In his lifetime, Conrad Richter authored some of the most accurate depictions of Frontier America in print. His novels combine folklore, fiction, and true accounts of the frontier in tales that stretch over several generations of settlers. First published in magazines, then books, then adapted to movies, his stories are an essential part of our history as a country of pioneers.
Richter himself was the descendant of the working settlers of his books. His heritage included South German, French, English, and Scotch-Irish blood, all common immigrant groups. Born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, he drew his early life experiences from settlers and their stories. Richter once described how this history affected him: "My father, grandfather, uncle, and great uncles were preachers. Their fathers, however, had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers, and I think that in my passion for early American life and people I am a throwback to these."
Richter attended school until he was fifteen when he was "obliged to go to work." He spent the next years in various odd jobs, which he could rattle off like any teenage worker ("I drove teams, clerked, pitched hay, was a bank teller, country correspondent, timberman, and subscription salesman.") One week a local paper published a series of articles about "newspaper men," and Richter was hooked. He began writing for a small Pennsylvania journal and at nineteen, was the editor of Patton, Pennsylvania's Courier. After several more reporting jobs, he took a position in Cleveland as a private secretary. There, he sold his first short story; "How Tuck Went Home" appeared in the Cavalier September 6, 1913. Another story "Brothers of No Kin" was printed in the Forum; author Edward J. O'Brien believed it to be the best story of 1914. When it was reprinted in several other papers, editors called Richter to request more of his work. He remembered, "It was the sort of opportunity no youth today would fail to grasp, but I was too young and callow and too stubborn."
Richter was stubborn, but he was also newly married-and the papers had said nothing about payment. Although the Forum did give him a check for twenty-five dollars, he did not see himself making a living off of fiction. He told himself "I had just been married, had sober obligations, and told myself stubbornly that if this was what one got for the 'best' story of the year, I had better stick to business and write in my spare time only the type of story that would fetch a fair price, which I did."
In 1928, Richter and his family moved from Pennsylvania to warmer, dryer, Albuquerque, New Mexico. His wife, Harvena Achenbach, needed the climate change for her declining health, so Richter closed his business in the East and settled in the Southwest. What he found there was not just the cure for his wife's ailments, but a wealth of stories. He explored nearby Clark's Valley, listened to the local tall tales, and sat with a favorite neighbor John Minsker, who he described as "the ultimate of what folks used to call 'good company.'" In 1960, Richter paid tribute to Minsker in his article "Valley from the Past." In it, he described his friend's "indolent farming" and acute knowledge of the land, from hunting his food to predicting the weather. He remembered Minsker "talked copiously, anything to put off his work in the fields."
Armed with new friendships and lots of notes, Richter went back to his writing. His new focus on the American Southwest produced The Sea of Grass, a novel about the hardships of pioneering. It was later made into a movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Five other novels followed this admirable start, though his big success would come with The Awakening Land trilogy. The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950) followed the Luckett family's migration from Pennsylvania to Southeastern Ohio. It starts when settler Sayward Luckett Wheeler becomes mother to her orphaned siblings on the frontier, and ends with the story of her youngest son Chancey, a journalist in the years before the Civil War. The Town won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize and received high reviews across the country.
Richter returned to Pennsylvania in 1950, now an awarded author. He spent the last years of his life producing eight novels, a novelette, and several short stories and magazine articles. By far, his biggest success came with the first two volumes of an intended autobiographical trilogy, The Water of Kronos and A Simple Honorable Man. The Water of Kronos, based on Richter's Pennsylvania childhood, won the 1960 National Book Award. Scholar and historian Edwin W. Gaston praised the late author, writing, "[his] chief contribution is in historical fiction. His historical works reflect an understanding of early life, a feeling for history, and a knack for deftly expressing such understanding and feeling. No careful history of American fiction could ignore Richter's work."