, but probably few know anything about. I’ve known of the mountain men for decades, but this is the first time I’ve ever read a history of their activities, and I learned a great deal. Anyone who’s got an interest in American history, and particular in the period of frontier exploration beginning with Lewis and Clark and ending, more or less, with the Civil War ought to read this book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Blake

    This book is dense with facts as they're popularly understood and bursting with sub-narratives that are interesting for their content, but Utley could not possibly shower more praise on the mountain men generation of early, transient pioneers, a category of historical figure he mistakenly seems to think are overlooked as explorers (they're not) and not admired nearly enough for their lifestyle of voluntary (and totally unnecessary except in the pursuit of profit, in-group street cred, or express This book is dense with facts as they're popularly understood and bursting with sub-narratives that are interesting for their content, but Utley could not possibly shower more praise on the mountain men generation of early, transient pioneers, a category of historical figure he mistakenly seems to think are overlooked as explorers (they're not) and not admired nearly enough for their lifestyle of voluntary (and totally unnecessary except in the pursuit of profit, in-group street cred, or expression of revenge-excused racial hated) "heroism" in their constant warring with the Blackfeet. He exhibits obvious bias throughout, to the extent of even editorializing on which, in his opinion, are non-reprehensible atrocities committed by his favorites (which is to say most of them), and makes a really big deal out of "firsts" and "almosts" that didn't even make waves at the time, building up to his giving the lion's share of the (dubious) credit for the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny to the mountain men. That it was published so recently blows my mind as this book reads like it was written by Tom Buchanan. 10% more self-indulgent, chauvinist, or vicariously vainglorious and it would be brilliant satire.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Meaney

    Fascinating story of the "mountain men" of the American West. Starts with the early expedition of Meriwether and Clarke and quickly cycles through some of the more famous Mountain Men (Carson, Bridger) but also some that you have never heard of who made a huge impact. Surprisingly a lot of them were French Canadian and Native Americans from the North east (Iroquois etc.). Also surprising how many of them died. Including Hugh Glass (made famous from the movie The Revenant) who after many more nea Fascinating story of the "mountain men" of the American West. Starts with the early expedition of Meriwether and Clarke and quickly cycles through some of the more famous Mountain Men (Carson, Bridger) but also some that you have never heard of who made a huge impact. Surprisingly a lot of them were French Canadian and Native Americans from the North east (Iroquois etc.). Also surprising how many of them died. Including Hugh Glass (made famous from the movie The Revenant) who after many more near scrapes finally was killed by Indians. The book drops off a bit near the end with a foray into the history of California and its political machinations that led to statehood. Many ex Mountain Men had taken up residence in the area so there is some continuity of story but it felt like the book ended on a bit of a low note because of that.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    This is a pretty interesting look at how the fur trade drove expansion and exploration into the western territories. It focuses on the cultural, political, and economic drive for this expansion. It covers many of the major expeditions to map the continent between the Mississippi and Pacific coast. It is sometimes brief on telling the stories of specific mountain men, but it does a good job of placing them in their historical context. This was a good starting point for learning about the westward This is a pretty interesting look at how the fur trade drove expansion and exploration into the western territories. It focuses on the cultural, political, and economic drive for this expansion. It covers many of the major expeditions to map the continent between the Mississippi and Pacific coast. It is sometimes brief on telling the stories of specific mountain men, but it does a good job of placing them in their historical context. This was a good starting point for learning about the westward expansion in the early 19th century and has provided a good jumping off point for reading more detailed accounts of the mountain men.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ron Albuquerque

    Some engaging parts, particularly the rapid empire expansion of the US during the 1840s which somehow escaped being adequately commented on in American History books I've read. But not that thrilling a book; and it would have greatly benefited from making the artistic reproductions higher quality or better in color, rather than the maps.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Roy McCullough

    Well written and scholarly work. Utley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, provides a readable and engaging account of the lives and exploits of those unique individuals known as the Mountain Men and also touches upon the rise and fall of the fur trade, relations with Native Americans, and the opening of the West. Highly recommended.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mark Kloha

    The book was "choppy". It was difficult to follow. Also, on page 189, the author references the Convention of 1818 and then references a separate Convention of 1828. There was no Convention or Treaty of 1828. No idea what this was referring to.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mark Lindahl

    A good historical account of known/significant mountain men and Western explorers. A bit dry and academic, however. A good reference work.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Chris Linas

    A slightly fawning account of fronteir personalities

  12. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Very interesting, I love learning about Mountain Men. But the book was more of a history text and could drag on at times.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Joe Hauglie

    Good stories. Bad storytelling. Pedantic and more than a little repetitive. But a good history lesson.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Drystal

    If you like a very detailed and lengthy history lesson then this is your read. Well presented and documented, as you might expect

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jay Perkins

    Thoroughly enjoyed this book. History of Rocky Mountian exploration after Lewis Clark until the Civil War.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Iain

    Utley covers much more that the golden years of the mountain men. He uses the mountain men as a framework, a thread tying together exploration and settlement of the American West. To some this may be more ground then they bargained for, to those interested in that exploration and settlement it makes for an engaging read and covers a time period leading up to Utley's more famous works on the Indian Wars. There are excellent color maps in the center of the book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Phil Gavenda

    Written by a first-rate historian and one who usually excels at narrative history, A Life Wild and Perilous represents an ambitious attempt to relate to the reader the story of how we as a nation in the 19th century came to realize our "Manifest Destiny." Not, as it usually seems in American History survey courses, by filling in broad swaths of country with color-coded Territories and States on the map west of the hundredth meridian, but rather by the painstaking process of careful examination Written by a first-rate historian and one who usually excels at narrative history, A Life Wild and Perilous represents an ambitious attempt to relate to the reader the story of how we as a nation in the 19th century came to realize our "Manifest Destiny." Not, as it usually seems in American History survey courses, by filling in broad swaths of country with color-coded Territories and States on the map west of the hundredth meridian, but rather by the painstaking process of careful examination of countless rivers, passes, headwaters, mountain ranges and other geographical features. Utley focuses on the dissemination of this knowledge to others, and the significance of each successful expansion of our geographical knowledge--as well as each failure. Unfortunately, it seems to have generated a fitful narrative. Some chapters are biographical, some more episodic. Sometimes you leave a character behind only to reconnect much later. Even for someone moderately well-versed in the history of American exploration, a reader may find there is a lot of detail and much background on people and events. Sometimes I found myself flipping back through the book to recall the context of what I was reading. As one would expect from Utley, it's impeccably researched with plenty of sources. And the maps (produced by someone else) are excellent, although a bit oddly placed in the back third of the book. (In an earlier, less costly day, the reader might have anticipated separate or fold-out maps.) Overall I think this is a good book, and extremely informative, particularly if one keeps the focus in mind; it's not a book about mountain men, or even about exploration, but rather the significance of those men to national expansion. It's just not an especially fun read nor is it recommended for someone unfamiliar with the history of the American West in the 19th century.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Craig

    After the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean (1804-1806), numerous frontiersmen treked to the Rocky Mountains and beyond in search of beaver and adventure. They were known as the Mountain Men. This work chronicles the lives of the more fameous of them: Jedediah Smith, Joseph Walker, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson to name a few. Their sojourn lasted from about 1810 through the early 1840s when the beavers played out and silk (rather than beaver pelts) began to adorn men's tophats . The M After the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean (1804-1806), numerous frontiersmen treked to the Rocky Mountains and beyond in search of beaver and adventure. They were known as the Mountain Men. This work chronicles the lives of the more fameous of them: Jedediah Smith, Joseph Walker, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson to name a few. Their sojourn lasted from about 1810 through the early 1840s when the beavers played out and silk (rather than beaver pelts) began to adorn men's tophats . The Mountain Men were followed by the military commanders(such as John C. Freemont) accompanied by topographers who mapped out the western territories of North America. It was an adventurous, thrilling and often brutal existence. Indians were a constant threat. The book concludes with brief discussions of the war against Mexico (involving Texas, New Mexico and California) and of the migration of the Mormons to the Great Basin. This book is a compliment to Irving Stone's "Men to Match My Mountains", although the author Utley disputes some of Stone's conclusions, especially regarding Joseph Walker. An interesting but sometimes tedious read.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    "A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and Paths To The Pacific" by Robert M. Utley. A keeper of a book - i really enjoyed it. What impressed me most was how being a trapper was great for the owner of the company, but financially, physically, mentally, and emotionally a terrible life for the hunter. The hunter would get robbed by natives after spending a year in the wild and lost not just the pellets he trapped, but all his equipment. It was a difficult life. I learned how John Jacob Astor made "A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and Paths To The Pacific" by Robert M. Utley. A keeper of a book - i really enjoyed it. What impressed me most was how being a trapper was great for the owner of the company, but financially, physically, mentally, and emotionally a terrible life for the hunter. The hunter would get robbed by natives after spending a year in the wild and lost not just the pellets he trapped, but all his equipment. It was a difficult life. I learned how John Jacob Astor made his wealth, that is was Canadians mostly who did the trapping in the Western United States, not American immigrants, how the near-extinction of beaver and other animals from the West occurred in large part before 1820 and it was all done by just a hundred people of so, and how the mapping of the West was done largely as a result of the success of trappers. When ever I hear that we need to conserve our resources and then wonder what life we would have if the previous generations had been so thoughtful. It is so incredible to think that beaver were once a ubiquitous species.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Michael Nash

    I like Robert Utley because he elegantly straddles the line between "popular" history and real history, and I find the history of the American West endlessly fascinating. However, this volume seems to fail on both fronts. As a popular history, A Life Wild and Perilous provided too much minutia to be followed easily (a problem exacerbated because I was listening to it in Audio format). That is, while I can remember some of the most major figures (Kit Carson, John Fremont, Joe Walker) and what the I like Robert Utley because he elegantly straddles the line between "popular" history and real history, and I find the history of the American West endlessly fascinating. However, this volume seems to fail on both fronts. As a popular history, A Life Wild and Perilous provided too much minutia to be followed easily (a problem exacerbated because I was listening to it in Audio format). That is, while I can remember some of the most major figures (Kit Carson, John Fremont, Joe Walker) and what they did, I didn't have the names straight for most of the novel and have totally missed the other contributions. As a real history, this book lacks a thesis, or even a coherent thematic structure, which you would expect. He discusses the impact of the mountain men on American expansion (with a bizarrely specific emphasis on the history of cartography) but comes to no obvious conclusions.

  21. 5 out of 5

    JP

    Utley provides a history of the life and times of the men who first explored the American west during the early days of western expansion. Some motivated by the urge of discovery and most by the profitable beaver trade, a hodge-podge of men fought land barriers, natives, and each other as pre-cursors to the military and pioneer settlers. Jedediah Smith constructed the first comprehensive maps and died at a young age of 32, the total number of explorers numbered in the hundreds and their paths cr Utley provides a history of the life and times of the men who first explored the American west during the early days of western expansion. Some motivated by the urge of discovery and most by the profitable beaver trade, a hodge-podge of men fought land barriers, natives, and each other as pre-cursors to the military and pioneer settlers. Jedediah Smith constructed the first comprehensive maps and died at a young age of 32, the total number of explorers numbered in the hundreds and their paths crossed frequently, many of the tales are tall but they all speak of dangerous feats and men toughened by nature and struggle. They didn't emphasize in my midwestern education that by 1776 the California coast was already settled by Catholic Spanish and the Mexican government.

  22. 4 out of 5

    William

    Utley is one of the best currently writing about the American West. He does so in an informative style, which succeeds in avoiding the bias/political correctness and historical revisionism of our time. This book traces the main figures who opened the West after Lewis & Clark. Bridger, Fremont, Smith, Kit Carson, --the Mountain Men of historical lore. It does so, however, in sketchy detail, and while providing nice thumbnail of these giants of history and lore....it never really gets deep enough Utley is one of the best currently writing about the American West. He does so in an informative style, which succeeds in avoiding the bias/political correctness and historical revisionism of our time. This book traces the main figures who opened the West after Lewis & Clark. Bridger, Fremont, Smith, Kit Carson, --the Mountain Men of historical lore. It does so, however, in sketchy detail, and while providing nice thumbnail of these giants of history and lore....it never really gets deep enough to flesh them out. Because this book is at least as much about cartography, and the struggle to map the west, both in detail, as well as to locate and describe passes to California and Oregon for those coming from the East.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kay

    The rugged individuals who headed west after Lewis and Clark's expedition -- Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Jedidiah Smith, John Fremont, and others. After visiting the Museum of Mountain Men out in Wyoming, I wanted to learn more about the role they played in the opening of the West. This book was a good overview of just that, with plenty of adventure and harrowing survival tales to boot.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Blake

    The amazing adventures of the mountain men, during the period when America's West was still wild and European trappers and Native Americans were experiencing their very first encounters with one another. Fascinating. Vividly evokes a by gone time.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Louis Picone

    this books provides a good understanding of the settling of the West after the Lewis & Clark expedition until the California Gold Rush - a good read to prepare for Revenant next week (and it also briefly tells the story of the real life mountain man that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass) this books provides a good understanding of the settling of the West after the Lewis & Clark expedition until the California Gold Rush - a good read to prepare for Revenant next week (and it also briefly tells the story of the real life mountain man that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass)

  26. 4 out of 5

    Aren Lerner

    Gripping! If you ever wonder what people can do . . . anything they set their minds to!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Gail Kirby

    Follow up read to Revenant. Learned about these mountain men and the dangers they faced and their accomplishments. Easy to read and informative

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tom Mackie

    Fascinating stories. The author does a great job of weaving all of the stories together to show how the map of the west came into being.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Ewing

  30. 4 out of 5

    David Cook

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