My Top 5 History Reads of 2022

As an avid reader, I usually can’t name all the books I read in a year, but as the majority of them have a history theme, I thought I would share my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner

If you are a fan of the Wild West, this one will be for you. It is a dual biography of the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett, the sheriff that shot him dead in 1881. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid, that was written by Pat Garrett himself, as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing. It has a very journalistic and easy to read writing style, despite the many names, events and locations that are mentioned throughout. I would definitely recommend this as I found it very hard to put down. You can find a full review I wrote earlier this year here if you are interested in find out more.

The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner

I’ll be honest, this book was by far my most favourite read of the year. I was also lucky enough to be given a review copy of this by the author. It was shipped out to me all the way from America. A huge thank you for that too! I think, just like the book on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, that this is one of those books you won’t forget reading. This one is another duel biography, but this time of the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Sitting Bull is one of my favourite historical heroes, so I was very much looking forward to reading this. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest! It is a very emotive and sometimes uncomfortable read, as it tells of the gruesome reality of how settlers took over the plains. For this reason, as well as it showing the Lakota viewpoint, it is an important read. As I said in my review ‘this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough’. For that reason, I feel this is one of the most vital books to understand the final years of freedom for the Lakota. You can find my previous review of it here.

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

This book tells the stories of ten Africans who lived in Tudor and Stuart England. Each example shows that whilst they were in a minority, you could find Africans in a variety of different roles during this period. A personal favourite of mine was Jacques Francis, who was a salvage diver for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s that sank off the coast of Portsmouth. The writing style is incredibly accessible and creates a personal narrative not only for the examples given, but also for those Africans in similar circumstances who can only briefly be discovered in documents such as parish registers. All in all, this is a very entertaining and informative book, which has quite clearly been based on meticulous research. I have written a full review of this here.

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

At the beginning of the year, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read since my childhood by an author who once lived in the countryside of Derbyshire, close to where I live. Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for all ages, and is based on real life events. First published in 1939, it tells the story of teenage girl, Penelope, who is sent to live on her aunt and uncle’s farm, once owned by Anthony Babington, an important Derbyshire landowner, who became embroiled in a plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The girl manages to move between her own time and the 1580s and even meets Anthony Babington himself. Can Penelope alter the course of history or not? It is a slow starter, but once you get into it, this book does become somewhat all consuming and certainly triggers a lot of emotion.

Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History by Janina Ramerez

This tells the story of Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchoress who shut herself away in a church in Norwich. It discusses her religious writings, as well as providing context to the times in which she lived. Once again, this is another reread, but I loved it just as much this time as I did before. I first came across this book after the author (a favourite historian of mine) did a TV documentary about trying to find the lost original manuscript version of Julian’s text. Sadly it still hasn’t been found, other than a fragment later edited. The author certainly has a special way of explaining things and making things accessible to an audience and this book is no exception. It is especially good at analysing the importance and legacy of Julian, who is now largely a forgotten figure. In the words of Julian herself, All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

I know this was meant to be a post about my must read books of the year, but as we are on the countdown to Christmas, I thought I must share my favourite historical themed film to watch in time for Christmas.

The Man Who Invented Christmas:

This film showcases how Charles Dickens really wrote A Christmas Carol, which is now synonymous with how we celebrate Christmas. As a Dickens fan of many years, I must admit I love this film and Dan Stevens plays the author very well. It shows off his eccentricities brilliantly, whilst also detailing the tragic backstory of his time in the blacking factory that Dickens himself tried to hide his whole life. I have always been fascinated by the way Dickens kept note of names and places for his books, as well as how he re-enacted his stories to audiences during readings. The film does show this wonderfully. It also has a fantastic cast, full of wonderful British actors. If you have any interest in A Christmas Carol, or Dickens himself, this is a must watch. I have watched this many times and never seem to bore of it!

Book Review of The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner

First of all, I would like to personally thank the author, Mark Lee Gardiner, and HaperCollins, for sending me a review copy of this book. I am very grateful for that and it honestly means a lot that I received this.

Despite my love of the history of the Wild West, I must admit that I have always sympathised more with the plight of the Native Americans. Throughout, I have often come across many accounts that make it sound as though the Native Americans ‘deserved’ their fate. For many years I have often wished for someone to correct this narrative and push for the Native American point of view. Whilst I know there have been attempts previously to do this, I feel that Mark Lee Gardiner’s efforts in The Earth is All That Lasts shows at every corner that the white man had lied and cheated its way to get land belonging to the Native Americans, as told through the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. As Sitting Bull has always been a hero of mine, I have read and written quite a bit about him in the past. This prior knowledge did give me a certain excitement, as well as high expectations, before I started reading this book. Whilst my expectations may have been high, I can gladly say that I wasn’t disappointed.

After recently reading one of the author’s other books, To Hell on a Fast Horse, which told the connected stories of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (I would highly recommend it), I had high hopes for this latest book. As I have come to expect with Gardner’s writing, it was easy going, which sounds like a bit of a contradiction considering that the subject matter at times was tough to deal with. I must admit I initially found it hard to get into, as there are lots of descriptions of violence and battles, this is only to be expected as it provides context to the negative relations between the Lakota and the white men, particularly the army and officials, who intended to either fight them or pacify them with treaties that were not understood. At every point the argument that white men had forcibly wanted to get their way by getting land the Lakota lived on, as well as either their assimilation or extermination, is driven home. I utterly commend the author for this as I feel in general that this is not nearly used enough elsewhere. As I was reading, there were many moments that I found were very emotional and poignant, which again shows just how well the whole subject was portrayed.

There is a lot of information, names and locations to take in, but with the easy writing style, as well as a handy map of the forts and battles mentioned at the beginning of the book, there is some help towards this. The amount of information just shows how wonderfully researched this book is, as is mentioned in the acknowledgements, it took the author five years to research and write. For the reader, who may not be that well informed of the culture of the Lakota, I feel that this aspect in particular was very well researched and portrayed. The analysis of the culture that both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse lived in provides the reader with a better understanding of just what made both of these figures the people they were, rather than just the stereotype of them both being involved in Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

As previously mentioned, this is not a book for comfortable reading, but it is definitely one that is needed in order to portray the realities of how settlers really came to populate the Great Plains of America. It was done by robbing, lying, cheating, massacring the Native Americans and desecrating their sacred sites and entire way of life. However, this reality is something that needs to be told as far too often, the general narrative is very much about how manifest destiny was a given. This narrative has been written by the white men who eventually ‘conquered’ the West, which is also shown very well throughout the book, but is in stark contrast to the truths that the Native Americans were living. I challenge anyone, whether already sympathetic to the Lakota, like myself, or not, to come away still thinking and believing the whole manifest destiny narrative to be the whole truth.

The epilogue is dedicated to the ones involved in the murders of both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, showing what happened to them all after these events. I found that the majority of them didn’t actually reap the rewards that they had hoped for, particularly the Lakotas who had chosen to follow the white men governing them when they were forced onto the reservations. One man who did seem to be promoted was James McLaughlin, the agent in charge of the Standing Rock Reservation that Sitting Bull lived on in the last years of his life. From what I had read previously, I found him a very hard man to like, mainly due to his hatred of Sitting Bull. The author showed just how McLaughlin didn’t want to understand the Lakotas he was in charge of, unless they wished to assimilate to a Western way of life. Again, I commend the author for writing about McLaughlin in such a way that shows just how strong his hatred was of Sitting Bull, leaving the reader in no doubt as to what his intentions were towards surrounding the famous chief’s death.

This is yet another book that I would recommend to anyone, whether they have an interest in the final years of freedom for the Lakota or not. I feel very much that this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough. This work is a vital piece to the history and understanding of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and those final years before the Lakota were forced onto reservations. Most importantly, I feel that those mentioned, whether white men, the US army officers, or any of the Lakotas mentioned, including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull themselves, had their true characters revealed, whether for good or bad.

Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of 2021

It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding

Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.

The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper

This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis

Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.

Book Review of Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you may remember a post I did at the end of last year about the murder of Sitting Bull, the chief of the Lakota nation who fought for the rights of Native Americans and their way of life. This is a cause very close to my heart and I have much respect for Sitting Bull and the Native American way of life in general. This post is something a bit different as I’ll be reviewing a book I asked for at Christmas, written by a descendant of Sitting Bull, Ernie LaPointe. I decided to do a book review because I feel the message of the book is a particularly important one and needs to be shared with others.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

Ernie LaPointe, the author of Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy, is a great-grandson of Sitting Bull, and just like his ancestor, is an advocate of the traditional way of life of the Lakota and seeks to tell the truth of the life of the famous chief. I believe this book manages to successfully do both of these things as Sitting Bull’s life is retold in the oral tradition, almost like a story, rather than chronologically. This made it a very easy read and contributed to me not wanting to put the book down.

For me, I have never been so emotionally connected to a book in a very long time. The early parts of Sitting Bull’s life are told in a way which reflects the characteristics highly prized by the Lakota: honour, respect, humbleness and compassion. All of these traits are something I have always associated with Sitting Bull, so I especially liked learning the circumstances he showed these from an early age. The great chief showed these despite the hard times, including the loss of many loved ones, which I find utter commendable.

If you are looking for more information on Sitting Bull’s time in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, you’ll probably be disappointed as this only grants a couple of paragraphs. Personally, I don’t feel that is a problem as the sole purpose of the book is to show the character of Sitting Bull, which of course is not defined by his time in the Wild West Show, but more in the personal moments, of which the book is full of.

The book contains quite a few appendices that may put people off, but I found that these helped explain the animosity that has arisen from the descendants of One Bull, the nephew who was part of the Indian Police who arrested and killed Sitting Bull in 1890, against the direct descendants of Sitting Bull through his children. Perhaps the most useful of these is a glossary explaining the many many Lakota words found in the text. I did quite enjoy learning these words, although I’m pretty sure my pronunciation is terrible.

All in all, I found this a very enjoyable and educational book. It helps to demyth some of the life of Sitting Bull that has been given to us by white historians, rather than through the Lakota oral tradition. This is partly because one of the early historians never visited the children of Sitting Bull, despite the fact they were all present at the time of his murder. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the life of Sitting Bull, or the way of life of the Native Americans. After reading this, I now have a newfound respect for the chief, even more than I already had. I hope that if you read it too, you would feel the same.

To read more on the murder of Sitting Bull, please have a read of my post on the subject using the following link.

The Death of Chief Sitting Bull

Chief Sitting Bull was one of the most notable advocates for Native American rights in the last part of the nineteenth century. He is probably most known for his appearances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For me, he personifies the struggles of the Native American people in their fight to keep their way of life. This was also evident in the circumstances that led up to his murder by the Indian Police, helped by the army, in 1890. They saw this ageing man as the last remaining beacon of hope for all Native Americans who were being forced to leave their once nomadic existence to live reservations. Life on reservations was purposefully meant to stop their traditional way of life. They were no longer free to move as they pleased, were forced hundreds of miles away from their ancestral land and subjected to forced assimilation wherever possible. Especially by sending Native American children to boarding schools so they could ‘unlearn’ their traditions and languages, instead imposing Western education upon them.[1]

In Sitting Bull’s own words on the subject, this was an injustice to his people:

“We were once free to come and go, and to live in our own way. But white men, who belong to another land, have come upon us, and are forcing us to live according to their ideas. That is an injustice; we have never dreamed of making white men live as we live.”[2]

These very opinions made him a much-reviled figure to the American authorities, especially as this was a man who had fought at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, where George Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U. S. Army were defeated by an army of Native Americans, made up of different tribes, but led by visions Sitting Bull had had.

Sitting Bull photographed and published by Palmquist & Jurgens, St. Paul, Minn, ca. 1884. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/94500412

The bitterness the army and other authorities had towards Sitting Bull stemmed not just from his brave fight at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but from his flee to Canada following the bad winter of 1876-1877. That winter was full of bad weather meaning food was scarce. Many of the Native Americans decided to give in to being put on reservations, believing it would mean a guaranteed food source. Sitting Bull and his people refused to do this and instead fled to Canada, which was viewed as a safe place for the indigenous people. This meant that all the Native Americans still living in America were now all living on reservations.[3] Their time in Canada didn’t last long though as the buffaloes they relied on began to dwindle in numbers. It forced the Chief and his people back to America and onto the Sioux Reservation.

Under the Sioux Act of 1889, the government wanted to reduce the size of the Sioux Reservations into six smaller ones, rather than just one large one. This purposefully sought to reduce the amount of land available for the Native Americans, so that larger parts could be sold on to settlers.[4] You can imagine how Sitting Bull and many other leaders in the community reacted to this. For them, it once again showed how the white man could not be trusted. Many promises given had been broken, and not for the first time. Just as before, their opinions and complaints, despite being just, “and loud, and bitter, but were little heeded”.[5] Out of the ashes of the brokenness this brought, there was one glimmer of hope that began to arise: The Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance was a spiritual revival within the Native American communities living on reservations, most notably the Sioux. It believed that through performing this dance, it would prepare the way of a messiah, along with ghosts of the ancestors and buffalo, to save them from their current misery in order to re-establish their old way of life.[6] Whilst the initial ‘prophet’ of this movement was Wovoka, who believed he had had a vision, Sitting Bull played a major part in the movement. Another Sioux Chief named Kicking Bear believed in revelations that the Great Spirit had entrusted Sitting Bull to oversee and conduct the dances.[7]

Ghost Dance of the Sioux Indians in North America, 1891. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2006681363/

These dances caused great concern for those in charge of the Sioux reservation that Sitting Bull lived on. James McLaughlin, the agent in charge of the Standing Rock Reservation, believed that Sitting Bull was the root cause of this new movement and wanted it to end. On the 17th of November 1890, McLaughlin and an interpreter went to one of these dances to gauge how many of the Native Americans were involved. They found 100 people dancing and another 100 people watching.[8] Following this, McLaughlin began negotiations with Sitting Bull about how to stop the dances, despite Sitting Bull’s instances that this was nothing to fear. When the Major invited Sitting Bull to the reservation headquarters at Fort Yates, it was seen as a trap for the elderly chief. Sadly, the authorities responded with punishments that included attempting to starve the warriors. The ghost dancers were also worried and fled into the wilderness away from the camp. Sitting Bull wished to follow to carry on peaceful talks about the situation. Sitting Bull needed permission to do this and had a letter translated for this. However, it was poorly translated and instead looked like a threat.[9] He was told no and instead put under house arrest.

Within a month it seemed like the Chief’s fate was sealed. Orders were given to arrest Sitting Bull and bring him to Fort Yates. Others had sent a warning telegram to Buffalo Bill, a former friend whilst he was in the Wild West Show, was sent, hoping he could be an intermediary. Despite arriving at Fort Yates, he was suspiciously plied with drink and turned away the next day.[10] This was probably to maintain the secrecy surrounding the idea of murdering the Chief. The Indian Police went to the camp early in the morning of 15 December 1890 with a hidden group of soldiers. They dragged Sitting Bull out of his cabin and placed him on a waiting horse. Rather than quietly submit to his fate, Sitting Bull shouted orders to his followers, despite being threatened by the Police with guns.[11] A gun fight ensued between the Police and those in the camp. During the fight, Sitting Bull and two of his sons, Blackbird and Crow Foot, as well as 6 of the Indian Officers, 2 of which died from their wounds afterwards. Another version told at the time was that the Indian Police had shot Sitting Bull and his sons inside the cabin, only to later smash the Chief’s face into pieces.[12]

Kurz & Allison. Capture & Death of Sitting Bull, ca. 1891. Jan. 5. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003656865/

Despite the death of the famous chief, that was not the end of the story. His body was buried at the cemetery at Fort Yates, but many other stories surfaced about what subsequently happened to the body. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that the body buried at the fort was a fake and that the real body was in fact “now in a dissecting room”.[13] Others included quicklime being placed into the coffin to disintegrate the remains, his body being taken to Canada, and drunken soldiers stealing a thigh bone before the Fort closed in 1903.[14] All of these rumours complicated the legacy of the once great chief and in some ways meant he was forgotten, even more so when his body was the only one not to be moved when the fort closed.

Fiske, Frank Bennett, photographer. Sitting Bull’s grave / F.B. Fiske. North Dakota, ca. 1906. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/91482751/

The sad part is that the grave was left unattended and unloved. It would have been a sad legacy for him had it not been for his descendants, who were finally allowed to move his body to a spot looking over the Missouri River in April 1953. This was divisive as one granddaughter believed the site chosen was unsuitable because of antisocial behaviour that was known in the area. Yet, it happened, and 2 cars moved the remains to the chosen site in snowy weather. His new resting place now has a bust to commemorate him, which is more than he had whilst buried at Fort Yates.[15]

Whenever I think of the death of Sitting Bull, I feel incredibly sad to know he was killed for what he believed in. My heart has always agreed with the Native Americans, that they have been treated with injustice and still continue to be to a greater extent. Was it really a crime to hope that your life would improve if only you could practise your traditional way of life? I will also leave you questioning whether if Buffalo Bill could have reached Sitting Bull, whether the outcome would have been any different. Whatever may have happened if he had, I like to remember the small kindness in that Buffalo Bill attempted to bring his old friend some of his favourite sweets that he new he loved. What a contrast to the treatment he was given by the Indian Police, one of whom was his nephew, One Bull, who was actually an informant for McLaughlin.

[1] ‘Boarding Schools, https://americanindian.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter3.html#:~:text=Beginning%20in%20the%20late%20nineteenth,Code%20Talkers%20attended%20boarding%20schools.

[2] ‘This Land Belongs to Us’, in McMaster, G. and Trafzer, C. E. (eds), Native Universe: Voices of Indian America (Washington: National Geographic Society, 2004), p. 92.

[3] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, 1831-1890 (Mankato, Minnesota: Blue Earth Books, 2003), p. 24.

[4] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, p. 26.

[5] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull: And History of the Indian War, 1890-1891, Reprint(DSI Digital Reproduction, 2000), p. 169.

[6] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[7] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[8] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[9] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[10] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[11] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 185.

[12] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 187; Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

[13] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 188.

[14] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

[15] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

To find out more about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, please visit https://voyagerofhistory.wordpress.com/2020/02/11/buffalo-bill-and-his-wild-west-show/