THE WESTWARD expansion of the United States in the 19th century is one of our most enduring cultural myths and, for better or worse, one of our most important achievements as a nation. Images of the West have become ingrained in our popular memory, and, as Bil Gilbert writes in Westering Man, "Frontier Heroes remain perhaps the most generally admired figures of our formal and folk history." In this absorbing biography and chronicle of westward migration, Gilbert, a seasoned journalist and historian of the Old West, reconstructs the life of the man who may have been the greatest frontier hero of them all.

Joseph Rutherford Walker, who lived from 1798 to 1876, is all but unknown today. During his lifetime, however, he was generally regarded as the most able explorer, guide, and leader of men in the West. He left few personal records behind, thus compelling Gilbert to search through obscure newspapers, courthouse records, memoirs and family recollections to document his peripatetic life.

Walker was born into a family of Scotch-Irish pioneers in the Tennessee wilderness. His forebears founded the Creek Nation in southwestern Virginia in 1732--then probably the westernmost English-speaking settlement in America--before moving to Tennessee. The Walker clan exemplified the self-reliance that Gilbert says was characteristic of the Scotch-Irish, whom he calls "the first Americans." "It is at least arguable," he adds, "that more than any other single happening, their collective response . . . to the Appalachian frontier created our cultural and behavioral norms."

Just after his 15th birthday, Walker fought (along with his brother Joel, 16, and their kinsman, Sam Houston) under Andrew Jackson against the Creek Indians in Alabama. Though perhaps offensive to modern sensibilities, skirmishes with Indians were an inescapable part of frontier life. Most Indian battles, Gilbert notes, occurred in the eastern states, not, as popularly thought today, on the western plains. He estimates that at least 5,000 whites and an equal number of Indians died in battles in the Appalachian wilderness, but only 362 white settlers were killed by Indians between 1840 and 1860 on the overland trails of the West. The Walker family alone lost 15 members in Indian fights before 1800.

The Walkers had always been a little restless, and in 1819 they moved from Tennessee to Missouri, near present-day Independence. Young Walker and his brothers soon began riding the western trails and trapping. As the last American outpost before Indian and Mexican territory to the west, Independence became a boom town. Walker was elected the town's first sheriff, but sedentary life had little appeal for him. In 1832, he signed on as the guide for an ambitious trapping and exploring mission led by an Army captain named Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville. After a year, Walker and Bonneville split up, Walker leading a group of 40 men west from the Rockies toward California. In the fall of 1833, they were in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where no white men had ever set foot. Gilbert writes:

"This was a veteran party, and probably not a man in it had not previously been very cold and hungry and at times lost; but none had experienced physical and psychic hardships on the scale they found in the Sierra. . . . Shortly they were above the snow and often the tree line, trying to cope with snow-filled crevasses, icy rock walls and cliffs down which they had to rope themselves and their horses. They struggled ahead on half rations, making many camps where they spent a freezing night without either food or fire, huddled in their blankets and wet buckskins. The fear of avalanche and rock slides was constant."

They survived by eating 17 of their horses before Walker led them out of the mountains through the Yosemite and San Joaquin Valleys to the Pacific Ocean. The only injury of the journey came when a mountaineer received a broken arm from an attack by a grizzly bear.

Westering Man is filled with dozens of such vivid tales. But Gilbert does much more than burnish the image of the Old West. He discusses the importance of fur trading, the changing conditions that made overland migration desirable, and, perhaps most important, the relations between whites and Indians on the frontier. Like most other prominent mountain men, Walker lived for long periods among Indians and had a wife from the Snake tribe. He was respected by most western tribes and so widely known that a notorious Ute chief named Walkara, whom Gilbert describes as a "Sagebrush Captain Kidd," took to calling himself Joe Walker when among whites.

The real Joe Walker kept exploring, became moderately prosperous by selling horses, and after 1840 guided Oregon-bound settlers through the mountains. In 1846, he met by chance the ill-fated Donner party before they ascended the Sierras. He warned them that the trail they planned to follow would be dangerous and recommended a safer route. The Donners ignored his advice and called him a "Missouri Puke" because of his origins in the southern wilderness. Walker also led an expedition for the vainglorious John C. Fr,emont, "The Great Pathfinder," but broke with him and later said, "Fr,emont, morally and physically, was the most complete coward I ever knew."

Walker continued his "tramps," as he called them, until he was nearly 70 years old. Almost without exception, Walker's men--and some of them were outlaws and gunfighters--held him in esteem. One who rode on Walker's last expedition across the Rockies into central Arizona described him as "the kindest man I ever knew." At 6 feet 4 inches tall and 220 pounds, Walker was a commanding figure in the wilderness. He wore buckskin clothes and was a "burly, poker-faced man, with hair flowing to his shoulders and cavalier mustaches sweeping down into his beard." He never boasted of his 50 years on the frontier, saying only, "We opened the door and held it open to civilization, and civilization will do the rest."

The account of Walker's life is endlessly fascinating, but this book is more than a biography. Gilbert's diligence and observations help clarify many hazily held ideas about the West. He sketches numerous frontier encounters and the personalities of colorful figures with a deftness novelists could envy and in a crisp, engaging style. Westering Man ought to be read alongside the classic works on the West by Bernard De Voto, William Goetzmann, George R. Stewart, and John D. Unruh.

In an epilogue, Gilbert relates an eerie experience that occurred to him while he was camped in the Sierras, where Walker had passed in 1833. Sleeping under the stars, Gilbert had a dream, though it had "a quality unlike that of any previous dream I had had." In this dream or vision, he was transported back to a 19th-century Missouri tavern and found himself face-to-face with Walker. "I don't know exactly how to say this," Gilbert said to Walker, "but I am not from your time. I lived, or I live, later than you did." Gilbert asked about Benjamin Bonneville, Walker's partner in the 1830s. Among other things, Walker said, "Lieutenant William Montgomery introduced me to Benjamin Bonneville." Gilbert had never heard of Montgomery, but on a whim he asked the historical library at the Army War College if any record of him existed. "The archivist shortly turned up the information that a Lieutenant William Montgomery, a West Pointer, had served at Fort Leavenworth in 1827 and thereafter at several other border posts, where he would have been from time to time a messmate of Benjamin Bonneville. Leavenworth was only a few miles upstream from Independence, where Walker, in 1827, was the sheriff. It seems impossible that two men of roughly the same age, both concerned with frontier affairs and living in such a sparsely settled area, were not acquainted."

Gilbert professes no credence in ghosts, but he does believe--as we all must--that the thoughts and actions of earlier people affect our own beliefs and the spirit of our times. In this sense, Walker can be said to be almost the perfect embodiment of our American ideal of rugged, dignified individualism. Here is a man whose quiet, adventurous life we can't help but admire. To read of Walker's accomplishments is both humbling and invigorating. He is a true American hero.