From the good folks who brought us The Civil War, this big bold 8-part documentary covering "more than two million square miles of the most extraordinary landscape."
For anyone curious about the dream landscape west of the Mississippi, The West holds the mother lode of invaluable information.
Directed by Stephen Ives and produced by Ken Burns, the award-winning 1996 PBS documentary is packed with real photos of real people, and features insightful commentary from historians, novelists, and politicians. Actors such as Adam Arkin, Ossie Davis, Keith Carradine, Blythe Danner, John Lithgow, and Jimmy Smits bring to life the actual words of the famous and the unknown alike. Sparing no expense, the filmmakers even include narration from Peter Coyote.
Episode 1, The People, which leads up to the year 1806, introduces to viewers the Nez Perce, Kiowa, Comanche, Pueblo, Apache, and many other peoples indigenous to the land that "was never empty." In some cultures, wealth was measured in slaves; in others, women owned all the property. In still other cultures, there was no word "I", only "we". Trade routes extended in all directions. Buffalo robes were worn by people who had never seen a buffalo. People spoke different languages, and people worshipped different gods--sometimes unaware of each other's existence.
Spanish soldiers washed up by storm in what is now Galveston, Texas, thirty years after Columbus, are credited as the first Europeans to set foot in the West. Having already stolen Aztec and Inca treasure in their quest to spread Christianity, the Conquistadors, armed with horses and guns, destroyed village after village in a desperate search for gold that proved a total failure. It will come as no surprise that the Spanish accidentally introduced the horse to the West. Most viewers, however, are probably not aware that the Spanish thought the land they named California was an island, and that the name refers to Califia, a beautiful queen from a supposedly mythical land of giants.
From Lewis and Clarke to the Gold Rush to Little Big Horn, The West both covers familiar ground and explores new territory with sounds and images supporting the endlessly interesting facts that help us understand who we are today.
"The West is not any one thing," according to historian T.H. Watkins, but rather "a tremendous collection of stories" which any thinking person cannot help but regard "without feeling a mix of pride and shame."
It is, in the words of novelist N. Scott Momaday, "a landscape that has to be seen to be believed. And," he adds, "it may have to be believed to be seen."
Freely discovered online.
Stewart Kirby writes for