Joe Walker, the Myth of the American West and Its Modern Consequences

Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker
Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker

Last week I finished reading an engaging historical work titled Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker by Bil Gilbert.

I came to know of this book during my adventures in genealogy, which I undertook in October whilst resting in Alabama after returning from my year in China.  In the course of my research I found the location of my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s land, in modern-day Zack, Virginia.  Archibald Rhea was my first paternal ancestor to come to America, and his story is wound up with that of all the original Scotch-Irish migrants to America.  He came over in the late 1720s, settled first in Pennsylvania (around what I believe is now Norristown or Eagleville) and eventually went south and west through the Appalachian Valley to settle that land.  He was a founding trustee of New Providence Presbyterian Church in Raphine, only a few miles from the site of his home.  His family had to flee the area, along with most of its residents, after the threat from Native Americans intensified during the French and Indian War in 1755.

I learned all of this while also preparing to move up to my current residence in Washington, DC.  It so happened that I would be traveling, in reverse, the path my paternal ancestors took from that first foothold down into what is now Etowah County, Alabama.  After seeing the site of my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s land and grave in what is now Happy Valley, TN, I continued up the Great Valley alone and drove near the site of his father’s land in Wythe County, VA.  The next day I came to Zack, where the only thing I knew for identification was the bit about founding the church and that the “Kennedy-McCray” mill is on the site of what was once Archibald’s land.  I happened to meet a man named McCray there, who said he currently owns the land, and he talked to me for a while about the history of the area and I told him what I knew from my research.  He told me that the creek on which my ancestor’s land stood is called Walker’s Creek, named after the first white man to settle this far west in the Colonies, John Walker.  His reconstructed cabin was just a couple of miles down the stream.

John’s grandson Joseph Walker was an even more ambitious mountain man, being the first to lead a white party of significant size to California over the Sierra Nevada.  Joe is the subject of the book that Mr. McCray strongly recommended to me, Westering Man.  Mr. McCray mentioned that the book’s early pages delved into the social and economic reasons for the Scotch-Irish migration to Appalachia, before focusing on the Walker family.

Two things struck me about this book before I was halfway through reading it: Joseph Walker and his family were at once superlative characters, and yet exemplary of the white pioneers who made the white American journey west the singular cultural remembrance in American society.  That story – “How the West was ‘Won’” – is very different than the one I was told in school.

Gilbert leaves no stone unturned in his literary quest to animate this amazing man.  He masterfully segues each paragraph into the next, and progressively fleshes out the details in a highly informative and fascinating way. I stole any five-minute interval I could to read this amazing work, which combines the history of the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia, the economic and social realities of life on the “old frontier” before the American Revolutionary War, and the circumstances of an extraordinary man whose legacy sheds a new light on the things we consider “American” to this day.

The most poignant character contrast is that of Walker with his contemporary and sometime employer, “The Pathfinder” John C. Frémont. Frémont (or the stories Frémont tells about himself) characterizes the common archetype of the of the Western frontiersman: an ambitious white man running roughshod over unseen lands, then standing nobly atop high peaks and declaring the glory of the Republic and Manifest Destiny, all interspersed with violent episodes with the native peoples. He was (mostly) the total opposite of Walker, who held a deep fascination with exploring but not “civilizing” new lands and had a real respect and camaraderie with Native Americans. Walker was generally kind to those he guided, heavily favored diplomacy over guns, and made it a point to not tell tall tales about himself.

This book, though a historical work, makes me ponder the kinds of imagery and justifications our leaders today take when they authorize gunship diplomacy, unilateral intervention and a conflict-based “survival of the fittest” mantra. What Gilbert makes clear through Walker’s pioneering and leading of the Westering movement is that violence did not win the West. Of course, neither was the process completed via some kind of idealistic peace-waging with the natives.  Nevertheless, Joe Walker was a man the likes of which we miss in our characters today; a respectful, understanding, and eager explorer, not a conqueror.