The myths, the legends, the reality
Laurel and Hardy fans look away now please. This is not a review of their film!
The ‘Wild West’ deserved its name in the early years as there was very little law enforcement and too many lawbreakers. The phrase was coined by a journalist from the ‘civilised’ eastern seaboard! However, to begin at the beginning….
The discovery of America by Columbus in 1492 (OK, maybe a Viking may have got there first?) resulted in a continuous stream of explorers finding their way into the hinterland and eventually over a few hundred years mapping the continent of America. Discovering it is one thing but making the land habitable is another. Despite the abundance of land it remained a commodity over which local arguments turned violent in the remote areas of this vast country.
The ‘Wild West’ was reckoned to be anywhere west of the Mississippi. It ran roughly from the Dakotas in the North to New Mexico in the south. California become part of the ‘Wild West’ when gold was discovered ‘…in them thar hills!’ Gold both then and now remains a metal over which criminals and bandits revert to violence. There were many journeys to the uninhabited lands in the USA but the most famous one was carried out by a couple of U.S Cavalry soldiers called Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. They were commissioned to do so by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804. The expedition lasted two years. Its objective was to explore and report on land recently acquired by ‘The Louisiana Purchase.’ A somewhat misleading title as it was not just the state of Louisiana that was purchased. Millions of square miles were bought from the French (Napoleon himself!) and doubled the size of the United States!
With continuous expansion westward towns started to appear along the trails taken by the wagon trains and the individual intrepid explorers! Sadly along with those intent on making a new life for themselves came those intent on making a criminal life for themselves in what was a lawless land of opportunity.
Before that however the violent quarrels were between the Native Americans and those they regarded as invaders. The Native Americans were fighting to uphold their culture and their way of life. A concept successive American governments from Washington onwards have failed to understand. There would be almost four hundred years of attacks and counter attacks including some dreadful massacres carried out by the U.S cavalry.
In addition to fighting the Native Americans the Mormons also found themselves under violent attack as they tried to find a place for their members to settle down. Many of their members were murdered before Utah became their home. They rather ruined their reputation by being responsible for the murder of 120 men, women and children passing through the state in 1857.
The American Civil War apart from its armies locked in a battle for supremacy also became the crucible for those bent on breaking the law and finding they could get away with it. William Quantrill with the support of the Confederate government became infamous for his attacks on Union soldiers, wagon trains, and railway trains carrying Union goods. He finally lost the support of the Confederates by his attack on Lawrence Missouri. Lawrence was a base for anti-slavery supporters. Its officials had decided to get back at Quantrill and his men by imprisoning their womenfolk. Something they would come to regret. In the high summer of 1863 William Quantrill led his men on a very organised raid on the town. 185 buildings were burnt to the ground and 150 men, women and children were killed. The Confederate government were appalled and immediately ceased all support for Quantrill. The man himself took his so-called army down to Texas to avoid the rigours of the northern winter. During this time Quantrill found himself out of favour. His once highly organised deadly army split into different factions. All the major bandit leaders including Quantrill himself would be dead shortly after the Civil War ended. Despite the appalling deeds of this man and his deadly comrades there exists today a William Clarke Quantrill Society. I kid you not. Checkout the website. They hold an annual reunion for goodness sake. What sort of people are they who can celebrate a man responsible for the murder of hundreds of innocent people? Only in America?
If those in the west thought their troubles were over they reckoned without Frank and Jesse James. Both of them the sons of a Baptist minister!
Frank and Jesse James
The brothers had been part of Quantrill’s raiders and depending on which side of history you were on they did or they didn’t take part in the Lawrence massacre. It is a safe bet that they did. It showed them you could literally get away with murder. They robbed their first bank in 1865. Jesse James saw robbery as a way of getting back at the Union government who had in his perception, destroyed the southern states. Then again we have the history question. Perhaps he committed the crimes to make himself rich and could not care less about the southern states! Throughout the James brothers lawless careers the editor of the Kansas City Timesextolled the James brothers and Jesse in particular as modern day Robin Hoods. You would need to know that the editor was a former officer in the Confederate Army and a tacit supporter of Quantrill! Add into the mix Mrs James the matriarch of the family who shared the editor’s view of her sons and continued to paint Jesse as whiter that white before and after his death. There are people today who still believe this nonsense. In 2007 a film was released called ‘The Assassinationof Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.’ Dear me! James was indeed shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford and shooting anyone in the back is the act of a coward. But let us remember that by his action Robert Ford rid the world of a scumbag! Frank James died with his boots on. Despite having murdered at least twenty people he was never found guilty of any crime. The James brothers led a life of crime from 1865 until 1882 when Jesse was killed. Frank decided at that moment that enough was enough. He walked into the office of the Governor of Missouri and placed his pistol on his desk saying he was surrendering to the governor. He was brought to trial on various charges and found not guilty in the court of a former Confederate state. Surprise, surprise!
Six years earlier the James-Younger gang had been brought to its knees when it tried to rob a bank in Northfield Minnesota. Local people saw them arrive and recognised who they were. While the gang were inside the bank the locals armed themselves. As they left the bank the outlaws were met with a hail of bullets. Two of the eight were killed and the other six were all wounded. Of the eight only the James brothers escaped arrest or death. (Perhaps history could call them the ‘Teflon’ brothers!)
Billy the Kid
Henry McCarty, William H Bonney, Billy the Kid!! Was he born in New York or way out west? Born in 1859? Maybe. It is truly the stuff of myth and legend. Exacerbated by dime novels, and carpet-bagging authors. What is not disputed is that a gunman known to history as Billy the Kid did exist. And no he never met Jesse James. And no by the age of twenty-one he had not killed twenty-one men! Four is the generally agreed figure although he was involved in a number of gunfights. He was a gun for hire and unlike the James brothers never made himself any real money. His main claim to fame is his part in the Lincoln County war down in what was then Mexico New Territories. A dispute over cattle and the sale of dry goods in the county which saw the gunfighter hired by one side and find himself on the run after killing one man. Lew Wallace, who was then Governor of the New Mexico Territories, promised him an amnesty. (The same Lew Wallace also wrote the novel ‘Ben Hur.’) Wallace did not keep his word. The outlaw was imprisoned and killed two guards when he escaped. Into the story comes Pat Garrett. After various chases and gunfights he finally captures Billy the Kid. Thirteen days later The Kid escapes. Garrett finally tracks him down and in a darkened room near Fort Sumner shoots Billy the Kid twice and kills him. This happened in 1881. In 1908 Garrett himself would be shot out on a trail in the company of two men. There was never any prosecution and to this day no one can prove which of the two was the killer. Other historians claim the involvement of a third party. So within a year Jesse James and Billy the Kid passed into history and the myth-making began. It would be hard to find more ruthless killers than the James brothers or Billy the Kid but I can find you one!
John Wesley Hardin.
A man with a hair- trigger temper he was reputed to have a shot a man in the next hotel room because he was snoring! Hardin was born in Texas in 1853, the son of a preacher man! Much good it did him! Reputed to have killed his first man when he was fifteen Hardin’s story is one of half-truths and lies. Formulated partly by an autobiography he wrote while spending seventeen years in prison. At the same time he studied law and passed the Bar Examination on his release. While he was in prison it seemed some of his father’s words had stuck with him as he was appointed the Prison Sunday School Superintendent! Hardin claimed to have killed forty-two men but western historians reckon it was half that amount. Hardin was writing his life for posterity. He was the sort of character who could start a fight in an empty room. Most of his arguments came during a card game. He was good at cards and his fellow players would accuse him of cheating, which he probably was!!!
Having been born in Texas he was brought up in the Confederate tradition. The Civil War ended when he was twelve. He saw slaves as the enemy. It is no surprise to learn that the first man he killed was an ex-slave. He would go onto kill four black policemen. He was never a bank robber. Hardin would shoot a man at the slightest provocation and invariably avoid arrest. He was a story teller and claimed to have been involved in so many shootings no historian has been able to verify hardly any of them. The law eventually caught up with him. He shot a deputy-sheriff claiming in his defence that the lawman was drawing his gun. Hardin escaped for a couple of years but was eventually arrested while travelling by train. In 1878 he was found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years imprisonment. Considering the number of people he had murdered he was lucky not to be hung! He would spend seventeen years in prison. Having studied law he passed the bar examination and tried to settle down. However his penchant for argument was still alive and well and he pistol- whipped someone called John Selman Jr in 1896 in El Paso. Selman’s father sought out Hardin and caught up with him a saloon and without waiting for an introduction put a bullet in the back of Hardins’s head. As the outlaw slumped to the floor Selman Sr shot him twice more. Selman himself a former outlaw never made it to trial. He was shot dead in a shoot-out a few months later. Hardin was buried in an El Paso cemetery. In 1995 a group of his descendants applied for a court order to have the body removed and taken to Nixon, another Texan town and be buried next to his wife. She had died while he was in prison. A group of El Paso residents petitioned the court to have the body remain where it was. There was an altercation across the grave between the two groups. No one was shot! The residents eventually won the case. And why you may well ask would they want to keep the grave of an outlaw in El Paso? Because the graves of murdering outlaws are seen as tourist attractions!
There were of course many other famous names who strayed across the line into law-breaking, Wild Bill Hickok, Butch Cassidy and his friend Sundance, Johnny Ringo, the Clanton gang, the Younger gang, Black Bart, Black Jack Ketchum and many more. One group in particular deserves our attention here. The Earp brothers. The PR on their behalf leaves the James brothers far behind. Films and television give the so-called leader of the clan an aura of innocence and great deeds in aid of fighting on the side of the law. I remember a TV series of the late fifties about him which had a song sung over the credits, ‘Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave courageous and bold, long live his fame and long live his glory, And long may his story be told! It all depends who you read. Horse-thief, policeman, embezzler, assistant marshall, buffalo hunter, boxing referee, gambler. Take your pick! A book written in the early twentieth century was a greater work of fiction than the Hardin tome. Unfortunately it became the reference work of the Earp legend during the twentieth century. As Wyatt Earp outlived all his contemporaries bar his wife he was able to determine how his legend would be told.
Where to begin?
Monmouth, Illonois, 18 March 1848 I guess. Wyatt was the fourth child of his father’s second marriage. His brothers were James, Morgan and Virgil and Warren. Newton was a half-brother from his father’s first marriage. Warren whose first name was Baxter was the youngest and most volatile of the brothers. Their sisters were, Martha, Virginia and Adelia. Around 1850 Earp senior decided to move his family to California. However illness struck Martha 150 miles west of Monmouth in Iowa and the family stayed put and bought a farm. Martha would die there six years later. Then came the Civil War. The Earp family would finally make it to California but a few years later Wyatt headed back to Missouri. Over the ensuing years he would move from town to town being charged with running a house of ill repute on more than one occasion! He worked for Wells Fargo, he ran a bar, gambled as he moved around.
In Wichita he finally joined the right side of the law. Helping to ensure peace but not always succeeding. A few years later and he has passed through a turbulent time in Dodge City and in 1880 moved to Tombstone. Along the way he had picked up another common law wife who much like the previous ones had a dubious past. OK, they were prostitutes! Tombstone saw him come into conflict with one Sheriff Johnny Behan. Wyatt Earp had stood for election against Behan but lost. In Tombstone Virgil Earp was the Deputy U.S Marshal. The legend would have you believe that Wyatt was the leader of the Earp clan. Not so. Virgil was the eldest brother and the man who gave the orders. Ike Clanton was a rustler of Mexican cattle and generally a rather nasty man who counted outlaws and other assorted riff-raff as his friends. His antics seemed to go on unmolested. The Earps felt he was being allowed to get away with his crimes. They started to put pressure on the Clanton gang who responded by issuing death threats against the Earps. Thus we come to 26 October 1881 in Tombstone. The most famous gunfight in the history of the west and most other places was about to take place. It is known in history as the ‘The Gunfight at the OK Corral.’ In reality it was the ‘Gunfight in Freemont Street.’ Neither side in the conflict entered the corral. The Clanton gang consisted of Ike and Billy Clanton plus Frank and Tom McLaury. A youngster named Billy Claiborne was also present. Virgil Earp had with him his brothers Morgan and Wyatt plus Doc Holliday.
The whole thing lasted less than thirty seconds. The Clantons would claim they were unarmed and had raised their hands in surrender. An explanation which does not quite explain the bullet holes in Doc Holiday’s duster coat. Or for that matter the wounds of Morgan and Virgil Earp. Virgil demanded the Clanton gang dropped their weapons and surrender to him. When the shooting stopped the McLaurys were both dead and Billy Clanton mortally wounded. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran away. Sheriff Behan tried to arrest the Earps but they refused to go with him. If Virgil and his brother thought that was the end of it they were to be fatefully disappointed. An assassination attempt on Virgil did not succeed but rendered his left arm useless. A few months later Morgan Earp was shot dead while playing pool. A coroner’s court named Frank Stillwell and Pete Spence among the killers. Feeling that the law was not on their side and nothing was being done to bring the killers to justice Wyatt Earp and his remaining brothers set out on what became known as the ‘Vendetta Ride.’ Wyatt and his brother Warren with a few others escorted Virgil and his wife to Tucson station. Virgil was heading for the safety of California. The following morning Frank Stilwell was found dead in the Tucson rail yard. Local lawmen reckoned two and two make four and Wyatt Earp became a hunted man. Meanwhile Pete Spence and two other men surrendered to Sheriff Behan. Wyatt and his remaining brothers hunted down two other men who they believed had been part of the gang who attacked their brothers. Both men were shot and killed. Wyatt Earp, his remaining brothers and Doc Holliday headed for Colorado. The lawmakers in Arizona tried in vain to have them extradited from the Colorado. Holliday would die there a few years later through the effects of alcohol but mainly from TB which had wrecked his lungs.
Wyatt and his wife headed for California where he became involved in horse racing and other gambling schemes. His fame at that time was limited to Arizona and California. It was about to become nationwide. Wyatt had refereed boxing matches earlier in his life and for reasons not so clear he was asked to officiate at the Heavyweight Championship decider between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey on 2 December 1896 in San Francisco. This was not a bout that required the services of an inexperienced referee with little knowledge of the new rules of boxing. Wyatt Earp was way out of his league. Fitzsimmons was overwhelming favourite for the fight but in the eighth round Wyatt Earp stopped the fight and awarded it to Sharkey alleging that Fitzsimmons had hit his opponent with a foul punch. Cue pandemonium! No one had seen the foul punch. Allegations flew left and right and finally ended up in court where the judge awarded the fight to Sharkey. This was on the grounds that the fight within the city limits was illegal and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the court. What a neat get out! Some ten years later the doctor who had confirmed the foul punch admitted it was all a set up. It transpired he was not even a doctor! Wyatt Earp never lived it down and he was accused of taking a bribe. Nationally he became more famous for the bout than the O.K Corral. Sharkey would be knocked out the next time he met Bob Fitzsimmons.
Hugh O’ Brian as Wyatt Earp
Wyatt stayed in California with his wife and lived until 1929. The last icon of the Wild West to die. Wyatt Earp, hero or villain? Take your pick. One thing is certain; he is a legend.
Keep it short, keep it simple I once wrote! It is difficult with a subject so vast and complex as the history of the Wild West. I have only dealt with four people who feature in that history. But there are so many more I would need to write a very long book to record their exploits. However it is only fair to deal with certain other people who are deserving of a place in this history….
The Wild West is not just about cowboys. There are the ‘cowgirls!’ One or two of whom were not very nice.
Calamity Jane was made famous by a film of the same name made in 1953. It featured Doris Day in the title role. As the photographs show anyone looking so totally different to the real Calamity would be hard to find. Really she was famous for being famous and did very little of note other than hang around saloons being a general nuisance. Her parents had moved around through various states. Her mother died when Jane was quite young. When she was 14 she ended up in Utah with her father and five siblings. Within a year her father had died leaving her as the sole provider for the family. She headed up to Wyoming. From there very little is known about her life. That is not to say that a lot is known about her fictional life! She was a teller of tall tales and historians have failed to verify most of what she wrote in a pamphlet detailing her supposed life. That she was an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok is not disputed. What is disputed is the relationship. It seems certain that they were acquaintances rather than good friends. She spent most of her life in Deadwood working where she could. She did marry and there was certainly one child although a few years earlier she had returned to Deadwood with another child in tow claiming she was her daughter. Like many a western icon she was addicted to alcohol which precipitated her early death at 51. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok at the local cemetery in Deadwood. Some saw it as a bad joke inflicted by people who should have known better. Hickok’s friends claimed he would have been horrified!
Belle Starr whose real name was Myra Maybelle Shirley was a famous American outlaw. Historians have recently disputed her exploits as the work of fiction and some of them contest that she is more guilty by association than complicity in any criminal activity. She first married Jim Reed and after he died she married Sam Starr. Reed had ridden with Quantrill during the Civil War and was a known outlaw. Sam Starr was a Cherokee and together they lived in what was known as Indian Territory. Sam’s criminal friends included Frank and Jesse James who found refuge at the Starr residence while on the run. Sam and Belle were convicted of stealing horses and both spent nine months in a Detroit prison. Sam was killed in 1886 in a shootout with a lawman in which both died. Belle then married someone called Jim July Starr a well-known horse thief and a relation of Sam Starr.
Belle Starr was implicated but never charged with various crimes and misdemeanours for the few short years she had left of her life. Two days before her 41stbirthday in February 1889 Belle was riding back home along a well-known trail and had stopped to water her horse. She was shot in the back and killed with her own shotgun. No one was ever charged although there were a number of suspects with reasons to want to kill her. One was her own son who she had horse-whipped a few weeks earlier for getting involved with stealing horses.
She was never an outlaw leader and never killed anyone. Her legend is blamed on the imagination of nineteenth century dime novelists.
Like many women of the Wild West, Etta Place’s life is shrouded in mystery and legend. Some say she was a schoolteacher who left her quiet life for the drama of the outlaw life? Or was she Butch Cassidy’s girlfriend? There is evidence that seems to indicate that Etta was born around 1878 and became a prostitute at Fanny Porter’s bordello in San Antonio, Texas. When the Wild Bunch came through, Place went with them to rob banks and live the outlaw life.. She wasn’t with the boys when they were killed in South America in 1909, and some believe she became a cattle rustler, but no one really knows for sure.
Not every famous Wild West heroine was an outlaw! Annie Oakley was a renowned markswoman and star who worked for years with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Born Phoebe Ann Mosey on August 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio, the woman who would be known as Annie Oakley developed her superb marksmanship abilities as a teen, earning enough to pay off the mortgage for her mother’s home. She married fellow marksman Frank Butler in 1876 and would later become a star attraction for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for years, renowned for unparalleled shooting tricks. She wrote to President McKinley advocating that women should be trained in handling guns and be prepared for combat. She performed before royalty in Europe including Queen Victoria. A revered global figure, Oakley retired in 1913 and died in Ohio on November 3, 1926. Her broken-hearted husband died a few weeks later.
There were other ‘ladies’ in the western story most of whom had short lived careers as outlaws and nearly all of whom disappeared into obscurity.
To name but a few….
While outlaws and lawmen are the most famous feature of the Wild West history there were others who through their activities remain a major part of that history.
The wonderfully named Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving have a place in the history of the west. Before railroad transport became the norm cattle were driven hundreds of miles to their sale and distribution point be it Dodge City or other western towns north of Texas. Each rancher would take their unmarked cattle through country where rustlers, outlaws and hostile native Americans lurked ready to pounce. The two gentlemen created the Goodnight – Loving trail. Ranchers were encouraged to brand their cattle and join one big cattle drive. Each ranch providing a number of outriders to protect the drive. It was Charles Goodnight who invented the Chuck Wagon. Goodnight brought John Chisum, a famous New Mexico rancher who had created his own Chisum trail, into the partnership. When Loving died Goodnight and Chisum extended the trail beyond Colorado and onto Wyoming. There is much to write about Charles Goodnight but here is one story to end his biography. In 1926 his wife died. Goodnight himself fell ill. He was nursed back to health by a 26 year old cousin named Corinne Goodnight. She was young enough to be his great-granddaughter. On his 91stbirthday he married her! Thus she became Corinne Goodnight Goodnight!
How many black cowboys can you recall? One in the film Blazing Saddles, another in Lonesome Dove called Josh Deets? He was based on a real life character called Bose Ikard who was one of the cowboys who rode with Charles Goodnight. Historians reckon that one in four cowboys were African-American between 1860 and 1880. Yet they are barely represented in any history fact or fiction. The 1860 census in Texas stated there were 180,000 slaves in the state. At the end of the Civil War they were free men. A lot of them had worked on the ranches while the white men were away fighting. They would now become hired hands.
Sadly discrimination was rife in the cattle drive towns. Black cowboys were refused entry to many bars and restaurants. Yet out on the trail each looked after the other regardless of colour.
The most famous black cowboy was Bass Reeves.He was born into slavery in 1838. His owner a certain George Reeves took Bass with him to fight in the Civil War. Somewhere along the way, and following an argument with his owner, Bass escaped. He moved to Indian Territory and lived among the Cherokee and other tribes. In 1865 when all slaves were freemen he headed to Arkansas where he married and took up farming. He farmed for ten years and was quite content with his lot. Then the recently appointed Federal Judge Isaac Parker was given responsibility for the Indian Territory in Arkansas. He had heard about Bass Reeves and was aware of his ability to speak the Native American languages. He invited him to become a Deputy U.S Marshal. Bass Reeves accepted. He would work in Arkansas and Texas for the next 32 years and during that time arrest over 3000 felons and shoot dead 14 outlaws. He was both respected and feared among the criminal community. In all that time he was never wounded or injured. He married twice and fathered 11 children. He retired in 1907. That was the same year that Oklahoma became a state. Historians among you will know that Oklahoma was formerly known as Indian Territory!? Given all that had gone before it is hard to believe that the new states laws prevented African Americans from becoming U.S Marshals!
Bass was asked to join the newly founded Police Department which he did for two years. Ill health forced a second retirement and in 1910 he died. Here was a lawman who just got on with his job.
One historian has suggested that Bass Reeves was the template for The Lone Ranger. Inspired partly no doubt because occasionally Bass would have a Native American accomplice. And of course in the 1950s land of TV in America having Tonto on TV was radical enough so to have a black hero as well. Dear me no!
So far we have dealt with people. But inventions played a great part opening up the Wild West………..
For instance the gun that won the best is usually named as the Colt 45 made by the company owned by Samuel Colt. Colt found it hard to become established with friends and family reluctant to back him. He made it eventually and his guns became synonymous with western culture. The key to the Colt 45 and all similar guns was their repeating ability. Allowing six bullets to be loaded in the barrel was a major step forward in the arms race. He had factories in New York and London. His factory was one of the first to use the assembly line technique for production. Along the way he became friends with someone whose name is also enshrined in American history, Samuel Morse. The messaging service before the invention of morse code was the Pony Express. The development and improvement of the ‘Electric Telegraph’ and the efforts of Western Union to amalgamate the various companies meant that by 1861 the Pony Express was out of business. The telegraph was to play an important role during the Civil War. Morse became involved with Samuel Colt when the latter was manufacturing cables for use underwater. Morse saw this as a way of the Telegraph becoming international. And he was right!
THE WINCHESTER RIFLE
While most historians accept that the Colt .45 was the ‘gun that won the West.’ There is competition from those who would suggest it was the Winchester repeating rifle. Notably, the Winchester ‘ 73. (The name of a film starring James Stewart). The colt probably had more users but the Winchester certainly deserves its place in history. It was originally developed from the Henry rifle with limited success. A certain Mr Smith and Mr Wesson set up their own company to develop the rifle but decided that their future lay in the development of the revolver. Smith & Wesson is probably just as famous as Colt in the history of the revolver. Along comes Oliver Winchester to buy the ailing company. He renames the company the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company. He never looked back. The strange thing is that the US Cavalry never adopted it is a weapon. At the Battle of Little Bighorn the cavalry were using single shot rifles and the Sioux army had Winchesters! Who do you think won?
DO YOU HEAR THAT WHISTLE DOWN THE LINE………..?
Another invention which opened up the ‘Wild West’ was the railroad. The first regular carrier of passengers and freight was the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, completed on February 28, 1827. Horses pulled the carriages along makeshift rails. It was not until Christmas Day, 1830, when the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company completed the first mechanical passenger train journey that the modern railroad industry was born in the USA.
A man named George Stephenson successfully applied the steam technology of the day and created the world’s first successful locomotive. The first engines used in the United States were purchased from the Stephenson Works in England. Even rails were largely imported from England until the Civil War. The big railway project was to join the east coast to the west coast with a continuous line. The Union Pacific Railway Company and the Union Pacific Railway Company won the contract to build the line. The Central Co. from West to East and the Union Co. from East to West. At the start of the project they were not sure where they would meet. It was a massive and expensive undertaking, and not surprisingly subject to corruption and embezzlement. 21000 Chinese labourers would be employed by the Central Pacific. Racial prejudice made the owners reluctant to use foreign labour at first but the lack of white workers willing to carry out the back-breaking made it inevitable. Irish workers made up the majority of the Union Pacific workers. Dr Thomas Clark Durant was the mastermind behind the building of the Union Pacific line. He was also a crook. He fiddled the books, put unnecessary curves into the railine. Why? Because they were paid for every mile of line! He arranged the finance through various companies which allowed him to siphon off hugh amounts for himself. Finally caught he was sacked by President Grant. Somehow despite a number of court cases Durant stayed out of prison and continued business elsewhere in the country. The two companies met at Promontory Point in Northern Utah on 10 May 1869. A symbolic golden spike joined the two lines. Thus was born the first transcontinental railway ever built in the United States. Estimates vary but at least 1200 people died during the building of the railway. It made travel across country cheaper and easier. Other lines would be built criss-crossing the states. They would hold sway until airliners started to become the norm for travelling across the USA.
In 1874 one simple invention changed the way cattlemen and farmers would mark the boundaries of their land… barbed wire!
‘At the Illonois De Kalb County Fair of 1873, three men saw a piece of wood with bits of wire sticking out of it that Henry M. Rose had made to control a “breachy” cow (a cow that tries to escape): lumberman Jacob Haish; hardware merchant Isaac Leonard Ellwood; and farmer Joseph Farwell Glidden, a man worried about raising his crops without the security of good, strong fencing. Ellwood remembered the day in A History of De Kalb County, Illinois, notingthat “all three of us stood looking at this invention of Mr. Rose’s and I think that each one of us at that hour conceived the idea that barbs could be placed on the wire in some way instead of being driven into the strip of wood.” With Glidden’s wire stretcher and barbed wire design, which he patented in November 1874, farming on the prairie would soon change dramatically. Glidden and Ellwood became partners in The Barb Fence Company, and Haish became their first competitor with his own barbed-wire design. Their products were met with enthusiasm in the marketplace, and the barbed-wire industry grew rapidly.’ Encyclopedia.com– Technology and the making of the West
Needless to say the barbed wire only increased the hostility between sheep farmers and cattle ranchers!
When I was a child back in the fifties we played ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ The Indians were of course the baddies. Media portrayal in the cinema enforced that view. Only Tonto on TV was a good guy. During the fifties western films gave a stereotypical few of ‘Indians.’ The only exception being a film called ‘Broken Arrow’ which gave a sympathetic view of Native Americans for the first time. It would be some time before another film of a similar view came along.
Native Americans have lived in what is now the USA for thousands of years. Over time they have spread to various parts of the vast country and split into hundreds of tribal formations. Horses which once roamed the continent were killed for meat. It would take a European invasion to restore the horse as a natural animal for riding, not eating. That invasion started in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his crew. Columbus actually arrived in what is now the Bahamas and moved on to what is now Haiti. It would be Spanish explorers who would arrive on the mainland in Southern Florida. Others followed heading eastwards. In 1606 Walter Raleigh and others landed on the Eastern Seaboard and founded the Colony of Virginia. Then in 1620 the Mayflower landed in what would become Plymouth Massachusetts. While there would be violent confrontations between Native Americans and the settlers this would not be the main cause of death for the indigenous population. Smallpox would wipe out whole villages of people. Measles and other European diseases proved fatal for many Native Americans. With the British, Dutch, French and Spanish vying for control of this new uncharted control it was inevitable that Native Americans would be fighting on a number of fronts. Not least among themselves. Some of the leaders thought peaceful solutions a better option than fighting and losing. They were in the minority and it became a running battle between Native Americans and the white man until around the end of the nineteenth century.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was made to sound as though it was beneficial to the Native Americans. President Jackson said all the right things but they were undoubtedly insincere. His main objective was to move the Native Americans away from their homelands and to move them from prime land to the wilderness out in the west. Cherokee, Choctaw and Seminole tribes were among the many forcibly removed. They were required to march hundreds upon hundreds of miles in the depths of winter. In some cases they were given five minutes notice and were unable to take any of their possessions with them. Thousands died on the marches which took place over a number of years. It became known as the ‘Trail of Tears.’
It was a disgrace and despite Jackson trying to pretend otherwise it was not in the interest of the Native American. Around 500 Seminoles managed to stay in Florida and their descendants remain there to this day. The whole thrust of Federal and State legislation was to move the Native Americans away from prime land and into prairie ghettoes known as reservations.
There are so many stories about poor treatment of the Native Americans across the centuries. One website lists 400! And that is the ones they know about? Suffice it for me to remember another two in this part of the blog. The Red Cloud war took place in the area of Fort Laramie in Wyoming and across Montana. There were many casualties on both sides. I should mention here that no one disputes the savagery of the Native American in battle. But it was a savagery they displayed when fighting other tribes and not just the white man. What gets lost in this depiction is the fact that the Native American was very good at fighting a running battle.
After the Red Cloud war the Sioux were granted the Black Hills as their land in perpetuity. Then in the early 1870s gold was discovered. President Grant made a big mistake in sending General Custer to investigate if the rumours were true. Grant and Custer had never seen eye to eye and Custer knew how to hold a grudge. He discovered that there was indeed gold in the Black Hills. He wrote to President Grant. Unfortunately for the President Custer had taken a Chicago newsman with him! The story of the gold spread far and wide. Miners poured into the Black Hills and clashed with the Sioux on several occasions. Negotiations started asking the Sioux to leave the Black Hills and return to the reservation at Pine Ridge. They refused.
By June 1876 an army led by General Terry was marching on the Black Hills. At first Custer was not invited by Grant to be part of the expedition. Persuasion from his senior officer friends made Grant allow Custer to join the expedition.
George Armstrong Custer finished last in his class at West Point. Fortunately for him he graduated just as the Civil War was starting and was posted to the field of battle as a junior officer. Without the Civil War he would have found himself at a remote fort with very little to do. His conduct record at West Point was one of the worst recorded. That he was courageous is not disputed. He made a name for himself in the Civil War and was quickly promoted to senior rank. What he lacked was humility. He saw the Native Americans as a bunch of savages who had no idea how to fight. His tactics at Little Big Horn would mean he and his men fought their last battle. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were masters of their art. And as was mentioned previously they had repeating rifles whereas Custer’s men had single shot. Who did what and why is an argument that continues today. The discussion is always about Custer never the fact that he was beaten by a better group of warriors! The memorial on the site was known for over 100 years as the ‘Custer Battlefield Monument.’ In the 1990s it was finally changed to ‘Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument.’ Despite the fact the disputed land was in Dakota the battle actually took place in Montana.
The repercussions were hard and fast. Within a year the once proud Sioux nation were brought to their knees. Thousands of troops poured into South Dakota. Crazy Horse surrendered. While being held prisoner he was provoked into retaliation and murdered in 1877.
Sitting Bull meanwhile had moved his men to Canada and safety. In the end he gave into reality and came back to the reservation. But he to was arrested on a trumped up charge. One of his supporters fired a shot and Indian Police immediately shot Sitting Bull. Another contrived murder. That was 15 December 1890.
More grief was to follow at Wounded Knee two weeks later. Between 150 and 300 Sioux were encamped by the river not causing any problems. They had been taken there by the 7thCavalry the previous day. The officer in charge was Colonel James Forsyth. He had orders to disarm the Sioux. An altercation ensued with one person and a shot was fired. The 7thCavalry who had four rapid firing Hotchkiss guns with them opened fire on the unarmed Native Americans. Those who fled were chased down and dead bodies were found two miles from the site. One body was a baby in his mother arms who had been shot five times in the back. Over 150 men, women and children were murdered at Wounded Knee. Some historians say the figure is more close to 300. It was little consolation to the surviving Sioux that 25 members of the 7thCavalry had been shot by their own side. General Nelson Miles Forsyth’s commanding officer was appalled and immediately suspended the Colonel from duty. A court of enquiry exonerated Forsyth and he was supported by the Secretary of War. Forsyth was reinstated to his command. Just to make sure there would be no further calls for investigation the Washington government declared Wounded Knee a battle and awarded 20 Medals of Honour. These cited them for showing courage during the battle! They were a bunch of murderers!
There have been many reparations to the Native Americans over the years but Wounded Knee is still classified as a battle. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Jeff Merkley have presented a bill to the Senate asking for the 20 medals to be rescinded. Appropriately enough the bill is called ‘Remove the Stain.’ At present it is under consideration by the Armed Forces Senate Committee. I wish the bill Godspeed.
The Media View
The first western film appeared in the early twentieth century as a silent movie. Just so you know the goodies wore white hats and the baddies black hats. The goodies had weapons that did not require reloading and fired endless numbers of bullets. The baddies had somehow forgotten to fully load their guns and soon ran out of ammunition. A hundred years or so further on and I think the critics view of these early movies is, ‘What a load of old rubbish.’ Sadly it would be another fifty years or so before any real improvement. All westerns were what I call ‘clean westerns.’ Every actor looked as though they had just stepped out of makeup. Perfectly combed hair well, pressed clothes and shiny clean shaven faces. (I am tempted to and that was just the…. But I better not!) The West did not have any domestic running water, wooden buildings, hard beds and very little quality food. It was a very, very hard life. One of my favourite ‘clean’ westerns is ‘The Searchers.’ John Wayne rides for days through a dusty Monument valley. He returns to his relatives ranch looking like he just stepped out of the shower! Still it is a good story. During the film Wayne uses the phrase ‘That’ll be the day ‘ if another character says something he disagrees with. Down in Lubbock Texas two teenagers called Jerry Allison and Buddy Holly watched the film. Back home Buddy is alleged to have said to Jerry, ‘We need to write a hit song.’ Came the reply, ‘That’ll be the day!’ And the rest as they say is rock and roll!
The film is based on the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker( see photo below) by Comanches in 1936. Unlike the film heroine Cynthia lived with the Comanches for 24 years. During this time she married and had three children. One son, Quanah Parker, would eventually become the leader of his tribe. Cynthia and one daughter were eventually rescued by Texas Rangers. Among the Rangers was our old friend Charlie Goodnight! She was not grateful for being rescued and tried to return to her tribe on a number of occasions. She became a very embittered and lonely person and in the end starved herself to death in 1870. Photo below.
There have been a few TV series over the years such as Bonanza, High Chaparral, Rawhide, Wagon Train and one or two others. All very predictable and bearing no relation to history! And of course, the Lone Ranger. Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels who some years earlier had played Geronimo in the ‘Broken Arrow.’ Then there are what I call the fun westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven and Rio Bravo. All totally at odds with what the old west was really like. The spaghetti Westerns of Clint Eastwood come under my heading of fantasies! I did like Pale Rider. A contender for best western is the ‘Unforgiven.’ By a long country mile Clint Eastwood’s best film. Around the same time came Kevin Costner in ‘Dances With Wolves.’ It is one of the few films to treat Native Americans as equal partners in the plot. ’Little Big Man’ being another. But there are so many westerns. You will have your own favourites I am sure.
‘That’ll be the day…’
Alan Le May who wrote the screenplay for ‘The Searchers’ also wrote the novel. He along with Louis L’Amour and Luke Short were part of my reading list for many of my younger years. There are many other writers of the genre. One I came across a few years ago was Larry McMurty who wrote the Lonesome Dove series which also became an excellent TV series starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. However if you just choose one book to read about the Wild West in real terms then it must be ‘A Distant Trumpet’ by Paul Horgan. An outstanding read but a dreadful film. It starred Troy Donahue and the plot of the film bears little resemblance to the book. Donahue confirms his reputation as one of the worst actors ever to appear on film!
My apologies for the length of this blog. And yet I feel I have hardly scratched the surface as the history of the west is teeming with characters and tales of discovery, bravery, cowardice, battles, massacres and sheer survival.
I promise my next blog will be shorter!
The internet as ever has been a source of much information. However here is a list of books and films that may be worth a look if I have piqued your interest?
A Distant Trumpet – Paul Horgan – NonpareilBooks, Boston
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee– Dee Brown – Vintage Books, London
The Wild West, History, Myth and the making of America – Frederick Nolan – Arcturus Publishing Ltd, London
The Great American West– Readers Digest – New York
The Wild West a three book series– Salamander Books, London
Broken Arrow(1950) – A film directed by Delmer Davies
The Searchers(1956) – A film directed by John Ford
Rio Bravo(1959) – A film directed by Howard Hawks
Ride the High Country(1962) A film directed by Sam Peckinpah
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) A film directed by Sergio Leone
Dances With Wolves(1990) A film directed by Kevin Costner
Unforgiven (1992) A film directed by Clint Eastwood
.and coming a little more up to date..
True Grit(2010) A film directed by the Coen Brothers
The Hateful Eight(2015) A film directed by Quentin Tarantino
Hostiles (2018) A film directed by Scott Cooper
And finally I feel it fitting to end with the words of Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux spoken towards the end of his life in 1909:
“The white man made us many promises, more than I can remember. But he kept but one. He promised to take our land…and he did.”
News of a more recent event…… It was found that the Covid virus was infecting a high proportion of people in the North-East of Arizona. The inhabitants were advised to make sure they washed their hands on a regular basis in running hot water. The people involved were members of the Navajo Nation which is part of North- Eastern Arizona. A spokesman replied that washing hands in such a way was not always possible as 30% of homes in the Navajo Nation did not have running water! Over the last 150 years Native Americans have found themselves underfunded, neglected and forgotten. Nothing changes. Chief Red Cloud would have understood.