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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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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p509  Statement on Bibliography

A list of the books, monographs, periodicals, and manuscripts used or consulted in the preparation of this book would run to several thousand items and would be useless alike to the critic and to the student. Adequate bibliographies for most of the subjects treated here either exist already or can easily be assembled by any student. In view of these facts, I have chosen not to print a bibliography but to make a statement describing my use of sources and accounting to the reader for my principal debts to secondary authorities.

The purpose of the book is twice stated in my text.a I have investigated the subjects it deals with so far as I thought necessary in order to fulfil that purpose. As the book leaves my hands, I am aware of no errors in it. Since I am acquainted with the usual fruits of industry, however, I am assured that there are many small errors of statement and interpretation, perhaps a great many. I have this to say of them: they do not issue from a failure to consult the material a mastery of which would have prevented error.

My preference is for the eyewitness, for an intelligent eyewitness if he can be found but for any kind of eyewitness if intelligent ones are lacking. When eyewitnesses cannot be found, and in order to supplement them when they can be, I like the accounts of experts contemporary with the events, official reports, and the accounts of contemporary newspapers. All the principal stories of my text and all the principal discussions and analyses are based on eyewitness accounts or accounts by intelligent contemporaries who set out to learn the facts. They are buttressed by government reports, by contemporary newspapers, and by a considerable miscellany of other contemporary material. I have submitted them to the criticism of all relevant works by modern historians. When my account differs from the accounts made by such historians, the difference is deliberate and for cause. And there are a good many places where no qualified modern historian has treated the material which I use.

In short, where facts are important, I have got them at the sources, and where judgment is called for I have tried to give my judgment authority by adequate research. In the use of unimportant facts, however, and in certain other passages where judgment is not called for, I frequently rely on secondary authority. Thus in, for instance, the history of California  p510 before my period, it would have been a waste of time to qualify myself in the sources. Everything I say about it (except in relation to the fur trade) rests on authority. Likewise, there are portions of the diplomatic and political background which I have explored no farther than modern histories, though I have gone to the sources for everything that bears directly on my purpose. Finally, in purely connective passages, I have used my own research or the treatments of secondary authorities as best suited my convenience.

Students who are acquainted with the field will find that some of my dates differ from those given by standard authorities. Well, one object of my book was to suggest, so far as possible, the simultaneity of various actions in it. I therefore prepared a careful, extremely detailed itinerary and time schedule of every journey described in the book. I then found that I had a master timetable of the West in 1846, and that its cross references allowed me to check dates and provided information or clues to information which allowed me to correct some of them. Mr. Mason Wade's discovery of Francis Parkman's notebooks, which he generously put at my disposal, was particularly helpful. All the dates which I use in connection with Parkman come from the notebooks.

So much in general. Several specific statements must be made.

Any agreement in judgment between what I say herein and what Justin Smith says in The War with Mexicob either means a judgment too well supported for anyone to doubt or else is coincidental. The research behind Professor Smith's book is certainly one of the most exhaustive ever made by an American historian, and if it came to an issue of fact I should perforce have to disregard my own findings and accept his. But it is frequently — very frequently — altogether impossible to understand how Smith's conclusions could exist in the presence of facts which he himself presents. If there is a more consistently wrongheaded book in our history, or one which so freely cites facts in support of judgments which these facts controvert, I have not encountered it. Since the Mexican War was a master condition of my book, I consequently had to make an independent study of its politics, diplomacy, campaigns, and personalities. Frequently a few sentences about Taylor, Scott, Marcy, Trist, secondary commanders, miscellaneous figures, or leading events issue from a prolonged study of official reports, newspaper correspondence, journals, memoirs, and biographies which there is no occasion to mention in the text. Nevertheless, I rely on Smith in passages where unimportant facts could not be verified elsewhere without disproportionate labor. I gladly acknowledge that I lean heavily on Major Charles Winslow Elliott's Winfield Scott.

 p511  My portrait of Frémont rests on a laborious analysis of what he said, did, and wrote; on many eyewitness accounts; on many letters, journals, and memoirs; on the testimony, much of it sworn testimony, of those who were associated with him; and on later accounts by people who were qualified by position or intelligence to write factually. But also I have had at hand such treatments as those by Royce, Bancroft, Goodwin, Sabin, and Nevins, and I have not scrupled to let them decide matters which were unimportant to my purpose and had not come within the scope of my own inquiry.

This brings up the histories of Hubert Howe Bancroft. While actually writing this book I have referred to California and Oregon innumerable times, to Utah occasionally, to others infrequently. I cannot imagine anyone's writing about the history of the West without constantly referring to Bancroft. His prejudices are open, well known, and easily adjustable. A generation ago it was easy for historians to reject much of what he wrote; in the light of all the research since done, it is not so easy now. I have frequently departed from his reading of facts and a sizable number of the facts I use were not known to him, but I have found that you had better not decide that Bancroft was wrong until you have rigorously tested what you think you know. Throughout my treatment of California, the translation of Spanish texts is from Bancroft.

Of the private journals which are the principal source for my account of the Doniphan expedition, a number have been published by Ralph P. Bieber in the Southwest Historical Series. I am under a heavy debt to Mr. Bieber's annotation of them, of Cooke, and of Garrard.

James Clyman's journals, letters, and verses are published in Charles I. Camp's James Clyman: American Frontiersman, and Susan Magoffin's journal in Stella Drumm's Down the Santa Fe Trail. Both books are splendidly edited and both are prime sources. I owe more to James Clyman than to any other single work. No more careful work has ever been done in Western history; Camp's editing does almost as much as Clyman's text to make it one of the half-dozen classics in the field. My great debt to Mr. Camp is acknowledged elsewhere.

I owe much to George R. Stewart's Ordeal by Hunger. In order to fit the story of the Donner party into the story of the emigration as a whole, I have had to use most of Stewart's sources independently, and my narrative is usually synthesized from Thornton, McGlashan, and Eliza Houghton, and supplemented by contemporary newspaper stories and by the journals of other emigrants of '46 or '47. But anyone who writes about the Donners today necessarily owes much to Stewart and necessarily uses him  p512 repeatedly. I adopt all his dates west of Fort Bridger and all but one of his spellings; I rely on him for the identification of geography from Donner Lake on to Sutter's; and I depart only once from his statement of routes. In several places I follow Charles Kelly's excellent Salt Desert Trails.

There are practically no trustworthy authorities about the Mormons.​* My text rests on only one Mormon historian, Brigham H. Roberts, rests on him only when he quotes from official documents not open to me, and never, I believe, rests on any Gentile historian. Everything I say about the Mormons and the Mormon Battalion derives from the sources, and in the interpretation of Mormon experience derives from Mormon sources exclusively. What I say in judgment derives from an exhaustive study of the entire field. The journal of Henry Standage is published in Golder's March of the Mormon Battalion, and Charles Kelly has published Journals of John D. Lee. The journals of John W. Hess, Robert S. Bliss, Henry W. Bigler, and Nathaniel V. Jones have been published in the Utah Historical Quarterly. Most of the other journals quoted in my text were typed and deposited in various places, in Utah, at the Library of Congress, and in New York, by the Historical Records Survey. Material in my text from a good many other journals and autobiographies not directly quoted is also usually from the Historical Records Survey. Various other journals, quoted and not quoted, were put at my disposal by their owners.

In the emigration, I have tried to submit the individual experience to interpretation by means of the typical experience. My stories are of 1846 but the supporting material is from the entire history of emigration to the West before the railroads.

Though the actions of this book occurred nearly a century ago, some of them are still in dispute. To students who know the details of those controversies, I may say that sometimes, in the absence of evidence absolutely conclusive, I have chosen, after due consideration of all relevant material, to adopt, so far as possible, the account of the man who seemed to me the most intelligent man on the spot. Three such men are conspicuous: Jessy Quinn Thornton, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ethan Allen Hitchcock, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Philip St. George Cooke. I believe that I have not followed any of them where there is good evidence against them. On the other hand, it would take exceedingly good and plenti­ful evidence to impugn their testimony.

The Author's Note:

* I should like to exempt from this statement, formally and even vigorously, Dale I. Morgan and Nels Anderson. Their published work, however, has not yet covered very much of the material I deal with.

Thayer's Notes:

a p. xi, p4.

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b Online: Vol. I • Vol. II.

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