Presidents and a photographer who shaped the west

REVIEW: Ridge Writers on Books


If you cherish a romantic view of “the West,” two new books will help focus that perception.

In “Presidents Who Shaped the American West” (B&W photos, indexed, 280 pages, University of Oklahoma Press, paperback, 2018, $24.95), Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain consider 10 presidents who had a clear impact on how and what our West came to be. Placing each president in biographical and historical context, the authors chronicle the decisions, for better or worse, that impacted shifting boundaries, migration, resources, environment and political issues.

They trace the expansion of “the West” first consisting of Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, and then growing to include California and even Alaska and Hawaii, as the West went from zero electoral votes in 1800 to 222 in 2016.

They discuss key leaps forward such as the Louisiana Purchase and the beginning of the Native American reservation system under Jefferson; development of the transcontinental rail and its implications for the Civil War under Lincoln; Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation, applying the idea of scientific management to national forests; and President Eisenhower’s vision for a cross-country network of superhighways. They conclude with more recent presidents through Obama, who drew on the Antiquities Act of 1906 to set aside protected land.

This impressive account covers not only the presidents themselves but also game-changing figures in their administrations such as Nicholas Trist who negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War and gave the U.S. approximately 55 percent of Mexico’s territory. When Trist returned to Washington, President Polk fired him for insubordination and refused to pay his back wages.

Concurrent with many of these years, a man with a camera made his own contributions to molding our view of the West. “Carleton Watkins: Making the West American” (Tyler Green, B&W sepia-toned photos, indexed, 574 pages, University of California Press, hardcover, 2018, $34.95) shows that, among other accomplishments, Watkins’ pictures of Yosemite motivated Congress to pass legislation, later signed by President Lincoln, to create Yosemite National Park.

In telling the Watkins story, Green leaves little doubt that an artist can have a lasting effect on conservation, industry and politics.

Both books inform an exciting understanding of the romantic West as well as the real one that play a powerful role in the world today.

This monthly column is written by members of Ridge Writers, the East Sierra Branch of the California Writers Club. Meetings are held the first Thursday evening of each month at Ridgecrest Presbyterian Church, and free programs are offered throughout the year.

Ridge Writers’ book “Planet Mojave: Visions From a World Apart” is available at the Historic USO Building, Jawbone Canyon and Red Rock Books.

Story First Published: 2019-01-18