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Rare Books Digital Exhibition — The Roar of Distant Breakers

from California: The Land of the Sun, 1914, Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934)

We had not gone far from this village when the fog cleared off, and we enjoyed the delightful prospect of the ocean, the object of all our labours, the reward of all our anxieties. This cheering view exhilarated the spirits of all the party, who were still more delighted on hearing the distant roar of breakers. 
— Meriwether Lewis, History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, 1814

Every culture has its legends.

The Great American Desert is frequented by roving bands of Indians who have no fixed places of residence but roam from place to place in quest of game.

from Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains…, 1822, James Edwin (1797-1861)

The books in this exhibition reflect journeys west, across vast land and sea scapes, by the descendants of a people desperate to find freedom, independence, peace, autonomy, and gold.

The wagons marched slowly in four parallel columns, but in broken lines, often at intervals of many rods between. The unceasing ‘crack, crack,’ of the wagoner’s whips, resembling the frequent reports of distant guns, almost made one believe that a skirmish was actually taking place between two hostile parties: and a hostile engagement it virtually was to the poor brutes, at least; for the merciless application of the whip would sometimes make the blood spirt from their sides – and that often without any apparent motive of the wanton carrettieri, other than to amuse themselves with the flourishing and loud popping of their lashes!

from Commerce of the Prairies, 1844,  Josiah Gregg (1806-1850)

These people, Europeans, found all these things and more on the North American continent.

One must have experienced it one’s self to be able to conceive of the melancholy which takes possession of the soul of a man of sensibility, at the instant that he leaves his country and the civilized world, to go to inhabit with strangers in the wild and unknown lands.

from Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon…, 1849, Alexander Ross (1783-1856)

Their discoveries came at a high price for the peoples who had inhabited the continent for thousands of years. The result for them was nothing short of devastating.

The Great American Desert is frequented by roving bands of Indians who have no fixed places of residence but roam from place to place in quest of game.

from Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, 1822, James Edwin (1797-1861)

From the report of Cabeza de Vaca in the sixteenth century to the fiction of Wallace Stegner in the twentieth century, the narratives here are first-hand tellings from Europeans by birth, ancestry, culture, and ideology.

All over the land are vast and handsome pastures, with good grass for cattle, and it strikes me the soil would be very fertile were the country inhabited and improved by reasonable people.

from Historia en espanol de las indias del nuovo mundo, 1542, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (ca. 1488-ca. 1560)

 My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward.

from Angle of Repose, 1971, Wallace Stegner (1909-1993)

These tellings became legend, for good or for bad, creating a distinctly American mythology – a mythology of reorder within a morally privileged space, a defining of possibility.

The highest of these is no about two hundred feet above the valley, which has itself been left by the lake, owing probably to gradual elevation occasioned by subterraneous causes. If this supposition be correct, and all appearance conspire to support it, there must have been here at some former period a vast inland sea, extending for hundreds of miles; and the isolated mountains which now tower from the flats, forming its western and south-western shores, were doubtless huge island, similar to those which now rise from the diminished waters of the lake.

from Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake…, 1852, Howard Stansbury (1806-1863)

They became the voice of the character of America – its culture and its society – enticing other voices to join in the American dream for freedom, independence, peace, autonomy, and, yes, gold.

The getting up these hills proved a very difficult task, and it was only by every one putting a shoulder to the wheels and chocking them at every five or six feet, that they could be surmounted.

from Personal Narrative of Explorations…, 1854, John Russell Bartlett (1805-1886)

This exhibition is dedicated to Gregory C. Thompson, Ph.D, Associate Dean for Special Collections, whose lively, generous and patient leadership enables extraordinary opportunity for the growth of Special Collections and for the ability of the collections to be engaged with by people around the world.

This solemn, silent, sailless sea – this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth – is little graced with the picturesque.

from Roughing It, 1872, Mark Twain (1835-1910)


Their movement had the absolute conviction, the devotedness, of a crusade. They pressed onward, across the Great South Park, following its white wagon-trails which rise and sink with the long swells of that archaean sea; pausing in the dreary valley at the foot of the pass, which shelters the caravansary-like town of Fairplay; struggling upward, in the cold light of early morning, along the mountain sides; resting again at the last stage-station above the timber-line, where the tough fir forests bend, and fail, and finally give up altogether  the ascent of those bare slopes, ever whitening, to the pitiless region of lasting snow; on again into the strenuous air of the summits, following the pass as it staggers through the wild canons; dizzily winding by weary grades, down to the desolate land of promise.

from The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp, 1883, Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938)

from California: The Land of the Sun, 1914, Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934)

For more on the European encounter with the American West, see our digital exhibition, The Roar of Distant Breakers.


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