Category Archives: History of the West

TWO VIEWS ON THE OREGON TRAIL

When I was in school, Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail was on my reading list. At the age of thirteen, the formal writing and the lengthy, detailed descriptions of a time, scenery and people who did not in the least interest me, turned me towards another choice of book. So here I am, some fifty years later, with other interests, more tolerance, and certainly a more receptive mind.

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman was born into an aristocratic Boston family, son of a well-connected and wealthy Unitarian minister. Plagued by illness most of his childhood, he was often sent into the countryside in an attempt to make him more robust. This, combined with his own enjoyment of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, seems to have had a lasting effect on the young man whose walks in the woods always entailed carrying a rifle, just as his hero, Hawkeye, did. Continue reading

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GOING FOR THE KILL: LORD DUNRAVEN AND THE LAND GRAB OF ESTES PARK

IMG_1890One of the highlights of my recent cross-country road trip was Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. And how could it not be a highlight? Here is scenery that both inspires and excites in a corner of Colorado once called the ‘Switzerland of America.’ One of several wide valleys at around 8,000 feet, which include North Park, Middle Park, South Park, and Winter Park, FullSizeRender-18Estes Park itself was renowned for its beauty. Continue reading

POSTCARDS FROM THE PAST

TR NP

TR NP

Visiting historic sites gives you only a momentary glimpse into the lives of people who lived there and, indeed, into the lives of those live there now. In Theodore Roosevelt National Park, separated into three separate units, we get to know briefly the TR who treasured the strenuous outdoor life, invested in cattle ranching, and loved both to hunt and to try to preserve the wilderness around him. He had two ranches here in North Dakota: the Maltese Cross

The Maltese Cross ranch house

The Maltese Cross ranch house

and, later, the Elkhorn, and he claimed that his years in North Dakota helped him become President. The park is a clipping of a life, a few words on a postcard about a man who went on to lead the Rough Riders in Cuba and go on to many years in the political arena as well as write forty books.

But the town outside the park is named Medora for the Marquise de Morés, whose husband founded the town in 1886 and named it for her. Their hunting lodge sits on a hill

Chateau Mores

Chateau Mores

overlooking Medora, a home these Sardinian/French peers lived in sporadically for only three years. Living like royalty with their own private fiefdom, the Marquis de Morés ran cattle and started an abattoir, sending his prepared meat via refrigerator cars (on ice) back east . The couple lived well in their twenty-six room house on the hill, which the locals called ‘Chateau Morés’; they had servants, and imported china, silver and furnishings. Guests came for hunting parties. But what the plaques in the house and the docents on duty don’t tell you is the rest of the story: how the Marquis was an adventurer, started a railroad in Viet Nam, became an avid anti-semite in France, or how he died, murdered in North Africa.

dining room at Chateau Mores

dining room at Chateau Mores

Medora most likely would not exist without either of these men: the Marquis who founded it and Teddy Roosevelt around whom it seems to exist today. It’s a very quiet place right next to a very under-visited national park, and yet seems to survive on the tourist trade. Long cargo trains come through several times a day but never stop and, it appears to us, only about three families own most of the shops in town.

But that’s only a passing impression from a three day visit—my postcard to you.IMG_2165

HOW THE WORLD TURNS

a small portion of Little Bighorn National Historic Battlefield

a small portion of Little Bighorn National Historic Battlefield

Over the last two days we have had virtually no internet and no cell phone at the ranch at which we were staying. For cell phone, you had to walk out down to the end of the road; for internet, you had to plug in directly to the modem, which my computer cannot do. Therefore, I had to write my post, put it and the photos on a flash drive, plug that into my daughter’s larger computer and have her plug in with the ethernet line to the modem. Downloading or opening any page was so slow, you could go away and cook dinner while a page loaded, and even then it was all hit or miss. Frustration was great and the wine flowed, but so did the thoughts in my poor brain. How the hell did I get to this point where I go berserk when I have no cell and no internet? I was born LONG before the computer took over our lives; I shouldn’t need it! Cristal, born in the ‘80s on the cusp of the computer revolution, pointed out that kids today can’t imagine life without computers because they’ve always had them. Well, I’m that kid…and tonight I’m happy to have internet once again in a cabin in Medora, ND.

On the way here, we stopped at the Little Bighorn National Historic Site, driving the five miles around the signs and back, posted explanations of what took place, along with a cell phone commentary. The battlefield sits in the middle of the Crow Agency reservation, with small stone markers showing where the dead lay, white stones for the cavalry and red for the native Americans. While I was totally immersed in seeing the battlefield, I realized suddenly that I had very mixed feelings about its existence as a national landmark. Libby Custer tried for years to perpetuate the ‘myth’ of her husband’s heroism. History has revealed, I daresay, the jackass Custer actually was, as well as the unspeakable injustices of what we have done to native Americans. IMG_2116I imagine that, in some ways, making the site a National Cemetery for the warrior dead up through the Vietnam War has given the site some ulterior purpose.

The world does turn.

 

HOME ON THE RANGE

IMG_2105Living on a ranch in rural Wyoming must be about as far from living in New York as you can get in terms of lifestyle. I love it. I love hearing pheasants in the field, seeing horses on the road, IMG_2108and I love the knowledge that Open Range still exists, even if in limited areas. I like the novelty of a gun safe down the hall and a 3 mile gravel road to the house. I’m not particularly fond of rattlesnakes in the yard or the abundance of insect life, but you can’t have everything, after all. But most of all I love waking up and finding nothing but the proverbial wide open spaces and scenery no words can describe.

IMG_2111Today, Karen and I headed down the aptly named Crazy Woman Canyon on a round-about way of getting to Buffalo. Karen at the wheel—thank goodness—we wound our way along the creek, tall walls of sculpted rock either side at times. At other moments, the gravel road dipped and coursed into narrow tracks, large pickups as well as ATVs squeezing past us in the other direction. It was an eighteen mile scenic tour for which my Honda was not made, but endured and survived. As did I.

Buffalo, of course, resonates with history. It played a part in the Johnson County War, as did Fort McKinney for which there is a marker outside of town, but earlier the town was a hub for those who came to ranch on the Powder River. The old Occidental Hotel still looks pretty much as it did in the day, bordello-like rooms available for rent, and a sign saying that those without luggage must pay in advance.

The three of us have plenty of luggage, and we are hauling it onwards tomorrow, sadly leaving ranch living behind.IMG_2113

 

DISPLACED PERSONS

Several years ago I started a correspondence with a fellow member of Women Writing the West, Eunice Boeve. Eunie lives in Phillipsburg, KS, while I, of course, live in NYC, so you might think a more disparate twosome could hardly exist. But whether it was our writing, or just the feeling of kindred souls, we have regularly corresponded now for some time, including family news, health issues, and even politics among our discussions of writing successes and woes, and I have learned an amazing amount of information from Eunie, particularly about Kansas history. So it was Eunie who brought me to Kansas, who imbued in me the need to see KS for myself.

The first item on the day’s itinerary was the Orphan Train Museum in Concordia. The idea of moving thousands of street children and orphans to homes out west is startling to modern thinking, yet that is exactly what was done. Their various stories are preserved in this old station house, and have now been retold in numerous novels. It is a startling facet of American history.

Driving through the Kansas countryside to our appointed meeting with Eunie at Nicodemus, it was Cristal and I who were displaced. The flat plains of Kansas is disconcerting to New York gals—devoid of buildings, few people, little traffic, and stretching into the distance with an endless horizon that wraps around you 360 degrees. But, at last we reached Nicodemus and Eunie, waiting there for us. She introduced us, in turn, to Angela Bates, descendent of one of the first African American pioneers who settled this township of former slaves from Kentucky. Conversation was stimulating over lunch, though it was heart-breaking to see so many buildings of this settlement in a sad state. Today there are only 13 persons still living in Nicodemus.

However, the day proved one of our best yet. Eunie, I know you’ll be reading this: we appreciate all you did, and are grateful for such generosity. We remain ever thankful as we journey on.

Angela Bates, Eunice Boeve, me and Cristal at Ernestine's BBQ, Nicodemus

Angela Bates, Eunice Boeve, me and Cristal at Ernestine’s BBQ, Nicodemus

What I Know About Texas

When I was growing up in the suburbs outside of New York, what I knew about Texas would just about have fit on a pin head. Under the age of ten, I could probably sing ‘She’s the Yellow Rose of Texas’ and ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas,’ having some vague idea that Texas was called ‘The Lone Star State.’ Aside from that, I knew it was somewhere ‘out there’ in the middle of the country, was the largest state in the union as was then, and that, for some reason, everything in Texas was big. The mind boggled. Around the age of ten I learned there was something called The Texas Rangers but had no idea who they were, and also that noname-2all the men wore cowboy hats. I was aware that Texas was the center of the American oil industry, and that there was a family named King who owned the largest ranch in the United States. And then there was Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and The Alamo, Continue reading

The Girls Who Civilized the Old West

0-3 B J (Bill) Scott is a novelist who sets his stories in the mid to late 19th century of the American West. He is the author of five books: The Angel Trilogy, Light On A Distant Hill, and the newly-released The Rail Queen. Continue reading

Mormon Row: Historic Site or Ghost Town?

What is the difference between a ghost town and a vacated  historic site? Is there one?

Recently, back up in the Tetons, I ventured with a couple of friends to visit

Map of Mormon Row drawn by Craig Moulton, courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Map of Mormon Row drawn by Craig Moulton, courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Mormon Row, a four mile stretch of homesteads and ranch houses just southeast of Black Tail Butte in the valley of Jackson Hole. Here were solid, but decaying, remnants of a community that once thrived, was vibrant with life, if not exactly prosperous by today’s way of understanding. The National Park leaves its historic buildings to decay naturally, which I daresay means that, with time, they’ll be gone. But for now, the buildings stand as a monument to what people do to secure a better life, to survive, perhaps also a monument to what really matters in life. Continue reading

Cunning Inspiration: Dearest Darling and The Cunningham Cabin

20131018_155648Nothing takes my breath away quite so much as the landscape of northwestern Wyoming. If I say it leaves me speechless, you will understand how very difficult it is for me to relate the love affair I have with this small section of our vast country, how I feel no dictionary is complete enough to supply words to describe this patch of land where the earth has struggled like an indecisive artist to create high plains that stretch themselves into the harsh, jagged peaks of the Tetons. One can only feel reverence, one can only feel a minute speck in the vast panorama; it makes you realize how tiny and inconsequential you are in the scheme of things. So now, imagine how envious I am of those who are lucky enough to live there year-round compared to my two, comparatively brief stays each year. Then you can realize both the awe in which I hold those who homesteaded this unforgiving country and the jealousy I feel that they were able to live here. This is a land that gives you a sense of history, a sense of destiny. It is a geography of hope, forged by nature and hard won by man.

One of the men who would put his mark on this country was J. Pierce Cunningham. A fellow New Yorker, he arrived in the Jackson Hole area of the Tetons around 1885, aged about twenty. A few years later, he and his wife staked DSCN1349a claim under the Homestead Act, and thereby laid the foundations for what would become the Bar Flying U Ranch. The cabin they built, which under the Act had to be at least 12 x 12, was what is commonly known as a dogtrot or double-pen cabin, encompassing two separate rooms with a dogtrot or breezeway in-between. Although a more substantial home was eventually built, along with sheds, barns and other outbuildings, it is the original cabin that still stands today.

When I first visited Cunningham’s cabin I was immediately struck by the isolation of this remote location, how lonely it must have been in the 1880s. Although more than four hundred claims were filed in Jackson Hole in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the vastness of the valley meant there could be little interaction, especially during the harsh winter months. And this was a hardscrabble life; rocky soil led to high operating costs as ranchers struggled to feed their cattle during the long winter. The horrendous winter of 1886/87, as I described in my book Loveland, put an end to much of the open range ranching.DSCN1348

One might think, why do it then? I can only answer for myself as to what I feel when I stand there, surrounded by a landscape so startling, so inspiring, you feel purified, whole, inconsequential and ephemeral. Not having been born there, I cannot fathom my own attachment to this place, why I feel the oft-repeated need to return there, but it somehow cleanses me, clears my head. It was obvious that I somehow had to employ this site as the backdrop for a book. You might think it a poor reckoning, to use a setting so magnificent in my modest western historical romance.   After all, I could not possibly do it justice.

The view from Cunningham's cabin

The view from Cunningham’s cabin

But I have tried…

Dearest Darling comes out Oct. 8th from The Wild Rose Press.  To celebrate, I’ll be giving out copies of both this new novella and my full-length novel, Loveland, to up to 5 people who leave a comment.  The winners are Liz Flaherty, Eunice Boeve, Roni McFadden, Susan J. Tweit, and Rolynn Anderson.  Congrats to all and I hope you enjoy the books.

DearestDarling_w8647_750Stuck in a life of servitude to her penny-pinching brother, Emily Darling longs for a more exciting existence. When a packet with travel tickets, meant for one Ethel Darton, accidentally lands on her doormat, Emily sees a chance for escape. Having turned down the dreary suitors that have come her way, is it possible a new existence also offers a different kind of man?

Daniel Saunders has carved out a life for himself in Wyoming—a life missing one thing: a wife. Having scrimped and saved to bring his mail-order bride from New York, he is outraged to find in her stead a runaway fraud. Even worse, the impostor is the sister of his old enemy.

But people are not always as they seem, and sometimes the heart knows more than the head.

EXCERPT:

Emily liked the sound of his voice, low but not husky, a slight twang he had cultivated, but not pretentiously so. When he spoke, she envisaged melting caramel, something delicious, the way it could be so appealing as she stirred, with a shine and slow drip from the spoon, before it gradually solidified. Soothing. A liquid velvet.

But he hadn’t spoken today. Not since first thing when he’d told her to get ready. Not through breakfast, or as he helped clear dishes, or gave her a hand up into the wagon.

“You haven’t seen her. You didn’t see her picture, did you?” The questions came sudden, yet without malice.

Emily straightened, alert. “No. No, I didn’t.” Would I understand better? Is that what he meant?

“I keep it with me.” Daniel began to fish in his pocket. “Would you like to see it?”

“No. No, you keep it, please. It won’t change anything.” Emily panicked. She would be beautiful, the other, that would be the answer. So stunningly beautiful that just her photograph had enthralled him, mesmerized him into loving her. Emily couldn’t bear to look, didn’t want to know the answer. Didn’t wish to torture herself further. “And I’m sorry. I’m sorry for reading the letters.” A rush of words, they flowed out of her. “I should never have done that. It’s not like me. But you…well, you understand it seems—”

“You’re probably wondering what I see in her. Or what she sees in me. As for that, what she sees in me, I have no idea. Maybe, like you, she wishes to get away.”

Emily studied his profile, the planes and contours of his face, the eyes set straight ahead, the slouch hat low on his brow. He gave nothing away, was a man in control of his emotions, thinking, maybe still wondering how he had won that woman. Or maybe set on keeping the answer to himself.

Overhead, clouds scudded, scoured the sky, leached the blue, threatened.

“Did you ever ask her? Why you?”

“I did. She never answered. I’m thinking what she sees in me is husband material. I guess. She tells me about her day, the people she knows, what she does. As you read.”

“She just seems so…so outgoing, so…so very social to ever want this life. I found it difficult to believe.” She jutted her chin out, then turned to him, waiting.

He gave the reins a sharp shake. “I don’t know. I never asked if she knew what she was getting into. I described it. I assumed if she wanted to stop the correspondence there, she would have. I was pretty damn amazed and happy she’d wanted to come, written back even though I described the cabin to her, the isolation.” His gaze slid toward her.

“And you think she’ll make you a perfect wife, do you? Be happy living here? Cook your meals, mend your clothes, keep your cabin, have your babies?” Exasperated, she tried to make him think, think of what he was letting himself in for, how long a marriage like that could go on, how it could end up being even lonelier than he was now. Emily would seem to him to be trying to win him over rather than making him see the truth, but push him she must, save him, stop him. She knew those sorts of women, the debutantes, the socialites. Not a one would last out here, not for a single day.

His head snapped around to stare at her. “She’s been writing. She hasn’t stopped.”20131018_155503

Buy at: Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Dearest-Darling-Letters-Andrea-Downing-ebook/dp/B00NGWT816

The Wild Rose Press: http://www.wildrosepublishing.com/maincatalog_v151/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=195&products_id=5842