Dee Brown Biography
Dee Brown helped reinvent America’s understanding of Native Americans. Published in 1970, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was contemporaneous with the famous "Keep America Beautiful" commercial, which featured a Native American (played by a Sicilian American) in a canoe, shedding a tear over the pollution he saw. Dee Brown's sympathetic and rational view of Native Americans' history with the United States may have been informed by a childhood friendship with a Creek Indian boy. He also met Moses J. "Chief" Yellow Horse, who was the first "full-blooded" Native American to play Major League baseball.
In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Brown laid out the ugly truth of the subjugation, expulsion, and murder of Native Americans in the late 1800s. In doing so, he helped dispel misconceptions fueled by media that had continually portrayed Native Americans as “bad guys” in classic westerns. The book was Brown’s crowning achievement, not merely for its exploration of Native American history, but also for its exposure of American identity and the foundations upon which it was built.
Facts and Trivia
- Brown worked for the Department of Agriculture before serving in the military in World War II.
- Despite his fascination with the American West and Native Americans, Dee Brown was not a Native American himself, as was commonly assumed.
- Brown is best known as a writer, but he earned a master’s degree in library science and taught at the university level for several years.
- Brown published ten histories, most of which document the American frontier in the second half of the nineteenth century.
- A television film of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee premiered to great acclaim in the summer of 2007. It received seventeen Emmy nominations.
Dee Alexander Brown earned a reputation as one of the leading and most prolific writers about life in the early American West. He was born in the northern Louisiana town of Alberta. Before he and his younger sister were old enough for school, their father was killed and their mother moved the family across the border to Stephens, Arkansas. While their mother worked, the children were cared for by their grandmother. It was his grandmother who first aroused Dee’s interest in the world of the printed page. His mother also loved books and always made sure that their home had plenty. Before he entered the first grade, Dee was reading the works of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Much of the money that Dee earned as a boy was spent on books and the new pulp magazines with their fascinating stories. One of these magazines, Blue Book, published Dee Brown’s first short story while he was still in high school. The Brown family moved to the city of Little Rock so that Dee could attend a better high school. This gave him access to a good public library, which soon became his second home. He quickly became an admirer of such writers as Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner.
Several factors were involved in Brown’s developing an interest in history, the American West, and American Indians. The first was his reading of an edition of History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark. Visits from relatives who lived in west Texas provided further influence. Many of his boyhood companions were American Indians. He also met Moses Yellowhorse, a American Indian baseball player for the Arkansas Travelers. Years later, Dee Brown’s first western novel was entitled Yellowhorse.
After he finished high school, Brown got a job as a printer and a reporter for the Harrison Daily Times in Boone County. He often combined the two positions by composing accounts of news events directly on the Linotype instead of first using a typewriter. Later, deciding on a teaching career, Brown enrolled in Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas). However, by the time he graduated in 1933, he had decided instead to be a librarian, and in 1937 he received a library science degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Brown served in the Army during World War II. His basic training at Camp Forrest in Tennessee led to his first book, Wave High the Banner, based on the life of Davy Crockett.
In 1948, Brown became the agricultural librarian at the University of Illinois, where he later earned a master of science degree. Aided by Martin F. Schmitt, he published his first nonfiction book, Fighting Indians of the West. This became part of a trilogy of books by Brown and Schmitt that contained historical photographs.
Grierson’s Raid, the first of Brown’s Civil War histories, was followed by The Bold Cavaliers. During the 1960’s, Brown published eight books, including The Galvanized Yankees, which required painstaking research, and The Year of the Century: 1876, which Brown has called his favorite because of the enjoyable research.
For many years, Brown collected speeches, statements, and photographs of American Indian leaders from the late nineteenth century. Although it began as a small project for juvenile readers, this research led to his best-known book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This account of the tragic history of the western tribes was soon at the top of best-seller lists, surprising author and publisher alike.
In The Westerners, an illustrated history of the Western frontier, Brown discusses the reasons Americans desired to move to the frontier. This was followed by Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow, a fascinating and entertaining history of the Western railroads.
Although Brown stated his preference for nonfiction, disliking adding to the facts of history, during the 1980’s he published an excellent trilogy of historical novels. Creek Mary’s Blood follows an American Indian family from their roots in Georgia through Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee and into the twentieth century. Killdeer Mountain is set in the West, and Conspiracy of Knaves takes place during the last year of the Civil War.
In 1991, Brown published Wondrous Times on the Frontier, a nonfiction work describing the difficult, the tragic, and the humorous aspects of life in the early West. He borrowed from diaries, journals, and other firsthand accounts of those experiences. The American West is another collection of historical accounts and the individuals involved. In addition to his books, Dee Brown wrote many articles and short stories, many of them appearing in such magazines as American History (formerly American History Illustrated). He died in Little Rock in 2002 at the age of ninety-four.
Bodine, Paul S. “Dee Brown: Overview.” In Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by Dave Mote. New York: St. James Press, 1997. A helpful introduction.
Brown, Dee. Interview by Robert Dahlin. Publishers Weekly, March 21, 1980. Discusses Creek Mary’s Blood.
Freilicher, L. P. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: The Story Behind the Book.” Publishers Weekly, April 19, 1971. Discusses the content and popularity of the book with the author and publisher.
Hagen, Lyman B. Dee Brown. Edited by Wayne Chatterton and James H. Maguire. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1990. A volume from the Boise State University Western Writers series. Includes bibliographical references.
Klemesrud, J. “Behind the Best Sellers: Creek Mary’s Blood.” The New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1980. Gives Brown’s observations about this book and his plans for the future.