Title Reviewed:
American Forts Yesterday and Today

Author Reviewed:
Bruce Grant

John Dishon McDermott


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 62, Issue 2, pp 162-163

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Forts Yesterday and Today. By Bruce Grant. (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1965. Pp. 381. Illustrations, maps, glossary, selected bibliography, index. $5.95.)

It appears that many Americans suffer from an edifice complex. How else can one explain the rapid rise in the number of books written on forts? At least six of them have appeared on the market during the past three years, and a number of others are in the production stage. They are limited, however, to military posts, to the fur trade, or to those found in a particular region of the country. Forts of the American West seem to be especially attractive to writers, historians, artists, photographers, publishers, and book buyers, if quantity is a valid indicator. In this newest addition to the list, Bruce Grant goes one step further. He attempts to cover them all—every stockade, palisade, blockhouse, redoubt, garrison, camp, mission, shack, ruin, and rockpile, which at one time or another someone in wisdom or foolishness decided to dub a fort. There are more than 1,200 entries, each of them a monument or a memory to the ingenuity of man.

The author has a sense of balance for which we may be grateful. Descriptions vary in length according to the importance of the fort. In most cases, the basic information is included. Grant usually gives the dates of the establishment and the abandonment of each fort and frequently includes a statement of its significance. If remains exist, they are discussed in detail. The book is also easy to use. It is divided into sections by geographical area, and forts are grouped by states. The eight regional maps are crowded but adequate. The drawings by Lorence Bjorklund are delightful. Although lacking in detail, they capture the spirit of the times and occasionally evoke an intended chuckle.

The book has a fatal flaw. One cannot depend on its accuracy. Some of the descriptions appear to be correct, but others are obviously not. Take, for example, the treatment of Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Grant devotes a full page (p. 258) to the post but commits so many errors, both common and uncommon, that it would take several pages to recount and correct them. One need mention only a few to cast a long shadow on the research of the author.

Grant states that the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 provided for the payment of an annuity to the Northern Plains Indians in return for certain lands. Actually, the Indians retained ownership of the land. They simply agreed to allow emigrants to travel over the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails free from harrassment and to permit the United States Army to build fortifications along the route. Grant reports that "Old Bedlam," the famous officers' quarters immortalized in a novel by Charles King, cost from $60,000 to $85,000 since lumber for its construction had to be hauled all the way from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Records show, however, that the lumber came from trees growing within a fifty mile radius of the post. In fact, logging still continues on nearby Laramie Peak. Grant declares that the State of Wyoming bought Fort Laramie and donated it to the federal government in 1927. In truth, the state purchased the buildings and land in 1937. It became a part of the National Park System in 1938.

Since the market for books on forts is a bullish one, it is quite possible that another author may soon supply a volume which has all of the strengths and none of the weaknesses of American Forts. At least let us hope so.

National Park Service, Washington, D.C. John Dishon McDermott

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.