Historian David Lavender was the best sort of guide a traveler in the West could have: A quiet man with a wry sense of humor, he was passionate about this region, refused to romanticize it and was happy to share his knowledge if asked.
never sentimental about the West, writing about cowboys: "Although
they were slaves to a particularly stupid and unattractive animal,
they became symbols of the West's vaunted freedom."
death on April 26 at age 93 deprived us all of a treasured
companion --a companion most of those he guided across the West
I met him at a bookstore in 1995. I’d
picked up a copy of "The Way to the Western Sea" several years
earlier, and found myself swept along the trail of Lewis and Clark
by his graceful prose. It was the first full-scale account of the
Corps of Discovery's trek across the American West from 1803 to
1806, predating Stephen Ambrose's best selling "Undaunted Courage"
by nearly a decade.
My enjoyment of David
Lavender’s Lewis and Clark book led me to seek out others he
had written and later inspired my own journey along the
explorers’ path. I am grateful to him for leading me along
many other trails, for there is scarcely a corner of the
West’s history that he did not explore during a career that
spanned half a century.
Born in Telluride, Colo., in
1910, he grew up on a cattle ranch and later moved with his family
to Denver. His family’s roots in the Southwest run deep:
Lavender Peak, a 13,160-foot summit in the La Plata Mountains, is
named after his brother; Lavender Canyon, on the edge of
Canyonlands National Park, is likely named for his stepfather, a
rancher who also ran a stagecoach line. His grandfather was chief
justice of Colorado.
Like many Westerners, he headed east
as a young man, earning a bachelor's degree from Princeton
University in 1931. He returned to the West after graduation and
attended Stanford University’s law school for a year. He came
to Ojai, Calif., in 1943 to teach English at Thacher School, a
private college-preparatory school in the hills about 70 miles
northwest of Los Angeles, where he worked until his retirement in
It was while teaching at Thacher that he wrote most
of his 38 books. The collection of essays called "One Man's West"
is a gem. It chronicles his experiences on his family's ranch and
mining for gold. Others include two Pulitzer Prize-nominated
volumes: "Bent's Fort," examining the role of the commercial fur
trade in the opening of the West, and "Land of Giants," about the
settling of the Pacific Northwest.
He once said he did
not regard himself as a historian, but rather as a writer
fascinated by history. He made the distinction out of modesty, I
suppose, perhaps believing that he and his work lacked appropriate
academic credentials. But there was as much scholarly rigor in his
work as in any conventional history text. His books have the added
value of reflecting his keen appreciation of personalities and the
details of daily life in a vanished time.
A book reviewer
once praised his work as having "the rhythm and gritty detail of a
yarn told around a campfire."
He was surprisingly
sanguine about the greater popularity of other Western writers.
When I asked if he were annoyed by "Undaunted Courage" --
especially after Stephen Ambrose was accused of plagiarizing him
and several other authors -- he said, "Ambrose, unfortunately,
among historians, does not have a very good reputation."
Then with tongue in cheek and a smile in his eyes, he added, "But I
do not feel it necessary for me to join the roster. I should just
Lavender won many awards during his long life,
including the Wallace Stegner Award from the Center of the American
West at the University of Colorado. When he and I first met in that
bookstore in 1995, he had just launched a second career, writing
children’s books about history -- he confessed he could no
longer sustain the concentration required to produce full-length
I bought a copy of the volume he was
promoting that day, "The Santa Fe Trail," and asked him to sign it.
He inscribed it, to my lasting delight, to "a fellow wanderer on
the Western trails."
There are many such wanderers. For
decades, David Lavender was our guide, and we will miss his