Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Do British Students Prefer the Wild West?

According to a recent news article in the United Kingdom's Independent, British Education Secretary Michael Gove expressed concern over the fact that students preparing for their GCSEs in British secondary schools in 2011 knew more about the American Wild West than their own country's history. Gove equated this with a lack of pride in their country's history.

According to the article, of the 40% of students who chose to study history, only 8% chose British history, 48% chose the American West and 40% chose to study Germany leading up to, and during, World War II.

Of course, it is difficult to speculate on the real reasons for this interest without actually interviewing the students. One might originally suspect, considering the time periods involved, that students would choose Germany and the American Old West because they cover relatively short time periods, and if there is one thing young students love, it's short cuts.

The German studies section covered the years between 1919 and 1945, or 26 years. These were vitally important years when trying to understand the causes of World War II, but the point I'm trying to make is, there are relatively few years compared to British history. The study of human history in the British Isles could conceivably begin with the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic Periods.

However, since this is a blog on the American Wild West, let's take a look at that time period, since it was also favored by British students. The time period of the American Old West, or Wild West, stretches from the early 1800s to the 1920s, or roughly 100 years. Compared to the thousands of years in the study of British history, it's understandable why any young student would eagerly choose the American Old West!

I like to think there would be a bit more to these decisions, though. When I have studied British history in the past, I've found that teachers tend to focus on politics, religion and economics. In British history, these three topics are woven together as tight as the braided mane of a rodeo pony.

In studies of the American Old West, though, the focus is on exploration into unknown territories. The focus is on transportation, such as stagecoaches and railroads. The focus is on exciting personalities, like Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Daniel Boone, Stephen Austin and Sam Houston.

The focus is on slavery, Abraham Lincoln, and the American Civil War, which would include the causes leading up to this horrific tragedy. The war only lasted from 1861 to 1865, but during that time, 620,000 Americans died, and 400,000 of these deaths were caused by disease!

Studies of the American Old West may cover a short period of time, but a tremendous amount of excitement as Europeans explored the New World and clashed with its original inhabitants, the warriors of the Sioux, Apache, Comanche, Pawnee, and Cherokee. The Comanche were particularly troublesome to western pioneers, especially in Texas where the Texas Rangers served their time during the Civil War protecting homesteaders.

American Old West studies might also include stories of buffalo herds so vast that they sometimes kept trains waiting on the tracks three days before they completely crossed over, animals that quickly disappeared from the American landscape due to extermination orders issued by the American government in an effort to control the warriors mentioned above.

It could include discussions of pronghorn antelope, the fastest mammals in North America, once ranging as far, and living in herds as numerous as the buffalo. The mighty elk, the proud Bald Eagle, the mysterious California Condor.

There is so much about the American Old West that continues to attract Americans of all ages to a lifetime of study. I suspect that British students are fascinated by the American Old West because studies of this time period include exciting events, people, and inventions that changed the world...all in a relatively short period of time!

Monday, October 31, 2011

How Donkeys Contributed to the History and Culture of the Old West: Save the Wild Burros in Texas!

I was reading a book about the early pioneers when I came across a series of paintings depicting daily life in Central and South Texas cities. The paintings were made during the 1890s. They showed wagons pulled by donkeys through the center of town, men leading small burros with cut wood tied to their backs and sides, and small carts piled high with grains, pulled by burros. The paintings were very clear about one aspect of early pioneer Texas life--the donkey, or burro, was important to both the history and culture of Texas.

Oddly, there were few horses in the paintings. I suspect this was due to the fact that wild burros, or donkeys, were abundant in Texas at that time. Texas was once part of Mexico, and the wild burros had roamed the Texas hillsides since the 1600s when the Spanish brought them across the ocean on ships. Those that escaped formed small herds, or joined in with the herds of wild horses that had also escaped from their Spanish owners. Occasionally, the burros where rounded up and used on farms and in mining operations.

There's a controversy brewing in Texas right now. Some call it Burrogate, which is a quippy name, but does little to explain the tragic circumstances taking place in Big Bend Ranch State Park. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has issued an extermination order for wild burros, elk, and aoudads in an effort to increase the numbers of endangered bighorn sheep. They are not offering the animals to hunters to use these animals for meat to feed their families, they are not rounding them up and offering them for adoption, they are shooting them down with high powered rifles from helicopters--there is no reason why any logical person should agree with this behavior.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department refers to the loving, hard-working, wild burros as "immigrants from Mexico," trying to create subliminal connections with current political controversies, completely disregarding the historical and cultural contributions the wild burros have provided to the state of Texas. And what does any of this have to do with shooting aoudads, wild burros, and elk from helicopters using high power rifles?

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), these actions are necessary in order to increase herds of endangered bighorn sheep, but they are auctioning off hunting licenses for these same bighorn sheep at $115,000 or more in what they claim is an effort to raise money for breeding programs for the bighorn sheep. So, they are shooting the elk, aoudads and wild burros with high powered rifles from helicopters to raise bighorn sheep that will be shot with high powered rifles from helicopters.

When they are shot, the bodies of the elk, aoudads and wild burros are tossed into dumpsters, or left by the roadside to rot, according to memos provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department through Freedom of Information Act requests. At one time, the TPWD did attempt to round up a herd of wild burros. They were only successful in capturing a young jenny and her foal. They shot the mother and child in the head and discarded their bodies in a garbage dumpster in Presidio.

The bighorn sheep are not used for meat to feed families through the winter. Their heads and horns are hung in trophy rooms of wealthy hunters around the world because only the wealthy hunters can afford a hunting license of $115,000. At these rates, hunting bighorn sheep is obviously not a privilege offered to native Texans providing for their families as their ancestors have done for the past 100 years or so. In all fairness, native Texas hunters should feel righteous indignation toward the actions of the TPWD.

A petition is currently circulating, urging Texas Governor Rick Perry to repeal the extermination orders, the death sentence passed on the elk, aoudads, and wild burros. petition to save the wild burros. Please, sign this petition and help save these beautiful creatures from a horrific end. Give them the place of honor they deserve in the history of the American Wild West.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Properly Dressed Cowboy

Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat at Rancho del Cielo in 1976. Photo in public domain.

In the 1800s, clothing choice was vitally important to cowboys riding the range and on cattle drives. Proper clothing could save a cowboy's life, or that of his horse. Every item of clothing, from the boots to the hat, was carefully chosen before the cowboy left on a cattle drive or started work on the ranch.

Levi's 501 jeans. Photo by Michael Carian. 

In classic Western films, however, cowboys are often seen in clothing more acceptable to the times the film was made. For instance, it is a popular misconception that cowboys wore blue jeans in the 1800s. Although Levi Strauss and his partner were hard at work on a design, blue jeans were simply not available to cowboys in the early to mid-1800s.

Levi Strauss teamed up with Jacob Davis, a Latvian tailor, in 1868 to make durable pants for miners and cowboys using canvas for fabric and rivets to hold them together. The pants were not introduced in San Francisco by Levi Strauss & Company until 1873. These pants were canvas, though, and died brown, not blue. It did not take long for the popular product to make its way around the country, but these durable pants still cost money. In the early 1800s, cowboys wore wool pants purchased in second-hand stores, discards from wealthier people in town.

American Civil War soldier Samuel Black. Photo public domain. 

In the mid to late 1800s, cowboy attire was a mix of the second-hand wool pants and military uniforms from the American Civil War. They also wore the flat-heeled marching boots required by the military until they could afford to have a custom made pair. They wore heavy, gray Confederate army coats, which served them well in winter blizzards.

The cowboy uniform changed over the next ten to twenty years as clothing mass-produced in factories became more accessible and less expensive. However, cowboys continued to wear loose-fitting cotton shirts and wool pants. When the clothing wore thin it was repaired by the cook in the outfit.

According to Russell Freedman's Cowboys of the West, cowboys often stitched buckskin across the seat and down the inner thighs so the pants would not wear out from rubbing against the saddle all day long.

As mentioned before on this blog, cowboys had difficulty reaching into their pants pockets while in the saddle, so they often wore vests with pockets that were deep enough to keep items from falling out. Cowboys in the Southwest covered these vests with heavy canvas jackets to protect their bodies from thorns and cactus spines. Northern cowboys wore knee-length coats made from sheepskin or wool, depending on the type of animals they kept on their ranches.

The 1974 Western film Zandy's Bride is an interesting--and accurate--portrayal of how cowboy apparel was often designed according to the animals available on the ranch. Gene Hackman, the star of Zandy's Bride, lives on a ranch in Big Sur, California. He wears a thick wool coat in the opening scene, which is soon replaced by a heavy bear skin coat in the winter months.

Slickers, or oilskin raincoats were a necessity on the range and cowboys kept these rolled up and tied to the saddle or in the chuck wagon if they were on a cattle drive.

Perhaps one of the more well-known items of cowboy attire--besides boots and hats, or course--would be chaps. Chaps were invented by Mexican vaqueros, the original cowboys, and originally called chaparreras. They were used to protect the pants and legs from thorns and cactus spines.

An early style of chaps, called "Shotguns" were more like pants made of leather that the cowboy would step into, and these leather pants were replaced by the more popular batwing versions seen most often in Western movies--chaps that wrapped around the leg and fastened in back.

Batwing chaps, like coats, varied with the region. In the Southwest, cowboys wore chaps made of smooth leather. In the North, cowboys wore chaps made of wool, or fur, depending on the animals raised on the ranch.

The design of cowboy boots is strictly utilitarian, as well--pointed toes to slip easily into a stirrup; high heels to keep the heel in the stirrup; knee high to protect the legs from thorns and keep the dirt out of the boot; and tabs, or "mule ears" to tug the boot onto the foot. Fancy spurs attached to the boots were important to keep the horses moving, though cowboys enjoyed a variety of shapes and styles available for show.

Although current styles keep the pant leg outside of the boots, cowboys in the 1800s wore their pant legs tucked inside so they wouldn't snag on twigs and thorns. (If you haven't figured this out yet from these detailed descriptions of cowboy attire, cows have a habit of wandering into thorny areas where they are...rescued by cowboys!)

Cowboys spent as much as a month's wages to have their boots custom made. The only cowboys who wore ready made boots were either inexperienced green horns or cowboys saving their money for the real thing!

Although one might think a bandanna would be used for show, this is far from the truth. Bandannas came in a variety of bright colors to make the cowboy more visible in bad weather. They served--and still serve--many purposes. They block the hot Southwestern sun to prevent sunburn and mop up sweat from the brow. They keep the dust out of the mouth and nose during dust storms and warm the ears in cold weather. They are also used as washcloths, tourniquets, and blindfolds to lead horses out of burning barns.

Finally, the cowboy hat. Cowboy hats shield the top of the head from the heat of the sun, and the eyes from the sun's glare. The keep rain off the face. They can be used to wave to a friend from a distance, and to smack a slow horse on the rump.

Nowadays, cowboys wear hats according to what they need for their job more than fashion or to show what part of the country they come from. In the 1800s, style choice depended on region. In the Southwest, cowboy hats had tall crowns and wide brims. In the North, brims were narrow and crowns lower so they would not blow away. It was easy to identify where a cowboy came from by the style of his hat.

Although styles, colors, and patterns used on cowboy attire has changed over the years, the basic items remain the same because each item serves an important purpose in the life and work of a cowboy.

For more information on clothing see "The Boots They Wore..." on this blog.

(I am in the process of repairing damage to my blogs after they were hacked so some photos and sources may be missing. I apologize for the delay). 

  • Freedman, Russell. Cowboys of the West. Clarion Books. New York: 1985. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cowboys of the Wild West: A Priceless Treasure

I recently returned from Colorado and a visit to my grandchildren. It was, as always, a wonderful experience.

During my visit, I was searching through the junk pile at a local garage sale when I spotted the perfect book for my grandchildren: Cowboys of the Wild West. It was published by Scholastic Books.

When I was a child, we were sent home with paper advertising fliers from Scholastic Books listing all kinds of wonderful childrens' books that sometimes cost as little as 25 cents. The book I held in my hands suddenly represented many things to me--time with the grandchildren, memories of my own childhood, and stories about my favorite subject: the American West!

It was as if the book was written just for me. I paid my quarter, drove back to my daughter's house, sat down with my grandchildren and started to read.

From the first page, I knew I had a priceless gem in my hands.

Cowboys of the Wild West was written by Russell Freedman in 1985. Freedman was raised in San Francisco in the 1930s, and according to his book, believed a cowboy was "a fellow who says "yup' and 'nope,' who never complains, who shoots straight, and whose horse comes when he whistles."

Freedman was raised during a time when Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry were at the peak of their careers, influencing young cowboys across America, and during a time when Hollywood great John Wayne averaged ten films a year.

As Freedman grew older, started work with The Associated Press, and started researching cowboys, he learned--as all wanna-be cowboys do--that work as a cowboy is dirty, thankless, and exhausting, far from what one sees in the movies with shiny boots, neatly pressed white shirts and white cowboy hats. (How on earth could a real cowboy ever keep white clothes clean?

Freedman's little paperback childrens' book covers everything from the history of the cowboy to branding, ranch life, cowboy attire, and even cowboy songs.

Freedman explains the purpose of chaps, which were generally made of wool, leather, or fur and protected the cowboy's legs from burrs and brush burns.

He also explains the importance of vests with deep pockets, a necessity when riding the range as it is difficult for a cowboy to reach into his pants pockets while riding a horse!

In addition to the carefully detailed explanations, Freedman's book is filled with dozens of vintage and contemporary photographs and drawings, making it a wonderful historical adventure for cowboys young and old.

Cowboys of the Wild West was still published in 1990 and it is possible to locate copies in online stores, which I would highly recommend. It is more than a childrens' book in my opinion, it is a priceless treasure.

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!

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:

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.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Remembrance: The American Civil War and The Great Gainesville Hanging

It is difficult, and painful to imagine what life must have been like during the American Civil War. The example often used is "brother fighting brother," but it was more than that, it was neighbors fighting neighbors, friends killing friends, children lying about their ages and rushing off to join their older siblings only to die, anonymously, beneath trees or in ditches. War is painful for everyone, and the memories last beyond the lifetimes of those involved, spreading through the generations, changing families forever.

My ancestor, David Miller Leffel, died during the American Civil War. He was killed in a mob hanging in Texas. He was not a soldier. He was a farmer, and a family man. In 1858, on the brink of the American Civil War, he packed up his household and with his wife and eight children, headed south from Ohio to claim his wife's inheritance in Grayson County, Texas.

The Leffels would soon be embroiled in one of the hottest debates that Texas had ever known: Should Texas revert back to its original status as a separate country, remain loyal to the Union, or join the other Confederate states in seceding?

The question was highly debated in Texas. In the late 1850s, the Butterfield Overland Mail Route was completed, allowing for a mass migration into north Texas. It is estimated that fewer than 10% of north Texas households owned slaves at the start of the Civil War. The increasing population of northerners and abolitionists made slave owners nervous. In fact, in 1860, all of the counties above Dallas actually voted against secession.

The Confederate Conscription Act of 1862 increased tensions when thirty men from north Texas signed a petition arguing that large plantation owners should not be exempt from the Confederate draft. Brig. General William Hudson, commander of the militia district around Gainesville, ordered the arrest of all men who refused to report for duty with the Confederate Army. Soon, more than 150 men were arrested by the militia.

A “Peace Party” was formed of men who objected to these arrests. These men used a special handshake for identification and took vows of secrecy. Doctor Henry Chiles was one of the leaders of the Peace Party. In September of 1862, Dr. Chiles’ brother, Ephraim Chiles, had a bit too much whiskey at the local bar and revealed the details of the secret society to an acquaintance. Soon, the members of the Peace Party faced a far more sadistic end than conscription into the Confederate Army.

In October of 1862, residents of north Texas were forced to face the brutal realities of the American Civil War when forty men were dragged from their homes by a Confederate mob and transported to Gainesville. Two other men were shot and killed while trying to escape. One of the men dragged from his home was my ancestor, David Leffel.

The accusers held a mock trial. The men were charged with conspiracy and insurrection against the Confederacy by a jury of slave owners and owners of large plantations. Someone claimed the Peace Party intended to rise up against all Southerners and kill women and children. This claim, of course, was picked up by the newspapers, adding to the hysteria.

An angry mob formed in Gainesville. A mock trial was held and most of the men were found innocent, but a decision was made to release some of the men to the mob to appease their anger. At least three of the men hanged were elderly and arthritic, could not mount horses and were taken to their own hangings in a wagon. David Miller Leffel, referred to as "old man Leffel," my great+grandfather, was among the men who were fed to the crowds, along with four of his immediate family members, and Dr. Henry Chiles, along with his brother, Ephraim.

The bodies of most of the hanging victims were never found. It is believed they were buried in a mass grave. Surviving family members were harassed and abused for many years following the hangings. Many of the surviving family members sold their property and left Texas forever. My ancestors, David Leffel's oldest son, moved back to Ohio.

Shortly after the Civil War was brought to an end, David Leffel’s wife, Susan, wrote a letter to Edmund Davis who was Governor of Texas at that time. She begged Davis for assistance against further harassment and protection for her children.

Southern newspapers applauded the hangings, which they referred to as “The Great Hanging at Gainesville.” However, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, expressed his embarrassment over the situation and fired General Paul Octave H├ębert as military commander of Texas for improper use of martial law.

Northern newspapers used the incident as an example of the barbaric nature of the Rebels. Unionist and former Texas congressman Andrew Jackson Hamilton later made use of the hangings to lend support to his campaign for Governor of Texas.

There are a few books detailing this incident, including Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas 1862, and many newspaper articles detailing the events in a very biased manner. Most of the information known about this incident has been passed down through the generations in heart-wrenching stories.

And strangely, the incident is still referred to as "The Great Gainesville Hanging," though there was nothing great, admirable, or noble about anything that took place during this time.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Prickly Pear Cactus--the Texas State Plant

The American Southwest just would not look the same without the prickly pear cactus. These amazing plants have not only represented the State of Texas since 1995, they have always represented, in the minds of many, the life of the cowboy in the Old West. It may come as a surprise to learn that the word "cactus" is derived from a Greek word, "kaktos," but what is not surprising is the meaning of kaktos: prickly plant. Thus, the "Prickly Pear Cactus" is a bit of a tongue twister. Prickly Pear prickly plant. In Texas, though, they are generally referred to simply as "pear."

Prickly Pear plants can grow quite large. They have oval-shaped patties that grow on top of each other in clumps that can be as high as eight feet--not something you want close by when you're struggling with a bucking horse. Sometimes the deer knock off the pads. Let the end dry a bit, then stick it in soil and it will root.

Prickly Pear cactus in Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico. 
Photograph by Darla Sue Dollman.

Prickly Pear Cactus is more than landscaping for the people of the American Southwest and Mexico, it is also a source of food, and can save one's life when lost in the desert by providing a small amount of fluids and a large amount of nutrients. The plant contains both a fruit and a vegetable. In times of drought, cowboys often burn the needles off so the cattle can use the pads and fruit for food. This is called "burning pear." Aoudad, or Barbary Sheep, wild sheep in the Southwest, also enjoy nibbling around the edges. During times of severe drought in the days of the Old West, the Texas Longhorns would use the Prickly Pear Cactus for survival, munching down the entire plant, spines and all.

The fruit of the Prickly Pear grows on top of the patties resembling stubby fingers on a hand. The fruit starts as a flower, then grows into a pink to purple stub called a "Tuna." To eat the tuna, it is best to remove it from the plant with a pair of tongs, then hold a match or lighter to the needles and burn them off. The tuna is then sliced in half and the seeds are removed. This leaves a small amount of sweet, juicy, goo that is very tasty and packed with Vitamin C. It tastes best when chilled, and in some places, is considered a delicacy.

The pads of the Prickly Pear are also edible. They are called "nopales" or "nopalito" and sold as a vegetable in the produce section in the Southwest and Mexico. The needles are removed and they are sold in packages, but in the field, one would burn the needles off before trying to remove the nopalito from the plant. They are generally sold in small and medium sizes. They are harvested between spring and summer.

Nopales for sale at grocery store. Photograph by Darla Sue Dollman.

To eat the nopalito, first make sure even the fine needles are removed. It might be best to wear thick gloves, or run a flame around them one more time. Any remaining spines will burn off in cooking. Wash the pad with cold water and remove and dried patches or scarred areas. They are then fried or boiled and added to eggs, soups, and chili.

Of course, there is another use of the multi-purpose Prickly Pear cactus. There is a type of bug that loves the Prickly Pear. It resembles mealy bugs, but it's called Cochineal. They grow on the pads and sometimes the fruit. They are considered an infestation and can destroy a large grouping of Prickly Pear, knocking it to the ground, if not removed with soap and water. It is easily recognized if you rub the white with your finger. It leaves an indigo smear on the plant.

The bugs can be removed with a knife and placed in a plastic bag. Take them into the house, spread them on a cookie sheet--I would obviously cover the pan with foil--then cook them in the oven on a light setting for 10 minutes until dry. They can be stored or used immediately.

The Cochineal is then used in a dye bath with alum as a mordant. If the dye is used on wool fabric, it produces a bright red color. This dye was used by Native American Indians in California mission to make blankets.

And this is one of my favorite little Prickly Pear bits of trivia. According to Factropolis, the Prickly Pear Cactus secretes an oily substance during full moons!

So remember, next time you see a Prickly Pear as you walk through the desert, show the plant the respect that it deserves. It will serve you well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wild West Trivia

When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad was finally connected to Dodge City in 1872, some of the rails were actually placed on the old wagon ruts of the Santa Fe Trail. The station opened in 1896.

"On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" is also an Academy Award-winning song from the 1946 movie The Harvey Girls, sung by Judy Garland. I'll never forget the first time I watched that movie as a child. Judy Garland looks so beautiful in this film.

There was a Harvey House Restaurant and Hotel in Dodge City, Kansas. The hotel, one of the largest Harvey Houses in Kansas, opened in 1900 and closed in 1948. The Harvey Hotels and Restaurants, started by Fred Harvey, who wisely connected the hotel and restaurant chain to the railroad depots, helped "tame" the West by providing quality food and service to all who came through the Harvey House doors. Harvey advertised for beautiful, single women to work in his restaurants, knowing this would appeal to the population in the small Western cattle and mining towns where men generally outnumbered women nine to one.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day and a Prayer for Peace

The American Civil War played an important role in the history of the Old West, and in the history of the creation of an American Mother's Day, as well.

In England, mothers and mothering were celebrated for many years before settlers came to America, but the tradition slowly disappeared. However, when Julia Ward Howe,author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, found herself overwhelmed by the death and destruction caused by the Civil War, she decided it was time for mothers to band together out of love foe their sons and demand peace in America. How wrote the following proclamation, demanding an end to the fighting, and calling for an international Mother's Day to celebrate the peaceful nature of mothers and their acts of nurturing and compassion:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

Howe was somewhat successful in her plea. Numerous women's groups celebrated Mother's Day on June 2, 1870. Eventually, all of these celebrations stopped, except for the one in Boston, which continued for another ten years.

In Virginia, however, Anna Reeves Jarvis started a campaign to celebrate the holiday with the goal of reuniting families that were divided by the war, bringing together brothers, fathers and sons who fought for the Confederate and Union armies. Jarvis's celebration was called Mother's Friendship Day, and the goal was, again, a plea for peace.

When Jarvis died, her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, suggested that her mother's church honor her mother's dedication to peace with a Mother's Day, which they did, distributing white carnations, the favorite flower of Anna Reeves Jarvis, to every mother in the congregation. News of the celebration spread, and soon, white carnations were distributed to mothers across the country.

U.S. Senator Elmer Burkett proposed a national Mother's Day holiday in 1908. He was denied his request, but Mother's Day services continued across the country. Anna Jarvis quit her day job and became a full-time petitioner for a national day of remembrance of Mothers. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed a declaration proclaiming the second Sunday in May the official Mother's Day.

Unfortunately, as the sale of flowers soared during the merry month of May, Miss Jarvis's mood plummeted. She despised the commercialization of the holiday, believing it should be honored as a day of peace, the original intention of both her mother and Julia Ward Howe. Anna M. Jarvis died in 1948, penniless from her endless dedication to first promoting, then protesting, Mother's Day without ever learning from anyone that her last days of care had been paid for by The Florist's Exchange.

As a dedicated mother and dreamer of peace, I respect the original intentions of Julia Ward Howe, Mrs. Jarvis, and her daughter, but I think their quest to preserve the intention of Mother's Day failed for two reasons. First, they failed to recognize that many men also dream of peace, despise war, and want to see their sons live long, full lives.

They also did not recognize that a gift of flowers, perfume, or whatever makes a mother happy, is a gift from the heart. It really doesn't matter what the commercials say or how much money is spent, even if the only gift is a phone call, it still comes from the heart, and mothers know this to be true. Celebrating Mother's Day, in whatever form that celebration takes place, is an unspoken promise between mothers and their children that says "I will love you forever, and I hope that forever means a long, happy, peaceful life for us all."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tornadoes in the Old West and Tornadoes Today

Sometimes, as I gaze across the Texas fields listening to the birds and the wind moving through the trees, I like to imagine that I am a pioneer, walking beside our covered wagon. I am trying to keep the children from walking too close to the heavy wooden wheels, watching as my husband, in front of me, guides the horses, or oxen, along the ruts in the trail.

Tornado photographed in Manhatten, Kansas, May 31, 1949

We stop for the afternoon so the animals can rest and prepare lunch for the children. Suddenly, as we are eating, fast-moving clouds cover the sky like a black blanket. My husband looks nervous. He unhitches the horses.

It starts to rain and we move beneath a tree because no one has told us that trees attract lightning. The children are starting to cry. Suddenly, we hear what sounds like a giant beast, and off in the distance a black cloud begins to form, not in the sky, but on the ground, like a funnel, a funnel that grows in width as it moves upward toward the heavens, and we can see that inside of this funnel trees and grass are whipping around, tossed about like a child's toys in the dust.

Early pioneers knew very little about tornadoes. Most of the early pioneers came from Europe and there is no place in the world that has tornadoes like the United States.

It was 1882 when the first tornado researcher started gathering information on weather patterns and damages in the hopes of saving lives in the future. According to the NOAA website, U.S. Army Signal Corps Sergeant John P. Finley was assigned tornado duty and he was the first person to establish forecasting methods, which he published in 1888.

This is believed to be the oldest known photograph of a tornado taken outside Howard, South Dakota in 1884. It is difficult to say if tornadoes have increased in frequency or strength because the study of tornadoes is still relatively young. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. Government banned the use of the word "tornado" from forecasts by the U.S. Army because they were afraid that the use of the word might cause people to panic. This rule was in place for the next forty years. This did not, however, prevent tornadoes from destroying homes and lives. On April 11, 1896, two tornadoes hit Colorado City in Mitchell County, Texas, killing a twelve year old boy and destroying five homes. On April 15, 1896, an F3 tornado destroyed numerous farms and killed two children near Faulkton, South Dakota. Imagine how different the results might have been if these families were issued a pamphlet from the U.S. Army warning them how to take shelter in a tornado?

Shoal Creek Valley, Alabama tornado. Photo taken April 27, 2011 by Wjalex4.

On April 27, 2011, the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes since 1932 struck Dixie Alley in the American South. The NOAA's National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center Meteorologists issued the first warning eight days in advance. Local meteorologists started warning residents three days in advance. Most residents received a 24 minute warning that a series of tornadoes were on the ground. In spite of these advance warnings, a horrific number of lives were lost.

When I think about these warnings and the days of the pioneers when no warnings existed, and I think about what would have happened when the pioneers encountered these deadly tornadoes, I feel grateful that times have changed, that warnings do come, and although far too many lives were lost, the situation could have been much worse.

The way I see it, the NOAA's National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center Meteorologists and our local Meteorologists are true Western heroes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Historic Texas Wildfires

Texas is so dry right now it is in a state of self-combustion. According to the Texas Forest Service, there are burn bans in 202 of 254 Texas counties and wildfires in all four sections of the state. Since January, 810 fires have burned more than 1.4 million acres. I have never seen winds this severe in Texas, except when the hurricane tail winds come through. I would love to see some rain, but instead the weather service is warning of thunderstorms, which could mean more fires from lightning strikes.

Twenty new fires were reported on Sunday, including one near our town, west of Austin. Governor Rick Perry asked President Obama for Federal assistance with the fires on Sunday and the response was immediate. Four 3000 gallon tankers are on the way, along with National Guard Blackhawk helicopters. There are currently firefighters from 25 states battling wildfires in Texas. There is speculation that this could be the worst wildfire season in Texas history.

Our current conditions bring back memories of the wildfires of April 9, 2009, which burned 147,924 acres, destroyed 111 homes, and killed four people. Wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma in 2005/2006 killed 25 people, including 4 firefighters. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, millions of acres burned, and 5000 head of cattle were believed to have been lost in these wildfires, which are now used as a case study on wildfire control.

When I think of the wildfires now, I try to imagine what it must have been like for the early pioneers moving into the American West. There was no Federal assistance available to replace homes, crops, and livestock, no helicopters, tankers, or buckets dumping waters on burning trees.

There are many factors involved in the start of a wildfire and how quickly it spreads, such as current drought conditions, weather, and the vegetation fueling the fire. To pioneers, though, the only concern was how to get themselves, their children, and their livestock away from fires burning an average of 10 miles per hour depending on wind speed and available fuel.

With little or no advance warning, I can only imagine how often pioneer families found themselves tossing children and belongings into the back of a wagon and racing through the forests or prairie lands in an effort to avoid these deadly fires, and losing all of their possessions in the process.

I am thankful that I live in a time and place where firefighters are willing to risk their lives to save the homes and families of Texas and in a country that is willing to sacrifice the time and money to protect its citizens.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lincoln County, New Mexico

We just returned from a week-long trip through New Mexico and I have so much to write about that I don't know where to start!

We drove through Lincoln, New Mexico, 57 miles west of Roswell, where Billy the Kid became involved in the Lincoln County War and the Battle of Lincoln, a historically important range war that took place between July 15 and 19th in 1878.

The buildings and houses look much smaller than I had imagined--Lincoln County was once the largest County in the United States. The historical buildings line both sides of U.S. Route 380 and the town itself is a treat for tourists--the area was meticulously preserved by local residents.

The home of James Dolan still stands in Lincoln. Dolan was a participant in the Lincoln County War. He was Lawrence Murphy's business partner. Both men were Civil War veterans, originally from Ireland, and well-known in the area for their unethical business practices.

The Tunstall and McSween store is also still standing, in spite of the fact that both men were killed during the conflict. Alexander McSween was a lawyer who partnered with John Tunstall, an English cattleman and banker. The two men competed for business with Dolan and Murphy. The business practices of McSween and Tunstall were ethical and honest. Unfortunately, and in contrast to Murphy and Dolan, McSween and Tunstall lacked the support of corrupt politicians from Santa Fe.

There is an odd-shaped building on this street that I've never seen or heard of before this trip. It is called Torreon. It is a large, circular, brick building constructed in the 1850s. The Torreon was used to protect Spanish-Americans from attacks by the Apache. It was also used by Murphy's sharpshooters during the Lincoln County War.

Books and films, such as Young Guns, portraying the life and experiences of Billy the Kid are interesting, but it is a completely different experience to actually walk down the sidewalks where these small, yet historically important conflicts took place.

While in Lincoln County, we also encountered a small herd of Barbary Sheep. These sheep look more like the "Wild West" than many cowboys I've seen with their woolly coats and long, curved horns. They were first imported into zoos in the United States from their native homes in Northern Africa in the 1950s, but they have acclimated so well in New Mexico, Texas, and other areas that their population in New Mexico alone is estimated to be around 20,000!

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