05 October 2012

Imprint Friday: Empires, Nations, and Families by Anne F. Hyde

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Ecco books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

Most of us in the United States know the major players in the settling of the American West. And, in fact, I featured Robert Morgan's Lions of the West (Algonquin) here last year, which is a wonderfully written book about the famous politicians, explorers, and frontiersmen who were influential in bringing the western territories under the fold of the federal government.

What Anne E. Hyde has done in Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860 is to give voice to the people we don't often see in history books or in sweeping accounts of the so-called taming of the West.

Here, first, is the publisher's summary:
To most people living in the West, the Louisiana Purchase made little difference: the United States was just another imperial overlord to be assessed and manipulated. This was not, as Empires, Nations, and Families makes clear, virgin wilderness discovered by virtuous Anglo entrepreneurs. Rather, the United States was a newcomer in a place already complicated by vying empires. This book documents the broad family associations that crossed national and ethnic lines and that, along with the river systems of the trans-Mississippi West, formed the basis for a global trade in furs that had operated for hundreds of years before the land became part of the United States.

Empires, Nations, and Families shows how the world of river and maritime trade effectively shifted political power away from military and diplomatic circles into the hands of local people. Tracing family stories from the Canadian North to the Spanish and Mexican borderlands and from the Pacific Coast to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, Anne F. Hyde's narrative moves from the earliest years of the Indian trade to the Mexican War and the gold rush era. Her work reveals how, in the 1850s, immigrants to these newest regions of the United States violently wrested control from Native and other powers, and how conquest and competing demands for land and resources brought about a volatile frontier culture--not at all the peace and prosperity that the new power had promised.
As Anne Hyde says in her introduction, her history centers on the story of the intertangled families whose personal and business relationships spanned a territory that eastern politicians considered to be empty wilderness inhabited by a few savages. Empires, Nations, and Families is not primarily a history of clashing cultures, man against the wilderness, or manifest destiny. Instead, Hyde uses a macro lens, focusing on the details to reveal the bigger picture.

Relying on as many firsthand accounts as possible (family papers, business records, personal journals and letters, and government archives), Hyde remembers not just the famous men but the women and children, the trappers and hunters, the Native Americans, and the missionaries who were living and thriving in the West long before the call of gold and the Homestead Act encouraged the pioneer movement. Although the book is impeccably researched, her writing style is accessible and decidedly non-academic, making it easy for readers to become drawn in to the family sagas.

The handful of families that star in  Empires, Nations, and Families were influential in the fur trade, which was the first major industry of the trans-Mississippi territory. Through their histories, Hyde tackles a variety of topics. One of the most interesting is the notion of family. She explores the meaning of marriage, the role of women, and nature of childhood on the frontier, which were in stark contrast to the norms of the civilized East. For example, many white men had multiple domestic arrangements. Having children with Native American women solidified their ties with those communities, ensuring access to trapping lands and increasing their economic reach. Their white wives likely knew of these other relationships, but the smart ones also understood how important those blood connections were for their husbands' success.

Hyde's discussion turns to many other issues, including the development of towns as the cross-roads of commerce and the intermingling of different cultures. She also spends several chapters capturing the perspective of several groups of Native American peoples. In the last section of Empires, Nations, and Families,Hyde shows how war, gold fever, and the lust for land broke the bonds that held the these families and cultures together. Particularly sad is how the new arrivals so thoroughly shunned people of mixed races.

As I mentioned, Hyde writes in an easy-to-access style, and in fact, when the action picks up, you may on occasion forget you're reading nonfiction. Illustrated with photographs, maps, and family trees, Empires, Nations, and Families give us a personal, individual look at the Old West in the decades before it became utterly American.

To learn more about Anne F. Hyde, read a short interview she did with CBS News and Paul Harvey's tribute to the author at Religion in American History. Photo credit: The map of the American West (1795) is by Aaron Arrowsmith and is in the public domain; note the emptiness of the western territory.

Beth Fish Reads is proud to showcase Ecco books as a featured imprint on this blog. For more information about Ecco, please read the introductory note from Vice President / Associate Publisher Rachel Bressler, posted here on July 15, 2011. Find your next great read by clicking on Ecco in the scroll-down topics/labels list in my sidebar and by visiting Ecco books on Facebook and following them on Twitter.

Empires, Nations, and Families at Powell's
Empires, Nations, and Families at Book Depository
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Published by HarperCollins / Ecco, October 2, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780061994982

8 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks 10/5/12, 6:49 AM  

This sounds good. I was just reading an article yesterday that was pointing out how little those who rant about the tradition of family actually know about it!

ShaReKay 10/5/12, 6:56 AM  

Ooohhh, this sounds right up my alley! I added it to my TBR list. Great review!

bermudaonion 10/5/12, 8:58 AM  

This is exactly the kind of book my dad loved.

Meg @ write meg! 10/5/12, 10:06 AM  

How interesting! I'm getting more and more into non-fiction now, and I could see myself adding this to the ol' wishlist.

Barbara 10/5/12, 10:44 AM  

Wonderful! Antebellum America was my special interest in college and remains so today. Your comments about Hyde's writing style remind me of Barbara Tuchman, one of my all-time favorite writers. I will be sure to read this book.

Daryl 10/5/12, 11:04 AM  

this is will make a good gift for a friend who only reads non fiction .. thanks!

Cass 10/5/12, 9:39 PM  

I'm a huge American history nerd, but Westward expansion has always bored me. I think that the different spin/viewpoint in this book might help me connect with the time better. I'll have to check it out soon.

Jenners 10/6/12, 1:20 PM  

Sounds like history that even I could get into.

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