Sunday, January 12, 2020

Lotta Crabtree, Protege of Lola Montez

Lotta Crabtree.

Lotta Crabtree. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. I love the contrasts in this photo, the sweet innocence of her expression, ribbons on her hat, childish curls in her hair, her head turned shyly from the camera...and she's smoking a cigar! 

In spite of her tough-little-girl look in the above photo, "generosity and compassion"  were the words most often used to describe Lotta Crabtree. Along with her mentor, Lola Montez, Crabtree was one of the most famous entertainers in the American Old West. She was beautiful, charming and charasmatic, but in all fairness, she did owe her success to Montez, who taught Crabtree how to use her charm and develop a bold, beguiling personality. It was serendipity, magic, a toss of the dice that brought these two together. Lola's career was waning when they met, and Crabtree was a child, but this was her fate, to learn from Lola Montez, one of the most famous dancers in America, and perhaps the world. The fact that they were both in small town Green Valley, California at the same time was pure chance, but when Montez met Crabtree it was magic, and what came next is a story that begs to be told.

Lotta Crabtree. Theatrical and Circus Life: 1893. The Library of Congress: Public Domain. 

The importance of the story of Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree lies in more than their friendship or their talent. These were two women who struggled to build careers during distinctly different periods in the history of the American Old West--the early, wild years belonged to Lola Montez and the later, more refined years of Old West entertainment were ruled by Lotta Crabtree. But they did have much in common, primarily the fact that both women loved to dance and entertain and displayed great talent at a young age. 

They also had similar personalities. Lola Montez, "The Spanish Dancer," is described in news articles and other historical documents as spoiled, half-wild, adventurous, notorious, stubborn, and of course, a woman of great beauty. But this was only part of the story of Lola Montez. Her life was a struggle from the day she was born, and this formed her personality. What the journalists often failed to report was that Montez cared deeply about the status of women in the 1800s and used most of her earnings to help other women who were also struggling to survive in the American Old West. 

Miss Lotta

Lotta Crabtree's background was far different from that of Lola Montez. She did not come from a wealthy, noble family, but was raised with loving parents who followed the trail to the West. She also had great compassion for others, and perhaps this was part of the life lesson Montez passed on to her protege, to help others in any way she could. 

Photo of Lotta Crabtree taken by Mathew Brady. Date unknown, public domain. 

Lotta had many nicknames. By age 12, she was referred to as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite.” She was also known as "The Nation's Darling." The press described her as "winsome, saucy, and possessing infectious gaiety, charm," and of course, a great beauty. And by the time she retired, she was referred to as "The Richest Entertainer in America."

Her public reputation is far less scandalous than that of Montez, but as I said before, life was easier for Crabtree, times were different, and Montez started her life and career on the opposite side of the world. The American Old West was "wild," but perhaps not as judgmental toward women as the places Montez lived when she was young.

Unlike Montez, who was forced to marry many times to survive, Crabtree never felt that need and remained single her entire life. The life situation of Lola Montez was shared by women for hundreds of years, women who had to choose marriage, a service career, or prostitution.


Lotta Crabtree's family traveled West in search of gold. They encouraged Lotta's endeavors, but didn't seem to try to force her into anything. In the Old West, during the Gold Rush years when miners were plenty and women were few, (and miners had money!) women found another way to supplement their income and maintain a certain amount of freedom by singing and dancing. Therefore, Crabtree's desire to dance and her great skill is equally legendary as that of Montez, because Lotta Crabtree lived to dance.

Lotta Crabtree, full-length portrait in costume for a theatrical role, dressed as a child, and yet, she appears to be once again smoking a cigar! Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

Montez Meets Crabtree

Lotta was born in 1847 in New York. Her parents named her Charlotte Mignon Crabtree, and over the years, Charlotte became Lotte, which became Lotta. When Lotta was a toddler her father moved the family to California to join the Gold Rush, possibly part of the "49ers. (I assumed they were associated with the mass gold rush of 1849 because of the timeline of their move, and because the entire family moved to California. However, many men left their families behind because gold rush camps could be dangerous, expensive, and deadly, and Lotta's entire family moved, so I could be mistaken). Lotta was approximately six years old when her family arrived in San Francisco, which would have been 1853.

The Crabtree family settled in the Grass Valley Mining Camp near the home of Lola Montez, the Countess of Landsfeldt. According to legend, Lotta was playfully dancing in the street while waiting for her parents when she attracted the attention of Montez. Montez was enchanted. She gave Lotta a few short, simple instructions, and realized the girl had talent. Montez convinced Lotta's parents that the child could help support her family as a dancer, and considering the past struggles of Lola Montez, I do believe support for the girl's family would have been her primary concern.

Montez offered to teach the Lotta "The Spanish Dance." Lotta Crabtree's parents, still struggling financially from their move, eagerly agreed with a bit of pressure from their charismatic daughter.

Lotta's Fountain in 1905, looking northeast along Market Street; the Palace Hotel is at right and the Ferry Building's clock tower is in the distance. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

The Famous Meeting at the Fountain

There are more than a few legends circulating about this meeting. Lotta wasn't just dancing in the street, she was also dancing near a popular, but aging fountain near Market and Kearny Streets and attracting a crowd. Lotta paused when she noticed a tired, hot horse standing nearby. She brought water to the horse from the fountain. This random act of kindness did not go unnoticed by the people of San Francisco. Lotta had established a sweet, innocent child reputation before she even reached the stage.

In 1875, after she had saved a small fortune, Lotta Crabtree returned to the fountain. She paid to have it restored and dedicated "Lotta's Fountain" to the people of San Francisco.

Flamenco Dance, oil on canvas, by Ricard Canals i LlambĂ­ (1876–1935). Public Domain.

The Spanish Dance

When historians discuss Lotta Crabtree they refer to her dance style as the same "Spanish Dancing" performed by Lola Montez. After searching through numerous sources in an attempt to identify the exact dance that Lola Montez performed and taught to Lotta Crabtree, I am still unable to accurately identify if she performed a variety of dances or Flamenco. 

However, I did discover that when people refer to Spanish Dance, they are often referring specifically to Flamenco, which is a dance based on the folklore traditions of Andalusia Spain. Its origin is traced back to the gypsies of Romani, Castilians, Moors and Andalusians , as well as Sephardi Jews in Andalusia. The gowns worn by dancers had extensive embellishments. The combination of exotic dance moves, colorful gowns, and hypnotic music was enchanting to audiences in the Old West. 

A Popular Young Dancer

Lotta first performed in 1855 in front of a group of miners. She was born in 1847 which means she was eight years old when she first performed. Over the next four years she toured throughout California visiting many mining camps and appearing in theaters in San Francisco. She danced, sang, and performed short acting roles that were written just for her.

Her first official performance was in Petaluma, California in "Loan of a Lover." In 1864 she performed in New York City, but reviews were poor. After touring the country for three years she again performed in New York City in "Little Nell and the Marchioness," adapted from "The Old Curiosity Shop" by Charles Dickens, who was popular at this time.

By the 1870s, Lotta had her own touring company. The reviews of her touring company were favorable. As for her performance, she was often compared to a sprite, or fairy, which I find interesting since in one of her most popular photos, Lotta she appears to be a child smoking a cigarette (photo at top of page).

Lotta's Life

Lotta's family traveled with her as she toured the Old West. Her mother was her manager and she did not allow Lotta to neglect her education. Lotta was proficient in the French language and in painting.

At the peak of her career, Lotta Crabtree was earning $5000 a week, and in contemporary dollars that would be approximately $125,000 a week according to the Inflation Calculator. Crabtree invested in houses and land, bonds, and racehorses. She also donated large sums to charities. Lotta's private home was the 18-room summer cottage in Mount Arlington, New Jersey, on the shores of Lake Hopatcong.

Lotta Crabtree's Retirement

Lotta retired in 1891 at the age of 44, which may seem young now, but in the 1800s the average life span for women was in the 40s. At the time of her retirement she was the richest female performer in the United States.

Lotta's last performance was for "Lotta Crabtree Day" at the San Francisco at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco. Then she retired to her estate on Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey.

Lotta Crabtree never married. She died in 1924 at the young age of 77 in her New York home. She was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.

When she died, Lotta Crabtree left over $4 million dollars to charities for veterans, animals, and aging actors.

  • Crabtree, Charlotte. The Virtual  Museum of the City of San Francisco. Accessed July 20, 2018.
  • "Flamenco." Wikipedia. Accessed July 25, 2019. 
  • "Flamenco Dance." Ricard Canals i LlambĂ­, circa 1935. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed July 25, 2019. 
  • "Lotta Crabtree." Death Valley Days. Season 2, Episode 9, first aired January 5, 1954.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Independence Rock, Wyoming: Birthplace of American Graffiti

Independence Rock, Wyoming. The birthplace of American graffiti. 

Yes folks, it's true. Those silly webpages claiming graffiti started in the 1960s are wrong. Long before it became a popular form of entertainment and vandalism for bored teenagers, America's pioneers were carving their names in a giant rock in Wyoming, the halfway point to their destination: California. As early pioneers made their way across the continent to settle the West, they often stopped at this well-known landmark to leave their mark on history. 
The rock is now a Wyoming State Historic Site. 

The Oregon Trail's Sweetwater River, circa 1870.

A Comfortable Campsite

Pioneers making their way along the Oregon Trail to California often traveled alongside the Sweetwater River in Wyoming. They began to notice there were many choice campsites near the river, opportunities for game and fish, fresh water, and a nice place to rest. 

These same pioneers also noticed a large rock, perfect for climbing to get a better view of what lay ahead, and what they'd left behind. 

Independence Rock from a distance. The View from Independence Rock is magnificent!

From the top of the rock it seemed a pioneer could see all the way to California, and after what they'd just experienced, those few moments on the rock were like a slice of Heaven! 

Why Independence Rock? 

Traveling the Oregon Trail involved careful planning to avoid harsh weather. Pioneers had to arrive in Independence, Missouri, buy their supplies, join a wagon train and start on the Oregon Trail in plenty of time to reach Wyoming by July. 

Wagon Train headed down the Oregon Trail. 

As it turned out, most pioneers arrived at the Sweetwater River and Independence Rock on the Fourth of July. Hence the name: Independence Rock!

Pioneers crossing the plains by C.C.A. Christensen (1831-1912).

According to Huston Horn's The Pioneers, Phoebe Judson wrote in her journal that she celebrated the Fourth of July at Independence Rock with her family in 1853. They "whipped up a savory pie made of sage hen and rabbit, with a rich gravy; and a crust, having been raised with yeast, was as light as a feather." 

The family then finished their Independence Day celebration at the Rock with fruitcake, pound cake, and sponge cake. Judson commented that the celebration would have been much more lavish at home, but considering what they'd been through in their travels, she was perfectly content. 

American Graffiti

In 1841, a missionary passing through Wyoming noticed the rock when he stopped at the Sweetwater River to rest. He examined the rock and the many names already carved into its sides. He called the rock "The Great Record of the Desert." 

Independence Rock--note the date carved into the side. Photo by Matthew Trump.

As time passed, Independence Rock became a famous landmark. Gradually, pioneers noticed that the those who came before them carved their names, dates, epitaphs, or messages for family members coming later into the rock itself. Soon there were thousands of names, dates, monograms and initials in the rock, either painted on or chiseled into the rock itself. 

Independence Rock is made of granite and is approximately 130 feet high, 1900 feet long and 850 feet wide. Travelers often reached the rock at night. They knew they were in the right place--if the skies were clear they could see the rock from a great distance and it served as an important landmark for travelers. 

Independence Rock Today

Independence Rock is in southwestern Natrona County in Wyoming. You will find it alongside the Wyoming State Highway 220. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on January 20, 1961 and is now part of the Independence Rock State Historic Site, which is owned and operated by the state of Wyoming. In other words, don't show up with your pink and purple paint expecting to leave your mark--it is now an important part of American history and protected by the State of Wyoming. 

  • Horn, Huston. "Independence Rock, Wyoming." The Old West: The Pioneers. Time Life Books. New York: 1974. 
  • Visits and personal experience. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Lola Montez: Beauty and Song in the Old West

Lola Montez (de:Gouache by Carl Buchner, 1847. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

Lola Montez is known as the "first tabloid celebrity." She was born in a time when women had to use whatever they had to survive. Lola's story is similar to that of her own mother, reflecting the harsh life women endured and their reluctant dependence on men for everything, including their safety, security, and even their success. Although her story begins in Europe, it ends in the early years of the Wild West. The story of Lola Montez could be the story of any woman in the Wild West years, struggling to survive in a new land ruled by men, and somehow succeeding. 

Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert
Lola was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1824 (although this is disputed, this is the date given by Montez in her autobiography). In her lectures she stated that her ancestors were Irish and Moorish-Spanish. Lola's mother, Elizabeth Oliver, was the child of Irish diplomat Charles Silver Oliver, a descendent of the Spanish noble Count de Montalvo, former High Sheriff of Cork, and a member of Parliament in County Limerick.

Elizabeth Oliver was also known to be the most beautiful woman in her social circle. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Oliver eloped with a soldier, Edward Gilbert, and although Montez claimed she was born in the second year of their marriage it was rumored that her mother was pregnant with Lola at the time of their marriage.

Gilbert was an intelligent man and talented soldier. He was made a Captain in the 44th Irish Regiment before the age of 20. Unfortunately, the marriage and rumors surrounding the marriage of the young couple destroyed any chance that either or both would have been welcomed back into society. The couple lived in Boyle, County Roscommon before Gilbert was sent to India in March of 1823.

Daguerreotype of dancer and actress Lola Montez (1821-1861). TC-75, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Public Domain. 

The timing of the young family was poor. There was a devastating Cholera epidemic in India in the early 1800s and Lola's father died of Cholera shortly after their arrival. According to the autobiography of Montez, her father's best friend, Lt. Patrick Craigie, was also in the room at the time of his death and Gilbert begged Craigie to care for his young wife and child.

Lola's mother married Lt. Patrick Craigie. Craigie, however, either was not familiar with raising young girls or was an impatient man. He did not want little Lola in the home. It was an important experience for Lola, though. A short lesson on the politics of marital relationships and the fact that women had little power or control over their lives.

Lola was sent to Sunderland, England. Craigie's older sister ran a boarding school in Sunderland, but one can imagine Lola was not greeted with open arms. Her stay in Sunderland lasted less than a year before she was sent on to Bath, the largest city in the county of Somerset, England.

The ancient city of Bath was known for its constant flow of tourists who arrived from around the world for a taste of the healing waters, the social scene and entertainment. It was the perfect environment for Lola's friendly, outgoing, confident personality. She quickly learned the art of flirtation and social behaviors and became interested in dancing, as well.

Craigie was promoted to Major and sent to Calcutta. Lola was separated from her mother and lived with the family of Sir Jasper Nichols, commander of the Bengal forces. Nichols had many daughters and Montez was sent to Paris, along with the Nichols' children, to finish her education.

There were many rumors about Lola's behavior at this time. She was marked as a troublemaker for sticking a flower in a man's hat during church. Apparently, that was all it took to destroy a child's reputation. It was also said that she once through the village naked. In contemporary times, the child would be questioned to see if she was attacked, but instead, Lola was victimized by vicious gossip. She was only ten years old. It was yet another painful lesson for Lola, this time about society and gossip. Beautiful little girls lived the same dangerous lives as beautiful grown women, and Lola would have to learn how to survive.

Lola Montez as Mariquita, in the ballet Un jour de carneval of Seville, 1852. 
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

Lola was sent to Sunderland, England. Craigie's older sister ran a boarding school in Sunderland, but one can imagine Lola was not greeted with open arms. Her stay in Sunderland lasted less than a year before she was sent on to Bath, the largest city in the county of Somerset, England. The ancient city of Bath was known for its constant flow of tourists who arrived from around the world for a taste of the healing waters, the social scene and entertainment. It was the perfect environment for Lola's friendly, outgoing, confident personality. She quickly learned the art of flirtation and social behaviors and became interested in dancing, as well.

When she returned to the Nichols family at the age of 14 her mother arrived claiming she was there to take her home. Montez was confused by the number of new gowns and fancy clothing that was made for this trip and when she asked her mother's travel escort, 27-year-old Captain James, she discovered she was promised to be married to a sixty-year-old court judge.

Lola Montez at the height of her stage performance career. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

An Arranged Marriage for a Child

Lola was terrified to learn she was to marry a 60-year-old man. She turned to her mother's travel companion, Lt. Thomas James, and begged for his help. In her memoirs, Montez refers to Lt. James in a way that implies he may have been a lover or deeply admired by Lola's mother, but Lola was so insistent with her pleas for rescue from the planned marriage that James proposed an elopement.

They settled in Ireland, but perhaps "settled" is not the right word to use when discussing the life of Lola Montez. In addition to the scandal created by her young age, Lola's husband was also abusive. He spent his days chasing women and drinking. Lola and her husband returned to Spain, but they were not welcomed by her mother.

Lola left her husband and headed for England. She met her next lover, another Army officer, on the ship. They were accused of an open and indecent affair--at her divorce trial, other passengers claimed they often saw Lola's cabin door open and Lola, half-dressed, with the officer. Lola was forced to return to Spain where Lola's husband, Lt. James, granted her a divorce. Lola was only 20 years old.

Lola Montez as Mariquita, in the ballet Un jour de carneval of Seville. 1852: Public Domain.

Spanish Dancing

In an attempt to redefine her image, Lola began an intense study of Spanish dancing in Seville. She traveled to England in 1843 as Lola Montez where she was booked to appear in the royal theatre. She was thrilled by the opportunity. She finally had a chance to make her way in a man's world alone, but her dream was shattered by a man in the audience who recognized Montez as the former wife of Lt. James, and an Irishwoman. The man shouted out in the middle of her dance that she was not a famous Spanish dancer and revealed her previous identity.

At that time, the Irish were experiencing extreme prejudice. The audience was easily led to believe by the man--who had unknown motives--that she was trying to deceive the audience. She was chased from the stage with catcalls and insults. She was considered unemployable due to her tarnished reputation and was passed from one man to another as their beautiful Spanish lover. And she was beautiful, but Lola dreamed of being more than a courtesan. Still, it would be years before she could leave that past behind and fulfill her dream of the dance.

Jules Laure - Portrait of Lola Montez, 1845.

Life moved quickly in these days and within a year Lola was in Paris, France. She once again appeared on stage in the opera Le lazzarone, but reviews were poor. She was forced to fall back on her looks and reputation to survive once more and had yet another scandalous affair, this time with the composer Franz Liszt. She was introduced to novelist George Sand who was also known for her scandalous affairs, but Sand's friendship enabled Lola to meet many important people, including author Alexander Dumas. 

Lola Montez (Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert) by George Dury, ca. 1848, Tennessee State Library and Archives. Public Domain.

It is believed that Lola and Dumas also had a romantic affair. But it was her friendship with newspaper publisher Alexandre Dujarier that helped her move forward with her dream, as well as her acquaintance with the newspaper's drama critic. Sadly, her friendship/romance with Dujarier also ended badly when he confronted another man in a jealous rage and challenged him to a duel. Dujarier lost and Lola was forced to move on. The life of a courtesan depends on her success in finding and keeping a lover, and whatever she may have felt for Dujarier, he could not help her once he had died.  

Wilhelm von Kaulbach - Lola Montez in a classic costume, 1847. 
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

The Countess of Landsfeld

Lola's life took a dramatic turn when she arrived in Munich around 1846. In spite of her reputation for having an explosive temper and lack of popularity with the people, she became the mistress of Ludwig I of Bavaria who also made her Countess of Landsfeld, a title that came with a large allowance and political power--one minister, Karl von Abel, was dismissed for objecting to her political position. 

Lola, now the Countess, was a liberal in a country divided by its mix of liberal and conservative beliefs. It is possible she was even more politically involved than her husband. When threats of revolution at the local university were relayed to her in 1848, the Countess had the university shut down. The king was forced to reopen the university, but the scandal also forced him to abdicate and Lola barely escaped Bavaria alive. Historians believe Ludwig's relationship with Lola Montez was the cause of his downfall, but he also showed a tendency to use poor judgment in political situations.

Lola Montez with Black Veil, 1853. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

Lola escaped to Switzerland where she waited for her lover, but he never arrived. She then moved to London and married yet another officer, George Trafford Heald, but discovered she would soon be charged with bigamy due to local laws and once again, Lola was on the run. Lola and Heald traveled to France, then Spain. It is believed he drowned in Spain. 

There's Something About Lola...

Apparently fed up with life in Europe and her terrible luck with love, Lola decided to try the Wild West and bought a ticket for a boat ride to the U.S.  She was 35, which was close to the average life span in the Old West, but her beguiling appearance once again brought her fame and notoriety. 

Conrad Kiesel - A portrait of Lola Montez (according to Christie's). Date unknown. 
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

Lola Montez was an expert at re-inventing her image, but when it came to decisions on love, she still had a lot to learn. Before the ship reached California, she was engaged to Mr. Patrick Hull, editor of the San Francisco Whig

According to an article in The Maritime Heritage Project, she married Hull a few months later and divorced him two months after the wedding. In yet another scandal, a doctor who was named as co-respondent in the divorce was shot and killed, and his body was found on a hillside near the city. 

Historic American Buildings Survey Louis Sanchez Call, Oakland, California - Lola Montez House, 248 Mill Street, Grass Valley, Nevada County, CA. Public Domian.

Peace at Last for Lola

Looking back on her story it is easy to imagine that something in her childhood had changed Lola so that she found it difficult to truly love, or maintain a loving relationship. After her marriage to Hull she decided to help women, instead. Of course, she continued to perform and was just as popular in the Old West as she had been in Europe. Surprisingly, the Wild West towns were attractive to famous performers--lonely men with gold in their pockets and nowhere to spend it was the perfect situation for skilled, beautiful performers.

Lola, however, never forgot her life of struggle. She bought a home in Grass Valley where she stayed between performances and was reportedly well-liked by the community. She also started a program helping women who were struggling to survive on her own.

Lola Montez died in financial poverty. She was still a young woman of 39, and it is believed that she died of pneumonia. However, an article in The Irish Times states that she died from the effects of syphillus. Regardless, it is her life that is best remembered. She was a woman confronted with many obstacles who managed to build a career that was golden and left behind a reputation for her kindness and compassion. She gave everything she owned to help the women in the Wild West. She also met a special young girl who she decided to teach how to dance--Charlotte "Lotta" Crabtree. It was a serendipitous meeting--Lotta Crabtree would become the star of the next generation of Wild West entertainers.

Sources: (Please note from the sources that this post was started in May of 2017 and published in June of 2018, I apologize for any discrepancy in the source information.)
  • Collins, Padraig. "An Irishman’s Diary on the glamorous and dangerous Lola Montez." Posted July 16, 2014. Accessed July 25, 2019. 
  • Gilbert, Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna. Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 1911. Accessed May 14, 2017. 
  • "Lola Montez." Death Valley Days. Episode first aired January 4, 1955. 
  • "Lola Montez." Very Important Passengers. Ship Passengers: 1846-1899. The Maritime Heritage Project ~ San Francisco. Accessed January 16, 2018.  
  • Montez, Lola. Autobiography and Lectures of Lola Montez. James Blackwood, Paternoster Rowe. London: 1860.
  • "Obituary: Death of Lola Montez." News. The New York Times. Originally published January 21, 1861. Accessed online May 12, 2017.
  • Roper, Ann. "Her Name Was Lola." Hidden History. Aired March 7, 2007. Accessed on Internet Archive Wayback Machine November 7, 2017. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Rocky Mountain Locust: The Plague of the Pioneers

Photo by Darla Sue Dollman. I believe this was also a locust.

"No matter what they came to, they went right on. They were crawling up one side of the barn and down the other. Crawling West. They crawled straight into the creek, never stopped. They crawled into it and drowned till they clogged it up and the others crawled across on their backs. Molly...would they do something like that without knowing why? I tell you they were bound to go West. All the powers of Hell couldn't 've stopped them." He and Molly looked at each other for a long moment...Neither of them could say what they felt. The grasshoppers--crawling into the creek and drowning  'till the others crossed on their backs. Grasshoppers, going West--like the railroads, like the people, like cities and settled lands and law and government. Yet grasshoppers were as alien, as indifferent to human beings than human fate itself." 
--excerpt from Let the Hurricane Roar by Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder 

Locust in New Mexico arroyo. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Here Come the Bugs!

It is spring, and my house is already alive with spiders and creepy crawly creatures. It sometimes seems that every year my home state of Colorado is plagued with some creature, such as moths, butterflies, or bees, but the one that has created a unique history of its own with its massive, nationwide invasions is the grasshoppers, or locust. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Rocky Mountain Locust with their massive attacks on American pioneers. 

The Rocky Mountain Locust and American Pioneers

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. In the 1800s, farmers fought a seemingly endless battle with the locust, year after year, and many believed the locust would win. They gave up their dreams of farming and returned to their homes in the East.

Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, "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 my home state of Colorado) and contained at least 12.5 trillion individuals weighing approximately 27.5 million tons."

Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder and her daughter both wrote about the Rocky Mountain Locust plagues in their accounts of life on the American prairies. 

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), Rose Wilder Lane's mother (quoted above) wrote the Little House series about her family life in Independence, Kansas, and also wrote about her family's experiences with the Rocky Mountain Locust in her books, including On the Banks of the Plum Creek, a story of her life on the American prairie.

Ingalls describes 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..."

Locust swarming on an outside wall in Kansas City. Photo taken in 1933. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain.

It is the 1870s and dreamers, pioneers, have suddenly become farmers responding to the 1862 Homestead Act. They packed their families and belongings and moved onto their 160 acres where they built sod homes, shanties, any kid of structure to meet the government residency requirements, but most of these homes were made of mud, sod houses that survived best against the blistering heat, harsh winds, and relentless snowstorms on the Western prairies and thankfully were the only type of home that locust could not eat.

They lived on their land for five years, planting, harvesting, waiting for the day when they could finally file the title to your property. Then suddenly one a quiet, sunny morning there appeared a black cloud above their homes moving closer, faster, descending on their crops, streams, barns, animals, dreams, like a giant beast destroying every little plant that grew from every little seed that these men, their wives and children dropped by hand into the soil just months before.

Rocky Mountain Locusts (titled Minnesota Locusts) of the 1870s. 
Jacoby's Art Gallery/Public Domain.

Those families who were familiar with locust tied the openings of their clothing--shirt sleeves, pant legs--with string so the locust wouldn't climb inside, then rushed to cover their wells with anything they could find. Some tried to burn part of their crops, hoping the smoke would discourage the locust. It did not.

The families hid inside their mud houses. The sound was horrendous--crunching, crawling, scratching. When the creatures could not find something to eat, they began to eat each other. When the ground was bare, they moved on. For some settlers in the West, the loss was too much and they returned back home to their families in the East.

A Distinct Species of Grasshopper

Rocky Mountain Locust. Annual report of the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Minnesota. (Biodiversity Heritage Library. Drawing by Julius Bien (1826-1909).

In 2010, when I first wrote this article, sources stated that all locusts are swarming grasshoppers in the Acrididae family. They become aggressive as their numbers grow and food sources become low.

However, it is now believed that the Rocky Mountain Locust, known as the M. spretus, is distinct. 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. Imagine seeing a cloud of locust so large it covers the entire sky and turns day into night. As terrifying as a Bibilical plague.

Locust Plagues in History

Rocky Mountain Locust. Julius Bien (1826-1909) biography - Annual report of the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Minnesota. (11th July 1902-June 1903). Public Domain.

Author Jeffrey Lockwood also states in “The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier.”  that the largest swarm is believed to have happened in the American Midwest: "The 1875 swarm was estimated to contain several trillion locusts and probably weighed several million tons. That was the largest locust cloud in world history." 

According to an article in the New York Times, the 1875 swarm was equal to the size of "the combined area of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont."

The Disappearance of the Rocky Mountain Locust

Twenty-seven years after the largest locust swarm in recorded U.S. history, the Rocky Mountain Locust mysteriously disappeared. The last sighting of a Rocking Mountain Locust was in Southern Canada in 1902. 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.

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.

According to Katie Boswell: "DNA testing from museum specimens of the Rocky Mountain locust suggests that M. spretus was a distinct, and now extinct, species and the days of the locust on the scale of 12.5 trillion individuals are gone. If you do still want to find Rocky Mountain locusts, the best place to look (other than in a museum) is in a glacier. Throughout the west there are glaciers that have preserved the frozen bodies of locusts that once flew over them."


  • Bennett, Chris. Western Farm Press. Accessed 2013. 
  • Bowell, Katie. The Rocky Mountain Locust. More to Explore. The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center. Accessed 2010.
  • Lane, Rose Wilder. Let the Hurricane Roar. Harper & Row Publishers. New York: 1933. 
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. On the Banks of Plum Creek. Harper: 1937. 
  • Yoon, Carol Kaesuk. "Looking Back at the Days of the Locust." The New York Times. Posted April 23, 2002. Accessed 2010.  

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Colorado's Deadliest Floods

You may have noticed fewer posts over the past year. I've been working on a history book about flooding in Colorado. Colorado's Deadliest Floods was released by 
The History Press on September 4, 2017. 

Tomorrow morning, September 14, 2017, I will be interviewed by Ryan Warner on "Colorado Matters," Colorado Public Radio. We will discuss the stories in the book, including the story of the Denver flood of 1864.

The show starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 11 a.m., but I believe there are two interviews. I was told by the radio station that "To hear it live, people can stream us online at, and on station 90.1 for Greeley. The story and audio will be found online later in the day to access anywhere at anytime." 

I've also been asked where to buy "Colorado's Deadliest Floods. You can purchase the book online at Amazon; Barnes & Noble: History Press --click on the title to go to the page. The book is also available in many bookstores, including independent, local bookstores. You can Google the title. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Oregonian, Thomas Dryer, Henry Pittock, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood

 Mount Hood reflected in Mirror Lake, Oregon. Public domain. Courtesy of Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory. Released into public domain when submitted to FHWA with 2005 Nomination Application.

This is an odd sort of story that I first heard on a television anthology show. It is a story of adventure, exploration, volcanoes, climbers, daredevils, tall tales and great accomplishments. It is complicated, but fascinating at the same time. When I attempted to research the tale I discovered there was less and more to it than the writers of the show originally implied. I would love to hear from some native Oregonians who know more about this tale than I do! Nevertheless, it is a fun tale, a
tall tale about challenges and danger, and the insatiable desire for men to be the "first" to go where, in the unforgettable words of Star Trek's Captain Kirk, "no man has gone before!" Whether or not some of the men involved achieved their goals is up to speculation,but there is no doubt that they tried, and the attempt to achieve is part of the great beauty of the history of the American West.

So, I will begin by apologizing for my very long hiatus. I've been writing a history book, and as it turns out, the book required much more research than originally anticipated. It will be finished soon and I miss hearing from my fellow fans of the Wild West. Therefore, I will begin with a post I started before I disappeared, a story about two men who worked as journalists in the Old West--Thomas J. Dryer and Henry L. Pittock, whose lives were intertwined through their career choices, their place of employment, and their hobby and love for mountain climbing. 

Mount Hood at Sunrise. U.S. Forest Service photo/public domain.

I feel a connection to these men. I also love the outdoors, hiking, exploring, and that feeling that I am the first human to see a stunning vista or hear a trickling creek. I also started my writing career as a journalist and received my first writing award from the Denver Womens Press Club when I was 19 years old. I know that feeling, that drive to compete. For this and many other reasons the story of Thomas J. Dryer and Henry L. Pittock intrigues me. I am also intrigued that there are many versions of the story and that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in this tale--a common problem with stories about the American Old West. 

  Thomas J. DryerPublisher and Editor of the Oregonian, public domain.

The story begins in Portland, Oregon with a man named Thomas J. Dryer (January 8, 1808 – March 30, 1879). Dryer was a popular character in Portland. He founded The Oregonian, one of the oldest newspapers in the Old West. Dryer was a member of the Oregon Territorial Legislature in 1857, so he was also a politician, as was common for newspaper publishers in the Old West. The most important aspect of his life for the purpose of this story, though, was the fact that he was an avid mountain climber and claimed to be the first to climb both Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood in a personal account he wrote and published in The Oregonian.

According to The Oregon Encyclopedia, Dryer established The Oregonian at the request of local residents. Dryer had a drier sense of humor (pun intended). In the Old West, newspapers were used to attract settlers and help establish towns by encouraging commerce, and as we learned in an earlier examination of The Rocky Mountain News, publishers like William N. Byers and Thomas J. Dryer of The Oregonian were well-known for their satirical approach to politicians and others who might disagree with them, an approach that included name-calling, insults, and sometimes bordered on harassment. This approach was both admired and encouraged. In fact, The Oregon Encyclopedia refers to it as "the Oregon style of journalism."

USFS Photograph taken before 18 May 1980 by Jim Nieland, US Forest Service, Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument. Public domain.

Dryer first published the Weekly Oregonian on December 4, 1850. On September 3, 1853 he published an account of a climbing expedition that he claimed took place on August 25, 1853. Dryer stated that the expedition consisted of "Messrs. John Wilson [an employee of The Oregonian]; Smith [identit unknown]; Drew [possibly Edwin Drew, a local Indian Agent, or Charles Drew, a militiaman]; and ourself," The men stocked enough rations for three days and established a base camp on Mount St. Helens, (the same mountain that exploded in May of 1980 destroying a large portion of Washington State's forestland. Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens are called "The Guardians of the Columbia River"). In his report Dryer says the mountain (volcano) is "sublimely grand, and impossible to describe." He states that they camped for the night at timberline, built a pyramid of rocks to mark their campsite then began their descent on August 27, 1853. 

View of Mt. Ranier from Ricksecker Point. Photo by George A. Grant courtesy of the US National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

Unfortunately, Dryer's accounts of his expeditions were questioned from the start, and to this day. According to an investigation by Harry M. Majors, which appeared in Northwest Discovery in August of 1980, Dryer's account of the ascent to the summit of Mount St. Helens contains numerous errors. When Dryer referred to Mount Rainer, Majors claims Dryer was actually looking at Mount Adams. Majors also points out that a later ascent made by another expedition group in 1860 and numerous other ascents to the summit failed to locate the "pyramid of loose stones on the highest spot of level earth and ashes" that Dryer claimed he and his party left on Mount St. Helens.

For these and other reasons Dryer's account is questioned by historians, but most historians do believe Dryer was the first explorer to reach the summit of Mount St. Helens. And yet, to a man like Dryer, his life as a politician, newspaper publisher and his reputation as the first man to climb to the summit of a famous American mountain was not enough. He needed more. He quickly planned another excursion, this time up the infamous Mt. Hood. It is his account of his climb to the summit of Mt. Hood that created a scandal and made his successor at The Oregonian, Henry Pittock, a famous explorer, as well.

Thomas J. Dryer. Photo by unknown photographer from Oregon Native Son, Vol. II, No. 7. Photo is in public domain. 

Mount Hood rises 11,239 feet (3426 meters) above sea level, its base is 92 feet wide. It is an active volcano, considered a high threat by the USGS 2005 Early Warning System assessment. It is believed to be the second most climbed mountain in the world, and it is a nightmare for mountain rescue crews. Thomas Dryer and Henry Pittock may have been among the first to attempt to climb Mount Hood, but they were not the last. It is estimated that 10,000 people attempt to climb Mount Hood every year. Trying to create an estimate using various sources, I came up with an estimate that more than 170 people have died on Mount Hood since the 1800s, and although many sources site avalanches as the culprit in the Mount Hood death trap, most people die from falls or hypothermia. Sadly, many people have died from attempts to find a position where they could have a clear view from the summit. 

The undeniable fact is that Mount Hood is dangerous. It is a fact that was well-known to people even in the 1800s, and when Thomas J. Dryer rushed into his newspaper office shouting that he successfully climbed to the summit his claims naturally attracted a great deal of attention, as well as a bit of skepticism, and perhaps even a little jealousy from other local adventurers. 

Henry L. Pittock, The Oregon Encyclopedia. 

This is where Henry Lewis Pittock enters the story. In 1853, Henry Lewis Pittockfuture editor and publisher of The Oregonian newspaper, was born in London, but raised in Pittsburgh where he worked at his family's printing company. After completing his studies at the Western University of Pennsylvania's Prepatory School at 17 years old, Pittock left Pennsylvania and joined thousands of trappers, traders, and pioneers on the 2,200 mile hike of the historic Oregon Trail. Pittock was searching for a new life in Oregon--the same reason most people headed West in the 1800s, because they wanted a new life. Although Pittock was an explorer in search of an adventure he was also broke and used his education and experience in printing for financial support. He soon found employment as a typesetter for The Oregonian newspaper. 

In 1854,while Pittock was hard at work, his employer, Thomas Dryer, rushed into the newspaper office declaring he had just completed a remarkable feat. He claimed he had climbed Mount Hood, which would make him the first known human to make it to the summit. He told how he could see as far as California from the peak, and printed his story in his newspaper.
The Oregonian Building in 1900. This building was completed in 1892, and was demolished in 1950. The newspaper moved to another building in 1948, and both the old and new buildings were/are called The Oregonian Building. Public Domain.

Now, to understand how remarkable this claim would be, one has to understand Mount Hood. The mountain is 11,000 feet above sea level and known for its dangerous weather conditions, such as sudden, blinding blizzards and deadly glaciers. Nevertheless, over 10,000 people attempt the climb each year. 
Mount St. Helens. Photo taken by Harry Glicken, USGS, on May 17, 1980, one day before the volcano exploded. Public Domain. 

Pittock could not help but feel a twinge of jealousy and frustration. According to Mysteries at the Castle, Pittock not only doubted his employer's claim that he climbed to the summit of Mount Hood, he also decided he would take the challenge himself, document the event, and prove his employer wrong. It took Pittock a few years to save his money and gather his friends for the ascent, but in 1857, 22 year old Henry Pittock left the newspaper office and headed for Mount Hood. 

Mount Hood Oregon. Painting by artist William Keith, circa 1881.

On August 6, 1857. Pittock and four of his friends established a base camp on the south side of Mount Hood and began their ascent. They passed Crater Rock, climbed the Hogsback snow ridge, then completed their journey to the summit. 

The men were beyond thrilled when they realized they had reached the summit. They were young, bold, adventurous, and knew in their hearts that they had just achieved what many men in Oregon could only dream of accomplishing. They had also made detailed observations every tortuous step of their climb. By carefully surveying their surroundings and comparing these details to the account made by Dryer, the men quickly realized that Dryer had actually stopped his climb at least 350 feet below the summit, most likely because he and the rest of his expedition members had chosen the eastern route and became confused. 

Using Pittock's detailed records, historians have concluded that Henry Pittock and his friends were the first men to reach the summit of Mount Hood. They carved their names in a rock to make certain no one would question their claim and left a flag waving in the wind at the summit before returning to their base camp then to Portland. 

One of Pittock's friends and a fellow expedition member, James G. Deardorff, wrote about the achievement in the Democratic Standard, The Oregonian's competition. The Oregonian's Thomas Dryer responded with his usual disdain in an editorial, claiming the "young men" were simply bragging, trying to make themselves appear tough and strong to an older, more experienced generation of climbers. Pittock waited seven years to tell his own story so he would not insult his employer and lose his job.  By the time he told his story, Pittock had climbed Mount Hood several times. 

Henry Pittock, March 1, 1835 – January 28, 1919. Photo circa December, 1900. Public Domain.
Dryer may have been bold and adventurous, but as it turned out he was not a particularly skilled businessman. In 1860 he was forced to turn over The Oregonian to Henry Pittock in exchange for unpaid wages and on February 4, 1861, Henry Pittock, editor and publisher, introduced his six-day a week Morning Oregonian. Pittock's mansion is now on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Pittock Mansion. This photographic work of art by Geremia is one of few that I found that captured the mansion's great beauty. The photograph is in public domain. The Pittock Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, reference number 73001582.

  • Dryer, Thomas J. "First Ascent of Mount St. Helens, Washington. August 26, 1853." Excerpt from The Columbian, originally posted on September 24, 1853. The article originally appeared in The Oregonian on September 3, 1853. Accessed 1/7/2016 on USGS website: Volcanoes/Volcanoes and History/Cascade Range Volcanoes.
  • "First Ascent of Mount Hood, Effects of a High Elevation Up the Human System.", Vol.VII, p.321, 1854. Littell's Living Age, 1854,
  • Stein, Harry H. "Henry Lewis Pittock". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed March 19, 2016.
  • "Mysteries at the Castle." Travel Channel. First aired 3/10/2016.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...