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History Minute: Dorris Alexander Brown's life of books

by Bradly Gill | January 12, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

Dorris Alexander Brown, known as "Dee" to his friends, grew up surrounded by adventure, tragedy, and incredible tales. Coming from such a background, it was natural that he would become a renowned storyteller in his own right. As the author of 42 history books and novels spanning six decades, Brown would become one of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century.

He was born in 1908 in northwest Louisiana. His father, a logger, was killed in 1913 in a logging accident. Needing work, his mother moved with him and his two sisters to Stephens in southern Ouachita County to live with his grandmother. His mother would rise to become postmaster, while his grandmother told him and his sister stories about the frontier days of Arkansas and the Civil War.

By the 1920s, the community of Stephens found itself in the midst of the Oil Boom, with thousands of people swarming into the area in search of work, fame, and fortune. The Browns would move to Little Rock in 1924, where Dee Brown would graduate high school.

By 1927, he was a reporter for the Harrison Daily Times before attending college at what is now the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. He worked on campus as a librarian for several years, relishing his access to books before getting a job at the US Department of Agriculture Library in Washington, DC, in 1934. Here, he would publish his first novel, Wave High the Banner, in 1942.

During World War II, he was drafted into the army, serving as a librarian for the War Department. After the war, he completed a history book, Fighting Indians of the West with friend Martin F. Schmitt. In 1948, he also began work as a librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain. He would earn a masters degree and serve as a professor while he continued to write.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he gained respect with his Old West novels such as Yellowhorse (1956) and Cavalry Scout (1958) in addition to his history books. His western histories would examine the development of the American West from many different viewpoints, particularly with The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West (1958), The Fetterman Massacre (1960), and Showdown at Little Bighorn (1964).

Perhaps his most famous work was the 1970 classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This book recounted the decline and fall of the major Native American tribes of the West. His work recast the tribes not as savage enemies of westward expansion but rather as noble peoples repeatedly betrayed by broken treaties and forced into desperate battles to preserve their lands and their heritage. The book was adapted into an award-winning movie in 2007.

In 1972, he retired from the university and returned with his wife to Little Rock. He would continue to write extensively over the next three decades. He write about settlers with The Westerners (1974), the coming of the railroads in Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow (1977), and Civil War-based novels as Killdeer Mountain (1983) and Conspiracy of Knaves (1986). His later works would include two photoessays, American Spa: Hot Springs, Arkansas (1982) and Images of the Old West (1996).

UCA honored him with the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1988. In 1996, he was honored with the inclusion of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by the New York Public Library's Books of the Century List as one of the most important books of the century. Brown would continue writing until his passing in 2002. In the years afterward, UCA completed the Dee Brown Memorial Garden in his honor in 2015, and a library in Little Rock was named for him.

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