Footnote to History

IMG_E0320In addition to the famous and infamous icons of the Old West known to almost anyone who has ever read a western novel or enjoyed a western movie, there were individuals who shaped its history without the benefit of becoming household names. These lesser known characters are familiar to historians and writers who have done in-depth research into past events and the participants therein, but with few exceptions their names fail to register or  resonate with the casual western reader or movie buff. One such individual was John Selman.

John Selman first emerged onto the scene in 1877 at Fort Griffin as an inspector of buffalo hides, but soon found himself implicated in their theft and hid out in Mexico for a time. He resurfaces in 1879 when he becomes involved in the Lincoln County Range War and is driven out of New Mexico accused of various crimes including rape and murder. In 1880 he is arrested by Texas Rangers but his case never goes to trial and he slips once more into Mexico. When he finally resurfaces in 1893, he does so as a constable in El Paso arresting the very men he’d associated with over the years.

Still, John Selman would be but a footnote to history had his life not intersected with that of John Wesley Hardin, the most notorious gunman in all of Texas. Hardin claimed to have killed forty-two men before he was captured and incarcerated at the Huntsville State Penitentiary in 1878 where he would spend the next seventeen years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

Released in 1894, a now reformed Hardin moved to El Paso the following year to practice law. Nonetheless, he would soon run afoul of Constable Selman when he pistol whipped Selman’s deputized son for arresting his mistress on charges of public intoxication.

John Selman couldn’t allow the affront to stand, but also wasn’t prepared to face-off against the notorious gunman. Instead, as Hardin gambled at a local saloon, Selman shot him while his back was turned killing him instantly. Just for good measure, he stood over the body and shot him three more times.

Though a constable, Selman was arrested and charged with murder. During his trial he claimed self-defense stating that he had seen John Wesley Hardin go for his gun. The assertion was all the more amazing as as the initial shot had been to the back of Hardin’s head. Selman, however, claimed that he had seen the renowned icon reach for his gun in a reflection from a mirror hanging in the saloon. A hung jury released him on bond. 

What went-around, came-around in the muddied waters that passed for “justice” in the Old West. John Selman would himself be killed by U.S. Marshall George Scarborough the following year. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Today no one remembers the name of the man who killed John Wesley Hardin, while the memory of the famed pistoleer lives on in Texas and western lore.




Sacred Land

Recent Presidential proclamations will significantly reduce protected land at the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. The monuments were so designated by previous administrations under the Antiquities Act, a law designed to protect sacred sites, artifacts, and features of natural, cultural, or historical value. Five tribes – the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni Pueblo, Ute and Ute Mountain Indians – fought to create the Bears Ears Monument which, under the current proclamation, would be reduced by 80 percent. They are now united in opposition to the government’s intent to alter the monument, and have petitioned the courts to retain its protected status and preserve the remote area from further economic development.

Throughout American history Native Americans have struggled to protect their people, land, and way of life against the advancement of civilization. The Plains Indian tribes in 1867 gathered at Medicine Lodge Creek to participate in peace talks in the hopes of negotiating a “fair” settlement with the United States government.

The Medicine Lodge discussions began with high expectations on October 19, 1867. The Indians’ hopes for a fair settlement; however, would soon be shattered. Under the terms of the ensuing treaties (there would be three in all) the Kiowa, the Apache, and the Comanche were required to give up more than 60,000 square miles of their land in the Texas Panhandle in exchange for a reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) that would be situated between the North Fork of the Red River and the North Canadian River. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

In February of this year the Standing Rock Sioux failed in their efforts to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. Though the outcome of the current confrontation over tribal and federal claims to the land in Utah has yet to be decided, as previously stated in this blog (Standing Rock, 03/01/17) Indians historically have not fared well in disputes with the federal government.



The Lure of the Desert Southwest

There were any number of reasons for westward expansion in the aftermath of the Civil War; overcrowding in eastern cities, the desire for cheap arable land, manifest destiny, the discovery of gold, silver and other precious metals, and a sense of adventure and opportunity. These motivations led to ever-changing boundaries and the eventual linkage of the country from coast to coast. Settlements, towns, and cities sprung up across the land centered around lines of communication and the abundance of natural resources.

The desert southwest, however, posed unique challenges. An environment teeming with hostile Indians, poisonous snakes and predators, blistering heat during the day, freezing temperatures at night, a dearth of water sources, and a harsh landscape of sand, sagebrush, cacti, mountains, buttes, plateaus, and mesas dissuaded all but the hardiest and bravest of individuals from venturing into West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Rugged individualism defined the spirit of those who settled this part of the United States. While others saw only a bleak and unforgiving land, these intrepid souls embraced isolation, loneliness and danger, saw beauty in the desert vistas marked by scorching sand and terrain sculpted by wind and water, and spiritually connected with its Creator.

When I first arrived in this land I found it barren, without beauty. The climate was harsh. The possibility of death waited around every corner, either from the elements or from unseen enemies whether man, reptile or beast. In time, however, I found that the very struggle to survive was exhilarating. There is solace in the loneliness of the prairie. If you look hard enough, there is life existing everywhere in the vast expanse of the desert. The mountains reach to the heavens. You can commune with the one God, or as you call Him, the Great Spirit. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

This was the spirit that led to the creation of frontier forts, farms and ranches, and mining operations throughout the desert southwest. It resulted in such places as El Paso, Texas, Alamogordo, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona.


Give Thanks

IMG_0240Thanksgiving is a holiday unique to Americans. The significance of its origins, however, has been overshadowed by its juxtaposition between the commercialism of Halloween, the increasingly secular and commercial celebration of Christmas, and its focus on overindulgence in food and beverage, parades, TV specials and football games. Somewhere along the way we forgot the circumstances under which Native Americans and Pilgrims came together to not only share a meal but in the attempt to bridge the cultural divide between them.

Building relationships and finding commonality in our humanity has given way to cynicism, pessimism, exclusion, fear, violence, and hatred. These dynamics separate and isolate us. Instead of welcoming the diversity that forged a nation, we are focused on our differences.

Are we thankful only for the characteristics that make us individually unique, or are we thankful for everything and everyone that has brought us to this point in our history? People of all faiths, beliefs, and opinions had a hand in building this country.

Tomorrow extend your thanks beyond family and friends. Resolve to love, laugh, grieve, and strive for a better tomorrow in unison with others whose expression of those same emotions and aspirations may seem alien to you, but whose dreams are your own.

Give Thanks!


Top Soldier


In the aftermath of the Civil War the nation and the U.S. Army remained divided over people of color serving in the military. In spite of a record of impressive bravery in battles fought throughout the war (almost 200,000 black men fought to preserve the Union and over 40,000 died in the line of duty) they were not welcomed into the ranks. However, due to manpower shortages and the need to protect settlers along the frontier, the War Department authorized the formation of all black units under the supervision of white officers.

With few exceptions, officers still retained the same bias and prejudices that had existed previously against free black men in the North and emancipated slaves in the South. Most white officers assumed that those now enlisting to serve in these frontier units lacked the discipline required of army life and refused command. The few that were willing accept their assignments soon learned otherwise. The Buffalo Soldiers would leave behind a proud legacy of selfless service.

The commanders of the 9th & 10 Cavalry and the 24th & 25th Infantry Regiments would receive credit for their accomplishments, but it was the black non-commissioned officers who would train, supervise, and lead these soldiers. They understood that to achieve equality and respect they had to out-soldier their white counterparts. They drove their men hard, but also looked out for their welfare forming a close brotherhood that engendered pride.

On the trail or in garrison it was sergeant this or corporal that, but at night around the campfires such formalities went by the wayside.

“Come on, Obadiah. Is this what we bargained for… boots and saddles every damn day for nigh on six months chasing ghosts or getting ambushed and killed by the Apache?”

“Hell, we’ve been breathin’ in the officers’ and white soldiers’ dust ridin’ behind them for months. We ain’t fit to ride beside them, but they damn sure expect us to die for them.”

First Sergeant Johnson identified with the emotional toll of watching his friends die. For what… trying to prove something to the Army that bore no love for colored troops? He’d asked himself that question many times over. But he was convinced the only way to change that attitude was to out-soldier the best of them. So, while he might harbor doubts and feelings no different than those of his men, it was his job to keep discipline.

“Best make sure you got all your possibles in order and get about your business,” he said.

“What business is that, Obadiah?”

“The business of soldierin’. Lights out. We gotta nuther long day ahead of us.” – excerpt from Palo Duro.


Thoughts on Veterans Day

Veterans Day will be celebrated this coming Saturday, November 11th. I’ll be thinking of my father, CW4 Gerald L. Knight, U.S. Army, whose 30 years of distinguished service included several of America’s wars; WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, and set me on the path to my own military career.

Dad died at age 89 from a heart attack and complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, and his passing led me to write my first book, Silver Taps, which honors his memory. He was and will always be my hero.

Though that first book was a very personal memoir, my genre of preference is historical fiction. As a student of history (I would not presume to call myself a historian) our understanding of the significance of the holiday is important.

The November 11th date traces back to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 when an armistice with Germany ended hostilities and brought about the end of WWI, “the war to end all wars.” President Woodrow Wilson declared the date Armistice Day in 1919 and it was designated a national holiday in 1938. Subsequent wars resulted in the name being changed in 1954 to ensure that all who served in the military were honored for their patriotism.

So take a moment on Saturday to not only remember our past, but to honor the men and women who continue to wear the uniform. It is only through their dedication and sacrifice that we maintain our national identity, our individual freedoms, and our standing within the international community.





Broken Promises

Westward expansion, the building of roads and settlements on Indian lands, led the U.S. government to negotiate multiple treaties with Native Americans. However, while white attitudes toward the Indians would ensure rigorous enforcement of limitations placed on the tribes, the provisions stipulating restrictions on themselves were either ignored or renegotiated. As circumstances on the frontier and administrations in Washington D.C. changed so too did the governing documents, with each ensuing treaty either negating or totally erasing any promises previously given to the Indians.

Additionally, various Indian Appropriation Acts (1851, 1871, 1885, and 1889) passed by Congress established further provisions that resulted in the movement of Native Americans onto reservations, their declaration as wards of the federal government, the end the of their treatment as independent sovereign nations, and the opening up of their lands to further white settlement.

In compensation [the Indians] were to receive houses, barns for their livestock, and schools to teach their children the white man’s language and ways – none of which they asked for or wanted. All the treaties would be similar in terms. For the promise of food, clothing, lodging, and education the tribes were [forced] to surrender most of their traditional tribal territories. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Many of those promises were never fulfilled resulting in the Indian Wars which did not end until 1891, and the modern American Indian Movement which, since its inception in the 1960’s, has sought to focus national attention on the history of broken promises made by the U.S. government to Native Americans.