Long Before They Were Legends

When anyone mentions the names Bat Masterson or Wyatt Earp, these icons of the Old West conjure images of law enforcement in places like Dodge City, Kansas and Tombstone, Arizona.

Bat Masterson became one of the most famous lawmen of the era even though he was seldom involved in shootouts of any kind. He did gun down one Jack Wagner for killing his brother, Ed Masterson, and had intended to use lethal force as a member of “The Dodge City Peace Commission” when the Dodge City Council closed the gambling halls, saloons and brothels in the interest of stopping vice and immorality. Not a single shot was fired, however, because the governor intervened  in the interest of “sound economics,” reversing the ordinances that threatened the financial livelihood of the city.

Bat Masterson wore a bowler hat and three-piece suit and carried a silver tipped cane; hardly the image of a lawman, but emblematic of high fashion at the time. It earned him the moniker “Dandy” in spite of his ability to hold his own in any encounter against outlaws or anyone looking to cause trouble.

His friend, Wyatt Earp, on the other hand would come to epitomize “the lawman” in the public’s imagination. The “Gunfight at the OK Corral” solidified his place in history and our perception of him as the stalwart Marshall of Dodge City and Tombstone who brought law and order to the frontier. In truth, after the famous confrontation with the McLaury brothers and Ike Clanton he carried out a personal vendetta against “The Cowboys” that killed his brother, Morgan, and seriously wounded his brother, James.

Although involved in numerous gun fights over his lifetime, Wyatt Earp was never once wounded which only added to his legend and mystique.

Of course, as young men, long before either achieved fame, they met and labored in the buffalo hide trade. Bat Masterson, at the age of twenty, had been at the 2nd Battle of Adobe Walls when a coalition of Comanche, Southern Cheyenne, Kiowa and Plains Apache led by the Comanche war chief, Quanah Parker, attacked the isolated outpost. He survived the battle and volunteered to lead the survivors to safety before returning to his previous occupation.

Though his presence at Adobe Walls amongst fellow buffalo hunters had placed Bat Masterson in danger, youth has a way of ignoring threats to life and limb, and Bat returned to the lucrative trade.

It was during this stage of his life that he met Wyatt Earp and struck up a friendship that would see both men go on to become legendary Kansas lawmen; but at the moment, the two sidekicks found themselves knee deep in blood and covered with flies as they worked from dawn to dusk skinning and scraping buffalo hides. The year was 1877 and both had had their fill of the stench and labor involved, and each sought a new beginning. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Lords of the Plains

Horses changed the way of life for the Comanche forever. They altered the nature of their culture from that of hunter-gatherers to a warrior society, making them the dominant force on the Southern Plains. So skillful were they in horsemanship that they became the finest light cavalry in existence. They subjugated other Native American tribes including the Kiowa, Arapahoe, Southern Cheyenne, and Plains Apache and struck fear into white settlers throughout the frontier.

The horse allowed the Comanche to cover increasingly longer distances on raids against all their enemies, and at their height they ranged on horseback from their stronghold in Palo Duro Canyon in West Texas throughout what would become known as Comancheria which included most of Texas and New Mexico, and portions of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Mexico.  Wild HorsesThe horse was symbolic of Comanche wealth and prestige and it would take the loss of their pony herd to finally force them to surrender. Their horses were slaughtered on orders from Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie following a deciding engagement at Palo Duro Canyon, September 28, 1874. Though but one trooper and fourteen Indians were killed in the fighting, the most devastating blow to the Comanche was the capture and execution of over 1,400 horses.

Ranald Mackenzie surveyed the burned encampments. All his efforts seemed to point to another campaign where he’d been unable to keep the Indians from escaping; another failure. He then looked toward the captured horses. Past experience told him he would be unable to keep the pony herd intact all the way back to friendly lines. The Indians would once again mount raids to recapture their mounts and the cycle of resistance and the so called “Red River War” would continue. Mackenzie had long since hardened himself against any pity for the enemy and now knew what was required of him. He ordered his Adjutant to drive the pony herd to Tule Canyon, to select fresh mounts for the troop and his Tonkawa Scouts, and to shoot all the remaining horses. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Most of the Comanche gave up by November 1874. Quanah Parker and his band tried to hold out, however, the loss of the horses finally forced their surrender. Unable to hunt for food or effectively avoid pursuit by the military, the once proud Lords of the Plains capitulated. Quanah Parker led the Quahadi (the People) onto the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma June 2, 1875.

 

Gunslingers, Pistoleers, and Shootists

IMG_1920The annals of the Old West are replete with names of gunfighters. Men who earned their reputations by being fast with a gun and surviving shootouts. Outlaws gained their notoriety by robbing stagecoaches, banks, and trains. The lawmen who arrested or killed them were in many cases former outlaws themselves. Many operated on both sides of the law.

However, the iconic image of a dusty western town where two men approach each other from opposite ends of the street or face off in the local saloon is in many ways a fabrication. Such confrontations happened, but rarely. Cemeteries like “Boot Hill” attest to frontier violence and are the final resting places of such well known western icons as John Wesley Hardin, Ike Clanton, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and John Henry “Doc” Holiday to name but a few. But hardened men with nerves of steel and a fast draw are principally the invention of dime novelists, journalists, and early cinema; the events embellished and participants made larger than life to sell books, build newspaper circulation, and encourage attendance at movie theaters.

Certainly, most men were armed and occasional gunfights occurred. But of those, the vast majority avoided confrontations. When guns were used it was to protect livestock, property and family. And, even when an exchange of gunfire took place, gunfights without casualties weren’t all that uncommon.

Though most men carried a firearm and risked death by doing so, more often than not shots were fired wildly, triggers jerked instead of squeezed, weapons aimed to high or to low or not aimed at all, bullets whizzing by their intended targets, thudding into wooden walls or planking or plowing into the dirt. When the gun smoke cleared, the participants were often amazed to find themselves and their adversaries unscathed. – excerpt from Palo Duro. 

 

 

 

A Very Personal Endeavor

Though both are based on the past, there is quite a difference writing historical fiction versus a memoir. One is based on events, people, and circumstances known to history while the other’s focus is unique to the author. Historical fiction requires topic research and some degree of subject matter expertise while a memoir is defined solely by the writer’s personal experiences. Historical fiction also uses plot devices and character development to drive the story while a memoir relies on the writer’s memories to relate a very private tale that hopefully strikes an emotional cord which resonates with the reader.

With few exceptions, the majority of my blog posts have related to my novel of westward expansion and the Plains Indian Wars. It is my more recent book, and I concentrated on it to build interest in a genre that not only reflects my writing preference but the focus of future book releases.

I didn’t initially promote my first book because it was a very personal endeavor that I wrote with my children and grandchildren in mind. It spoke to my relationship with my dad and his influence on me as I grew up. He was my hero, and I wanted them to understand why I held my dad in such high regard and why I wanted them to never forget him or the values that he tried to pass on to each of us. I must have succeeded to some degree as it was my children that encouraged me to publish and market my memoir. 

Later this month (August 26th) I’ll be holding a book signing at the Twig Bookshop at the Pearl in San Antonio that will feature both my books. And, while I’ve written extensively about my novel, I thought it important to return to the book that began my love of writing. In so doing, I hope that current and new readers of my blog might learn more of who I am and might also make a connection with one or more of the themes that I addressed in my first effort as a writer.

The book evolved into a personal journey, becoming a catharsis of sorts for me… coming to grips with the loss of the man I was privileged to call a friend, brother-in-arms, role model, and most importantly… my dad. Equally important, the book also allowed me to redefine my relationship with my sister after our father’s death. It is neither autobiography nor biography. It is merely the memories, anecdotes, and musings of a son written down for his children and grandchildren. If it finds additional readership, it will be the result of a chord or chords struck amongst other sons and daughters who remember a father who loved them and whom they loved. – excerpt from Silver TapsCompleted Book Cover

 

 

 

Westward the Women

Women faced tremendous hardship and challenges on their trek westward. Few had an appreciation for the dangers that awaited them en route to the frontier – traversing rugged and inhospitable terrain, unpredictable weather, the lack of food and water, injuries and disease without recourse to doctors or hospitals, natural as well as unscrupulous human predators that assaulted both men and livestock, the absence of creature comforts and sanitation, isolation, loneliness, and attacks from hostile Indians.

It was the lure of land and the promise of adventure that caused their menfolk to take the risks and head west. The women and children who accompanied them faced an uncertain future. Many would die along the way and those that made it to their destination now had to carve out an existence in an unforgiving uncivilized country.

Many arrived alone, widowers or orphans who had seen their husbands or family members die during the journey. In a world dominated by men, theirs was a fight for survival by any means available.

Many women found themselves working as “whores” in the Old west. For a good majority, it was a matter of survival. Travelling to the frontier held risks that included the loss of family or a husband along the way. Finding oneself suddenly alone or widowed meant acknowledging the reality that food and shelter required money, luck, or ingenuity… including offering yourself to strangers just to stay alive. It was the fortunate individual that could afford to buy or build a boarding house, and only a few lucked into positions that allowed them to cook, clean, or teach for a living. The less fortunate found themselves indentured to barkeeps or the like for room and board and very little money. These women were treated as a commodity, had no say about their customers, and were subjected to filth, disease, and occasional violence. A minority found a boss that protected them and some even found love and marriage. The further west the town or city, the greater the disparity between the number of men and “available” women. In some locales the ratio was ten to one or even higher, and here lonely men were appreciative of a woman’s touch and looking for permanent relationships. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Frontier Saloons

You cannot watch a western film (with few exceptions) without images of the local saloon replete with dance hall girls, gaming tables, the barkeep serving customers whiskey and beer from behind a long wooden bar, gunfights or fistfights erupting over a card game or a girl, traveling thespians attempting Shakespeare in front of drunken and raucous crowds, and courtesans entertaining guests in the upstairs rooms.

Though stereotypical, these images of the Old West have their basis in fact. Frontier saloons began as little more than tents, sod, or adobe structures with wooden planking to avoid the mud and excrement from horses tethered outside. However, as the mining or cattle industries flourished, so did the evolution of these establishments. Often the exterior walls were nothing more than false fronts erected to attract more customers, but wood, brick, and glass eventually replaced earlier rudimentary structures while hand-carved bars with brass railings took the place of barrels and sawed lumber, spittoons eliminated spitting on the floor, and mirrors, oil paintings, and chandeliers graced the interiors.

Tombstone, Arizona was home to one such saloon, The Oriental. It was a place where a man could escape the monotony, drudgery, harshness and uncertainty of life while living out his fantasies.

Tombstone had developed first as a mining camp. Silver had been discovered in 1878; there had been only a hundred desperate souls in the beginning hoping to strike a vein and get rich quick, but by 1880 it was considered a “boom town” with over 3,000 residents. Naturally, the gaming business moved in along with the influx of inhabitants, and the Oriental opened its doors in July of that year.

Many frontier saloons were nothing more than canvas tents with false wooden fronts and the establishment’s name on the entrance. They specialized in unrefrigerated beer and hard liquor, mostly whiskey – bourbon and rye. Sometimes that whiskey was nothing more than “Rotgut” made from raw alcohol, burnt sugar and tobacco juice. The Oriental, however, was a much more cultured establishment, with hitchin’ posts out front for the horses, a broad boardwalk at the entrance, swinging doors for easy access, a long hand-carved wooden bar with a brass foot rail where unaltered spirits, even champagne were served by the glass or bottle, carpeting – though with dusty/muddy streets, this proved more of a liability than an asset – glass mirrors and oil paintings, a piano, and “dancing girls” to draw in the clientele.

The girls offered companionship and solace to men who spent long lonely hours working their  mining claims or to the cowboys lonely after a long ride. A buck could get you a “poke”, and for those with money and more perverse carnal desires, just about anything could be “negotiated” at a price. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

 

 

 

The Life-Giving Buffalo

Though the Southwestern Plains Indians warred against each other and against white encroachment onto their lands, they were principally a nomadic people who followed the great buffalo herds during their yearly migrations.

The Indians hunted bison for food, clothing, shelter, fuel, in honor of the Great Spirit… venerating the animal for providing the necessities for their very survival.  Whites, on the other hand killed off  the herds for sport (the thrill of the hunt), to assuage their vanity (buffalo hides becoming fashionable in Eastern and European markets), and to finally deny the Indians their way of life by slaughtering the buffalo in the millions to force the Plains tribes onto reservations and into an agrarian lifestyle.IMG_2176

The Comanche bands and all the Plains Indian tribes relied on the buffalo for their very existence. The “life-force” of the animal was celebrated in their religious ceremonies; the heart was often left after a hunt as an offering to the Great Spirit. They found uses for literally every part of the buffalo. The horns could be made to hold water or gun powder, used as a musical instrument, or ground into an aphrodisiac for the old men who could no longer get an erection on their own. The head and horns were used in ceremonial dress, the warriors wearing the headdress in homage to the life-giving buffalo while dancing to bring about its return. The tongue, heart, liver, rump, and tenderloin fed the people; the meat roasted or dried into jerky, while the sinew was used by the women to sew hides together to provide clothing, shelter, even toys. The entrails including the intestines, stomach, and bladder were thoroughly washed and used to carry water. Even the hooves were boiled down to produce a glue like substance to bond items together including flesh wounds caused in battle or by accident. Nothing was wasted.

The white hunters, however, cared nothing for the multiple uses made of the buffalo by the Indians. Only their woolly hides were of value to them, and the rotting carcasses left behind by the thousands attested to their indifference. For the Comanche this slaughter was a direct threat to their way of life and was seen as a deliberate strategy to destroy a people the whites could not subdue by war alone. – excerpt from Palo Duro.