The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1981, Volume 27, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Reclaiming the American West: An Historiography and Guide. By Lawrence B. Lee. Santa Barbara, California: American Bibliographic Center-Clio Press, 1980. Selected Bibliography. Biographical Profiles. Directory of Water Resource Associations and Agencies. Glossary. Index. 131 pages. No price given.

Reviewed by Judith Austin, research historian and archivist at the Idaho State Historical Society and editor of Idaho Yesterdays.

Recent efforts to “return” the ownership of federal lands to the western states, more familiarly known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, and challenges to the 160-acre ownership limit under the Reclamation Act of 1902 have focused the public attention all over the country on issues of reclamation and public-land policy. While there is a great deal of background material available, it has not been very accessible to any but the diligent scholar.

Lawrence Lee’s essay-guide, Reclaiming the American West, is an effort to improve access by identifying the best and most significant studies of reclamation in the West. Materials cited include not only the standard historical monographs and journal articles (most of them dating from what Lee calls the “second era of American reclamation history,” between 1928 and 1978) but also works by professional scientists, engineers, and administrators that may be unintentional history but provide much of the data available from the first half-century of reclamation.

By an accident of timing, Lee’s survey predates both the Sagebrush Rebellion and the acreage-limitation’s most recent discussion. It will nonetheless be useful to those wishing a better background on both controversies. Such usefulness does not mean the book is without flaws.

The greatest problem presented by Reclaiming the American West is whom it is written for. If it were only a bibliography—if all the articles and books and documents cited in the text and the footnotes were simply listed and annotated—it would be a very useful compilation. It still is. But Lee’s historiographic essay is so condensed (and written by someone with so much expertise in the field) that it is likely to be beyond the neophyte student of reclamation in its tracings of concepts, theories, and viewpoints.

In his introduction, Paul Gates urges the reader to read the footnotes because “Lee’s judgments are more freely made there and he cites additional and important studies in them” (p. xix). The assessment is accurate, but the user who tries to cope with an historiographic essay that is not smoothly written while simultaneously skipping to the amplifying footnotes risks double vision, a total loss of the flow of the narrative, and great confusion. The problem is compounded by a lack of good copy editing and proofreading. The unprepared reader will be likely to think that Oscar Winther was a graduate student in 1953, that Frederick Mark wrote an essay (uncited) on Paul Gates, and that there are scholars in the Northwest variously named Calvin B., C.B., and C. Brewster Coulter (all in fact one man—and not all the items by Coulter are cited in the form of name used in them).

Such points may seem picky; but a bibliography and historiography should be dependably accurate and, insofar as there is a narrative, easy to get through. A more substantive question may be raised about a gap in Lee’s sources. There are almost no state publications listed except historical quarterlies (and the only one listed for Idaho is incorrectly described as unpublished). The most detailed study of the impact of reclamation in Idaho, for example, a lengthy work on the Boise Project incorporating several disciplines including history, does not appear; presumably other state departments of water resources or equivalent have done similar studies over the years. These are not always readily accessible bibliographically, but a survey of the relevant departments should have turned up material that could well have been included. State agencies’ views of their work may well be at least as useful as federal agencies’.

A glossary at the end of the book, which attempts to define twenty-two terms ranging from acre-foot through benefit-cost analysis and historiography to the Winters doctrine, is nearly written in jargon. It is preceded by a series of biographical notes on 121 people. Some are significant in the history of reclamation and conservation in the West, e.g. John Wesley Powell and Elwood Mead. Some are scholars who have written significant material on the history of conservation and reclamation, e.g., Paul Gates and Leonard Arrington. Still others, while perfectly competent scholars, are identified here chiefly by their institutional affiliation, professional memberships, and works having no immediate obvious connection to the history of reclamation. It is a list puzzling to expert and newcomer alike.

Reclaiming the American West contains much useful information. But it and its users would have benefited from a sharper focus on its audience or audiences, from a better editing job by ABC-Clio, and from the inclusion of state as well as federal materials in its section on government sources.