Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
The Long Trail: How Cowboys and Longhorns Opened the West. By Gardner Soule. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Map. 341 pages. $10.95.
Reviewed by Charles S. Peterson, Coeditor of The Western Historical Quarterly and member of the board of Editorial Consultants for The Journal of San Diego History.
This book continues McGraw-Hill’s American Trails Series, the volumes of which have appeared over the last fifteen years. Aimed at popular audiences, the American Trail Series has adhered to sound history, and some excellent volumes have been issued including George Stewart, The Califbrnia Trail, David Lavender, Westward Vision (the Oregon Trail), and Wallace Stegner, the Gathering of’ Zion (the Mormon Trail).
The Long Trail follows the effective format and popular tone of earlier numbers in the series. In dealing with the role of cowboys and cattle in the American West, Mr. Soule lays claim to a story that is considerably broader than that of any particular stock trail or for that matter the cumulative body of trails. Not only is his declared intent to trace the development of the cattle industry as an influence in opening the West, but also he seeks to make his account something of a social history. His approach is primarily chronological, tracing the story of cowboys and cattle from its beginning in the rawness of the post-Civil War frontier. Almost annual chapters cover the first decades. Developments after 1885 receive diminishing emphasis until the book closes with a brief and nostalgic bow from recent years. An effort is made throughout to relate developments along the cattle trail to broader national movements, particularly advances in transportation and the technology of animal husbandry and the packing industry. Cowboys, raw and wild, or grown portly and staid, people his account. In their lingo, their practices, and their memories, they give the book an appealing grassroots quality, the impact of which is somewhat marred by the fact that his yarns are only partially disciplined by his story line.
To this reader, Gardner Soule’s Long Trail is something of a disappointment. Not surprisingly it has its beginning in Texas. In a curious way it has its end in Texas as well and is apparently a native born and bred. In part this “Texas quality” may be autobiographical. Old time Texan that he is, Soule, who now resides in New York, appears to have left his heart in Texas and, in his telling, the long trail of the cattle kingdom never really departs. In part the Texas emphasis also grows from the author’s over-dependence on “the most authoritative source of information,” The Trail Drivers of Texas, edited by J. Marvin Hunter (p. vii). Unfortunately, heavy use of these reminiscences not only tends to bring the trail full turn in Texas but lends a yarning and episodic quality that is the book’s dominating feature. It makes for somewhat choppy reading. Worse, it does not allow Mr. Soule’s efforts to integrate his story with broader developments to build to the effective related whole one finds in Lavender’s Westward Vision or Stegner’s Gathering of Zion.
In addition, Soule occasionally struck this reader as being misleading and as raising outdated social attitudes that do little to sharpen appreciation of the past and nothing at all to enhance understanding. This is especially apparent in the early chapters. For example, the events leading to the Battle of San Jacinto seem definitely distorted to this reader. (p. 21). More disturbing were references to Mexicans, Mexican Americans and Indians that reflected outmoded attitudes. References to this kind are both jolting and discouraging at a time when a sensitive merging of the cowboy and cattle trail traditions with new moods is badly needed.
As a final note, mention should be made of the publisher’s failure to follow earlier precedent with a good map in the front pages of the book and supporting maps as they are needed. One small unannounced and generally inadequate map is tucked away in the photograph section. In all, The Long Trail fails to provide the trip through the past one might hope for.