Monday, June 27, 2011

Billy the Kid Photo Sells for Millions!

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that the only authenticated photograph of the infamous Billy the Kid would be auctioned off at the Denver Merchandise Mart in June by Brian Lebel's Annual Old West Auction.

The photograph, a tintype image, had an estimated value of $400,000. Instead, the photograph sold for a stunning $2.3 million dollars to Florida billionaire William Koch, and energy company exec and collector of artifacts from the American Old West.

I would say that I am surprised, but the truth is, I love history, particularly the American Old West, and if I was a billionaire, I would have done the same thing! Good for you, Mr. Koch!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Rocky Mountain Locust Plagues Western Settlers

Nebraska, 1874. The farmer stood in his field, staring up at the sky. He could hear a horrific sound coming toward him, a screeching sound, like the sound of a million birds, but the skies were clear and blue.

Suddenly, a black cloud appeared on the horizon, moving forward like a vicious, thundering flash flood in the sky. Within minutes, his fields were filled with locust, the dreaded Rocky Mountain Locust, voracious eaters, consuming everything in the field and leaving little more than dirt. In a matter of hours, the farmer's fields were empty, and the locust had moved on.

Rocky Mountain Locust once swarmed in numbers unimaginable to modern farmers who use pesticides to protect their crops. According to the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, the 1874 swarm of Rocky Mountain Locust covered 198,000 square miles with an estimated 12.5 million insects. According to Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation at the Fort Collins Museum, "From July 20 to July 30 of 1874, a plague of locusts was recorded over the prairie that covered 198,000 square miles (approximately twice the size of Colorado!) and contained at least 12.5 trillion individuals weighing approximately 27.5 million tons."

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), who wrote the Little House series about her family life in Independence, Kansas, also wrote about her family's experiences with the Rocky Mountain Locust in her book On the Banks of the Plum Creek, which Bowell quotes on the Fort Collins Museum website.

Ingalls explained her impression of the locust as they moved toward her family farm: "The cloud was grasshoppers.Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm..."

Imagine yourself a farmer. Having responded to the 1862 Homestead Act, you packed your family and belongings and moved onto your 160 acres. You built the required, yet small home out of mud because you learned mud homes survive best against the harsh winds of the Western prairies. You lived on your land for five years, planting, harvesting, waiting for the day when you could finally file the title to your property, then suddenly one morning, in the skies above you, there appeared a black cloud, moving closer, faster, descending on your dream like a giant beast and destroying every little plant that grew from every little seed that you and your wife and children dropped by hand into the soil just months before. For some settlers in the West, the loss was too much and they returned back home to their families in the Eastern states, but those who stayed on the land were eventually rewarded.

At the turn of the century, the Rocky Mountain Locust mysteriously disappeared. The last sighting of a Rocking Mountain Locust was in Southern Canada in 1902. In an ironic twist, it is widely believed that these same farmers who were relentlessly tortured by plagues of locust eventually brought about the locust's demise by exposing their larvae while plowing their fields.

All locusts are swarming grasshoppers in the Acrididae family. The Rocky Mountain Locust is known as the M. spretus. It once lived primarily in the Rocky Mountains, but spread into the prairies as its numbers grew, and continued to grow until clouds of locust filled the air for miles and miles. Between 1873 and 1877, locust swarms caused $200 million in crop damage in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Nebraska.

In spite of the size of the 1874 swarm less than 300 specimens of the insects remain. It is, however, still possible to find Rocky Mountain Locust carcasses frozen in glaciers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Kathy Weiser-Alexander, Legends of America, and Why I Write About History

I think I inherited my love of history from my father. My mother was always reading something, but my father typically stayed with one subject, American history, and most often the history of the Old West.

I also came from a large family and we spent our vacations, and just about every warm-weather weekend, hiking and camping in the Colorado mountains and exploring old mining camps and ghost towns. Even as a child I realized that, in addition to its stunning beauty, Colorado has a fascinating history that is both interesting and exciting.

As my children grew older, I started traveling through New Mexico and Texas six or eight times a year to visit my family and I realized that I had also become obsessed with the alluring beauty of the American Southwest. It was about this time, in 2005, that I first stumbled across what is now my favorite website--Legends of America. Legends of America is packed with stories of the history of America, ghost stories, legends, and vintage photographs. One could easily spend hours browsing through this site!

As I have now read so many of her stories, I recently decided to contact Kathy Weiser-Alexander, who created Legends of America with her husband, David Alexander, to interview her about her website and why she dedicates so much of her time to writing about history. I was surprised to learn that the website has been around since before 2003!

"Legends of America started on 2003, but, there was a forerunner called High Country Legends that lasted for about a year or so," Kathy Weiser-Alexander explained. "It was one of those free sites and basically was a training ground while I learned how to build a website, and began formulating where I wanted to go with it."

"When I started the website, I was actually working as a consultant, and traveled heavily throughout the United States," she continued. "I worked for months with a client in Denver, and another, in Vail and often stayed over weekends to pursue my own interests, driving to various destinations in Colorado and New Mexico. After a couple of years juggling the consulting and the website, I left my corporate job to pursue my dream full-time. Dave also had a job that required quite a bit of travel. I would then "hitch" a ride with him to places like Nevada, California, and Arizona. In 2009, he also left his corporate job to join Legends full-time."

Kathy explained that she travels with her husband throughout the year to collect stories. "We usually take 4 to 6 significant trips every year to various destinations. We have family in Kansas and Texas, so those destinations get covered frequently. We also try to take one big trip in the summer and one in the winter that can last from 2 to 4 weeks to extensively cover various areas. This winter, we spent a month in south Texas."

I can certainly understand--and relate to--Kathy's love of travel, as well as her love of stories. In my family, we have stories that were passed down through generations and my sister collected many of these stories during her genealogy research. I've been blessed with the opportunity to meet many people who are interested in history since I first started writing this blog and I've learned that people collect stories for many different reasons, so I asked Kathy why she started collecting stories about America's history. I was not surprised to learn that we write about history for the same reason--a love of American history passed down through generations.

"I don't officially have a history background, rather, a business degree and business background; but, have always loved history since I was a child," she explained. "Spending summers in an old miners cabin in the mountains of northeast New Mexico--Eagle Nest, Red River, Taos--my grandmother used to take us to ghost towns and Indian pueblos and that's when the love began. She knew lots of old-timers in the area and we would often visit them to hear old stories about places like Elizabethtown, Indian lore, wagon trains, and more. She was friends with the family who built Angel Fire and we watched it begin. By the time I was a teenager, I already had a large collection of antiques and had visited lots of ghost towns and historic places. Actually, High Country Legends was about the history and tales of this area; but, then it started to grow, adding tales of Colorado, Kansas, where I lived at the time; and, Texas, where I was born. Obviously, it has grown exponentially and will continue to. We will never be "done."

This makes perfect sense to me. Story collections, like genealogies, are never complete. I work on my stories every day, seven days a week.

As my love of American history seems limitless, I was surprised to learn that I do have favorite stories. My particular favorites have to do with the Irish and German immigrants, as these would include my ancestors. I also tend to favor stories about Colorado mining camps. I feel a connection, for some reason, with these people who came from all areas of the world to work the mines. I asked Kathy Weiser-Alexander if she favored certain stories and I was surprised to learn that she does!

"I most enjoy the tales about obscure people and little known places," she said. "As this all began in northeast New Mexico, those are probably my favorites. People like the gunfighter, Clay Allison, and the Colfax County War But, I am also fascinated with Baby Doe Tabor and a little known murderous family in Kansas called the Bloody Benders My favorite places to visit are still ghost towns and we've been to hundreds of them. Recently, I have also become obsessed with forts in the Old West. Of all these, I love Tombstone, Arizona the best; but Bodie, California; Bannack, Montana; and Rhyolite, Nevada are right up there."

Finally, Kathy Weiser-Alexander offered advice for those who want to learn more about the history of the town they live in. "Like you, no doubt, I always start on the Internet," she told me. "Outside of the obvious searches, I utilize genealogy sites and forums frequently for information. These initial searches often send me in several directions, and a tale about a particular place or person will often result in numerous articles, like Billy the Kid and Lincoln County, New Mexico."

"Then, of course, there is the oft forgotten local library, which will frequently have out of publication books, pamphlets, and articles relating to the area that can't be found anywhere else," she continued. "Then, of course, there are local museums and historical societies. If I'm really digging in, I will sometimes ask librarians and museum curators about local historians that I might talk to. I also find that visiting with folks at the local coffee shop, tavern, and owners of antique stores can provide a wealth of information, especially if I'm digging for "local legends."

I understand the desire to learn about our ancestors, as well as the desire to learn about the area where one lives, but I had a feeling there was more to Kathy Weiser-Alexander's dedication to American history, so I asked her what inspires her to continue with her project, year after year.

"Mostly I write about the history because I love it," she said. "I finally have a "job" where I love getting up and "going" to work. It's fun, creative, I get to travel, and meet all kinds of interesting folks. I'm also a trivia nut and love to spout what most of my friends call "useless information."

"On a more serious side, though, it is important to know how this great nation came about--the good, the bad, and everything in between," she continued. "There's no other nation like ours and to understand why that is, you've got to understand where we came from. I'm not one of those people that would love to have lived in another time, but, boy-o-boy, I sure would like to visit."

You can read Kathy Weiser-Alexander's stories at the website and blogs created by Kathy Weiser-Alexander and her husband, David Alexander:
http://www.legendsofamerica.com/
http://www.legendsofamerica.blogspot.com/
http://www.facebook.com/LegendsOfAmerica
http://twitter.com/legendsamerica
http://www.legendsofkansas.com/

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fort Sumner Revisited. And, the Only Authenticated Photo of Billy the Kid to be Auctioned in Denver

I drive through Fort Sumner, New Mexico four or five times a year on my way to Colorado and I always enjoy the visit. Fort Sumner is a small town with a big history, though some of its history is heartbreaking. Fort Sumner was the destination of the long walks led by Colonel "Kit" Carson in 1864 when approximately 9000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache were "relocated" to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. Over 200 Navajo died during the 300 mile walks and an additional 1/3 of the prisoners died in captivity.

Fort Sumner was also the home of Lucien Maxwell, who at one time was the largest private land owner in the world with 1,714,765 acres in New Mexico and Colorado. Lucien had a son named Peter, and "Pete" Maxwell was a close friend of the Regulator and outlaw, William Henry McCarty, or Billy the Kid.

In 1881, Billy the Kid showed up on Maxwell’s ranch seeking refuge after escaping from jail. Although there are some historians who dispute this, it is widely believed that Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked Billy the Kid to the Maxwell property and shot him in Maxwell’s home.

Billy the Kid’s grave is in Fort Sumner, along with an extensive collection of memorabilia in the Billy the Kid Museum. However, there is one piece of memorabilia that is not in the Billy the Kid Museum--the only authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid. According to Brian Lebel's Old West Show & Auction, the tintype of Billy the Kid will be sold at auction on June 25, 2011 in the Denver Merchandise Mart at Brian Lebel’s 22nd Annual Old West Show & Auction. According to information on Brian Lebel's Old West Show & Auction website, the photograph is expected to sell for somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000.

Brian Lebel's website also has an extensive history of the photograph along with a statement by historian and collector Bob McCubbin. McCubbin explains why he believes the tintype is authentic, but he also explains why he believes the photograph is of Billy the Kid. McCubbin points out that Pat Garrett included the image in the book he authored, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, and Charley Siringo used the same image of Billy the Kid in his book, A Texas Cowboy. Garret and Siringo were both well-enough acquainted with Billy the Kid to be able to positively identify him in a photograph.

Billy the Kid has been immortalized in many books and films over the years. Some presented him in a favorable way, and others showed him in a more negative light. In December of 1880, Billy the Kid told a Las Vegas Gazette Reporter: “I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have. You had to believe other stories, but then I don’t know if any one would believe anything good of me anyway.”

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rest in Peace, James Arness

James Arness, who played Marshall Matt Dillon on the television series Gunsmoke for 20 years, from 1955 to 1975, died on June 3, 2011. He was 88 years old. Arness also starred in the made-for-TV movie Gunsmoke, Return to Dodge in 1987, and four other Gunsmoke movies filmed in the 1990s.

Gunsmoke originally ran for nine years, from 1952 to 1961, on CBS Radio and William Conrad was the voice of Matt Dillon. John Wayne was the original choice for the role of Matt Dillon, but he turned the offer down because he did not want to commit to a weekly television series. Wayne recommended James Arness for the job and Wayne also introduced the first show with, according to IMDb: "When I first heard about the show "Gunsmoke", I knew there was only one man to play in it. James Arness. He's a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you. But I've worked with him and I predict he'll be a big star. And now I'm proud to present "Gunsmoke."

Matt Dillon's character is the sheriff of Dodge City, Kansas. Dillon was actually believed to be a compilation of various U.S. Marshals who served in Dodge City during its Wild West years. In the CBS Radio shows, Marshall Matt Dillon often referred to famous people from the American West, including Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, and claimed to be friends with Wild Bill Hickok, who also served as a lawman in various Kansas cities in the Old West. In fact, Wyatt Earp actually served as an Assistant Marshall in Dodge City, Kansas in 1876. There is speculation that the character of Matt Dillon was based on a compilation of Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and other famous Wild West lawmen.

Actor Rodd Redwing was the man who was shot at the beginning of each Gunsmoke show. I blogged about Rodd Redwing on Wild West History on Sunday, March 22, 2009. Redwing was considered one of the "fastest guns in the West." Redwing, 1904-1971, was a full-blooded Chickasaw, who appeared in more than eighty movies and television shows, including Key Largo, Elephant Walk, and, of course, every television episode of Gunsmoke. He made his film debut in 1931 in The Squaw Man. He also coached James Arness on the use of guns, as well as Henry Fonda, Dean Martin, Anthony Quinn, Jerry Lewis, Glenn Ford, Alan Ladd, and other Hollywood greats in the use of guns, knives, tomahawks and whips. Redwing was able to hit a target at twenty feet in two-tenths of a second. One of his most famous stunts was tossing a knife at a target while at the same time reaching for his gun, drawing, and firing to make a bullet hole for the knife to stick into when it reached its mark.

In the Dodge City, Kansas Boot Hill Museum there is a tribute to the Gunsmoke television series that includes set decorations from the show, photographs of the various actors and actresses, Sam the bartender's vest and Miss Kitty's dress. No doubt, there will soon be a tribute to Marshall Matt Dillon in the museum, as well.

Farewell, Marshall Dillon, and goodbye James Arness. You will be missed in the American Wild West.