Finally READING the Classic Westerns

By Jeff Salter

Though I have been a huge fan of Westerns – on TV and at the movies – for my entire life, I somehow never got around to READING hardly any of them… until recently. Oh, I did read two when I was a kid: one based on the Flint McCullough character from the TV show, Wagon Train … and another novel whose title and author I’ve forgotten. In fact, the single detail I recall about that story is the horse’s name, Cherry Pie.

Not sure why reading westerns never took off with me… since I was then – and am now – a big reader. I devoured juvenile biographies in fourth and fifth grade and (a couple of years later) read all the James Bond titles and many other spy novels.

As a public librarian, I watched a devoted clientele devour our genre collection of Westerns… some of those patrons re-reading the same titles over and over. And I wondered why — what was it about those stories that held the interest of our readers and brought them back for subsequent visits?

What focused my attention back on reading western stories myself was my involvement with a manuscript this past June through August — my first novel featuring an 1880s cowboy. To get the details correctly, of course, I did my due research — I Googled topics from period food to clothing to firearms. And to get the feel of the prevailing language, I turned to the classic Western writers, Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, and Zane Grey. Of course there are certainly other quality Western writers out there –– and I sampled perhaps a half dozen of those “newbies.” But I kept gravitating back to the big three — who, among them, have written hundreds of titles and inspired many scores of films and TV shows. And sold hundreds of millions of copies!

Did those authors in the Big Three get all their details correct?

No… but in a very real way, those in the Big Three actually helped form our collective notions of what the Wild West was like — myths and all. [Or, maybe it’s best said that they formed the “bible” of what the Old West COULD have been like… or perhaps SHOULD have been.]

In the course of this research and sampling last autumn, I settled on L’Amour as my favorite of the Big Three. And I quickly decided that L’Amour’s 17-volume series on the Sackett family was the most interesting.


Like many of L’Amour’s titles, this one has several completely different covers.

L’Amour didn’t write the Sackett tales in order, but he did go back and fill in the historical gaps, beginning the chronology with 1974’s Sackett’s Land, which introduces us to Barnabas Sackett, a poor but strong Cambridgeshire [England] man living in 1599. It’s easy to see where the 19th century American Sackett boys got their grit. Barnabas is self-reliant, courageous, intelligent, and noble. — just like the generational offspring he sired.

Among the many aspects of L’Amour’s writing that stands out for me is his research… especially in the geography and history of the areas in which his stories are set. In typical Western movies, we’d see the same towns over and over, and the same prairies… the same mountain ranges. But L’Amour takes his readers into the ancient lava flows and salt flats… among other authentic areas.


In reading Westerns – at least those written many decades ago – one encounters a lot of the prevalent stereotyping of Native American tribes. With few exceptions, most of those “Indians” are viewed as dangerous savages. I won’t debate such depictions here (though I have both Choctaw and Seminole blood in my veins) — but I feel obligated to warn modern-day readers that such depictions exist in many titles of the Big Three. If you can get past that aspect, you can enjoy a rollicking good yarn.

And what is the actual draw to these rollicking yarns? Well, the action, of course. A strong alpha male standing up for truth and justice… and protecting any females – usually pretty – who happen into his pathway. Are they formulaic? Well, yes. But not much more so than most of today’s action films. I mean, have you ever watched a title in the Die Hard film franchise and truly doubted whether John McClane would survive to vanquish the bad guys?

In some of the stories I read, I had to frequently suspend my disbelief. It was simply too, too convenient (for the author) that the characters he needed for a scene were always where the hero predicted them to be… at the precise time they were needed to be there. Simply too, too coincidental that “word” would get out to isolated prairie towns and outposts about so-and-so, long before telephones… and before the Internet’s social media was spreading fake news.

And here was a huge whopper from that first Sackett story: the hero somehow knows exactly where – in the entire continent of North America – two particular ships would land… and he perfectly times it to within a few days. Really? And Barnabas Sackett had never been on a large ship… never even crossed the English Channel. Oh well, it’s fiction.


Now a word about L’Amour as a person. He’s been deceased since 1988 and yet some of his books are still coming out… supposedly his own original stories which have been simply located and dusted off by his heirs. Really? Hmm. Call me a skeptic. Maybe his relatives found a box full of notes on concepts that L’Amour wanted to develop… but did he actually draft those tales? Did he even have time to outline them? I’m doubtful.

Still, I give the family credit for continuing his rich tradition and staying true to his diligent research.

L’Amour eventually wrote 100 novels, over 250 short stories, and (as of 2010) had sold more than 320 million copies of his work. By the 1970s his writings were translated into over 10 languages. Almost all of his works are still in print.

I can’t find the source for this now, but some critics have soundly trashed the biographical claims of one of the Big Three… basically asserting that the author had actually done little or none of the wide variety of things claimed on his book jackets. I don’t remember if it was L’Amour, Brand, or Grey who is charged with embellishing his life’s story, but I’m willing to believe any of them could have been tempted to pad his resume a bit. He wouldn’t be the first celebrity to do so.

[JLS # 430]



About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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14 Responses to Yippee-Ki-Yay

  1. jbrayweber says:

    Great post!
    I’ve not read L’Amour, but I imagine they are fun reads, and from your descriptions, I wouldn’t be disappointed. I know we had copies around the house, so my dad must have read them.

    BTW – I’m a Choctaw descendant, too. One-eighth, I believe. My grandfather’s mother was full-blooded. And her mother was said to have walked the Trail of Tears. Not sure if that’s true, but considering she lived on an Oklahoma reservation it’s possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      My dad’s parents were raised in the Choctaw area of rural Mississippi and family lore always had Choctaw kin (including songs they taught the new generations). His siblings tried for years to tap in to the “government” money that was supposedly available to families with “Indian” ancestry — I guess this was during the Depression, or shortly after. Nothing ever came of that funding, however.
      His mother was born a Whitehead, and one of my cousins traced her (my grandmother) back to the Seminoles. The family story was that she (my grandmother) was the grand-daughter of a tribal chief.
      If all that’s true, I’m at least 1/16 Seminole with a smattering of Choctaw.
      That assumes each generation after the chief married a Caucasian. If my grandmother’s parents were BOTH Seminole, then my percentage would be higher, of course.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I had always heard that L’Amour was a great writer, but I was stopped cold when hearing quotes of his: He was terribly prejudiced against Indians and believed that “The White Man’ had every right to take over all of the land,because “The land belongs to the farmers” and those that ‘use’ it’! I could never bring myself to read his books, but I may have been cutting off my nose to spite my face. (I was thrown wildly by the past versions of the ‘Little House’ books because they came right out and said that “Ma hated Indians”. They have altered the new printings, I have been told.
        BTW: for most of my life, I thought that we had Cherokee blood from my father’s side. Family members said no, it was some other tribe, but no one doing genealogy could find that bloodline.Now, my niece and cousins have taken DNA tests and no American Indian DNA showed up..well, gee, that was a disappointment.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jbrayweber says:

          Toni…I have taken the DNA tests and so has my uncle (who would be 1/8 Choctaw). Neither of our tests showed any American Indian. But it is a proven fact we are. All the rest of what I had seen in my DNA results were fairly spot-on given my family histories. It is my understanding that there have been very few Native American Indians who have participated in DNA sampling and therefore results would be inconclusive. I’ve also heard that it is forbidden in many tribes. I have no idea if that is true.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Jeff Salter says:

            My daughter took the DNA test and the results showed no discernible native American blood. your thesis, Jenn, about the tribes not having been tested very thoroughly, could possibly explain that.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Jeff Salter says:

          almost all of the “treatment” meted out to the Native Americans by the anglo settlers was horrible. In my research for the book (soon to come out) I discovered that an original population of some 15 million Native Americans had been slaughtered to about 500,000 by about 1900. Shameful.


  2. Loved this article, Jeff. So glad you got into the western again. I love westerns.

    The writers of yesterday didn’t have anywhere near the qualms we have today in writing. They wrote to get the story out. No grammar police around ready to take them down, so to speak. And yet the readers loved their stories. Imagine that. Hmmm. Anyway, why worry about what the author did himself in life as long as the story worked? Like you said, “it’s fiction.”

    I learned about authenticity a long time ago in my ‘primitive’ camping days when I belonged to a club and was part of a regular weekend show-and-tell while camping. We depicted the 1700s with our dress, lean-to and over-the-fire-pit camp cooking gear camp site. Our leader, who was somewhat of a historian himself, told us if it was possible back then, even in a far-fetched way, we could display it. My friend even created a makeshift refrigerator for his campsite using an upright box with the front and back open, hanging cotton cloth over the entire area which he kept wet. He’d adjust the box to face the direction of the breeze. The breeze blowing through the cloth kept everything cool inside. It worked. LOL

    So you see, it was possible that some people could figure things out without the internet way back then. And since no one from back then is living today, how do we know that there wasn’t some ‘word-of-mouth telegraph’ that spread news?

    As far as L’Amour’s relatives publishing his works, whether intact or pieces, it’s no different than what J.R.R. Tolkien’s son has done, although he put that information right on the books.

    Personally, I love the writings of the old masters. Yes, they did a lot of ‘telling.’ But what’s so wrong with that? There must be some reason why these books are so engaging and have lasted for so long.

    So, enjoy your westerns. I’ll look forward to reading your own western, if you get it published in paperback. Oh no! Another old concept. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Thanks, Sharon. If this new title comes out in paperback, it will be several months down the road probably. Though the digital version should be released very soon.


  3. Pingback: Yippee-Ki-Yay – Sharon K. Connell

  4. Patricia Kiyono says:

    It’s always nice to find enjoyment a new-to-you genre. I’ve enjoyed reading romances with a western setting, but have yet to sit down with a true western by one of your Big 3. My mom loves watching the old western TV shows, which tend to have a lot of the same sterotypes as the books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      It’s refreshing in the more contemporary-produced Western films that they make an effort to portray the Native Americans with individuals who are actually Native American… rather than Hollywood folks with reddish-brown makeup. Also, that the Native American characters are given more dimensions than “savages” who grunt and gesture.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Absolutely love the Sackett’s. My dad was a big fan of Louis L’Amour and Zane Gray so I picked up the books and read them too. Growing up in countries where books were very expensive, you read whatever was available and learned to appreciate all genres.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Different Time, Different Place | Four Foxes, One Hound

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