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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Year of Decision

Bernard DeVoto

published by Little, Brown and Company,
Boston, 1943

The text is in the public domain.

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 p. xi  Preface

The purpose of this book as stated in the opening pages is a literary purpose: to realize the pre‑Civil War, Far Western frontier as personal experience. It is, however, considerably longer than it would have been if fulfilling that purpose had not proved to involve a second job. I found that my friends and betters, the professional historians, had let me down. One who wanted to study the Far West at the moment when it became nationally important and to study it in its matrix could turn to no book that would help him very much. His only recourse was Paxson's encyclopedic treatment of the whole frontier from 1763 to 1893. Since Turner's great beginning the frontier has been a favorite subject of the profession and yet there is no unified study of the area in which this book is set in relation to its era. There are a great many specialized studies and a vast accumulation of monograph material — both of which, however, have left wholly untouched a number of matters treated herein which I have had to settle for myself. But there is no synthesis of them. The profession, in short, has broken up this phase of our history into parts; it has carefully studied most but by no means all of the parts; it has not tried to fit the parts together. And the stories I wanted to tell could not be told intelligently unless their national orientation was made clear. So perforce I have had to add to my primary job another job which it was reasonable to expect the historians would have done for me.

My hope is that, in combining the two jobs, I have not bungled both. I write for the nonexistent person called the general reader. He is here promised that, once it gets under way, my text does not long depart from actual events in the lives of actual men and women. In getting it under way I have chosen the stern but kinder way of throwing at him a first chapter of grievous weight. If he survives that, he will find things happening from then on.

By the end of the first chapter, also, the method of the book will be clear. The actual narrative is always rigorously chronological, and the parts of the book are kept as close to a chronological order as the multiplicity of stories will permit. In passages designed  p. xii to illustrate or interpret the narrative, however, I range forward and backward in time as far as the end in view requires. Thus the narrative of my first chapter covers the month of January, 1846, but some of the quotations from Walt Whitman belong to 1847 and some of those from Thoreau date back to 1843 and forward to 1849. Similarly, I not only allude to the Presidential campaign of 1844 but follow some of its issues back to LaSalle and on to 1942. Usually such departures from chronology are immediately self-apparent; where they are not, I have called attention to them.

Acknowledgments and a statement about bibliography are made separately.

Bernard DeVoto

Cambridge, Massachusetts
February 12, 1942

 p. ix  Acknowledgments

The writing of history is a co‑operative enterprise. Many people have helped me write this book by providing information, by directing me to the sources of information, by answering my questions, by discussing matters with me, by clearing up ambiguities, by finding ways through difficulties that had delayed me. It is impossible for me to thank them individually or even to make a full list of them. I want, however, to express my obligation to a number of them whose help has gone beyond the ordinary courtesy of the republic of letters.

Five people in particular have given me extraordinary aid. Therefore, first of all, my thanks to: —

Charles L. Camp and Dale L. Morgan, specialists, who have patiently answered innumerable questions, put their knowledge at my disposal, empowered me to publish results of their work, and made special searches for me that encroached upon their leisure time and proper interests.

Madeline Reeder, who found a way for me through a barrier that had stopped me cold and read my manuscript with critical attention to detail.

Rosamond Chapman, who began working with me on the material of this book in 1935, and has ever since been the custodian of my accuracies and my handy guide to research in the West.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who toured the West with me in the summer of 1940 and argued out most of the book with me before it was written, who has put his own researches at my disposal, has shaped or modified many of my ideas, has critically read my manuscript, and has saved me from making a good many errors I should certainly have made except for him.

If a number of my friends who are professional historians read the book I have so insistently talked over with them, they will probably experience something halfway between shock and horror. I formally absolve them from all responsibility from anything printed in it but must insist that, by boring them for many years with talk about the West, I have formed my own ideas through friction with  p. x theirs. To Paul Buck, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., Frederick Merk, Perry Miller, and Kenneth Murdock: thanks, this is in part your book, and you will see in it a part I was to build of a structure we planned together as a common job, a long time ago when I was a colleague of yours.

My thanks for help freely given to: Garrett Mattingly, Donald Born, Samuel E. Morison, Randolph G. Adams, Lewis Gannett, Franklin J. Meine, Mary Brazier, Wallace Stegner, Eleanor Chilton, Elaine Breed, Henry Canby, Edward Eberstadt, Charles P. Everitt, Mason Wade, George Stewart, Elmer Davis, Dr. Henry R. Viets, Dr. George R. Minot, Dr. William G. Barrett, Dr. Lawrence S. Kubie, Dr. Robert S. Schwab, George Stout; to the officers and employes of the Harvard College Library, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Missouri Historical Society, the Bancroft Library, and the State Library of Illinois; also to many local librarians in the West and to many Westerners whose names I do not even know, who made a summer tour fruitful in the study of history.

Quotations from James Clyman: American Frontiersman are by permission of Charles L. Camp and the California Historical Society.

Quotations from the unpublished notebooks of Francis Parkman are by the courtesy of Mason Wade and the permission of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Finally, I acknowledge that I could not possibly have written the book if I had not periodic assistance from Mr. John August.

B. DV.

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