Saturday, January 28, 2012

Western Hero Annie Oakley

I have always admired Annie Oakley. Her story is one of survival, and I do like survivors. Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses, one of seven children in a Quaker farming family in Ohio. When Annie's father was caught in a blizzard and died of pneumonia, the family was devastated, and poor. Annie taught herself to shoot and hunt with her father's rifle to help feed the family.

Annie's mother sent her to live with another family, hoping she would learn a skill such as sewing to help support herself and her siblings, but the family who took her in did not treat her well and Annie ran away. She knew she was needed at home. She resumed her hunting habits and also sold game animals to other families in the neighborhood. Soon, she was able to use her hunting skills to help pay the mortgage, as well.

In 1875, Annie made history by participating in a Thanksgiving Day shooting contest against Irish immigrant Frank Butler. Butler was so impressed with the bold young woman that he proposed marriage. She eventually became part of his traveling show, and the two joined Buffalo Bill Cody's show.

In her later years, Annie endured a tremendous amount of criticism and she fought hard for her good reputation, filing numerous lawsuits to protect her name. It was a stressful and painful struggle, but Oakley was always stronger than her opponents and eventually won the battle.

Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler, remained madly in love with each other their entire lives and died within two weeks of each other, a true Wild West love story. For more information on the life of Annie Oakley and her relationship with Frank Butler, you can read my biography of Annie Oakley at

American Experience is also showing a biography of Annie Oakley on January 31 and I highly recommend this show, as well. There is always a tremendous amount of detailed historical information available on the American Experience website to help you prepare for the show. American Experience also has a Facebook page where you can interact with other Wild West fans to discuss the program before and after. Tune in and enjoy!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Custer's Last Stand on American Experience

In addition to my love of the Wild West, I'm also a big fan of classic films and Western movies. I've watched quite a few movies on General George Armstrong Custer over the years, including my favorite, the 1991 film Son of the Morning Star. The script for Son of the Morning Star was written by Melissa Mathison, actor Harrison Ford's wife, who attempted to show the story from the perspective of the people who were closely involved in Custer's life, including his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, or Libby.

However, in order to fully understand the many fictional portrayals, I believe it is important to study the historical facts, which is one of the many reasons why I am recommending the American Experience episode Custer's Last Stand, premiering January 17, 2012 at 8/7c on PBS. American Experience has a tradition of providing detailed, factual information on historical events. They also provide essays, videos, and other resources on the America Experience website.

For those of you unfamiliar with his story, General George Armstrong Custer was the son of an Ohio blacksmith. Many historians have stated that Custer was embarrassed by his humble origins. My own ancestors are from Ohio and they played various roles in the function of small Ohio towns. I would hope that they were proud of their contributions to their communities. They were not wealthy, but their jobs were vital to the success of the town, as was that of a blacksmith.

Custer, however, seemed to view his father's job the way many view the job of an auto repairmen--hard, dirty work with low pay--without understanding the importance of transportation to the rest of the community. His personal opinion of his family's "station" in the community contributed to his own ambitious approach to life. Custer was determined to become famous, and at this, he did succeed.

Custer attended the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York and fought bravely during the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. When the building of the railroads created conflicts with the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the now-famous Custer was commanded to follow the Indians through their territory. At one point, he became so frustrated by this task that he left his soldiers and dashed home to spend one day alone with his true love, his wife, Libby. He was court martialed and suspended, but redeemed himself--in the eyes of the Army--with the brutal attack on the Cheyenne in 1868 and the slaughter of over 100 women and children. In 1874, he was sent into the Black Hills on a survey expedition. The beginning of the end of Custer's story.

On June 26, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer and 261 soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry were killed by Cheyenne and Lakota warriors. The battle took place along the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. There is no beauty in war, and sadly, this horrific moment, his moment of death, known as Custer's Last Stand, would secure General George Armstrong Custer's name in the history books. The details of this event are still a mystery, disputed to this day.

Custer's Last Stand is a two hour American Experience biography of General George Armstrong Custer, exploring every aspect of his life, from his early years in Ohio to his heroism during the American Civil War, his controversial, brutal treatment of Indians of the American southern plains, and his exploits in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

For more information on Custer's Last Stand visit these education resources:

An Introduction to Custer's Last Stand on the American Experience website.
Preview of Custer's Last Stand.
Timeline of Custer's Last Stand.
Photo gallery of Custer's Last Stand.
Visit American Experience on Facebook.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Little Britches Rodeo

When I was a child growing up in Littleton, Colorado, I boarded my first horse at the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds. I also spent a great deal of time watching the other kids prepare and participate in the Little Britches Rodeo. Though I never had the money required for training and competition, it was just as much fun for me to watch and learn.

The Little Britches Rodeo was started in 1952 at the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds and I don't know if this is true, but I always assumed it was named for the most famous book by author Ralph Moody, who wrote Little Britches about his childhood years spent in Littleton, Colorado.

According to the Little Britches Rodeo national website, the rodeo operated as a single, yearly event until 1961 when a national convention was held in Denver with representatives from numerous states where they organized a national youth rodeo association.

The National Little Britches Rodeo Association now oversees rodeos in 16 states where over 2000 children from the ages of 5 to 18, from 21 states, participate each year in 275 Little Britches rodeos. They compete for saddles, buckles, gift certificates, and even college scholarships. The rodeos are now organized so that even children on limited budgets can participate, which is what I find so appealing.

Many famous rodeo champions started their careers at the Little Britches Rodeos. Ty Murray, for instance, who won seven world all-around championships in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, got his start with the Little Britches Rodeos. Butch and Rope Myers, Kristie Peterson, Cody DeMoss and many other rodeo greats started with the Little Britches.

The National Little Britches Finals Rodeo takes place over six days in Pueblo, at the Colorado State Fairgrounds and generally involves over 700 competitors, 3000 rides and runs, and 30 championships. The Finals Rodeo also has a Royalty Pageant, rodeo clinics, nightly dances, and is just plain good old fashioned Western fun.

Over the past few weeks I've been watching the Little Britches Rodeo 2010 Finals on television. I particularly enjoyed the barrel racing events and the children replicating the riders of the Pony Express. The skill, determination and talent in these children never ceases to amaze me. If you have never been to a rodeo, the Little Britches Rodeos are a good place to start. For more information on competitions or how to volunteer or donate, take a look at their website.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Billy the Kid on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE--Review

As a fan of American history, I have enjoyed watching the programming on the PBS series American Experience since it first started in 1988. The research for these shows is amazing, and I like the fact that the research is displayed on their website, as well.

On January 10, 2012, American Experience premiered Billy the Kid to kick off their Wild West series. The show is now available for viewing on their website here.

Honestly, considering all of the preliminary material available on the website and the detailed history provided during the program, I was impressed by the entire package. I did not feel the show glorified a bad guy, I do not believe it slandered a Western hero. I believe it provided an honest glimpse into the life of an angry young man who felt trapped by his circumstances, from his early days living with his mother in New York slums to the only existing photograph of Billy the Kid, a tintype that recently sold in Colorado for $2.3 million, which is discussed in an earlier post on this blog.

The show also included interviews with historians and researchers/writers, as well as some amazing footage of Lincoln County, New Mexico in the heart of the Lincoln National Forest.

Among the many resources available on American Experience, the website provides a Teacher's Guide to Billy the Kid, which suggests using the material as a jump off point to discuss a variety of topics, including Westward expansion and the American frontier. The website also has a photo gallery titled The Golden Age of the American Cowboy; a list of related books and websites; a timeline of events in the life of Billy the Kid; and an essay on "The Pardoning of Billy the Kid."

I highly recommend this show for its entertainment value and as an educational tool.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Pardoning of Billy the Kid

The Pardoning of Billy the Kid is now on the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE website. This is one of the most interesting articles I've read on the Billy the Kid story--highly recommend reading.

The 60 minute show Billy the Kid premieres on January 10, 2012, at 9/8 C on PBS, to kick off a
month-long AMERICAN EXPERIENCE "Wild West" collection. I have more information on the show in my blog posts from January 4 and 8 below. This is Wild West history, folks, and you do not want to miss it. So tie up your horse, hang your cowboy hat on the rack by the door, relax for awhile and enjoy the show. I know I'll be watching it, and I'll be watching the rest of their Wild West series, too!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Billy the Kid Preview on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

The preview for Billy the Kid, scheduled to air on January 10, 2012, is now available on the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE website. The website includes a detailed introduction to the life of Billy the Kid, the preview, behind the scenes information on the cast and crew, and a place where you can interact with other Wild West fans and share your story about your favorite western heroes. Billy the Kid kicks off an entire series of Wild West shows on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, so stay tuned...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The boots they wore...

Part of my personal collection of boots. Photo by D.S. Dollman.

That's right, I have a few more words on cowboy boots, as if one could ever say enough about them! Although contemporary cowboy boots come in a wide variety of styles and colors, for working cowboys, they are so much more than a fashion statement and should be considered safety and survival gear. (Please be patient as I continue to repair my blogs that were once again hacked and all photos and sources removed). 

After months on the dusty trail following the behinds of cattle, the first thought on the cowboy’s mind when he received his pay was a hot bath and clean clothes. Women, drinking, rough-housing—these would all come later. First, the cowboy needed to track down the proper attire, and proper attire included cowboy boots.

Most cow towns had a boot store with first-rate, custom made boots. Although they were available, according to Russell Freedman's Cowboys of the West, only the poorest cowboys wore ready-made boots. According to "The Real McCoy," part of The History Channel's Cowboys and Outlaws television series, one Abilene boot maker in the late 1800s hired 20 employees so he could keep up with the demand for boots when the cowboys hit town. His boots cost around $20 a pair in the mid to late 1800s, which would have a contemporary equivalence of $300. In the Time Life Books Series The Old West: The Cowboys, William H. Forbis states that cowboys were willing to pay $50 a pair for their boots, or about two month's wages.

Tony Lama, a US based corporation selling one of the most popular brands of ready-made western boots, was named for its founder who lived from 1887 to 1974. Lama learned his craft while serving as a cobbler for the US Army stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas. He opened his first shoe repair shop in downtown El Paso in 1912, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Lama's business skyrocketed during the 1930s with the popularity of cowboys such as Tom Nix and Gene Autry.

The leather on a cowboy boot was the finest, softest leather with an abundance of fancy stitching. The leather reached as high up the leg as comfortably possible to protect the cowboy’s ankles and legs from thorns and snake bites. The length also kept out rocks and pebbles, or for New Mexico cowboys, sand. According to Forbis, cowboys in the 1800s preferred a snug fit, yet another reason why they had their boots custom-made. They also tried to make their feet look as small as possible as big-footed cowboys were believed to be clumsy.

At the top of the boot there were--and still are--two flaps called mule ears, which are used to help the cowboy pull the boot over the foot and onto the leg. As discussed earlier in the post on cowboy attire, most cowboys tucked their pants into the boots to help keep the sand and pebbles out and protect clothing from snagging on the brush. The toes were pointed so they fit easily into the stirrups. The pointed toe was also important as it allowed the cowboy to quickly slip his foot from the stirrup if he was thrown from the horse, particularly during a cattle stampede when the risk of being thrown and trampled, or dragged to death, was high--according to Forbis, one of the leading causes of death among cowboys was being dragged to death behind the cowboy's horse when the boot was caught in the stirrup.

Short heels were required to hook the boots onto the stirrups and keep them from slipping out during the ride. The sole of the boot was thinner so the cowboy could feel his boots in the stirrups and know his feet were secure. Heels angled in the back are called buckaroo style. Roper boots have square, short heels.

Roper Boot. Photo by Hustvedt/

In The Cowboys, Forbis also explains the four different styles of cowboy boots worn during the 1800s. The earliest style of boots had the pointed toes and short heels, but no mule ears. The next style had a raised arch and stitching up the sides. Mule ears were added, most likely when an enterprising boot maker noticed cowboys struggling to pull the boots over their feet. The fancy boot came last, with a raised arch, slightly higher heel, intricate stitching and longer length.

Contemporary cowboy boots match design with purpose. Working boots tend to be of uniform color with less fancy stitching. Dancing or dress boots might be a bit fancier. A quick look at boot stores reveals cowgirl boots with intricate stitching showing flowers and vines climbing the length of the boot, or with pink trim around the leg and tan, suede shoe, or even multiple colors on the toe and at the top of the leg.

A popular style in Texas has boots made with the famed Texas star stitched onto the front, sides, or back. Snakeskin or imitation snakeskin boots have been popular for many years. Alligator boots are also popular. Although boots made from the skin of exotic animals may be popular as show boots, most working cowboys still prefer old-fashioned cow leather. Whatever the color, style or cost, one thing is certain--you'll never find a cowboy who doesn't own boots!

  • Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Life Books. Canada:1974.
  • Freedman, Russell. Cowboys of the West. Clarion Books. New York: 1985. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Back in New Mexico--Billy the Kid to show on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE!

I am living in New Mexico again--I love the American Southwest! There is so much to see here. As I discussed earlier, my husband and I drove through Lincoln County, New Mexico earlier this year. Lincoln County was once the largest county in New Mexico.

Lincoln County is also the place where Henry McCarty, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, worked for cattleman and banker John Tunstall. When Tunstall was murdered, his ranch foreman, Dick Brewer, formed a posse called the Regulators to hunt down Tunstall's killer, William Morton, and Billy the Kid was a member of this posse. This was the start of the Lincoln County War, which is discussed in detail on our favorite website, Legends of America.

Billy the Kid was shot and killed by Pat Garrett at the home of Pete Maxwell in Fort Sumner, New Mexico where Billy the Kid is buried. Pete Maxwell inherited this home, and ranch, from his father, Lucien Maxwell. Lucien Maxwell was once the largest landowner in the world with 1,714,765 acres in New Mexico and what is now Colorado!

I was thrilled to learn today that the story of Billy the Kid is now part of the award-winning AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary series. Billy the Kid, a 60 minute show, will premiere on January 10 at 9/8 Central on PBS. The Billy the Kid premiere will kick off a month-long "Wild West" collection on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

I have always enjoyed the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE series. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has received every major broadcast award, and they were well-deserved. The series received 24 Emmy Awards,four DuPont-Columbia Awards, and 14 George Foster Peabody Awards. This past season, its premiere of Freedom Riders drew critical acclaim along with three Primetime Emmys for Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming, Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming, and Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking.

I will post reminders about this show as we grow closer to the time of the premiere, but until then, you may want to check out these websites for more information:

Billy the Kid website
Billy the Kid Film Trailer
Billy the Kid, Chapter 1
Billy the Kid Timeline
Billy the Kid Photo gallery
Billy the Kid Bonus Video

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