Marvels of the New West is not the normal kind of book to be reviewed by the DSHS Heirloom staff. It first appeared as a footnote while doing other research (footnotes can be valuable sources for mining information and so we always scour the footnotes) and so it was put aside for future attention. In many 19th Century books there are references to Donner Summit * and it was thought that might be the case here. After all, isn’t Donner Summit a marvel? Unfortunately there is nothing in Marvels… about Donner Summit.
Typically that would then put the book in a pile of other 19th Century literature. Marvels…, though, is a bit of a trip in a time machine to the 19th Century mind. What were people thinking in the old days? How did they look at what we take for granted today? What was their perspective on things? There was discussion around the Heirloom editorial table and in the end we decided to take on Marvels…. and add it to our collection of reviewed book. Presumably the readers of our Heirloom (or our website if that’s where you’re seeing this) are history buffs and not so wedded to Donner Summit history that they would see Marvels…. as anathema.
In 1888 the West was a mystery to most of the population of the country. The vast majority lived east of the Mississippi. Marvels of the New West was a correction for that and readers were treated to a rendition of wonders. The marvels come with lots of illustrations.
The modern reader of Marvels… sees the West not only through the lens of the 19th Century but through new eyes. The descriptions of nature are just as evocative for us as for the 19th Century reader. For example one 19th Century visitor to the west said, “It is not that everything is so big; that is the character of the whole country, everything in nature being on a much larger scale than we are accustomed to in Europe. But besides the Rocky Mountains and a water fall, - and a big one too, twice as high as Niagara, - there is the grandest old lot of geysers and boiling springs - in the world, … [there are] what they call cañons,… the walls of which are such glowing colors… mammoth hot springs… They appear in terraces, tier upon tier.“ Another visitor said the “novelty and magnificence of the scenes are bewildering.”
Everything was on a magnificent scale in the west so much so that it was unbelievable to the easterner. “Were some well-posted citizen of he New West to present the actual facts about that domain to the inhabitants of the eastern states, a multitude of hearers would denounce him as a liar…” Kansas is ten times the size of Connecticut. Colorado is 100 times the size of Rhode Island. California is three times the size of all of New England. Nothing is done within these “marvelous boundaries” in a small way. “…nothing is too large of difficult… Enterprises are prodigious.” “Human plans are as large as the states.” “Marvels are constantly multiplying.” The New West’s inexhaustible resources, healthier climate, grander scenery and “Irrepressible spirit of enterprise” will attract millions and that population will “determine… the destiny our great Republic.”
That’s just the introduction. Close to concluding the introduction Thayer says, “This book is designed to enlighten those who have never visited the New West…[furnishing] marvels enough… to satisfy the more incredulous…”
Indeed, that’s what Thayer does with evocative 19th Century prose and lots and lots of illustrations. The list of marvels in the west is long. There is nothing in the Alps to compare to the “breadth and grandeur” of the Rockies. About Yellowstone, which had just become a park, an English visitor to the “wonderland” said, “… here I am, rubbing my eyes every day, to be sure that I am not in a dream… You never saw, nor could you ever imagine, such strange sights as greet us here et every turn.” “The marvels of Yosemite stand pre-eminent among the wonders of the west, [the] overpowering sense of the sublime, the awful desolation, the transcending marvelousness and unexpectedness that swept over us, as we reined in our horses sharply out of the green forests, and stood upon the high jutting rock that over looked this rolling, upheaving sea of granite mountains… such tide of feeling, such stoppage of ordinary emotions, comes at rare intervals in any life… All that was mortal shrank back; all that was immortal swept to the front and bent down in awe… Thousands of travellers and tourists make pilgrimage to it each year, and yet no pen, brush, camera, nor tongue has ever nor ever can, describe in all its variety of grandeur and interest, so satisfactorily as it reveals itself to the visitor.”
In a like way Thayer covers the marvels in other western states. Then he goes on to the marvels of Race talking about ancient races of North America, cliff dwellers, cave dwellers, petroglyphs, pottery, pueblos including the oldest house in the United States, a house built in 1540 in Santa Fe.
Marvels of enterprise puts settlement into perspective. At the book’s printing it had only been a few years between “suffering and perils” of early explorers and the “pleasure parties rid[ing] in Pullman cars… and where, within thirty years, …cities,… have risen like magic…” That must have been almost incredible to 19th Century citizens and must have served to galvanize them to greater accomplishments and the feeling that there was nothing that could not be done, that the United States was destined for greatness.
Throughout the text there are lots of little stories. One is John C. Fremont’s letters to his wife from his 1849 expedition. In those the modern reader gets a good idea of what it was like exploring the west before Pullman cars. “Hardships and sufferings almost unparalleled” when the expedition camped at 12,000 feet elevation. Blizzards paralyzed movement. The temperature was 0°. The snow was deep enough to bury animals. “Ten or twelve men variously frozen.” Dead mules were lying about.
There is a story of cannibalism by emigrant brothers and other emigrant travails. There are gold seekers’ stories and the stories of Snowshoe Thompson and the Pony Express..
Unfortunately there is also the story of the treatment of the Native Americans in that a defense of Col. Chivington who orchestrated the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. Thayer defended Chivington and reported the depredations of the Native Americans saying Chivington removed the “cause of their [settlers] chief calamities” – he massacred 750 Indians. “Colonel Chivington stands by Sand Creek and we stand by him, as we think every faithful chronicler of history must do.” This section too gives us insight into the 19th Century mindset although not happy insight.
There is also the unhappy story of the buffalo. Thayer reports one observer seeing 112 carcasses of buffalo in a semi-circle around one man. He had shot all of the buffalo. There’s a downside of “progress” of settling the west. “The buffalo melted away like snow before a summer’s sun… nearly four and a half millions of buffalo killed in a short space of three years.” “Congress talked about interfering, but only talked.” Some things don’t change.
There is one story that portrays the settling of the west vividly. Mrs. August Tabor met and then married her husband. He took her from civilized Maine to Kansas in 1857. They took the train to the end of the line and bought oxen, a wagon, tools, seed, and Mrs. Tabor’s trunks. They headed west. The trip was not pleasant but the destination was worse. It was desolate. The wind never stopped. The cabin was rude, 12x16 feet, and alone on the prairie. There “was not a building , a stone, or a stick in sight.” Their only furniture was a cook stove and a trunk. The bedstead was “an old tick filled with prairie grass.” “I sat down on the trunk and cried.”
Imagine the come down from the hopes of new marriage, new life, and the civilized comforts of Maine. It must have been depressing but those settlers expanded the United State. Mrs. Tabor made the best of it. She papered the inside of the cabin with old New York Tribunes. She’d brought table linen and silverware and began to prepare the first meal.
The Tabors started their pioneer farm but “no rain fell that summer.” There was nothing to gather at harvest time. Mr. Tabor went to Fort Riley to work and Mrs. Tabor was left behind in constant dread of snakes and Indians.
They got a crop the next year but there was no market.
The Tabors moved on to Colorado and that journey must have been tough. Mrs. Tabor said, “What I endured on this journey only the women who crossed the plains in 1859 can realize.” Sometimes they had to search for miles for enough buffalo chips to cook with. Indians continually followed them begging and stealing.” There were more moves and more hardships. Mrs. Tabor took in boarders, did baking, became post mistress, and weighed miner’s gold. Mr. Tabor made a small success mining. With money they made they bought land in Kansas. They also set up a store in Colorado and apparently did well and became wealthy. Mrs. Tabor said a little less courage, fortitude and perseverance was all it would have taken for them to have failed. The story gives pause to think about the people who moved west to settle. They may have given up a lot and suffered even more to survive. Many didn’t.
A large section of the book is devoted to the railroad, “the greatest marvel of our age. It changed the world… From that moment old things began to pass away, and all things began to be new. Progress was wonderful; and now it seeps onward more grandly than ever.” What a change the railroad must have made both for travelers but also for the psyche of the nation. Travel that had taken months in wagons and then weeks by stage, took days. Travel that had been hardship and danger was now in comfort. The nation was brought together. News could travel fast. It must have seemed that time and distance had been conquered. Maybe Americans could do anything.
Thayer talks about the snowsheds a huge snow plow the CPRR had (40,860 tones, 20 feet long, 10 ½ feet wide, 13 ¼ feet high that once was driven at 60 MPH by 10 locomotives into packed snow). There is the largest ferry in the world used for trains where the Carquinez Bridge in the Bay Area is today. The statistics of the ferry’s size would make more sense if we knew more about the size of normal ferries. That brings up one weakness of the book. Thayer likes statistics and gives lots of them to bolster his argument about the West’s size. Those can be skimmed though..
Some of the marvels get a bit tedious. The section on large buildings in the west is one such. That such grand buildings appeared so quickly after settlement is a wonder but the list of buildings in town after town is mind numbing. In San Francisco though it’s interesting to read about the Palace Hotel, the largest in the world. It’s interesting to read about Golden Gate Park and Lick Observatory.
There are also sections on cowboys and stock raising, the Mother Lode, the Gold Rush, the Comstock Lode, mining. And agriculture.
After seven hundred pages of marvels Thayer concludes, The New West is a “veritable wonderland,” “as crowded with opportunities as with marvels.” “It seems as if God had concentrated His wisdom and power upon this part of our country, to make it His crowning work of modern civilization on this Western Continent.” With the settlement of the New West “on this continent was to be built up the largest, riches, most intelligent, and powerful Christian nation on earth. A fearless, self-sacrificing, intelligent, hardy Christian race, disciplined by perils and hardship indescribable, could alone lay the foundations…” “The old nations of the earth,” Thayer said quoting Andrew Carnegie, “ creep on at a snail’s pace; the Republic thunders past with the rush of the express. The United States, in the growth of a single century, has already reached the foremost rank among nations and is destined to out-distance all others… America already leads the civilized world.” “The New West has made this result possible… the New West will decide the destiny of our land.”
*Take a look at the book review section on our website or in the Heirloom indices. Across the Plains, 1850, is an example as is the 1846 What I Saw in California. We’ve use the snowshed pictures in Marvels… in other Heirlooms.
Book Review Bonus:
Thayer’s Donner Party summary.
Aficionados of Donner Summit history no doubt know the story of the Donner Party that left for California in 1846. Half the party got stuck at Donner Lake and the other half, including the Donners, were at Alder Creek seven miles away.
Stories like that are sensational today and they were in the 19th Century. The story of the Donner Party was reported across the nation in newspapers and those reports did not strictly adhere to the actual events. It was not until C.F. McGlashan wrote his History of the Donner Party that a true version of the events. McGlashan wrote his book in 1879, nine years before Thayer published Marvels. Thayer’s Marvels shows a lot of research given the illustrations he found or commissioned, the numerous quotes and stories, the information, and given the many many statistics. So it’s surprising that he got the Donner Party story so wrong.
In Thayer’s version the Donners got snowed in at Donner Lake and Mr. Donner was sick. The children, “under the guide and protection of the brave servants, succeeded in crossing the mountains after hardships and much suffering, and reached comfortable quarters.” Mr. Donner, his wife, and a German had remained at the lake. When a search party dared to “penetrate to the lake…. [and] they reached the rudely constructed cabin, a terrible sight met them. Mr. Donner and his wife were dead, and the German, now a raving maniac, sat before the fire devouring a wasted human arm. He was seized, and, after a fearful struggle, was secured; and he finally recovered to tell the story of that winter’s suffering, almost without parallel in history.” The next sentence goes off to the Multnomah Falls in Oregon so we are left with an incomplete and false story.
Mr. Thayer can be somewhat excused since the rendition above is quite like other Donner stories that appeared in newspapers after the event.