Robert Utley is the former Chief Historian and Assistant Director of the National Park Service and recognized as a leading historian of the American West as well as a major pioneer public historian. He is also a founding member and former president of the Western Historical Association. The quality of his work as a historian has lead to the creation of the Robert M. Utley Book Award which is given out annually by the Western History Association for the best book published on the military history of the American frontier and American West, including Mexico and Canada from prehistory through the twentieth century. Utley is most widely known for his historical writings on General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This lifelong interest in Custer was initially sparked when, at age twelve, Utley saw the film They Died with Their Boots On (1942) starring Errol Flynn. At the age of seventeen, just out of high school, Utley began working for the National Park Service serving initially as a seasonal park ranger at the Custer Battlefield. He ended up spending six summers during his college years in this position. Utley ultimately played a major role in the expansion and evolution of Park Service policy regarding historic preservation that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. After taking early retirement from public service in 1980, he settled down to devote himself full time to historical research and writing. In 1988 he received the Western History Association Prize for distinguished studies dealing with the American West. He currently resides in Gerogetown, Texas with his wife Melody Webb who is also an historian.
Custer and the Great Controversy (1962)
This was Utley's first book, produced after serving as a full-time ranger-historian at the Little Bighorn National Monument. It foucses on the origins of what has come to be called the 'Custer Myth'. Utley discusses how popular writers perpetuated myth and misinformation both because of politization of the event and because there were no white survivors of the battle. He also describes the contributions to this confusion created by additional factors such as the difficulty of gauging Amerindian testimony as well as controversy over testimony provided at and judgment reached by the US Army Court of Inquiry in 1879.
The Last Days of the Sioux Nation (1963)
In this book, Utley examines the Ghost Dance religious sect with a focus on its strongly militant manifestations among the Teton Sioux. The author describes what the state of the Sioux and their society was when they were first placed on their reservation and explains how the lives that American whites expected them to take up actually ran counter the real needs of the Sioux. Utley goes on to describe the Sioux reaction to this conflict of need and then goes on to describe the last confrontation of the US Army and the Sioux at the Battle of Wounded Knee Creek.
Frontiersmen in Blue (1967)
A comprehensive history of the successes and failures of the US Regular and Volunter Armies in confronting the Amerindian tribes of the American West. This book covers the period between the Mexican-American War and the end of the Civil War. Utley describes the skirmishes during this period in detail. He also incorporaties detailed descriptions of what garrison life was actually like for the troops.
Frontier Regulars (1973)
A balanced, scholarly history of the final drive by the Regular Army during the twenty-five years following the Civil War to bring Amerincians under control and thus open up the West to settlement. Utley provides insightful descriptions of campaigns such as those by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman. These range fromm the frist army skirmishes with the Sioux over the Bozeman Trail defenses in 1866 to the final defeat and resettlement on reservations of the Northern Plains Amerindians in 1890. The battles and maneuvers are described well and include a careful analysis of the army's mode of operation, its equipment, its lifestyle, its relations with Congress and civilians, and even its recruitment.
A Clash of Cultures (1977)
A history of the Apache Indians and the nineteenth-century Apache Wars. Utley details the roles of chief participants including Geronimo and Cochise and US Army officers Oliver Otis Howard, George Crook, and Nelson A. Miles, among others.
The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890 (1984; revised 2003)
This book has become a standard of balanced historical writing, useful to both students and scholars of a tragic period in American history. Utley presents the final half-century of conflict between Amerindians and whites in the American West as fundamentally based on mutual missunderstanding. Both Amerindian and American white perspectives are provided for in the book with the historian's recreation of events from the Amerindian point of view paralleled with an explanation and description of the reasoning and attitudes behind the behavior of nineteenth-century whites.
High Noon in Lincoln (1987)
A scholarly history of the Lincoln County War. Utley focuses on the effects of the breakdown of law and order in a American Western frontier community. He places these events within the context of the 'code of the West' arguing against them being seen as a typical range war or case of frontier vigilantism. Instead, he presents evidence for the events in Lincoln County being seen as typical of frontier violence in which there were no 'good guys'. This book is notable for its solid chronoligy of the disputes and the personalities that contributed to the lawlessness of Lincoln County in the late 1870s.
Cavalier in Buckskin (1988; revised 2001)
A book that examines the man behind the legend. This biography places Custer within the context life of the frontier Army while at the same time presenting an unvarnished picture of a man who was both audacious and courageous while at the same time capable of evoking hatred. Utley puts a particular emphasis on explaining the events leading up to Little Big Horn and how they can be interpreted as errors of mismanaged intelligence coupled with an underestimation of the Americanians capabilities and simply bad luck. This book received a Western Heritage Wrangler Award for Outstanding Nonfiction.
Billy the Kid (1989, revised 2001)
Utley's biography of Billy the Kid is a scholarly biography that incorporates the history of the outlaw's times. It is notable for its revealing picture of the real man, neither the bloodthirsty killer nor a Western Robin Hood, but instead just an ordinary outlaw. Utley desribes a man who happened to have great skill with the gun and a fascinating personality and how this lead to his being imprinted on American consciousness as an almost mythological figure in the history of the Old West as well as representing the violence prevalent on the American western frontier.
The Lance and the Shield (1993)
A definitive biography of Sitting Bull, the legendary warrior of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. Utley follows the life of this man and describes how he became a seasoned warrior and eventually the chief most associated with the spirit of resistance among the Sioux to American white expansion. This balanced history describes the increasing hostilities over the years, including the Battle of the Little Big Horn, through the shooting of Sitting Bull by Amerindian police sent to arrest him and how this led in turn to the Battle of Wounded Knee. This book is notable for Utley's biographical explanation of Sitting Bull importance and standing within the context his social and historical context, evolving from a complex leader able to defeat professional army forces to a shield defending his tribe from white encroachment. This work includes a clear description of the intentions and actions of the Federal Government toward the Lakota Sioux.
A Life Wild and Perilous (1997)
This book was reissued in 2004 as After Lewis and Clark. A social history from the 1810s to the 1840s of the mountain men who, in about 1807, began filter into the American rocky Mountain West. Utley tells the stories of this unwashed, violent bunch and their contributions to the Americans' geographical knowledge of the lands west of the Mississippi while pursuing profits in the fur trade. The book contains both descriptions of historical trends and forces as well as biographies of such men as "Crazy Bill" Williams, Jeremiah "Liver-Eating" Johnson, Jim Bridger, Benjamin Booneville, Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith, and Joseph Walkers. Utley also describes the economic trends fueling these men's interest, describing the competition of fur trading firms as well as the obstacles overcome, including Amerindian ambushes and bear attacks, as well as the collapse of the economic fur empires that presaged the arrival of more organized settlement.
Lone Star Justice (2002)
A history of the first hundred years of the Texas Rangers from this organization's beginning in the 1820s as loosely organized groups of citizen militia that came together to chase both Amerindians and Mesicans on the Texas frontier. Utley's history includes descriptions of the character and leadership of men like Jack Hays and Ben McCulloch and how the work of men like these molded the Texas Rangers into a well-trained, cohesive fiting force. There is also a discussion of the effect of Samuel Colt's repeating revolver on the effectiveness of the Rangers against the Comanches as well as the more organized military actions of the Mexican-American War. Utley also discusses the transition of the Rangers from part-time soldiers into full-time lawmen after the Civil War in reaction to the need deal with civil disorders feuds, labor strikes, and vigilante mobs as well as new types of criminals such as train robbers and cattle rustlers.
Custer and Me (2004)
This is Utley's memoir and it describes how he came to fall in love with American Western history through movies and popular culture and goes on to detail how this interested was shaped by academic study and professional publicservice in the National Park Service, beginning in 1947. This book details the transition of National Park Service policy regarding the role and processes of what have come to be known as the movement for Historical Preservation as well the emergence of self-consciously aware Public History. Probably one of the most informative discussions by Utley in this book is how he has come to see the essence of history as a process of continuing re-evaluation of what previously seemed to be reasonable and sensible versions of past events.
Lone Star Lawmen (2007)
A definitive and colorful history of the Texas Rangers covering the period beginning with the Mexican Revolutions to the Branch Davidian tragedy near Waco and the standoff with 'Republic of Texas' militia. This history includes the Rangers' pursuit of bank robbers, bootleggers, moonshiners, and 'horsebackers' and this law organizions efforts to control oil boomtowns. Utley's history is colorful but also historically important and informative, tracing the evolution of Texas Rangers from horseback law enforcers to sophisticated professional law enforcers utilizing the latest forensic and crime lab technologies. This is the story of the transition of an idiosyncratic law enforcement outfit into the investigative arm of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Older Article: Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Greg Call, and 'The Neverland Books'
Robert M. Utley, acclaimed historian of the American West by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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