My brother, the historian

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This week one of Utah and the West's most eminent historians turns 60. He has won dozens of awards, been awarded prestigious fellowships and lectured as far afield as Italy.

He even appeared with Russell Crowe in the remake of the Western classic, "3:10 to Yuma." (OK, he's in the companion DVD, elucidating on the history of Old West outlawry.)

Will Bagley also happens to be my brother.

For years he wrote a column in this space called "History Matters." It was a good label. On one level it alludes to sifting evidence for the salient fact; on another it means that history is not bunk.

To Will, history is not dead. I have seen him wade into a discussion and passionately defend the honor and reputation of someone he felt was being slighted. That the person in question is dead and long past caring is beside the point.

His best-known work to date, Blood of the Prophets , is a gripping narrative of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the largest white-on-white murder in north America.

As it deals with Mormons, Gentiles, a U.S. Army marching on Utah and the LDS Church hierarchy, it wasn't a task for a shrinking violet.

Some disagree with Will's conclusions, but be aware before stepping into the ring with my brother that he has an uncanny recall for people, places and events from a hundred years ago. (On the other hand, it's easy to trip him up on personal events from last week.)

His mastery of Western trail history is on display in his latest book, So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California 1812--1848 . It leaves one with the impression that Will knows not only the names, but the personal history of every mountain man, explorer, shifty promoter or pioneer who crossed the plains and tumbled out of the Rockies.

For example, there is George Bush. A half-black freeman from Missouri, Bush, along with his white wife and five children, embarked for the West in 1844. Established and prospering in Oregon, he would save the lives of dozens of destitute late arrivals by parceling out his crop.

"He was a true American," an acquaintance marveled, "and yet he was without a country ... the law would not protect him; he could not hold landed property; his oaths would not be taken in a court of law," all because, "he had some Negro blood."

The earliest pioneers never expected their wagons to make it all the way to the coast. If you were lucky, you could cannibalized parts to make a cart once you hit the mountains and push on for another couple hundred miles before it too fell apart. Unlucky, and you might cannibalize each other.

And if, in the early 1840s, you happened to stumble out of the mountains, starving and nearly naked, into Sutter's Fort in California or Fort Vancouver in Oregon, you could count on being outnumbered by Mexicans and Polynesians.

(Hundreds of Hawaiians were employed by the Hudson's Bay Company in Oregon. The Owyhee River in Idaho is named for an Hawaiian killed there in the 1820s. Sutter was accompanied by Hawaiian laborers when he established his fort on the Sacramento).

Not to mention the Native Americans, who viewed the growing stream of Americans first with ambivalence, then outright panic and alarm.

By the time the Mormons began their move in 1847, the way west was fairly well established. Gentiles and Saints traveled parallel, but never together, until the Mormons detoured south to the Great Basin and the Wasatch Range.

Gentile trains were alarmed by rumors that "large bodies of Mormons, well-armed," were "swarming" across the river at Council Bluffs. Fearful of stories of old enemies heading west, the Mormons asked for an Army escort. As in most cases with groups where there is no contact, each was sure the other was plotting some bloody deed.

Some may be disappointed there is no mention of the Bear Lake Monster in " So Rugged and Mountainous ," a favorite theme when my brother wrote this column. I think he liked to air out the old lake serpent once in a while to pull our collective leg, and not because he believed in it.

I think.

Pat Bagley is the cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Pat and Will collaborated on This is the Place, A Crossroads to Utah History," in 1996.