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History vs. Genealogy vs. Historical Fiction

“History and genealogy…are two radically divergent views on the past.  The first says ‘This matters.’ The second says, ‘This matters to me.'”  John Sedgwick in the New York Times

History, Genealogy, Historical Fiction

Historians such as John Sedgwick tend to scoff at genealogists’ efforts to track down their ancestors by pouring over demographic records and old newspapers, using on-line services to trace family connections or spitting into DNA collection tubes. Historians have a “so what?” attitude. Until, as Sedgwick reports, he learned that an ancestor of his, was involved in a historic event for the Cherokee Nation. Then the civil war which erupted over the issue of the Cherokee Nation’s removal to the Oklahoma Territory became not just something that mattered historically but something that mattered to Sedgwick personally.

Writers of historical fiction see an obligation to present their stories in an accurate historical context and frequently do extensive research to learn the accurate details, scenes and key events of the historical time. Having done this extensive research, writers become engaged and committed to the historical context of their story. This sometimes tempts them to provide several pages of historical description and background which fascinates them but which tends to bore the reader. Historical fiction writers, then must continuously ask the question, “Does this background matter to my story?”

Here is an example of a slice of history that mattered in the pioneer West, mattered in the search for information about my grandfather and mattered in the development of my story.

Mattered to Me

As a lover of history, an amateur genealogist and a writer of historical fiction, I find these questions of “what matters” intriguing. In my genealogical research looking for information about my shadowy grandfather, I was searching for potential reasons why he might have abandoned his wife and family and where he might have gone. I hoped that information might give me clues about where I might find him in the public records. What mattered to me was finding places to look in public records in Texas; information about the “overland outfit” he worked for in the Dodge City area and how he might have ended up in Wyoming to marry my grandmother.

Historic scene, hand loom

Mattered to the Story

Unfortunately, I did not find my grandfather in the public records during a period of thirteen years. I could not find information to help me understand his disappearance nor how he got to Wyoming to marry my grandmother. I decided to write the story as fiction. I would need to creatively develop the story of my grandfather’s disappearance. I had a hypothesis that he joined a cattle drive and headed north from Texas based on clues in a deposition in which he said he “worked cattle.” Using that hypothesis, I researched the social and economic events of the longhorn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City. What mattered to my story then were the perils of the cattle drive and the lawless character of Dodge City . Yet neither of these events had mattered to me in my genealogy research.

Mattered in History

In the history of the West, the cowboys leading cattle drives north and the lawlessness of Dodge City were infamous for a short period of time. They mattered in the history of settling the West, but they were soon diminished by the impact of the settlers claiming free land, often called “nesters,” cattle quarantines and the civilizing influence of families and women. These events historically had a much larger impact in the settlement of the west and really didn’t matter to me in my genealogy pursuit or in writing my historical novel.

Sedgwick says that as a historian he couldn’t take the story past the facts but as a genealogist he could imagine the feelings and physical encounters expressed in the conflict he describes. In my own experience, both the events of history and the documented facts of births, deaths and census rolls of genealogy are fact based. I found the facts are without the emotions of fear, sadness, frustration and joy or the insight from learning the motivation for abandoning a wife and family. Imagining emotions, motivations and creating dialogue makes a story more engaging to the reader looking for opportunities to understand history and identify with characters who made a difference in their time. It has been both a way to learn more history and to identify and understand my ancestors.

Exploring an example from my novel, Sarah’s Secret shows how history, genealogy and historical fiction are intertwined. I needed to use ideas from all three.

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2 Mar
2018

“It’s So Cold!”

hut in blizzard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a howling blizzard with below freezing temperatures and white-out conditions. My grandmother, crippled from rheumatoid arthritis, and her two youngest children, one of whom was my dad, were living miles from any neighbors.  Dried corn cobs used for fuel for the stove to warm their modest one-room house were gone. The wind howled and showed no signs of letting up. She could not, as an invalid, manage herself to go the barn for more corn cobs. Grandma refused to allow my father, still a small boy, to go out in the blinding white-out blizzard for fear that he would get lost and freeze to death. So, she decided to burn her precious books to keep warm. (from a family story passed down to me.)

The last few weeks in the Bay Area we have experienced unseasonably cold weather. We are bundled in warm jackets, scarves, gloves and hats to keep out the cold wind. And we complain to friends and colleagues and even strangers at the store or in the elevator, exclaiming “It’s so cold!” Yet, our cold weather is nothing like the below zero temperatures with deep snow drifts that other parts of the country have experienced this winter.

It is a minor inconvenience compared to the family story above or the incredible winters our ancestors experienced on the prairie.

I have been reading Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, which describes the incredible winters suffered by Laura Ingalls¹ and her family with the other South Dakota homesteaders in 1881.²

Construction of sod houses had been abandoned on the South Dakota prairie in favor of cheap goods shipped by rail. Americans seem to always prefer the latest and easiest approach even if it is not the most effective. Shacks with board and batten construction with a layer of tar paper for insulation offered little protection from the wind and snow blowing in through the nail holes. The only heat source was a single wood stove.

pot belly stove

Blizzard followed blizzard. The snow banks piled twenty-five feet high. The last train with supplies came to De Smet, South Dakota in early January, 1881. A hundred people were trapped in town, hoping for a lull or a thaw which never happened. The Ingalls family also expected a barrel shipment by train of winter clothing and a Christmas turkey. It never arrived.

They ran out of coal to burn in the stove and began burning hay producing a little warmth. “There was no meat, no butter, no fruit, no coffee or tea. Sugar ran out and the cow went dry.”³ The Ingalls family began grinding seed wheat saved for next year’s crop. The entire town was barely surviving and starvation loomed. Seed wheat was running out. Two men, one of whom was Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, volunteered to drive twelve miles south with a horse and sled to find the farmer rumored to have wheat left from last spring’s crop. They managed to find the farmer, negotiate for the wheat and return to De Smet before the next blizzard struck. They saved a hundred townspeople from starvation.

Finally, the first of April the weather warmed after four months of no fresh supplies of food or fuel. The first trains that arrived in May carried farm machinery and telegraph poles. A riot was eminent until a freight car with provisions was discovered, broken open and rationed out. The Ingalls’s Christmas barrel finally arrived in late spring with the long-anticipated turkey still frozen.

The sacrifices made by homesteaders and pioneers are almost unfathomable for us. It must have been a very painful sacrifice for my grandmother to burn her books. She was a school teacher who placed a high value on education. She had collected her treasured books over a life-time. But she felt she had no choice. Spending days in a dark underground dugout is unimaginable for us. Yet the experience of characters in my novel, Sarah’s Secret, Sam and the widow Peggy and her daughter during a frightful white out blizzard in Kansas was common among our pioneer ancestors.

The Ingalls family took in a young couple and baby without a home into their small crowded home. It meant stretching the dwindling supply of food to nine mouths. Laura was scathing when she wrote in her journal how thoughtless and rude the husband of this family was in grabbing more than his share of the sparse food before his own wife or anyone from the host Ingalls family. Charles Ingalls may have felt obligated and certainly felt they couldn’t put them out into the blizzard. It was a generous sacrifice by his family.

Blizzard in City

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These stories are a good reminder for me. I can no longer complain about the cold, windy weather. I am grateful for food, a warm secure home and our modern conveniences. Are you?

—————————
¹Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House Series”
²The stories reported below are from Fraser’s book.
³Fraser, p. 110-111.

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21 Dec
2017

Christmas Traditions in 19th Century America

Christmas Traditions in 19th Century

This is the second in a series of explorations of the holiday traditions at the time of my grandparents, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This blog was first published on 12/14/15.

As this Christmas season bustles with tree decorating and shopping, gift giving and holiday parties, and children’s letters to Santa Claus, I wonder what Christmas was like in the time of my grandparents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. We often think that the traditions of Christmas have been handed down through the many generations of our multi-ethnic heritage. I discovered that most of the holiday celebrations and activities we observe today emerged in mid-nineteenth century America.

Christmas Holiday Barely Noticed

Americans, religious or not, northern or southern, barely noticed the Christmas holiday as late as the beginning of theChristmas Tree nineteenth century. The “creation of an American Christmas was a response to social and personal needs that arose at a particular point” in our history, concludes Penne Restad in History Today. The customs that emerged, addressed the insecurities, conflicts and confusion created by the civil war, urbanization and industrialization.

Christmas was not a holiday in the early colonies of the Puritans. In fact, the holiday was anathema and illegal for the Puritans who considered it raucous and sinful. They also banned any celebration because “Christmas” does not exist in the Bible nor did they believe that Jesus was born in December but rather in September. Christmas is often traced to the effort by Pope Julius I who chose December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ to co-opt a Roman pagan ritual characterized by food drink and revelry. Thus, the lack of any theological justification for Christmas allowed the holiday to emerge in America as an event to be celebrated by the diverse ethnic, mostly Christian, immigrants to this country.  The ‘American’ Christmas holiday captured the sometimes conflicting themes of “commercialism and artisanship, as well as nostalgia and faith in progress, that defined late nineteenth-century culture,” according to Restad.

Albert_Chevallier_Tayler_-_The_Christmas_Tree_1911Popularity Grew

The popularity of celebrating the Christmas holiday grew after the Civil War, and the message of peace and goodwill resonated with many Americans who yearned for reconciliation and unity. By the end of the nineteenth century many of the familiar components and traditions as described by Robert McNamera in “The History of Christmas Traditions” of our modern Christmas had begun to take hold throughout the country. German settlers had introduced the tradition of the Christmas tree. It became popular outside German communities after Prince Albert, the German-born husband of Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in the 1840’s. Decorating Christmas trees and the commercially boosted practice of giving gifts and sending Christmas cards blossomed in the 1870-80’s.

Santa Claus face, rosy cheeksSt. Nicholas was considered the patron saint of Early Dutch settlers who practiced the ritual of hanging stockings. Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” often called “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823. Thomas Nast, a famous cartoonist is credited with creating in 1863, the modern portrayal of Santa Claus showing him on a sleigh and introducing the notion that Santa lived at the North Pole keeping a workshop with elves. In 1897 a young girl wrote to a New York newspaper and received a response from editor, Francis Pharcellus Church. It became the most famous newspaper editorial ever printed. The eloquent editorial asserted in an often quoted sentence, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Santa_Coming_Down_the_Chimney_Drawing

 

Christmas Traditions Firmly Established

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the popular traditions of Christmas celebration were firmly established broadly throughout the country. Ethnic Christian and Jewish communities added their own traditional twists. Families from humble circumstances found ways of sharing the joys of the season with handmade Christmas decorations and gifts, writing Christmas letters instead of purchasing cards and cooking more modest meals to share with family and neighbors.

What Are Your Family Traditions?

Do you have special traditions in your family? Are there special decorations that have been handed down? Do you have favorite foods that are served at Christmas dinner? Did Santa or St. Nick visit your house? How do you imagine the holidays were celebrated by your ancestors? Please share your traditions and stories below.

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13 Nov
2017

Thanksgiving, The American Holiday

Autumn Bouquet to Celebrate Thanksigving, Bev Scott

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that Thanksgiving did not become a permanent official national holiday until 1941 when Congress established the fourth Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving Day?

Today, Thanksgiving is a most American holiday tradition in which we gather with friends and family to share a sumptuous feast and express our gratitude.   Many of us assume Thanksgiving in North America began with the Pilgrims story of Thanksgiving.  The roots of our Thanksgiving can be traced back to the ancient traditions of celebrating the bounty of the harvest.  I also discovered there were earlier ceremonies by other British colonists and Spanish explorers in North America before the Plymouth celebration of 1621.  Although Thanksgiving in the colonies became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century, the first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 by the Continental Congress.  The early Presidents continued to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving but it was not an official holiday.  In fact, by the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving was limited to individual state observances and had evolved from the religious and civil day of commemoration and giving thanks to a family holiday of feasting.  President Lincoln was convinced to declare a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to unite the war-torn country.  Lincoln’s successors proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day each year until it became a permanent official holiday in 1941.

In researching my family history and writing the story of “Sarah’s Secret”, I often found myself thinking about life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries compared to my life today.  Since I did not inherit any family traditions of Thanksgiving, my curiosity led me to explore some of the history of one of this favorite of American holiday which combines the ancient traditions of harvest festivals and the religious observances of the Puritans grateful and giving thanks for their survival after a year of sickness and scarcity.

Without family stories or traditions, I used my imagination about how my grandparents might have celebrated Thanksgiving Day.  Since it was not a firm national holiday and observed differently by state, my grandparents might not have even celebrated Thanksgiving as struggling homesteaders.  Certainly, after my grandfather died leaving my grandmother in dire and impoverished circumstances, her ability to provide an extravagant feast would have been very limited.  Yet, the tradition of acknowledging God’s blessings, giving thanks and expressing gratitude would have been important to my grandmother, who had a strong Christian faith.  I imagine that when the President of the United States did declare a day of Thanksgiving, which may or may not have been in November, that she probably commemorated the day.  She may have cooked something special, maybe a wild game or fowl caught by my grandfather or her oldest son.  I am convinced that she would ensure that she and her family offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives.  Since her birthday was November 24th and often fell on Thanksgiving, I also imagine that she probably ignored or discounted any celebration of her November birthday as too frivolous and extravagant.

Greetings! And Happy Thanksgiving, from Bev Scott

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful not only for my comfortable twenty-first century life, but I am also grateful for the opportunity to write about the strong courageous woman who was my grandmother.  Although her birthday this year falls on the day after Thanksgiving, I will honor her especially for her inspiration.  I have so much respect for this proud woman who was left a widow and raised her five children while she struggled with illness and poverty.

Do you have inherited family traditions on Thanksgiving?  What do you imagine your grandparents or great grandparents did to celebrate a day of family feasting or to express gratitude and give thanks in their faith on Thanksgiving Day?

(Previous versions of this article have been published in “The Writing Life” in 2015 and 2016.)

 

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11 Jul
2017

The Lone Ranger was Black*

Was the Lone Ranger modeled after Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. deputy marshal who worked thirty-two years in the Arkansas and Oklahoma territories in the late 1800’s?  He may have been.

Lone Ranger, Tonto

“The Lone Ranger” classic TV and radio shows embedded this image of the character (with Tonto) into American lore.

History Is Biased

“The Lone Ranger was Black: Reintegrating Minority Viewpoints into Historical Fiction.” This intriguing title of one of the sessions offered at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland drew me in.  The session addressed the issue of bias in our history and the impact of that bias on authors of historical fiction.  Today we no longer view history as “the truth” but rather a story told through the lens of the teller.  Did you love the Lone Ranger when you were growing up?  I did.  We assumed he was a courageous (and white) lawman.  That’s how the story was told.

Readers of historical fiction express their fondness for this genre because they like a particular historical period and enjoy learning from fiction set in an historical context.  Readers also say they want accurate history in the stories they read.  Historical fiction writers have a responsibility to the historical record.  But what record?

American history, Black history, buffalo soldiers

Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry or the 9th Cavalry, while stationed at Yosemite National Park. ca. 1899 (Shutterstock).

Finding Alternative Viewpoints

A key question for authors of historical fiction is how to tell stories and develop characters with lives extremely different from their own given the bias of historical sources.  How do we find alternative viewpoints?  How can we do justice to the painful experiences of non-dominant characters in our stories?

Most of us have heard the story of Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  From the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne perspective, they believed they were betrayed because their treaty rights were ignored after gold was discovered on native lands.  White Americans saw the Indians as wild and bloodthirsty and stubbornly refusing to move to the reservation.  For many of us, we learned only the white American history version growing up.

Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger

When we watched and admired the Lone Ranger as children we accepted how he was portrayed.  Yet, he probably was based on the real-life story of Bass Reeves.  Reeves, a former slave, whose exploits were famous, was imposing at 6’2”.  The first black lawman west of the Mississippi, he cut a striking figure on his large gray (almost white) horse, while wearing his trademark black hat and twin .45 Colt Peacemakers cross-draw style. He was never touched by a bullet although he brought in 3000 criminals alive and 14 dead, killed in self-defense.  Reeves was called the “Indomitable Marshall.”  He left silver dollars as his calling card.  Other similarities to the Lone Ranger included his friendship and knowledge of Native American tribes and languages and his use of disguises to capture those he pursued.  The racism in our culture probably prevented the Lone Ranger hero from being portrayed as a black lawman.

Lone Ranger, Bass Reeves

“Who WAS that Masked Man?” Was it Bass Reeves?

The historical narrative is actually composed of multiple narratives.  We have often learned only one.  Most of the stories about homesteaders on the prairie who risked their lives and battled extreme heat and white-out blizzard conditions portray them as white.  In doing the research for my historical novel, “Sarah’s Secret,” I discovered a little-known town in Kansas called Nicodemus which drew freed slaves to homestead in the surrounding area after the Civil War.

Offering an Opposing Voice

As writers of historical fiction, we have an obligation to our readers to offer an accurate portrayal of both our characters and the historical context.  Our discussion in this conference session emphasized the importance of deep knowledge and experience of the culture in which our story is set as well as a recognition of the historical biases of the sources we are using.  This is especially important if the writer is writing in a cultural context other than her own.

Writing historical fiction provides us an opportunity to balance the bias of history by including an opposing voice of the non-dominant group in the story.  Since my protagonist, Sarah was traveling North by wagon through Kansas to return to Nebraska and her family, I thought it would add interest to the story to describe Sarah and her children unexpectedly encountering a black family in the middle of Kansas living near Nicodemus.

Sarah follows a narrow path with her seriously ill daughter to find help.  She discovers a welcoming family descended from former slaves who willingly share their modest home for several days while Sarah nurses her daughter back to health.  Her sons have fun with the son of the family. This was also an opportunity to include an opposing voice to traditional bias when Sarah tells her concerned son stories about her own and her father’s rejection of slavery, support for the Union in the Civil War and her family’s generosity toward “Negro” families when she was a child.

Have you been surprised when you learned a different narrative from the “official record?” Tell us about it.

*Thanks to J. James Cotter for leading the session “The Lone Ranger was Black: Reintegrating Minority Viewpoints into Historical Fiction” at the Historical Novel Society Conference, June 2017

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8 Nov
2016

The Tradition of Thanksgiving

blog by Bev Scott, vintage postcard for thanskgiving

Did you know that Thanksgiving did not become a permanent official national holiday until 1941 when Congress established the fourth Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving Day?

Today, Thanksgiving is a most American holiday tradition in which we gather with friends and family to share a sumptuous feast and express our gratitude. Many of us assume Thanksgiving in North America began with the Pilgrims story of Thanksgiving. The roots of our Thanksgiving can be traced back to the ancient traditions of celebrating the bounty of the harvest. I also discovered there were earlier ceremonies by other British colonists and Spanish explorers in North America before the Plymouth celebration of 1621.

Although Thanksgiving in the colonies became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century, the first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 by the Continental Congress. The early Presidents continued to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving but it was not an official holiday. In fact, by the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving was limited to individual state observances and had evolved from the religious and civil day of commemoration and giving thanks to a family holiday of feasting. President Lincoln was convinced to declare a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to unite the war-torn country. Lincoln’s successors proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day each year until it became a permanent official holiday in 1941.

In researching my family history and writing the story of “Sarah’s Secret,” I have often found myself thinking about life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries compared to my life today. Since I did not inherit any family traditions of Thanksgiving, my curiosity led me to explore some of the history of one of this favorite of American holiday which combines the ancient traditions of harvest festivals and the religious observances of the Puritans grateful and giving thanks for their survival after a year of sickness and scarcity.

Turkey on a farm, line drawing, blog by Bev Scott

Without any family stories or traditions, I turned to my imagination about how my grandparents might have celebrated Thanksgiving Day. Since it was not a firm national holiday and observed differently by state, my grandparents might not have even celebrated Thanksgiving as struggling homesteaders. Certainly, after my grandfather died leaving my grandmother in dire and impoverished circumstances, her ability to provide an extravagant feast would have been very limited. Yet, the tradition of acknowledging God’s blessings, giving thanks and expressing gratitude would have been important to my grandmother. I imagine that when the President of the United States did declare a day of Thanksgiving, which may or may not have been in November, that she probably commemorated the day. She may have cooked something special, maybe a wild game or fowl caught by my grandfather or her oldest son. I am convinced that she would ensure that she and her family offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives. Since her birthday was November 24th and often fell on Thanksgiving, I also imagine that she probably ignored or discounted any celebration of her November birthday as too frivolous and extravagant.

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful not only for my comfortable twenty-first century life, but I am also grateful for the opportunity to write about the strong courageous woman who was my grandmother. I will honor her especially since Thanksgiving falls on November 24th this year. I have so much respect for this proud woman who was left a widow and raised her five children while she struggled with illness and poverty.

Thanksgiving Turkey drawing, blog by Bev Scott

Do you have inherited family traditions on Thanksgiving? What do you imagine your grandparents or great-grandparents did to celebrate a day of family feasting or to express gratitude and give thanks in their faith on Thanksgiving Day?

(A previous version of this article was published  in my blog “The Writing Life,” in 2015.)

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9 Aug
2016

Dodge City: The Wickedest Little City in the West (orig. post 5-3-16)

(Dear blog subscribers: Due to a technical glitch, you probably didn’t get a notice when it first was posted. So, I’m re-posting it in case you missed it. And, as always, your comments are welcome. Happy reading! Bev)


A letter in the Washington D.C.’s Evening Star of January 1, 1878, stated,

Dodge City is a wicked little town. Indeed, its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude, were the evidence in the later times positive of its possibility, that it was marked for special Providential punishment” (quoted in Legends in America).

As a young girl growing up in Montana, I remember listening to Gunsmoke on the radio with my family. Television arrived with one channel when I was in the eighth grade, but my parents didn’t see any use for it.  Since it was one of my favorite programs, I incorporated some phrases into my repertoire like, “…get out of Dodge!” Little did I expect that I would be researching the history of Dodge City and learning many ofGunsmoke Dodge City the true stories on which Gunsmoke was based decades later.

Dodge City was known as “The Wickedest Little City in the West” from its reputation of lawlessness and gunfights. It is associated with such famous gunslingers as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson. In my last blog, I talked about the missing information about my grandfather between 1879 and 1891, but I had two clues that he worked cattle, perhaps as a cook, with an outfit from Dodge City. I researched and even visited this historic town as background for my writing.

Early History of Dodge City

The early history of Dodge City begins in 1872, according to William Shillingberg who wrote Dodge City: The Early Years, 1872-1886, with a saloon and a general store established a five miles West of Fort Dodge.   Following the establishment of the first businesses, the railroad arrived in short order.  Soon Dodge City became a wide-open railroad town with stacks of buffalo Street Scene Dodge Cityhides lining the street.  Over one and a half million of them were shipped out.  According to legend, the train masters took their red caboose lanterns with them to visit the prostitutes in town launching the term “red light district.

Dodge City initially had no law enforcement. The dance halls and saloons, as well as the lawless atmosphere, attracted buffalo hunters, railroad men, and soldiers after long stints on the prairie.  Inevitably, fights occurred and many a gunfighter died and was buried with his boots on in Boot Hill.  By 1876, the buffalo had been killed off, and the buffalo hunters were out of business. Longhorn cattle drove business back to Dodge City. In a ten-year period, over 5 million cattle were shipped out of Dodge City. The cowboys who came with the cattle brought, even more, lawlessness, spreading Dodge City’s reputation as far as Washington, D.C.

Controlling the Lawlessness

The wild lawlessness prompted the mayor to request such a well-known gunman as Wyatt Earp for help.  Soon Earp was joined by Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Charlie Bassett as assistant deputies.  Marshal Matt Dillon in the Gunsmoke episodes was modeled aDodge City Kansas Lawmenfter these lawmen in Dodge City.

The first effort at controlling the lawlessness was an ordinance which established a “Deadline” where the railroad tracks ran through Dodge.  On the North side, in the commercial side of town, no gun toting was allowed.  However, so many were arrested for carrying their weapons, that the jails were filled.  South of the tracks, anything went.  Guns were allowed, and lawlessness and gunfights persisted in the taverns and brothels.  By 1876 the town had grown to 1200 with nineteen businesses licensed to sell liquor.

Doc Holliday, another famous gunslinger, associated with Dodge City, arrived in 1878 with a woman posing as his wife called Big Nose Kate Elder.  Although he occasionally provided professional services to town residents, he mostly drank and gambled at the Long Branch Saloon. Doc Holliday was considered one of the deadliest shooters of the West, but he followed the law while in Dodge City.

Experiencing Dodge City in My Story

The character in my story, Will, arrives in Dodge City with the cattle drive in 1878 excited to be in the famous town and wondering if he’ll meet Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson.  After loading cattle at the railyard, Will, and his two companions, Jake and Tom head to the Long Branch Saloon where Will spots a gunslinger or bounty hunter.  Jake, the boss of the cattle drive, approaches him to find out why he is watching the crew.

Will heard Jake say, “Lookin’ for someone?  That’s my crew you’re watchin’.”  Jake jerked his thumb toward the wranglers at the billiard table.  But Will couldn’t hear the stranger’s reply.

His mouth went dry and his gut clenched worried that this gunslinger was after him.  When Jake rejoined Tom and Will at the other end of the bar, Will had moved into the shadows to be less conspicuous. He wanted to be near the back door so he could make a quick escape.

His heart raced as Jake relayed the conversation.  “He’s looking for a gambler dressed as a hayseed.  Had a gunfight and killed some upstanding citizen in Fort Worth.  Reported to have joined a cattle drive.  This tough cowboy is looking over our crew.  Looking for a ‘Will Martin’.  Wants to take him in for the money.”

As he spoke, Will held his breath but his heart was pounding.  He slowly slunk toward the back door.  Jake looked directly at Will and with a firm voice over the noise in the Tavern said, “I told him we had no Will Martin on our crew.”

Suddenly, Will felt a gun barrel in his ribs.  (From unpublished manuscript, Trust, Betrayal and Forgiveness:  A Family Story)

Did you listen or watch “Gunsmoke” when you were growing up?  Do you have images of Dodge City as wicked, lawless town?  Did you like cowboy and Western movies?  Have you heard other stories of this famous time in our history?

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My Grandfather, a Cowboy?

Harvey D Scott photoMy paternal grandfather was an absent figure when I was growing up.  He wasn’t just absent; he didn’t exist.  My father didn’t know anything about him; my grandmother just dismissed any questions by changing the subject.  So, I assumed he didn’t exist.

During a trip to Washington DC, I visited the National Archives and uncovered the family secret that had humiliated my grandmother and been hidden from the rest of our family. I have written in previous blogs about the resulting genealogical journey to document H. D. Scott’s life. Unable to find all the details of the story, especially what happened to him between the time he abandoned his first family and married my grandmother, I decided to fictionalize the story.

Creating Sam

I have created the fictional character, Sam, in my story based on two clues about H.D.’s life between 1878 and 1891.  He “worked cattle” with an “outfit from Dodge City, Kansas”.  Sam escapes the Texas Rangers by becoming a cowboy and joining a cattle drive going north to Dodge City.   The years 1878-1879 are the peak of the cattle drives in the midst of the cowboy era.

Developing Sam’s character in some ways was easier because I had no preconception of my grandfather.  I knew he was thirty years older than my grandmother, but I didn’t find out if he was tough, distant and cold or warm, affectionate and funny. But, as a child, I knew my grandmother. What man would she have married?  I wrestled with the contradictions of my image of the man she would marry and the facts I had uncovered. My image of a man who abandoned his pregnant wife and five children didn’t seem like the kind of person she would choose to marry.

Cowboys

Given the era, the location and the clues, I had uncovered, I began to explore and learn about cowboys as a possible Cowboy Silhouettemodel for my grandfather. Today, we identify the cowboy with the West and the time of the cattle drives. However, history tells us that men worked cattle in Massachusetts, Florida, Alabama, Georgia.  But it was the men, one-fourth of whom were black, driving the longhorn cattle from Texas north, who became the folklore heroes we think of as cowboys. They spent long dusty days driving thousands of cattle across empty plains for hundred’s of miles. It was a dangerous life. They faced animals who were easily startled into a stampede, drought, lightning and thunderstorms, rattlesnakes, Indians, and outlaws. They ate grub from the cook wagon, slept on the ground and lived a lonely, spare existence.

Cowboys as folk heroes can be handsome, mysterious, courageous and charismatic. In fact, we have hundreds of stories in novels, movies, radio, and television that have charmed and fascinated us.  Consider Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger or Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon among many other cowboy personalities. The lore and lure of the Western way of life draw many “dudes” today to wear Western wear, reserve weeks at guest ranches in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana and attend rodeo’s, and Wild West shows displaying the skill and fearlessness of the cowboy.

As a person who I grew up in Montana with a family who live today’s Western way of life in Wyoming and Colorado, it was easy for me to imagine my character, Sam as a cowboy…Handsome, charming, independent, mysterious and attractive to my grandmother.

I have been engaged and challenged as I created Sam’s character. I am excited to be nearing the end with the hope of publishing the story this year.

Do you have cowboy heroes or favorite books or programs? What is your image of a cowboy?

Does Western lore bore you or lure you?

 

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3 May
2016

Dodge City: The Wickedest Little City in the West

A letter in the Washington D.C.’s Evening Star of January 1, 1878, stated,

Dodge City is a wicked little town. Indeed, its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude, were the evidence in the later times positive of its possibility, that it was marked for special Providential punishment” (quoted in Legends in America).

As a young girl growing up in Montana, I remember listening to Gunsmoke on the radio with my family. Television arrived with one channel when I was in the eighth grade, but my parents didn’t see any use for it.  Since it was one of my favorite programs, I incorporated some phrases into my repertoire like, “…get out of Dodge!” Little did I expect that I would be researching the history of Dodge City and learning many ofGunsmoke Dodge City the true stories on which Gunsmoke was based decades later.

Dodge City was known as “The Wickedest Little City in the West” from its reputation of lawlessness and gunfights. It is associated with such famous gunslingers as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson. In my last blog, I talked about the missing information about my grandfather between 1879 and 1891, but I had two clues that he worked cattle, perhaps as a cook, with an outfit from Dodge City. I researched and even visited this historic town as background for my writing.

Early History of Dodge City

The early history of Dodge City begins in 1872, according to William Shillingberg who wrote Dodge City: The Early Years, 1872-1886, with a saloon and a general store established a five miles West of Fort Dodge.   Following the establishment of the first businesses, the railroad arrived in short order.  Soon Dodge City became a wide-open railroad town with stacks of buffalo Street Scene Dodge Cityhides lining the street.  Over one and a half million of them were shipped out.  According to legend, the train masters took their red caboose lanterns with them to visit the prostitutes in town launching the term “red light district.

Dodge City initially had no law enforcement. The dance halls and saloons, as well as the lawless atmosphere, attracted buffalo hunters, railroad men, and soldiers after long stints on the prairie.  Inevitably, fights occurred and many a gunfighter died and was buried with his boots on in Boot Hill.  By 1876, the buffalo had been killed off, and the buffalo hunters were out of business. Longhorn cattle drove business back to Dodge City. In a ten-year period, over 5 million cattle were shipped out of Dodge City. The cowboys who came with the cattle brought, even more, lawlessness, spreading Dodge City’s reputation as far as Washington, D.C.

Controlling the Lawlessness

The wild lawlessness prompted the mayor to request such a well-known gunman as Wyatt Earp for help.  Soon Earp was joined by Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Charlie Bassett as assistant deputies.  Marshal Matt Dillon in the Gunsmoke episodes was modeled aDodge City Kansas Lawmenfter these lawmen in Dodge City.

The first effort at controlling the lawlessness was an ordinance which established a “Deadline” where the railroad tracks ran through Dodge.  On the North side, in the commercial side of town, no gun toting was allowed.  However, so many were arrested for carrying their weapons, that the jails were filled.  South of the tracks, anything went.  Guns were allowed, and lawlessness and gunfights persisted in the taverns and brothels.  By 1876 the town had grown to 1200 with nineteen businesses licensed to sell liquor.

Doc Holliday, another famous gunslinger, associated with Dodge City, arrived in 1878 with a woman posing as his wife called Big Nose Kate Elder.  Although he occasionally provided professional services to town residents, he mostly drank and gambled at the Long Branch Saloon. Doc Holliday was considered one of the deadliest shooters of the West, but he followed the law while in Dodge City.

Experiencing Dodge City in My Story

The character in my story, Will, arrives in Dodge City with the cattle drive in 1878 excited to be in the famous town and wondering if he’ll meet Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson.  After loading cattle at the railyard, Will, and his two companions, Jake and Tom head to the Long Branch Saloon where Will spots a gunslinger or bounty hunter.  Jake, the boss of the cattle drive, approaches him to find out why he is watching the crew.

Will heard Jake say, “Lookin’ for someone?  That’s my crew you’re watchin’.”  Jake jerked his thumb toward the wranglers at the billiard table.  But Will couldn’t hear the stranger’s reply.

His mouth went dry and his gut clenched worried that this gunslinger was after him.  When Jake rejoined Tom and Will at the other end of the bar, Will had moved into the shadows to be less conspicuous. He wanted to be near the back door so he could make a quick escape.

His heart raced as Jake relayed the conversation.  “He’s looking for a gambler dressed as a hayseed.  Had a gunfight and killed some upstanding citizen in Fort Worth.  Reported to have joined a cattle drive.  This tough cowboy is looking over our crew.  Looking for a ‘Will Martin’.  Wants to take him in for the money.”

As he spoke, Will held his breath but his heart was pounding.  He slowly slunk toward the back door.  Jake looked directly at Will and with a firm voice over the noise in the Tavern said, “I told him we had no Will Martin on our crew.”

Suddenly, Will felt a gun barrel in his ribs.  (From unpublished manuscript, Trust, Betrayal and Forgiveness:  A Family Story)

Did you listen or watch “Gunsmoke” when you were growing up?  Do you have images of Dodge City as wicked, lawless town?  Did you like cowboy and Western movies?  Have you heard other stories of this famous time in our history?

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18 Apr
2016

How to Avoid Being Crushed in a Stampede

This post is the first in a series about the era of the cattle drive from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas. 

“Ride! Ride like the devil! Ride for your life, man!  Stick spur in your pony’s flank, and press hard and press long; lean low over your saddle bow—speak quick, sharp words of encouragement and command to your beast, and ride for your life! For behind you, like the waves of a mad sea, are ten thousand frightened steers, and you are scarce the length of your horse ahead of them!  If your pony stumbles….if anything happens by which his speed is checked…the hoofs that are thundering at your heels shall tramp every semblance of humanity out of your body before you can utter a prayer or curse!” (quoted in “The Western: The Greatest Cattle Trail 1874-1886 by Kraisinger and Kraisinger)

Grandfather disappeared

My grandfather not only disappeared from his family in Weatherford, Texas after he took a load of corn to town in 1879, he also disappeared from the official records.  I could find no information in the 1880 census nor any other official record until he shows up filing a homestead claim in Glendo. Wyoming in 1891.  What was he doing in those missing years?

I never imagined my grandfather, H.D. Scott, involved in the famous longhorn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas.  But, I found two clues in the National Archive documents:  H.D., himself, claimed he worked cattle during that time and one of the government agents reported that he served as “a cook on an overland expedition” for an outfit from Dodge City.

Texas Cattle Drives

albuminLOCcowboysathchuckwagon3a18543rAs a result of these clues I began to explore the Texas cattle drives that began in the late 1860’s on the famous Chisholm Trail.  At the time it was the only trail through Indian Territory to Kansas.  Later, between 1874 and 1886, cattle were driven up the much longer Western Trail not only to Kansas but also up to Ogallala, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana according to The Western: The Greatest Cattle Trail, 1874-1886 by Gary and Margaret Kraisinger.  The cattle shipped from the Western Trail on rail cars headed east are reported to be over five million cattle!

TV, movies and novels have glorified the Texas cattle drive and the Cowboys that served as drovers.  Life on the trail was not very glamorous. Cowboys slept on the ground and ate monotonous food.   They coped with blistering sun, thunderstorms, floods and Indians.  It was lonely, and at the time very dangerous.

Wild Longhorn Cattle

The Longhorn was a defensive and skittish animal descended through natural selection on the range from Spanish and Anglo-American cattle.  These animals were wild, with long powerful legs and hard hoofs, capable of surviving long drives with minimal grazing feed.  The Kraisingers report that they could do “a several-hundred-mile trek and …still gain weight.”  But any sudden noise such as thunder and lightning, or strange event, lighting a match or the sound of a tin cup, could cause a frantic stampede such as described above.  The consequences could be gruesome:

“We went back to look for him, and we found him among the prairie dog holes, beside his horse.  The horse’s ribs were scraped bare of hide and all the rest of horse and man was mashed into the ground as flat as a pancake.  The only thing you could recognize was the handle of his six-shooter.  We tried to think the lightning hit him, and that was what we wrote his folks…But we couldn’t really believe it ourselves…I’m afraid his horse stepped into one of them holes and they both went down before the stampede.”  (quoted in Kraisinger and Kraisinger)

The drover’s job was to get the terrified animals under control by riding his mount abreast of the lead steer to turn them to run in a circle.  The circle could be miles wide but gradually as the cattle were exhausted they would mill in a circle and quiet down.  Rivers had to be crossed even in at flood stage.  There was a right way to negotiate a river that took the time of day, and outside influences into account.  Cattle, horses, and men could lose their lives in a fast-moving river.

The wave of homesteaders moving into former Indian Territories and the advent of barbed wire brought the era of Longhorn cattle drives to a close by 1886.  But during a short period of time, savvy organizers and contractors could make a fortune.  Some report over $100,000 according to Harry Drago! However, there was always a risk of losing upwards of 1500 head of cattle in a herd of 3000.  The drovers didn’t get rich.  They might receive $30.00 a month with $100 for the trail boss.  Some of them, though, did parlay their opportunity into becoming land owners with a herd of cattle.

Creating the Story

Once I determined that I would write my family story as fiction, the clues in the Archive documents lead me to explore this history and the stories of the cattle drives.  I have found both challenge and enjoyment in creating the story of my character’s experience as a cook on a Texas cattle drive.  Here’s a short excerpt from his second day on the drive:

He enjoyed the camaraderie on this crew.  It reminded him of his time in the Union Army–sleeping on the ground, boring food, dirty, no women or home comforts.  A hard life. But it was eased by the easy-going company of men joking with each other, telling stories or singing around the campfire.  Being here was like putting on old boots that have molded to your feet. He didn’t need to worry about these men learning his secret. Cowboys minded their own business.  He was sure their pasts weren’t pure and no one asked any questions, including Jake  (From Trust, Betrayal, and Forgiveness:  A Family Story).

 

     

 

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