The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1991, Volume 37, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography.
By Dan L. Thrapp. 3 vols. Glendale, CA.: Arthur H. Clark, 1988. Index. 1,698 pages. $175.00.

Reviewed by Thomas G. Alexander, Professor of History and Director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University; author of The Rise of Multiple Use Management in the Intermountain West: A History of Region 4 of the Forest Service (1987).

In reviewing a work of this sort, the reviewer seems bound to accept the criteria established by the author and to judge a book by how well he or she achieves that objective. Dan Thrapp defined the term “frontier” in a number of senses. First, it “is taken to mean that region or point in time where individuals of European, or African, or Asian origin explored what seemed a freshly created land, and often came into contact with aboriginal inhabitants.” Second, by extension, it includes the development of that region by those who came to exploit its resources. Third, it includes those who attempted to establish order in the area. Fourth, it included those “who … attempted to re-live or re-enact the lives of the frontiersmen, or write about them and what they did.” The author, however, considered the mining frontier too large and chose to exclude most of those engaged in exploitation of minerals. Finally, he excluded all living persons.

The fourth category needs some explanation. By adding that category, Thrapp justified including biographical sketches of historians, literati, and painters ranging from Francis Parkman to Robert Athearn, from Samuel L. Clemens to Marie Sandoz, and from George Catlin to Charles M. Russell. Strangely, writers like Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Willa Cather, and Ole Edvart Rolvagg, and sculptors like Gutzon Borglum and Mahonri Young are not included. In addition, the criteria justified the inclusion of television and motion picture actors such as Bronco Billy Anderson, John Wayne, Milburn Stone, and Slim Pickens. In spite of his performance in Shane, Alan Ladd is not included.

The use of any such reference work is ordinarily idiosyncratic. Since any encyclopedia user recognizes that it is impossible to include all possible entries, they will want to know whether the encyclopedia would likely help them with their research. Thus, as I went through the various entries, I asked myself, how much would such a work have helped me in my research over the past twenty-five years?

The results are mixed. Since I have worked on John Wesley Powell, and particularly on his Irrigation Survey in the West, I wondered to what degree it would help on that. There is an entry on Powell and on other geological explorers like F. V. Hayden and Clarence King, but no entries on Powell’s associates like Clarence Dutton or Frederick Haynes Newell or his nemesis Nevada Senator William M. Stewart.

I have conducted other research on the history of mountain western states. Here too the results are mixed. I found entries on Brigham Young, Patrick E. Connor, Chiefs Joseph and Lawyer, George Crook, James H. Simpson, Charles D. Poston, and John P. Clum, but no entries on Arizona Governor Anson P. K. Safford, Arizona Secretary and Delegate Richard C. McCormick, or Idaho Governor Mason Brayman. In addition, although Idaho Governor and Senator George Shoup is included, the author emphasized his role in the Chivington Massacre and made only passing mention of his more important place in Idaho history. William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan are listed, but John A. McClernand, a Civil War General and member of the Utah Commission is not, although his less well known son Edward John is.

As I went through the entries, I stumbled first over the name of Ira Allen, and then Benjamin Abel Arthur, both related to Utah but neither of whom I had ever heard of. Perhaps I had been discussing the wrong people in my class on Utah History! Then I looked for listings on Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor, Heber C. Kimball, and George Q. Cannon, four of the most important nineteenth century Utah pioneers and community leaders. None was included.

As I continued through the encyclopedia, the reason for the inclusion of obscure people and the exclusion of leaders became clear. The author had gone to great pains to locate every individual, obscure or not, who had in any way been mentioned–whether involved or not–in connection with the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He carried this to the extent of listing last names of otherwise unidentifiable people. This same emphasis on the violent and atavistic probably accounts for the emphasis in George Shoup’s entry and the exclusion of important explorers like Dutton and political leaders like Stewart.

The results of a search of listings for women in mixed. Sharlot M. Hall of Arizona is included, but Utah women leaders such as Emmeline B. Wells or Eliza R. Snow and Wyoming suffragist Mrs. William H. Bright were excluded. Although Narcissa Whitman is included, Eliza Spalding is not. Montana suffragists Mary Long Anderson,, Maria Dean, and Jeanette Rankin are also excluded.

Perhaps the strangest entries consisted of the inclusion of several bucking horses and mules. These range from Old Goose, an army mule, to Steamboat, a bucking horse. How these fall under the author’s criteria is uncertain.

As I finished reading this encyclopedia, I concluded that for researchers who are basically interested in the sensational, the violent, the unusual, or western movies, this encyclopedia would be quite helpful. For those conducting research in political history, the history of community development, or woman’s history, the reader would most likely find only marginal help here, since a number of individuals of the first rank are missing.