In twelve chapters, Walker touches on a dozen great mysteries of Western lore. He does not set out to solve any of them, but think again if you expect this book to do nothing but regurgitate old facts.
You may have heard of many of the stories in this book, since more than a few of them have been subjects of documentaries, especially on The Discovery Channel. The "real" death of Davy Crockett, what happened at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and who is buried in Jesse James' tomb have all been covered on television, too, which lends credence to Walker's research. But what about some cases you learned about in school, and find out later things may not have happened the way your teacher said?
I am writing of the strange suicide of famed explorer Meriwether Lewis in Tennessee in 1809. All my life, I was told he killed himself, and that was that. Reading Lewis' book, we find he killed himself after being attacked by an unknown assailant. He was shot in the head (exposing his brain), and offed himself before anyone else could come back and finish the job...um, yeah. A move is on to dig up Lewis and do an autopsy (since he slashed himself to death (!)), and that might be a wise decision.
You may know that writer Ambrose Bierce wandered into revolutionary Mexico, and was never seen alive again, but did you know Boston Corbett, the man who killed John Wilkes Booth, also vanished in the American heartland? Or Black Bart, the famed stagecoach robber, also disappeared somewhere on the west coast?
What about the strange two deaths of Lewis and Clark's guide, Sacajawea? Or next time those nice missionaries from the Mormon Church come to your door and interrupt your supper, ask them about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where Church militia members and local Native Americans wiped out close to one hundred and fifty members of a wagon train, all because of lies and rumors spread about these people all over Utah?
Was Jesse James really shot in the 1880's? Did Billy the Kid really die in Arizona? Or did both men live into their nineties, getting to know each other in their new lives, and reluctantly coming out in the 1930's and 1940's? Okay, according to DNA testing, that is Jesse in his grave, lending little help to Brushy Bill Roberts' claims that he was Billy the Kid.
Living in North Dakota, I have always had an interest in Western history. George Custer left his house near present day Mandan and died in Montana. Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea spent winters up here, also near Mandan, on their great trek west and back. Teddy Roosevelt, after his mother and wife died on the same day, came to ranch near Medora, claiming he never would have had the courage to become president if it was not for his trials and tribulations in North Dakota.
Walker's book is interesting, even to laypeople who just have a passing interest in American history. The twelve chapters are evenly paced and never dull. There is an immense bibliography at the back of the book. A kind foreword by John Jakes, and Walker then plunges us into the "old days," writing expertly and with enough description to read like fine fiction.
"Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the America West" is a fantastic starting point if you want to start reading more about Western history. There is such a variety of true stories, you can pick and choose your subject and become an armchair expert like I thought I was, until this book opened my eyes and has forced me to do some more reading. A good book will do that to you.