Howard Fast's Introduction
to the 1997 edition of
The Last Frontier
his first best-seller,
published in 1941 by Duell, Sloan and Pearce
IT SEEMS an eternity ago, and I suppose it is, a small eternity, when my wife and I went out west to seek out the facts about the Cheyennes' flight north from their reservation in Oklahoma to their old hunting grounds in the Black Hills. I had read a paragraph or two about this incredible trek in Struthers Burt's book on the Powder River Country. That was in 1939. We had been married two years both of us kids in our early twenties.
We had never been to the West before. I suppose you could say we had never been anywhere much before. I was making a bare living as a writer very bare in those depression days. We owned a 1931 Ford that we had bought for forty dollars, but it did not seem capable of a long trip, so we traded it in for twenty dollars and bought a 1933 Pontiac for seventy-five dollars. It was a great car, and we drove it some five thousand miles through the West. We covered the territory the Cheyennes did, the story I tell in this book. We spoke with some old Cheyennes who had taken part in the flight. At the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, where we lived for a while, we spoke to young Cheyenne and Arapahoe students who had heard the story from their parents and their grandparents; and we spent the best part of a day with Stanley Vestal, who was then the greatest authority on the Plains Indians in the country. We made a few hopeless efforts to learn some of the Cheyenne language but then gave it up in despair, and whenever we spoke to the old Indians, we used a translator.
We were two city kids in a strange country, seeing the reality of people we had encountered only in books and films, and very soon we came to understand that everything we had read and seen on film was part of a gigantic lie. We were in contact with a noble and beautiful people and perhaps we were overwhelmed by the difference between the fact and the fiction.
This was years before books began to be written and films made that attempted to tell the truth of our battles with the Plains Indians; so in a way, we were breaking a trail.
When I came home and when we put together the notes my wife had made and the sum of our experience, I wrote the book called The Last Frontier, and it was published by Duell, Sloan and Pearce in 1941.
I was totally unprepared for the torrent of praise it received. Pearl Harbor was still in the future, but against the suffering of the people in occupied Europe, it took on the form of a sort of parable. The book became a best-seller my first and it has been translated into fifty-one foreign languages. It has sold, through its various editions, over a million copies; and now, in my eighty-second year, it has been brought back into print.
At the time of its first publication, Carl Van Doren, the historian, said of it: "I do not know of any other episode of Western history that has been so truly and subtly perpetuated as this one. A great story lost has been found again, and as here told promises to live for generations."