Robert Morgan tells stories of Lions of the West
“Lions of the West,” by Robert Morgan. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2011. 497 pp. $29.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — Robert Morgan is just the man to tell the story of America’s westward expansion through the lives of such huge historical figures as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston and others.
Morgan humanizes the legends we think we know by going deeper and using his poetic voice in “Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion.”
The book, like his exhaustive biography of Daniel Boone, is overflowing with details — things you probably didn’t learn in school. For one thing, these lions have personalities that go beyond what legend has told us.
While Salisbury lays claim to a young and wild Andrew Jackson, and his exploits in the war of 1812 made him a famous brute, Morgan tells of how tender he was to his family and to children, twice adopting Native American boys, despite the fact he massacred vast numbers of the natives and later arranged for the friendly tribes — the Creeks and the Cherokee — to be moved out of the way of white expansion.
Morgan paints Jefferson, about whom we know a great deal, as a man who liked being a mover and a shaker, who was fiercely patriotic and had a deep-seated love of the land uncommon to a colonist.
And if you think you know who all the important figures are, you may not come up with the name Nicholas Trist, who was a private secretary to Jefferson, Jackson and James Madison.
Morgan writes what seems obvious: “Few Americans have ever heard of Nicholas B. Trist, Born June 2, 1800 in Charlottesville, Virginia, he lived until 1874 and spent the last twenty-five years of his life in obscurity.”
Yet he negotiated the treaty that would bring in almost a third of the land of the contiguous United States.
Historians have called him unusually intelligent, but it seems his downfall lay in his fear of face-to face meetings, his terror of public speaking and in his inability to compromise.
Morgan ties John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, into the story of the West, as well. Chapman traveled from place to place with his apple seedlings, establishing an orchard, moving on.
He seldom slept indoors and was happy to lie on the ground and look up at the stars. That cooking pot for a hat? An exaggeration, just like Daniel Boone’s coonskin cap. But Chapman did carry everything he needed with him.
What you probably didn’t know about is Johnny Appleseed’s devotion to Emanuel Swedenborg and the Church of the New Jerusalem.
Swedenborg was a scientist, theologian and mystic who wrote of different values of belief. Among his beliefs was that “the dead merge into one great soul or human being.” Nature is the physical sign of the spiritual world.
Chapman read all he could about Swedenborg, and had a habit of leaving the books where he stopped, so others could read them until he returned. He was so enthusiastic, he once split a book in three so it could be passed around to more people.
Here, Morgan describes the allure of Johnny Appleseed: “It is a fantasy not just about freedom, but freedom in a special place, the West, where the forests are touching the prairie and the view opens out farther and farther under a soaring, infinite sky. Johnny Appleseed plants Edens, and spreads his Eden, with fruit that is unforbidden, and the land he steps across is the promised land of the true West.”
Those beautiful words really sum up what this book is about — people with dreams who weren’t afraid to push on to make them come true.
Think about it: They had limited knowledge of what was “out there,” and some of what they did know was completely wrong, but they saw the need, for a myriad reasons, to learn, to make the West part of America.
Morgan does not sugar coat the violence that brought the colonists out West, nor does he excuse it. Andrew Jackson, once a friend to Native Americans, turned on those people the instant he realized they were in the way of expansion, that America did not have time for making peace here and there, fighting little wars and understanding which tribes were sympathetic to the British or Spain.
It was an explosive time in our world, and people who seemed larger than life were the ones at the forefront of expansion.
Readers will also get Morgan’s particular insights into David Crockett, another frontier man who was somehow made bigger and smaller by national attention; the flamboyant Sam Houston; master politician James K. Polk, often known as Young Hickory due to Andrew Jackson’s patronage; Winfield Scott, who believed in a professional army; Kit Carson, who forged West on Daniel Boone’s Trace; and John Quincy Adams, who fiercely opposed expansion into the Southwest.
Maybe we like to watch those corny Western movies on Saturday morning television. What we should be doing is learning more about the lives of these simply incredible people who built our Country. Let Morgan take you on his journey.
Signing and reception
Robert Morgan, author of “Lions of the West,” will have a reception and book signing Friday, Oct. 28, 6-8 p.m., at Literary Bookpost, 110 S. Main St., Salisbury. Also available will be Morgan’s new book of poetry, “Terroir.”