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.

 

 

 

Saturday at the Twig Bookshop

Every author appearance, reading, or book signing is unique, the setting and the venue determining the extent of interaction between the writer and his target audience. This past Saturday I was hosted by the Twig Bookshop at the Pearl in San Antonio for what they call a “Sit & Sign.”

For anyone unfamiliar with either the bookshop or the location, the Twig is an independent bookstore located in a fast growing community of businesses, boutique shops, outdoor venues, and restaurants at the old Pearl Brewery and San Antonio River Mission Reach that has been recognized nationally as a top culinary and cultural destination.

The Twig encourages new authors by providing an intimate setting to market new book releases to visitors and locals alike who specifically frequent the store or who drop in while enjoying the weekend Farmers Market.

It is an eclectic mix of individuals who walk through the door. Some are looking for specific authors, genres, and best-selling books, while others transit from the front to the rear entrance as a gateway to the activities outside (produce vendors, food trucks, live musicians, and more) or come inside to either cool off or warm up depending on the season. I met and spoke to people from as far away as upstate New York, Colorado, Oklahoma, Brownsville, Texas (which is far enough away to be in another state or country; Mexico is just across the border) and, of course, San Antonio.

It is a challenge to showcase your work among hundreds if not thousands of other titles while also competing against the flurry of activity that is ongoing all around you, but I’d gladly do it again. Sometimes it’s not just marketing and selling a few copies of your book that matters, but meeting and interacting with people. The Twig provides an opportunity for both.

Max L. Knight is the author of two books; Silver Taps, a personal memoir, and Palo Duro, a novel of westward expansion and the Southern Plains Indian Wars. Signed copies of both books are available at the Twig Bookshop, 306 Pearl Parkway, Suite 106, San Antonio, Texas 78215, (210) 826-6411.

 

 

A Vanishing Way of Life

IMG_1997Our understanding and perceptions of frontier life come to us through early photographic efforts. The processes were complex, cumbersome, dangerous and expensive and it required perseverance to document historic individuals and events.

The majority of daguerreotype photos (named after Louis Daguerre who is credited with taking the first photo in 1838) were made on metal or glass with no negative from which to make copies. Most involved portraits made in studios where lighting conditions were optimal. They were monochromatic still-lifes; if color was desired it had to be added by hand.

Landscapes or action photos were rare due to the difficulty in getting equipment to outdoor settings or the need for subjects to be motionless for the period of time required to expose the shot.

Postmortem photos were common because of the seriousness of recording images for the ages. They were meant to capture the reality of everyday existence… the passing of individuals due to disease, childbirth, accident or violence. They were not whimsical records of everyday life, but a register of people who otherwise would be left unrecorded. Other than the most famous, however, their identities would be lost with the passage of time.

Besides Matthew Brady, perhaps the most influential photographer of the age was Edward Curtis. He would compile a definitive archive of the American Indian photographing, filming, and recording over eighty tribes, documenting a vanishing way of life. It would take him over thirty years to complete.

Nostalgia over these losses [the rugged individualism that defined both Indians and settlers] resulted in the Wild West shows, dime novels, books, and eventually motion pictures. They seldom reflected the harsh realities of life by either side. – excerpt from Palo Duro.