Book Review: Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent by Ted Morgan

I found this book at a Friends of the Library book sale in Seattle; it was a like-new hardcover copy for two dollars. Not bad. You might think that a volume chronicling early North American history might be a bit dry and even boring, but such is not the case for two reasons. First, the writer has a lively, easy to read style. Second, instead of writing the history in the admittedly tedious listing of bare facts one after the other, the author tells the story mainly through individual vignettes compiled from logs, diaries, and journals of some of the fascinating characters who lived through the events.

The author’s own story is as absorbing as any of the other people he introduces in his text. Ted Morgan was born in Geneva, Switzerland as Comte Sanche Charles Armand Gabriel de Gramont, the son of a French World War II pilot and part of a family with roots in French nobility. After attending Yale University, he was drafted into the French army and served from 1955 to 1957 in the Algerian War, including the brutal Battle of Algiers. After his service, he returned to the United States and became a journalist, at one time winning the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. During this time, he was still a citizen of France and used the byline Sanche de Gramont. In 1977, he renounced his nobility, assumed American citizenship, and took the name Ted Morgan, which is an anagram of de Gramont. Besides Wilderness at Dawn, he has written histories and biographies of famous historical characters, some of which have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists.

Wilderness at Dawn begins with an account of the first forays from Asia across the Bering land bridge onto the wild North American continent. At that time the land was teeming with animal life but completely free of humans. Slowly, over the course of thousands of years, the first Native American pioneers made their way overland through North America and Central America to the southernmost tip of South America.

Then came the Europeans, of course, looking for a western route to the Far East. Instead, they discovered a vast new continent. Morgan devotes sections to the Spanish, French, and English conquests of the northern New World and the brutality and privation that accompanied these incursions on lands that were already occupied by indigenous peoples. The English advanced on multiple frontiers up and down what is now the eastern coastline of the United States. Many of the new colonists were prisoners, refugees from religious intolerance, and indentured servants. Eventually, of course, black slaves from Africa began to arrive too, to labor in the tobacco, indigo, and rice plantations of the South.

Morgan goes on to tell of the exploration and settling of the western frontier lands, the expulsion of the French, the Revolutionary War, and the aftermath in which the young government sought to pass legal measures capable of helping to govern the newborn country.

As I mentioned above, what makes this book unique and more fascinating than most other books that cover this subject is the author’s reliance on personal stories from journals and other writings to highlight the overarching history. This makes the reader intensely aware of how these massive historical events touched individual lives. I found this book deeply absorbing and highly readable, and I recommend it.

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