Reviews of First Territory

First Territory: A Novel by Richie Swanson
Review by Sue Ellis Whispering Wind Issue #296 Vol 43 #4

Sunstone Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-86534-950-6
Paperback, 142 pp., $19.95


In 1855, 16-year-old Andrew Eaton agrees to the Washington territorial governor’s offer of five dollars of gold per day to act as interpreter at a mandated Walla Walla treaty council. The council is aimed at convincing several resistant Indian tribes to move onto reservation land so that settlers may safely enter the territory and begin farming. Andrew’s only credential for the job, other than being old enough to fight: He lived in Kamiakin country the previous year and learned Yakima, the language of a beguiling Indian girl he met there, who continues to occupy his thoughts.

Told from the young man’s point of view, the story jump-starts with keenly perceptive impressions of the odyssey upon which he has embarked, such as this rambling description of another interpreter, Dominique, who travels with him:

He smiled a petite grin for a big-shouldered man, his face leathery, brown as if stained by walnut juice, his lips and high-flung pompadour French-looking, his gaze swamp-water dark, savage from wintering and marrying in frozen caribou wilderness, but shrewd too, grim and confident from his British blood and schooling, and cajoling from factoring at Hudson’s Bay posts from the Saint Lawrence to Jasper country and finally to Fort Walla Walla.

The author, Richie Swanson, thoughtfully and realistically portrays the clash of cultures as the meetings between white authorities and Indian chiefs disintegrate into the Yakima War. Drawing upon almost thirty years of exploring North America on a bicycle, frequently visiting Indian reservations along the way, Swanson possesses both a studied and intuitive understanding of the time. The many fictional characters he has developed for the novel barely contain themselves within the boundaries of a page. They people the face-to-face meetings and savage battles with an intensity that takes a toll on Andrew as he struggles to avoid killing, to maintain his integrity, to find his lost love, and to represent both his countrymen and the interests of the Native Americans.

The writing is breathless, as if the young man can’t get the words out fast enough (or as if he is confessing). Swanson runs sentences together as Andrew might, describing what he sees though a 19th century lens and using the language of the time. I occasionally struggled to understand and had to re-read a sentence or paragraph, but the forcefulness of the writing and the authenticity of the subject propelled the story forward.

First Territory is altogether the most convincing piece of historical fiction I have ever read. The cumulative effect of the horror Andrew witnesses is easily felt by the reader, as is his declining hope for any peaceful confinement of the Indians, or a union between himself and the object of his affection.

There’s a wealth of well-researched history in First Territory, but it doesn’t stop there. The writing manages to be lyrical in spite of its straightforward telling, extracting images and emotions that endure long after the book has been loaned to a friend. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I’d recommend this novel to anyone interested in American history or the intricacies of human fallibility during times of great upheaval.


Sue Ellis lives and writes near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Some publishing credits include Christian Science Monitor, Mused, The Camel Saloon, and a promotional brochure for the North Pend Oreille Valley Lions’ Club Train Ride, a trip that, once taken, is relegated to vivid memory.



First Territory: A Novel by Richie Swanson
Review by Phyllis Morrela de la Garza
Old West Book Reviews December 2015

Sunstone Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-86534-950-6
Paperback, 142 pp., $19.95

This novel tells of a young white man’s experience during the 1855-1856 Yakima War in the Pacific Northwest. The protagonist is Andrew Eaton, who works as a translator between American politicians, the U.S military commanders, and the Indians, thus he is traveling with important people and getting in on all that is happening.

Andrew has learned the Indian language from his friendship with a beautiful Indian girl named Lalooh who ultimately does some translating too, since she has learned passable English from Andrew. However, throughout the story she stays with her family and as the story unfolds, she and Andrew only catch glimpses of one another.

Some background leading to this story, while only touched upon here, is the true debacle of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman who, ten years earlier before this story begins, had been brutally massacred along with twelve other white persons at their Mission in the Waiilatpu in what is now Oregon. Marcus was an American pioneer, doctor, and missionary among the Indians. Narcissa was one of the first white women to cross the continent. Their deaths occurred November 29, 1847. It is believed the Indians Marcus was trying to convert to Christianity became suspicious and enraged when a number of Indian children died in a measles epidemic and the Indians thought the Whitmans had poisoned them. Not until several white children died did the Indians understand the situation, but by then it was too late.

Now, ten years after the Whitmans’ deaths, there is continued feuding between the U.S. government, the various Indian tribes and white religious groups. Young Andrew finds himself caught in the desperate struggle between all these people as the Indian Wars in the Northwest finally grind to a close. Indian reservations are being established while leaders of the various tribes struggle between themselves as well as the new white government. Many misunderstandings, deep personal hatreds, loss of life and old traditional ways all come to a tumultuous clash by the end of the story.

Meanwhile, Andrew is in love with Lalooh and probably she has feelings for him too, but the situation is far too desperate and emotionally-charged for these two young people to resolve their differences and live happily ever after. Lalooh is faithful to her own people, even though she is roughly treated by an Indian who takes her for his wife. Andrew must watch and record while translating, and becomes embroiled in all the brutality on both sides. Andrew travels with his own people, while always on the lookout for Lalooh. His hatred for the white governor becomes deeply entrenched in his feelings as he is caught between his job as translator and what is happening to the Indians.

Author Richie Swanson spent nearly thirty years beginning in 1977 exploring Indian reservations in the Northwest and researching the People’s long traditions. He writes with carefully crafted original detail, painting word pictures that sometimes cause the reader to flinch. Swanson’s writing is bold and unforgiving, some battle scenes are painfully revealing. The surprise, the sudden and fearful attacks and their aftermath remind us of all our years of human tragedy, war after war. Swanson’s writing goes deeper than an easy to read novel, he teaches truth along with entertainment. He really drives home what a gutsy, well-schooled novelist can do when endeavoring to rise above the average story-teller.

Editor’s Note: The reviewer Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of numerous published books about the Old West, including the novel Widow’s Peak, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988.

Filed under: Old West Book Reviews





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