Soldier in the West: Letters of Theodore Talbot During His Services In California, Mexico, and Oregon, 1845-53. Edited by Robert V. Hine and Savoie Lottinville. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Map. 210 pages. $7.95.
Reviewed by Gene M. Brack, Associate Professor of History, New Mexico State University. Dr. Brack’s research and writing has focused on the Mexican War, with contributions such as “Mexican Opinion, American Racism, and the War of 1846,” The Western Historical Quarterly, April, 1970.
Theodore Talbot was a minor participant in major events. The son of Senator Isham Talbot of Kentucky, Theodore was born in 1825 to a family of wealth and prominence. The urbane, finicky and somewhat sickly young man obtained, through family connections, an appointment to accompany John Carles on that explorer’s second expedition to Oregon and northern California in 1843. The adventure having had a salutary effect on Talbot’s precarious health, he eagerly joined Fremont’s third expedition in 1845, and was thus involved in the Bear Flag Revolt and the outbreak of the Mexican War. When Fremont’s scientific expedition was recommissioned as a fighting unit, Talbot became a sergeant major and, in 1847, lieutenant adjutant. It was while commanding a small force at Santa Barbara that Talbot experienced the only combat of his career, leading his men in a harrowing escape from a much larger enemy force. Posted to Vera Cruz during the concluding phase of the Mexican War, Talbot subsequently was stationed in Oregon, sailing there by way of Cape Horn and Hawaii. Talbot was promoted to major shortly before dying from tuberculosis in 1862. Only the letters written during his western experiences are included in this collection.
Robert V. Hine and Savoie Lottinville have done an excellent piece of editorial work on this, the sixty-first volume in Oklahoma University’s AMERICAN EXPLORATION AND TRAVEL SERIES. In their general introduction and in briefer introductions to each of the five chapters the editors place Talbot’s letters in context, and further enhance the value of the work by providing explanatory footnotes and identifying all persons mentioned in the letters.
The editors do not attempt to inflate Talbot’s importance, writing in their introduction that had “Talbot not written his long letters … he would, like most men, have remained unknown to history. His short life affected his times very little, if at all; but his times affected him dramatically.” Butand this the editors do not concedeTalbot was neither curious nor perceptive in his observations of men and events. Though he apparently admired Fremont, these letters do not say why, for the personal characteristics of his associates did not arouse Talbot’s epistolary attention. Of Kit Carson and other notables we learn nothing except that Talbot for a time shared the trail or the camp with them. Because the letters are all addressed to either Talbot’s mother or sister, it might be assumed that Talbot confined himself largely to the banal and mundane because, as a creature of the nineteenth century, he believed more elevated matters to be beyond female comprehension. But here is Talbot writing his sister from Oregon in 1848: An acquaintance had criticized Talbot’s disinterest in politics.
He thought that I might consider it politic to have no politics but did not believe it possible that I should not have some decided bias of opinion at my mature age. Such however in truth is the melancholy fact. Speaking patriotically, I do not know whether the one or the other of the great parties would be most likely to benefit the nation if their measures were fully carried. It has always resolved itself in my mind into a simple case of the “In’s” and the “Out’s.” Are you a politician? If you are come to my rescue. Say shall I be Whig or democrat. (173).
Strange, coming from the son of a political family. And Talbot, from the evidence of these letters, gave only slightly more thought to the events he witnessed than to his political beliefs. Thus, while his letters provide us with the only substantial source of information concerning the early months of Fremont’s 1845 California expedition, we really learn almost nothing of importance, because Talbot seemed to have scant insight into the significance of the great events in which he participated.