The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Spring 1984, Volume 30, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor
Raymond Starr, Book Reviews Editor
Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker. By Bil Gilbert. New York: Atheneum, 1983. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Maps. 339 pages. $17.95.
Reviewed by John E. Sunder, Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin and author of several books on the Fur Trade.
Large, handsome Joseph Walker, a Scotch-Irishman of Appalachian pioneer stock, “wanted. . . to be a free-lance explorer” and realized that ambition before he died an elderly celebrity in California in 1876. Journalist Bil Gilbert tells us, rightly so, that Joe had “a remarkable knack for catching the mainstream westering current.” Walker participated vigorously in western life between 1820 and the late sixties when he retired to his ranch. During those five decades he trapped with the Mountain Men for awhile, assisted Bonneville and Fremont, traded in horses intermittently, prospected in the southwestern mineral fields, and explored much of the Great Basin. Following his first trip to California in 1833 when he and his companions discovered Walker Pass in the Sierras and became the first white men to see Yosemite Valley, he outlined much of the California Trail and guided wagon parties along it.
To his contemporaries Walker was “an example of what a Frontier Hero could and should be.” Joe was a reserved, stable, self-confident, apolitical man who led others easily, tried to understand Indians, and told no tall stories about himself. According to Gilbert, who admires Walker and seems to identify with him, Joe was almost “too durable, too successful and generally too good to be true.”
Gilbert’s biography of Joe Walker is researched thoroughly-much of that work was done by the author’s wife-and is written colorfully and effectively. Gilbert avoids stereotyping Indians and successfully separates myth from reality in Walker’s life. The book deserves a more accurate subtitle, however, one better reflecting the content because it covers not only Walker’s “Life” but also his Time. Occasionally Gilbert oversimplifies history, as in his explanation of Manifest Destiny; exaggerates historical roles, such as that of the frontier Scotch-Irish; and is swept away by easy historical generalization. He holds strong views of Fremont, Jed Smith, Kit Carson and Washington Irving, views that may irritate some readers. Historians will find his footnotes structured rather peculiarly and may dislike the imagined conversations woven into his narrative. There are also factual errors: Gilbert wipes out Custer and his command in the wrong territory and overstates the amount of gunplay in Dodge City. In addition, the maps are rather crude, although the dustcover is an attractive reproduction of Alfred Jacob Miller’s painting of Walker and his Indian wife.
Yet, putting aside criticism, Westering Man is a robust biography many will enjoy reading.