Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ring-Tailed Cats, or Miner's Cats: Pest Control for Miners and Pioneers

Ring-tailed Cat, or Bassariscus astutus.

If you've ever wondered if pioneers, miners and settlers had pets the answer is yes. They had dogs, and perhaps even house cats, but in the Southwest, they had a special kind of pet, a pet that resembles a combination of cat and raccoon, and I've had the privilege of sharing my backyard and roof with one of these wonderful creatures, so I will begin with my story.

Cunning Bassarisc. Bassariscus astutus. Frank E. Beddard - The Cambridge Natural History, Volume X—Mammalia. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

My husband and I were living in Texas a little over a year when we first realized we had a rather unique friend visiting our house at night. We lived in a round house with mostly glass walls for windows and glass doors--I often felt like a goldfish and the wildlife watched me as I moved through my home. I loved to climb onto the roof and photograph the sunset, but I always felt as if I was watched. 

Our son told us he often heard noises in the garage at dusk and swore he saw what looked like a raccoon tail hanging down in front of the small garage window. Our house was on a mountainside and the garage backed to a slope, so it seemed logical that a raccoon might be climbing onto our roof, but why? They had free access to the squirrel and bird food on our bedroom patio, so they would not be seeking food. The raccoon theory didn't seem to fit. Still, it was a clue--a feeling of being watched and a raccoon tail.
Ring-Tailed Cat sprawling on a rock in Arizona. This is how the Ring-Tailed Cat 
looked at us from the tree branch in our backyard. Photo by RobertBody.

The clues all came together one night around sunset when my husband realized he left the water hose running in the back yard. Suddenly I heard him calling my name. I ran to the garage and out into the yard and found him standing by the fence beneath a tree. Directly above his head was one of the strangest creatures I've ever seen--a Ring-Tailed Cat. 

Ring-Tailed Cats are curious little creatures. Their heads resemble chihuahuas with pointy ears and large eyes. They have the body of a limber, athletic house cat and a long, striped tail like a raccoon. This little creature was sprawled out on a tree branch watching my husband as if he lived in the house and my husband was a visitor. It was a fascinating moment. He seemed perfectly comfortable with us and I suddenly realized why I often felt I was watched while on the roof in the evenings--because I was being watched!

A few nights later we were watching television in bed when we heard noises on the bedroom patio. This was not an isolated event. We were often visited by families of raccoons and an o'possum. On this night, though, it was the return of the ring-tailed cat. He raided the sunflower seeds in the squirrel dish then walked over to the door and stared inside at us for awhile before moving on. 
The seven-foot Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake that often visited our backyard, only at sunset, though, which gave us time to secure all of our pets and people inside the house. 
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

In the five years we lived in the house the Ring-Tailed Cat often came by for a visit. Sadly, I never managed to photograph him. Nevertheless, we thought of him as a family friend, like the female toad, Mrs. Toady, who slept in my garden shoe during the hot summer afternoons, and the seven foot rattlesnake who slithered through our backyard at night to drink water from our pond. 

Ring-Tailed Cats as Beneficial Pets

Of course, I studied the little creature so I could write articles about him on my animal blog, Blessed Little Creatures, and that's when I learned that although the Ring-Tailed Cat is often described as a solitary, nocturnal, and rather timid creature, it also has a reputation as a beneficial pet. In fact, Ring-Tailed Cats played an important role in the taming of the American West by helping to eliminate disease-spreading rodents like rats and mice. 

They were favorites of miners and pioneers who cut holes in boxes and placed the boxes near the stove in the cabin or home to keep the animal warm during the day. At night, the ring-tailed cats would sneak out of their boxes to feed on the mice and rats that dared to enter the homes. This is how the ring-tailed cat earned its second name as the "Miner's Cat."

A Southwestern Native

The Ring-Tailed Cat is most often seen in the Southwest, in states such as Texas, New Mexico, and north and central Mexico. They are also seen in California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Their location is understandable considering they prefer to make their homes in rocky, desert places, but they can also be found in the hollows of dead trees or in abandoned buildings.
Ring-tailed Cat at Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. 
Photographed by Pixelfugue.

To protect themselves from predators, they frequently move their dens, rarely spending more than one night in the same place. They are amazingly agile and flexible, and can rotate 180 degrees. They have also been seen performing cartwheels and using their agile bodies to ricochet between walls!

A Rather Unique-Looking Cat!

The ring-tailed cat (Bassariscus astutus) can be tan or dark brown with a lighter underbelly. It has pointed ears and large, purple eyes surrounded by tufts of light-colored fur. It is smaller than a house cat, generally measuring about 16 inches long with a weight of 3 to 4 pounds. 

Ring-Tailed Cat in Arizona. This photo may help you understand why I think they look like my chihuahua! Photo by RobertBody.

One of its most distinctive features is its long tail. The ring-tailed cat has a tail that is about 14 inches long, fuzzy, and lined with dark rings similar to that of a raccoon. As it is most active in the evening hours, it is easily mistaken for a raccoon in the dark.

Eating and Breeding Habits

Ring-Tailed Cats eat fruit, insects, rodents, and small birds. Their preference for small rodents makes them a beneficial creature. They mate in spring with a gestation period of 45-50 days, calling to their mates with a loud bark. The male hunts food for the pregnant and nursing female, who generally produces between two and four cubs. Baby ring-tailed cats are hunting on their own by four months and breeding at ten months.
It's not likely that my pet dog, Chewy the Chewchewcabra, would have threatened 
the Ring-Tailed Cat, but you can see why I compared their appearance to a chihuahua! 

Ring-Tailed Cats live to around seven years in the wild, but they often fall victim to raccoons, coyotes, owls, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and even pet dogs. Surprisingly, one of the ring-tailed cat's greatest threats is humans. Farmers often kill the creatures to protect fruit crops. In spite of the large number of predators, they are not considered an endangered species.

Pioneer Pest Control

In the American Southwest, where people rarely had fruit crops to protect, Ring-Tailed Cats were often seen in mining towns and pioneer settlements because the little creatures did not feel threatened. Their presence was accepted in much the same way towns once accepted the presence of dogs and cats wandering through town, and welcomed because they controlled the population of rats and mice.

So the next time you read about the American Old West, the townspeople and the miners and how they kept their homes free of pests, remember the Ring-Tailed Cat--pest control for the pioneers! 

  • Goldberg, Jeffrey. "Bassariscus astutus: Ringtail." Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved April 30, 2013. 
  • Poglayen-Neuwall, Ivo and Toweill, Dale E. "Bassariscus astutus." Mammalian Species. The American Society of Mammologists. No. 327, pp. 1-8. Retrieved April 7, 2011.
  • Williams, David B. "Ringtail Cat." DesertUSA. Retrieved April 7, 2012.

Quanah Parker: Son of Cynthia Ann Parker and the Last Comanche Chief to Surrender

Cynthia Ann Parker. Photo taken after she was recaptured and returned to her white family in 1881, shortly before she starved herself to death, mourning the death of her daughter. 

Quanah Parker's story is a complicated saga that begins in May of 1836 when a 9-year-old girl living in a Texas settlement with her family was abducted during a Comanche raid. Her father was killed during the raid, but her uncle, a nearby rancher, soldier, and state legislator, Isaac Parker, adored Cynthia Ann and insisted the family continue to search for the child no matter how long it took to have her returned. In fact, it took 25 years.

Cynthia Ann Parker: Quanah Parker's Mother

Nine years after she was captured, Cynthia Ann Parker was chosen as the bride to Comanche Chief Peta Nocona. The couple had three children together: Quanah, Pecos, and a young daughter, Topasannah, or "Prairie Flower." Cynthia Ann Parker was by all accounts a loving wife and good mother, caring for her children at the camp while her husband and the rest of the tribesmen raided Parker County, which was named after her uncle. 

In 1860, Nocona's tribe was camped near the Pease River. Charles Goodnight, in his younger years, worked as a guide for the Texas Rangers prior to and during the American Civil War. He led the Texas Rangers and Sgt. John Spangler, Commander of Company H of the U.S. 2nd Cavalry to Peta Nocona's camp. Peta Nocona and his two sons escaped into the nearby prairie. Cynthia Ann, who wore her hair cropped short, was also wearing robes at the time of the raid and was almost shot by soldiers, but she held up her child to show she was a mother. When the soldiers questioned her they noticed her blue eyes and began to suspect she might be the long lost niece of Isaac Parker. (It is often mentioned by film historians that one of John Wayne's finest films, The Searchers, is based on the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, but if you compare the film to the story of Olive Oatman, whose brother spent five years searching for Olive, it seems to resemble Olive Oatman's experience, as well.) 

Cynthia was returned to her family, but 25 years had passed and she appeared to be unable to speak English. In a moment of frustration, one of her relatives said, "This can't possibly be Cynthia Ann," and Cynthia replied, "Me, Cynthia." 

The family gave her a home and some acreage where she could raise her daughter and support herself, but Cynthia was desperate to return to the only family she knew--Peta Nocona, Quanah, and Pecos. She even stole horses in an attempt to return to her husband, but was captured again. Four years later, little Topsannah died of a fever in her mother's arms. Cynthia Ann was devastated. In her mind, Topsannah was the only family she had left. She starved herself to death, mourning the loss of her beloved daughter.

Quanah Parker of the Quahadi band of Comanche

Peta Nocona's death is a matter of dispute--it is uncertain when or how he died. It is known, though, that when his oldest son, Quanah, was 15, he was introduced into the Destanyuka band, where KOBE (Wild Horse) raised him in a way that I understand to be like an adopted son. 

His first name, Quanah, means fragrant, and although he was often teased by his fellow braves when he was younger because of his name, his mother had named him, and he also learned to fiercely defend his name. Eventually they learned that no one should dare to tease or taunt young Quanah. Suffice it to say, Quanah grew to be a fierce warrior!
Quanah Parker, Texas State Library.

Quanah grew to be a strong warrior, respected by his people who made him a subchief of the Quahadi (Antelope Eaters) band of Comanche. His anger over the loss of his mother never subsided and it is believed this is why he kept her surname, Parker, for the rest of his life. Prior to his life on the reservation, Quanah fiercely rejected any attempts toward peace made by white politicians. 

The Fierce Warrior Leads the Raids

When he reached his early 20s, Quanah started leading raiding parties on his own. When he was 26, Quanah led a daring night raid into the Cavalry encampment of Colonel Ronald Mackenzie, who was actually on a special assignment to hunt Quanah down. 

Quanah and his men captured many Calvary horses and sent the rest stampeding through the camp. Quanah's name was now well-known throughout Texas and he continued to lead raids into pioneer settlements, generally driving off the cattle and horses and taking whatever he pleased from the homes of the white settlers. 

The Battle of Adobe Wells

Adobe Walls is an amazing famous place considering its original purpose. It started out as a small trading post in the Texas Panhandle, but it was surprisingly popular with traders due to its location. However, in 1845 the U.S. Army built a fort near the post to protect it from constant Indian raids, to no avail.

In the spring of 1874, the Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapaho--the Southern Plains bands--recognizing the post and the buffalo hunters was the major threat to their way of life on the plains, held a sun dance seeking guidance. According to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Comanche Medicine Man Isa-tai promised victory to the warriors who agreed to fight the enemy--the hunters. 

Quanah Parker

On June 27, 1874, Quanah Parker led 700 Indians from combined tribes to attack the post. At that time, there was 28 men and one woman at the post, but they somehow managed to kill 70 of the Indians, who were forced into retreat. It was considered a spiritual defeat for the Indians, and a lesson to the traders, as well. In 1848, the traders destroyed the post because they realized its location made it impossible to protect. To the U.S. Army, it was the last straw, prompting actions to defeat the remaining tribes and end the ongoing Plains War. 

The Dwindling Population of Comanche

Quanah's anger could not be appeased. He would have continued to fight to his death, but the Comanche population was dwindling due to disease and war losses, and a low birth rate. One by one, the Comanche tribes agreed to live on reservations. However, the Kwahadi Comanche had never signed a treaty with white men. In fact, they refused to attend the Great Treaty Conference held at Medicine Lodge. They did not trust any treaties proposed by the white men, and rightly so. In the past, just about every treaty signed by the white government was broken by the white government.

Quanah refused to surrender and continued to lead his small band of warriors on periodic raids through the white settlements. The U.S. Army used a technique they often used when attempting to subdue the Native American Indian tribes during the Indian Wars--they stole or killed their horses and destroyed all food sources. 

Colonel Mackenzie Strikes Back and the Great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker Surrenders

It was September, 1874. The Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne were camped in Palo Duro Canyon on the banks of the Red River. This was viewed as a refuge for local tribes. They had seen soldiers nearby and sensed something was in the works, but they were somewhat unprepared for the attack. 

When Mackenzie and his men rode through the camps, the members of the three tribes chose to retreat, and Mackenzie responded as predicted--he burned their lodges and food supplies and drove off 1400 horses and mules. 

The Comanche called their horses "God Dogs."

Then Mackenzie reconsidered the horse situation and came up with an even more brutal solution. Knowing the loyalty between Indians and their horses--the Comanche referred to their horses as "God Dogs,"--he decided to have the horses and mules rounded up in Tule Canyon and shot. It was an act of cruelty that understandably caused the Comanche intense pain and sorrow. In 1875, Quanah and what was left of his warriors rode into a nearby reservation and surrendered. 

Quanah on the Reservation

Surprisingly, in spite of his reluctance to surrender Quanah thrived on the reservation. It was my understanding that his tribe voted him Chief of the Comanche bands, but according to historian Brian Hosmer, writing for the Texas State Historical Association, the federal government recognized that the Comanche respected Quanah for his determination and pride so the government named him chief, which was actually against Comanche tradition. The government was trying to ease some of the tension and residual anger and united the various Comanche bands, and it seemed to work. 

Quanah Parker

For the next 25 years, Quanah was the leader of the Comanche, and true to his reputation and life example, promoted self-sufficiency and self-reliance among the Comanche. He encouraged the construction of schools and educating Indian children to assimilate with the white culture surrounding them. These actions were not always acceptable to his fellow Comanche, but Quanah could be very persuasive. 

Ranching and Assimilation

Quanah thrived in other ways, as well. He promoted ranching on the reservation and, as always, did so by providing an example. He became friends with wealthy cattle ranchers and spent time with his mother's relatives, the Parker family, to learn successful ranching techniques. He encouraged the signing of agreements with white ranchers to allow their cattle to graze on Comanche land, yet another controversial move, but he pushed this through by using basic logic--the white ranchers were already using Comanche land and the written agreement showed the Comanche had power and authority. 

Quanah Parker assimilated into the white culture.

According to Hosmer, Quanah was considered an "assimilationist," advocating cultural transformation. He encouraged the Comanche to build homes resembling their white neighbors, and to plant crops. Unlike the Navajo, who we discussed earlier on this blog, the Comanche were traditionally a roaming tribe, following the buffalo, but the buffalo were gone and Quanah recognized the need to change in order to survive. He even approved the establishment of a Comanche police force, yet another wise move that enabled the Comanche to "manage their own affairs." 

Financial Success and Personal Life

Quanah was sometimes criticized by Comanche for dressing like the white men and assimilating into their culture, but he also surprised the white men with his success. He owned $40,000 in stock in the Quanah, Acme and Pacific Railway and is believed to have been the wealthiest Indian in America in his time. Quanah's wealth made him popular in white social circles and a popular subject for magazine articles. He was also friends with Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt was one of Quanah Parker's many political friends. 
Photo taken in 1915 by Pach Bros.

Eventually, Quanah built a two-story eight bedroom house with ten foot ceilings and a white picket fence called Star House. One of his close friends, cattle rancher Samuel Burk Burnett, He had separate bedrooms for each of his seven wives and his own bedroom. He had 25 children by his eight wives. One of his son's, White Parker, was a Methodist minister. 


While some historians (such as Hosmer) suggest that Quanah rejected Christianity, others claim Quanah Parker with founding the Native American Church movement. Quanah was gored by a bull while visiting the Parker side of the family in Texas. He was treated by a Mexican healer with peyote tea, which was found to be an effective antibiotic. Quanah believed this medicine was a sacrament given to his people and instructed them to use it with water while taking communion. 
Quanah Parker in ceremonial regalia. Photo taken in 1892.

Quanah practiced the "half-moon" style of peyote ceremony. He is credited with saying, "The White Man goes into his church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes into his tipi and talks with Jesus." Quanah and John Wilson, a Caddo-Delaware religious leader are believed to be the reason most Native American and Canadian tribes adopted the Native American Church and Christianity. 

Quanah Parker's Legacy

Quanah Parker was named deputy sheriff of Lawton, Oklahoma in 1902. In 1911, he became very sick at the Cheyenne Reservation from an unknown illness and died shortly after returning home on February 23, 1911. He was buried in his Comanche regalia, beside his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, and his sister, Topasannah, in Post Oak Mission Cemetery in Cache, Oklahoma. In 1957, the United States expanded a missile base in Oklahoma and moved the graves of Quanah, Cynthia Ann and Topsannah to Fort Sill Post Cemetery in Lawton, Oklahoma. On August 9, 1957, Quanah was once again re-buried in the same cemetery, in a section known as Chief's Knoll, with full military honors. Quanah Parker is still believed to be one of the most dynamic leaders of the Comanche. 

  • Capps, Benjamin. The Old West: The Indians. New York: 1973. 
  • Hosmer, Brian C., "PARKER, QUANAH," Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved April 30, 2013. 
  • "The Battle of Adobe Wells." Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Retrieved April 28, 2013.
  • Reiter, Joan Swallow. The Old West: The Women. Alexandria, Virginia: 1978. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Olive Oatman: A Survivor's Story

Olive Oatman, photographed in 1857

Olive Oatman is not the only well-known captive who was recovered and returned to her home community, but her story does exemplify what happened to women who were captured by Native American Indians and the ongoing emotional trauma they experienced when they were returned to their families. These women lived in two worlds, and they were often rejected by both. Olive Oatman not only carried the physical scars of her ordeal for the rest of her life, but emotional scars, as well. 

Massacre in Arizona

Olive Ann Oatman was born in Illinois in September of either 1837 or 1839. There were seven children in the family: Lorenzo, Mary Ann, Charity Ann, Lucy, Olive, Roland and Royce. In 1850, when Olive was 13 or 14 years old, her parents, Royce and Mary Ann Oatman, decided to join a wagon train in Independence, Missouri headed west for California. For unknown reasons, the train split up several times and eventually the Oatmans were left to travel alone through dangerous territory. Reiter's The Women claims Royce Oatman was frustrated by the constant feuding in the wagon train and decided to press on alone, but this is doubtful as he would have known that leaving the train would be reckless and dangerous. It is more logical to assume they were left behind when families left the train to stay in towns along the way then the train split due to arguments, which did happen on occasion. 

Regardless of the reason for their isolation, the Oatmans were alone and traveling through the Gila River Valley when their wagon was attacked by Yavapai, possibly Tolkepayas. Olive and her sister, Mary Ann, who was seven-years-old, watched in horror as every member of their family was beaten and killed. At the time, Olive did not know her brother survived the attack. He appeared to be dead when the two young women were led away from the wagon. 

Lorenzo's Search

Lorenzo Oatman was born in 1836 in Illinois, which would have made him a year or two older than Olive, and remarkably, Lorenzo did survive the attack of the Tolkepayas. 

Lorenzo Oatman, courtesy of Library of Congress

One can assume that he took time to recover from his wounds and possibly buried his family, although doing so would have alerted the Tolkepayas to the fact that he had survived. He may have started out immediately to find help, and he did find help. He somehow managed to locate part of the wagon train they had lost at Maricopa Wells. He survived his wounds and, knowing his sisters were still alive, vowed to spend the rest of his life tracking them down. Lorenzo Oatman immediately began a five year search for Olive and Mary Ann.      

Sold to Mojaves, and More Tragic Moments for Olive

Olive and her sister served as slaves of the Tolkepayas for a year, then they were sold to a Mojave chief for blankets, vegetables and horses. They followed their captors on foot for ten days to their encampment further north on the Colorado River near what is now Needles, California. The girls had no idea what to expect from their new captors, but discovered they were treated better, received few beatings, and were allowed to grow their own food. Their chins were marked with blue cactus tattoos. Some sources say this was a mark of their status as slaves. However, according to historians, most Mojave women at that time had tattoos on their chins. 
Olive Oatman

Then in 1853, Olive experienced yet another devastating loss. A severe drought hit the area and the crops died, along with many of the tribe members and her precious sister, little Mary Ann. Olive was alone.

Possibilities for Escape

According to Margot Miflin's "10 Myths About Olive Oatman," in 1854, 200 white men met with the Mojave to mingle and trade when the Whipple Expedition came through to survey the area for the railroads. Some historians have questioned why Olive did not leave at this point. There were reportedly numerous traders who came to the Mojave encampment and she could have escaped or asked to be traded. However, she must have known that she would never again be accepted into the society of the small towns in the area because she had lived so long with the Mojave. She may have feared retribution and punishment. She knew no one would accompany her to a settlement and may have feared she would receive even worse treatment from a white man if she dared to ask for help. 

Olive also believed her entire family was massacred. As you'll recall, she didn't know Lorenzo survived, and when Mary Ann died I would think she would have felt as if the Mojave was the only family she had left. According to Mifflin, Mary Ann and Olive were not treated as slaved by the Mojave. They were adopted by a family and given the family name of Oach. The Mojave referred to them as ahwe, a word that means stranger, not slave. 

Rescued and Reunited

Lorenzo did survive, and he was still searching. At some point during the winter of 1855-56 the U.S. Army received word that Olive was living with the Mojave and began negotiations for her return. On February 28, 1856, Olive Oatman was ransomed and reunited with Lorenzo Oatman at Fort Yuma, Arizona. According to the Sherrie McLeRoy, Olive was ransomed for a horse, blanket, and beads.

Joan Reiter reports in The Women that Olive's skin was browned and burnt by years of exposure to the sun and she was barely recognizable when she was finally reunited with her brother. She refused to speak and seemed to have trouble remembering the English language. She was wearing a skirt made of bark and other Mojave garments, but members of the community provided her with clothing and her brother and cousins helped her adjust. She wore a veil to cover the tattoos.

Photo of Olive Oatman, Arizona Historical Society

Olive spent days with her face hidden in her hands, perhaps because those who rescued and cared for her recoiled in prejudice and horror when they saw that tattoos, but this is my speculation. I also believe she suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress.

Tours and Lecture Circuit

Shortly after she was rescued, the Reverend Royal B. Stratton wrote the story of Olive and little Mary Ann in Life Among the Indians, which was wildly successful because it was one of few published stories about what happened to captives. Lorenzo and Olive received enough payment from sales of the book to pay for their educations at the University of the Pacific. After graduation, they moved to New York with Stratton and Olive toured the city, lecturing to promote the book. During these tours she removed the veil from her face to show the tattoos.

The Marriage of Olive Oatman and John Brant Fairchild

In 1865, Olive Oatman met and married a cattleman, John Brant Fairchild (1830-1907). Fairchild burned all copies of Stratton's book and the tours ended.

The couple lived in Detroit for a short time then moved to Texas. Fairchild was the president of the City Bank of Sherman, Texas and eventually became wealthy through land investments. Olive and John adopted a daughter and Olive tried to work with orphaned children, but suffered often from depression.

Continued Post Traumatic Stress

According to Mifflin, and contrary to popular misconceptions, Olive was never admitted to an insane asylum, though she did spend three months at a medical spa in Canada. In contemporary times, it would be recognized that she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder the rest of her life.

However, the Reverend Stratton was committed to an asylum and died there in 1875.

Lorenzo Oatman married Edna Amelia Canfield on August 3, 1860 in Illinois. He died in Nebraska on October 8, 1901.

Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack on March 20, 1903. She is buried in West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas. According to the TSHA, a Texas historical marker was placed on her grave in 1969.

There is conflicting information regarding the details of Olive Oatman's life in captivity and after she was returned to her family. I have created this article using what I consider to be the most reliable sources available. 

  • Margot, Miffin. "Ten Myths About Olive Oatman." True West Magazine. Published August 1, 2009. Retrieved April 26, 2013. 
  • McLeRoy, Sherrie S. "FAIRCHILD, OLIVE ANN OATMAN," Handbook of Texas Online. Published by the Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved April 26, 2013. 
  • Reiter, Joan Swallow. "The Great Marriage Boom." The Old West: The Women. Canada: 1978.

Update: This article has been copied, or technically, stolen. It was written by me for this website and belongs to me. If you see it somewhere else online please do not click to read it. Thank you. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Nicodemus, Kansas: One of the First Black Western Communities

Nicodemus, Kansas, one of the first black communities in the West. At the end of the American Civil War, the freed slaves continued to face harassment and worse in the Southern states, so families started moving West with the hope of finding a better life. What they found was that they fared better if they established their own communities, and Nicodemus, Kansas was one of the first.  Although technically, Kansas is now considered a Central state, because the black settlers were moving into the Western United States, they considered Nicodemus a Western town. 

Nicodemus is located in Northwest Kansas and is referred to as a "living community," the oldest and only remaining all Black Town west of the Mississippi River, settled on the western plains in the 1800s by former slaves during a period also known as "The Black Exodus." 

Flyers were distributed to attract black families to Kansas.

The Black Exodus was so great that by 1880, an estimated 25,000 blacks had migrated into Kansas. They camped in churches, or on the Topeka, Kansas fairgrounds. Most of these new Kansas residents traveled to the state by foot and didn't have a penny to their name, but they were determined to survive, and to live in freedom. Some arrived by boat, their fare paid by black charities and societies. 

Henry Adams and the Black Moses

After Reconstruction, blacks were still treated cruelly, segregated, and forbidden from living within the city limits of southern states. The hostility was overwhelming, and the men and women who survived the American Civil War realized that the only way they would be able to survive its aftermath would be to move out of the South. During this time period hundreds of small agricultural communities sprouted in the American West and just as quickly withered and died. Nicodemus somehow survived.  

Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, a carpenter who became known as the Black Moses. 

Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, a Tennessee carpenter, and Henry Adams, who was from Louisiana, realized early on that the only option available for blacks was to not only move further west, but to start communities where only black families lived and could support each other without enduring prejudice while they recovered from the war. A place where they could thrive in a community environment. They considered Kansas to be a good place to start black settlements because the memory of the work of John Brown and other Abolitionists still remained in black communities providing them with a source of encouragement. Singleton and Adams convinced thousands of black families to head for Kansas. In fact, Pap Singleton was so "convincing" he became known as the Black Moses. These two men seemed to lead the cause, and a few historians have attributed the settlement of Nicodemus to Singleton and Adams, but according to historian Kenneth Hamilton, who traced the early origins of the settlement, the person responsible for convincing families to move to Nicodemus was white promoter W.R. Hill. Nevertheless, it appears that Singleton and Adams started the movement West. 


It is believed that the town of Nicodemus is named after a man mentioned in the Gospel of John in the Bible. He was a Pharisee who showed favor to Jesus. The town started with 350 people. One white and six black Kansas residents formed the Nicodemus Town Council on April 18, 1877. W.R. Hill recruited the 350 people and the Nicodemus Town Council helped assist with transporting the group to Kansas. They also helped the families select and purchase their homesteads.

Nicodemus, Kansas, founded in 1877.

The early settlers didn't have trees available for houses, or money to purchase lumber, so they built their first homes as dugouts in the earth or hillsides. It was not an easy living. They had to cope with poor insulation--hot in summer, cold in winter--insect infestations, rodents, snakes, just about anything that walks or crawls on the ground would of course be attracted to their homes because of the smell of food. I imagine it was similar to living in a cave or a dugout, such as those used by the Navajo at the Bosque Redondo. 

Nicodemus First Baptist Church

Eventually, the residents were able to build sod houses, which are made from rectangular layers of sod or adobe. Finally, they built their family homes out of stone. This was an exciting time in the progression of the town. The townspeople began to feel as if they were succeeding, as if the town was going to make it. The stone buildings appeared more permanent to business owners who came to Nicodemus and what once was a collection of caves became a town. 

The Railroad Passes by

The ultimate goal of all this work, and most small towns that were started at the end of Reconstruction, was to attract the railroads. If the trains came through your town this attracted businesses and tourists. Although it was originally believed that the railroads would come to Nicodemus, the town was bypassed, and the population of Nicodemus dwindled. The business owners moved to nearby towns that had railroad stations. Some residents chose to stay, and their personal histories are now being collected so they will hopefully, eventually be included in the town's history displays.  

Nicodemus Town Sign
Nicodemus Today

Nicodemus is located along Highway 24 in Graham County, North Central Kansas. According to the 2010 United States Census Bureau, Nicodemus had a 2010 population of 59. In 1976, Nicodemus, Kansas was designated a National Historic Landmark. Nicodemus has a Visitor's Center with a bookstore and exhibits of the town history. There are walking and guided tours of the historic buildings and other features of the town. There is also a par, playground and picnic area for tourists. 

  • Hamilton, Kenneth Marvin. "The Settlement of Nicodemus: Its Origins and Early Promotion." Promised land on the Solomon: Black settlement at Nicodemus, Kansas. United States National Park Service. Rocky Mountain Regional Office. U.S. Department of the Interior: 1986. Retrieved April 23, 2013. 
  • Story of the Great American West. Readers Digest Association. New York: 1977. 
  • Wheeler, Keith. The Old West: The Townsmen. Time Life Books. Canada: 1978.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Mountain Man Maxwell: One of the Largest Private Landowners in U.S. History

Lucien Maxwell

Mountain Man Maxwell owned more land than anyone else in the world! Maxwell was a well-known mountain man before he married and inherited his wife's land, received numerous land grants from the government, bought Fort Sumner in New Mexico, and built the home where his son, Pete Maxwell, entertained his close friend, Billy the Kid. 

Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell (September 14, 1818 - July 25, 1875) was born in Kaskaskia, Illinois. His father was an Irish immigrant and his mother was the daughter of Pierre Menard, a French Canadian fur trader. Maxwell learned the fur trading business from his grandfather. When his father died, Maxwell left home to begin his career. He was 15, which seems awfully young to me, but the more I read about Mountain Men in the West, the more I realize they often left home in their early teens. His grandfather left home at the same age to start his work in the fur trade business.

The Fremont Expeditions

Maxwell was lucky in his early adventure because one of the first men he met was someone we've already discussed in depth on this blog--Kit Carson. Carson was only in his mid-twenties, but Maxwell viewed him as an older mentor, which he probably was. Both young men signed up with John C. Fremont for the 1841 Western Expeditions--remember, Carson had already established his reputation before he reached his early 20s, so he was hired by Fremont as a guide. Maxwell, surprisingly, was hired as Chief Hunter due to his experience and training with his well-known grandfather. 

A Double Wedding 

The expeditions were rough. The men had many dangerous encounters with hostile Native American Indian tribes and wild animals, but Maxwell returned to New Mexico safely with Kit Carson. The two men worked to establish themselves and build homes in Taos. In 1844, Maxwell married Luz Beaubien, daughter of Carlos Beaubien, in a double wedding with Kit Carson and Josefa Jaramillo. 

Kit Carson

Though I'm sure Maxwell married for love, the marriage was also a wise and profitable decision for Maxwell. Maxwell's father-in-law, Beaubien, and his business partner, Guadalupe Miranda, received land grants of over $1 million acres in northeast New Mexico. As a wedding gift, Carlos Beaubien gave Maxwell 15,000 acres. 

Kit Carson's married life is a confusing mess. There is conflicting information in every source I own and consulted. However, I did find information on a genealogy website that stated Carson was married three times, and genealogists are often careful with their research. Apparently, Carson was married first to Waa-nibe, an Arapaho Indian who died during childbirth and as we know, Carson took his daughter, Adeline, a "dark-eyed beauty with long black hair who excelled in the use of a rifle" to his brother's house where she could be raised with a family. He then married Making-Out Road, who was Cheyenne, and she left him. This marriage is not mentioned often in sources, though there are two women who claim to be the children of this union. Then, in 1844, Kit Carson married Josefa Jaramillo in the double wedding with Lucien Maxwell. 

When I was driving through a small populated area near Taos once I stopped to photograph an old church and was told this was the church where Kit Carson and Josefa were married, but I'm still trying to verify this information. When they married, Josefa Jaramillo (1828-1868) was 15 years old and Carson was 33, but again, this would not be considered inappropriate in those times.  

Mexican-American War

During the Mexican-American War, the Mexicans and local Pueblo tribes joined forces for the Taos Revolt in 1847. Maxwell and his wife were at Bent's Old Fort when Charles Bent, the Governor of New Mexico was killed. Josefa and her children were also at Bent's Fort. 

Both Carson's and Maxwell's wives and children survived, but Maxwell's brother-in-law, Narciso Beaubien was killed. Miranda was wounded. She escaped to Mexico to seek protection from her family. Perhaps she was too young, or tired of the threat of Native American Indians. Regardless of the reason, she did not return. Carson's wife and family rejoined him and Carson and Maxwell both started spending more time at home to guard their property. The following year, Maxwell was ambushed during a supply run, but he insisted on staying at his ranch to show his support to the other land owners in the area. 

Maxwell Becomes Largest Landowner in America in his Time

The Mexican-American War ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848. It is the oldest treaty still in force between the U.S. and Mexico. With renewed hope for peace, Maxwell and Carson proposed building a fort on the Rayado River at Rayado, New Mexico, which is on the Santa Fe Trail. Maxwell built a large house on the site and Carson, a small adobe hut. A year later, Maxwell sold his house and move to Cimarron, New Mexico. 

When Miranda's father, Carlos Beaubien, died in 1864, Maxwell inherited his father-in-law's land, which combined with his wedding gift of 15,000 acres totaled 1,714,765 acres and is known as the Maxwell Land Grant. This made Maxwell the largest landowner of his times and one of the largest land owners in history, just behind contemporary landowners, Americans Ted Turner and Archie Emmerson.  

The Great Horse Race of 1866

Maxwell wasn't much of a gambler, but he did love his horses and one in particular, Fly, was reputed to be one of the fastest horses around. According to The Old West: The Gamblers, in 1866, Maxwell decided to issue a challenge to anyone who thought they had a horse that could beat Fly. The race would take place in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and the wager would be $1000, $5000, or $10,000, challengers choice. 

Two men, Foster and Rogers, decided to bet that their horse, Bald Hornet, could beat Fly. They knew something about Bald Hornet that Maxwell did not--Bald Hornet was a distance runner, and although Fly was awesome with short distance races, the Las Vegas Track was not a short distance track. 

Lucien Maxwell

The day of the race, thousands of people from all around arrived at the track placing bets totaling $300,000. Maxwell's old friend Kit Carson was by his side. The crowd was betting on Fly. They had seen this great beauty run and they were confident she would win. 

Fly took off like a rocket and held the lead for a remarkable length, then suddenly grew tired and to the great embarrassment of Lucien Maxwell, lost the race. Maxwell lost $15,000 in cash and a large amount of sheep, horses, and cattle in his numerous bets. Many of the townsfolk lost large amounts, as well. One of the big money losers threatened to kill Maxwell and Kit Carson stood between the men to rescue his friend. In an attempt to soothe their financial wounds, Maxwell paid for a large banquet to feed the crowds. 

Maxwell Sells his Land and Moves to Fort Sumner

Keep in mind that Maxwell was a Mountain Man and fur trader, not a business man. Nevertheless, he did his best to use the land wisely and increase his wealth. At the end of the American Civil War he leased his Baldy Mountain, New Mexico property to miners and sold them necessary supplies. In 1870 he sold most of his land for $1,350,000 to the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company and a portion to Mathew Lynch. However, he still owned a large portion in northern New Mexico. This portion of his land grant included Fort Sumner, which was abandoned after the failed "experiment" with the Navajo and the Bosque Redondo was exposed and the Navajo made the Long Walk Home

Bosque Redondo Memorial. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Although Maxwell was a very wealthy man he was still a Mountain Man and went into semi-retirement at a rather young age (by my standards anyway!) He purchased Fort Sumner from the U.S. Army for $5000 and turned the officer's quarters into a 20 room mansion. He then remodeled the other quarters and buildings into homes for his friends and Mexican-American and Indian employees so their families could move onto the ranch and stay with them. During this time he became friends with Charles Goodnight, who once made cattle sales to Fort Sumner during the Bosque Redondo "experiment." He was friends with Oliver Loving before Loving's death and helped Loving when he was held by the military during the American Civil War. And he was friends with cattle baron John Chisum. His son, Peter, took over Maxwell's business dealings. 

Gravestone of Lucien Maxwell.

On July 25, 1875, at 56 years old, Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell died at Fort Sumner. He is buried at the Fort Sumner Cemetery. 

Pete Maxwell and Billy the Kid

After the death of his father, Maxwell's son, Pete, took over the cattle and sheep ranching business at Fort Sumner, but like his father, he preferred a quiet life, which is surprising considering one of his closest friends was the notorious Billy the Kid. Maxwell also had a daughter, Paulita, and it is believed she is one of the reasons Billy the Kid enjoyed spending time at the Maxwell Ranch. It was also isolated, and peaceful, and Billy the Kid liked the New Mexico territory. It was familiar to him. 

Billy the Kid

Pat Garrett also knew of Billy the Kid's friendship with Pete Maxwell and his sister, Paulita, and he knew this would be a likely place to find the Kid. On July 14, 1881, Billy the Kid was visiting Pete Maxwell when Garrett and his men arrived at the ranch. Again, there are variations on what happened next. The Maxwell genealogy source claims Garrett was in Pete Maxwell's room, woke him up and asked for Billy the Kid just as Billy the Kid stumbled through the door and was shot by Garrett. In his autobiography, Garrett claimed he was waiting in Billy's room when Billy came through the door and saw someone by the bed. Billy asked "Quien es?" or "Who is it?" Garrett then shot and killed Billy the Kid. 

The Maxwell Ranch

According to the genealogy website Clan Maxwell, other than establishing the First National Bank of Santa Fe, Maxwell's other business ventures did not fare well. As I said before, he was not a business man. He concluded most of his business transactions with his word and a handshake without signatures on paper. There were claims on the land by Native American Indian tribes who stated that the government wrongfully confiscated their property, or gave it to them after they left the Bosque Redondo, and these claims are most likely true. They were supported by priests who worked with the tribes. Maxwell's wife, Miranda, also filed a claim on the land. 

The ruins of the former Maxwell ranch home. Photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz, M.D.

The Maxwell Land Grant Company was bogged down for years in a mess of expensive legal battles that went all the way to the Supreme Court, but in 1887, title of the land was confirmed for the Maxwell Land Grant Company. This did not end the claims or the legal battles, though, which continued for nearly a century. By 1960, the company sold off most of its land in New Mexico to avoid the continuous legal battles. 

Memorial to Maxwell

The Maxwell Genealogy page has a memorial to Maxwell that was published as an editorial in the Las Vegas, NM, Gazette: “Against Lucien B. Maxwell, no man can say aught, and he died after an active and eventful life, probably without an enemy in the world. Of few words, unassuming and unpretentious, his deeds were the best exponent of the man. He was hospitable, generous and upright, and dispensed large wealth acquired by industry and genius with an open hand to the stranger and the needy.”

Memorial for Lucien Maxwell. Photo by Billy Hathorn

  • "Fast Horses, Tough Boxers and Big Time Betting." The Gamblers: The Old West. Compiled by Time Life Books Editors. Alexandria, Virginia: 1978.
  • Griswold del Castillo, Richard. "Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: War's End." PBS.org. Retrieved April 20, 2013. 
  • "Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell: Old West Emperor." The House of Maxwell. The Clan Maxwell Society of the United States of America. Retrieved April 20, 2013. 
  • "Oliver Loving” The Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association.
  • Whitlock, Douglas. "Kit Carson's Wives & Kids." Genealogy.com. Posted January 10, 2004. Retrieved April 19, 2013.  

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