Tag Archives: American West

The American West Coming Through My Speakers

14 Jan

After lunch, I was driving back to work with my iPod cranked up. The sun was shining and masked the coldness of the air. Before turning onto campus, one of my favorite songs came through the speakers.

“I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” was recorded by John Denver, and that is the version on my iPod. However, that is not the version that I first heard and made the song hit me in my soul.

Merle Haggard sang the song in the last scene of Centennial, a 1970s miniseries about the American West. I have already written about that movie and will not repeat myself. That scene is on YouTube, and I urge you to watch it. You will probably recognize some of the actors, and there is a great message. It gets me every time.

When I hear the song, I am reminded of my love for the American West. Its history. Its land. There is nothing better than climbing the dunes at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Mesa Verde National Park brings back the echoes of the ancient peoples. The streets of Durango harken to the days of yesteryear, and the train in Durango will take you on a great ride to Silverton.Durango

The song is about Colorado, but, to me, it is about the entirety of the West. The mountains. The plains. The deserts. Life the way it was, and life the way it is. This song takes my mind to New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and all of the others states that make up that region. The song says Colorado, but it means everything. To me, the song means relaxation, peace of mind and wide open spaces.

The words go like this.

I guess he’d rather be in Colorado.
He’d rather spend his time out where the sky looks like a pearl after the rain.
Once again I see him walking, once again I hear him talking
to the stars he makes and asking them the bus fare.

I guess he’d rather be in Colorado.
He’d rather play his banjo in the morning when the moon is scarcely gone.
In the dawn the subway’s coming, in the dawn I hear him humming
some old song he wrote of love in Boulder Canyon. I guess he’d rather be in Colorado.

I guess he’d rather be in Colorado.
I guess he’d rather work out where the only thing you earn is what you spend.
In the end up in his office, in the end a quiet cough is all he has to show,
he lives in New York City. I guess he’d rather be in Colorado.

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The Faded Dreams of Kit Carson and Cactus Slim

23 Oct

My wife and I just returned from a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it was fun to experience with her the things I usually experience with students. It was also fun to visit Santa Fe in a more relaxing way. We hit a bunch of the cool spots that I have written about before.

Acoma Pueblo

Tent Rocks

The Santa Fe Plaza

We also ate at some fantastic restaurants.

Maria’s

Horseman’s Haven

Santa Fe Bite

Along the way, we found time to go to an awesome movie theater, and my wife spent some time in the spa at our hotel, the Inn at Loretto. We also visited a former member of the Shadow Horse Gang.

Oh yeah, we also bought a piece of Native American art that dates back a couple of thousand years.

It was a great trip, and I am glad that my wife and I spent some time in one of my favorite places. Two people driving around in a regular vehicle allowed us to do some things that are not possible with a bunch of students in a 15 passenger van, and a couple of those things led me to some deep thinking.

On Saturday, we made our way to Madrid, an abandoned mining town that became home to some people who wanted to get away from the bonds of society. I have been there many times, but this time was different in one respect. We got to sit and have a beer. While drinking that beer, we listened to a band called Cactus Slim and the Goat Heads.image-3

As we listened, I realized that the band was made up of locals who had, as I wrote earlier, made their way to Madrid to find freedom from the stresses of our world. One table was filled with other locals who had done the same thing.

The table in front of us was filled with people who looked for freedom in another way. There were two couples who had ridden their motorcycles to town. Madrid has become a destination for those weekend riders who want to spend Saturdays and Sundays on the roads with the wind in their hair. After all, helmets are not required in New Mexico.

Listening to the music and watching the people made me think about the larger city down the road. Santa Fe has also become a place where people want to be free to pursue their dreams without society getting in the way. Artists come from all around to be inspired by the environment and make a living off of that inspiration.

On Monday, we went to Taos and explored the town. The stop that I had to make was at Kit Carson’s home. He is one of the great characters of the American West, and I wanted to walk in his footsteps. Before going into the house, we watched a movie about him, and one scene struck me to the core.

The narrator said that Carson went into the West to escape American civilization and society. However, the trails he blazed would be used by others to bring that civilization and society into the West. In essence, he could not escape the bounds of his world because he brought them with him.

That made me think of Cactus Slim and the citizens of Madrid. Like Carson, they moved there to be free of society and the stresses that go with it, but that same society followed them there. My wife and I brought it with us. The man in the blazer who my wife thought was Robert Redford’s brother brought it with him. The bikers at the next table brought it with them.

Madrid is no longer an escape from the outside world. It is an attraction to the outside world.

The same can be said of Santa Fe. It was a place for artists to live a life unnumbered. Now, it is a place of art galleries filled with expensive pieces. It is a place of nice hotels with spas and fancy restaurants. It is a place for people like us to walk around the streets and find our own sense of temporary freedom.

The dreams of Kit Carson and Cactus Slim were to escape the world. Those dreams were shattered by the fact that it is an impossible feat. No matter where they go the rest of us are going to follow.

There is one other sad part of those broken dreams. The people who went into the corners of the West to left one society and ran into another. Madrid, Taos and Santa Fe sit on land that was once the domain of Native Americans. Now, those Native Americans are on reservations and come to those towns to sell their wares.

The dreamers looked for freedom by taking that freedom from the people who were already there. Then, the freedom they thought they had achieved turned out to be temporary.

Kit Carson and Cactus Slim come from different times, but their dreams turned out the same.

 

 

A Sad Day in Bedrock

7 Sep

It is interesting to hear people talk about how they love the beach. They talk about how it relaxes them and provides them with an escape from real life. As I listen, I find myself understanding because I feel the same way about the American West. The mountains. The desserts. The prairies. I love it all.

I love riding the back roads of Kansas and seeing the grain silos in the distance.

I love walking through the dunes of White Sands.

I love exploring old frontier forts.

The list could go on forever and include a variety of places. However, they all have one thing in common. They relax me and provide me with an escape from real life.

I have been thinking about this because one of my favorite places is in danger of going away. It is not a forest or a majestic mountain. It is not an endangered animal being protected in Yellowstone National Park. Instead, it is a cheesy tourist attraction that could be found in any part of the United States.Bedrock

A few days ago, the Associated Press reported that the Flintstones Bedrock City Theme Park and Camping Resort, which has operated in Custer, South Dakota since 1972, is closing. Apparently, the property has been sold to another party, but the future of the park is in doubt.

I cannot remember how old I was when I first saw the park. It was on a trip with my family and could not have been long after it opened. We were in the Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore and came upon Bedrock. The houses. The cars. Everything look just like the drawings in the cartoon.

Years later, I returned to Bedrock as an adult. I had already been to Mount Rushmore and the unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial and was on the way to Deadwood, South Dakota, the notorious mining camp where Wild Bill Hickok met his demise. However, there was one other stop to make.

No one else was in the park. I walked through the grounds and passed buildings that were meant to contain concession stands and magic shows. As I made my way through, I wondered if I arrived ahead of the summer crowds, but I felt that the park was on its last legs. A sadness came over me as I sat in a car that was supposed to be powered by feet. It was a place that I wanted to be open forever, but I doubted that would happen. Now, I read that this may be its last day.

I hope that it is a good day with a lot of kids. I hope the concession stands are open and the magic shows are, well, magical. As the theme song says, I hope everyone is having “a gay old time.”

Power’s War – A Review

10 Jul

There is a mythology to the American West. It involves people living a life of complete freedom without the restraints of established society and government. If a problem needs to be handled, then it is handled by individuals. When the dust settles, the good guys have beaten the bad guys, and the life of complete freedom continues.

Filmmaker Cameron Trejo exposes this myth with Power’s War, a documentary that chronicles a tragic event in the wilds of Arizona.Power

Jeff Power settled his family near Klondyke, Arizona and, as thousands of people had done for decades, attempted to find fortune in a mineshaft. It was a harsh life of backbreaking work and isolation. For daughter Ola May, it was too much isolation, and she died mysteriously. For Jeff, it was too little isolation, and the world encroached on his plans.

The myth of the American West leads us to believe that people who lived in the region did so without the shackles of life in the east. This falsehood discounts the mountain men who worked for fur companies based in eastern cities; the cowboys who rode for cattle companies owned by London stockholders; and the miners who worked for huge mining companies.

For historians, it is difficult to peel back the layers of the myth and teach people about the realities of the West. Unfortunately, Jeff Power learned of those realities in the most tragic of ways. His family may have lived in a remote wilderness, but they were connected to a larger world.

In 1917, the United States entered World War I, and a patriotic fervor gripped the nation. Men registered for the draft, but Jeff and his sons, John and Tom, thought the war was secondary to their mining claim. Why should they fight a war in a foreign land when the land they were on held the potential for prosperity?

On February 10, 1918, lawmen looking for the draft dodgers surrounded the Power cabin. The resulting shootout, the largest in Arizona history, has been largely forgotten. The complete story will not be told in this review. That would take away from the need to watch this excellent documentary.

Trejo uses interviews, sweeping panoramas and the touch of a graphic novelist to tell the stories of the Power family and others who were affected by the events. Their tales are tragic, but they provide the perfect example of the western experience. It was not romantic. It was not good guys versus bad guys. It was people trying to survive in a harsh world while the rest of the world pushed its way in.

Cameron Trejo tells the story of a family living in a canyon near Klondyke, Arizona, but he is also telling the story of the American West.

From Cynthia Ann Parker to Don McLean

29 Sep

Last week, the students in History of American Music discussed All Shook Up: How Rock n’ Roll Changed America, a book by Glenn Altschuler about the early days of Rock n’ Roll. It was a great discussion about music, society and all kinds of stuff. We even threw a little religion in there. I guided as they talked, but I was also thinking about a book that several of those students read for another class.

Last year, I taught Expansion of the United States and had them read The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, a book by Glenn Frankel about the difficulties caused by the mixing of history and myth. On the surface, this book has nothing to do with the other one. However, there is one connection that ties them together, and it is not the fact that both writers are named Glenn. It is a chain of events that links a tragic episode in the American West to a tragic episode in Rock n’ Roll.

On May 19, 1836, Cynthia Ann Parker was abducted from her home by a Comanche raiding party. Her family had settled on the Texas frontier and faced the dangers of that decision. Her uncle searched for her but, after several years, gave up. Cynthia Ann grew to adulthood as a Comanche and raised a family. Years later, she was recaptured and brought back to the Parker family. She never recovered from being ripped twice from the world that she knew.Cynthia Ann Parker

In 1954, a novel by Alan Le May was published. It was called The Searchers and told the story of a man on an epic search to find his abducted niece. Although he studied many abductions, Le May’s story is similar to the Parker saga. However, the book ends differently than real life. The uncle does not give up. Instead, he is killed by a Comanche woman.Alan Lemay

In 1956, John Ford and his stock company traveled to Monument Valley make The Searchers, a film based on the book. John Wayne starred as the uncle looking for his abducted niece, played by Natalie Wood. It is considered by many to be the greatest of all Westerns and Wayne’s best performance. The audience does not know what will happen when he finds her, but, in the end, he takes her home.images-5

On February 25, 1957, Buddy Holly, a Texan, recorded “That’ll Be the Day“, a song inspired by Wayne’s catchphrase in The Searchers. The song reached Number One and was the first song recorded by The Quarrymen, who are better known as The Beatles. On January 23, 1959, Holly died in a plane crash with Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson.Buddy Holly

On March 14, 1971, Don McLean debuted a new song at a concert in Philadelphia. “American Pie” is believed to be about the changing musical and cultural landscape of the 1960s. It begins with “the day the music died”, which most people think is a reference to Holly’s plane crash. After all, “them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing this’ll be the day that I die.”Don McLean

Yeah, that is where my mind went. I connected two books from two different classes. It probably looks weird, but there are some things that cannot be denied. One of those is a direct historical line from Cynthia Ann Parker to Don McLean.

 

 

The Man From Little Cedar Lick

10 Jul

I have been reading Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne. As you can tell by its title, historians like long titles, and it is about the Comanche.

It is a great book filled with information that I already knew and a lot of information that I had never read before. There are names of interesting people on both sides of the struggle between the Comanche and those encroaching on their territory. These are people who fought for what they thought was right and may have been well-known in their day. However, many of them have faded from history.

I am far from finished with the book, but one name has already stood out. John Coffee Hays is described as the greatest of all Texas Rangers. In fact, he is the one who taught the rest how to do their jobs. His exploits provide great reading, but a tidbit about his early life is what intrigued me.John Coffee Hays

Hays was born in Little Cedar Lick, Tennessee. When I read about his birthplace, a small memory crept to the front of my mind. Several years ago, I was speaking at Rotary about Tennesseans who became famous in the American West. I mentioned the obvious ones like Sam Houston and David Crockett. However, I also talked about John Chisum, Clay Allison and Peter Burnett.

When the presentation ended, a man in the back asked if I knew anything about the guy from Wilson County who became a Texas Ranger. At the time, I did not know anything about him, but this book may have made the introduction.

Like all great investigators, I did a Google search and discovered that John Coffee Hays was born in Wilson County. I also discovered that all of the sites that have information about Hays must have been copied from the same source. Almost all of them were word for word duplicates. The only differences were about his relationship with Andrew Jackson.

I read that his grandfather sold Jackson the land that would become the Hermitage. There was also the story of Jackson being John’s uncle. Also, his father fought with Jackson during the War of 1812. Oh yeah, another said that John spent many days at the Hermitage.

All of that may be true, but, around here, everyone wants to be connected to Jackson. If your ancestors lived in this area while Jackson was alive, then they were best friends. If your name is Jackson, then you are descended from him, which would be difficult since he did not have children.

I will have to ask my colleague, who has a great blog called Jacksonian America and who is one of the leading experts on Andrew Jackson.

Then, I remembered that I know someone named Hays. I sent a text to Nick Hays, who is running for County Trustee, and asked if he was related to John Coffee Hays. He replied that he was, but the family did not have much information on him. He learned most about him from Monty Pope. On the first day he walked into Monty’s class, he asked Nick if he knew about the Hays who became a Texas Ranger.

By the way, if you live in Wilson County be sure to vote for Nick.

As I read about Hays, I began to wonder about the place where he was born. I have lived here all of my life and have heard many stories about its history, but I have never heard of Little Cedar Lick. I thought about asking the folks at the Wilson County Archives, but I do not have much faith in them these days.

Instead, I went to good old Google. Man, that thing is as handy as a pocket on a shirt. All I found was Little Cedar Lick Church. With nothing else to go on, I drove to the location. It was on a road that I had never been on, and I had no idea what to expect. The picture in my mind was of a little country church.

Instead, I found this.image-3

I have no idea if this is the same area where John Coffee Hays was born. I only know that he was born in Wilson County and made his name as a Texas Ranger. Then, he moved to California and became the sheriff of San Francisco before being one of the founders of Oakland.

Throughout all of that, Hays may have looked back and remembered Little Cedar Lick, but I am afraid that place may have disappeared through the ages.

 

Madam Millie and Me

8 Jul

This post is inspired by a recent post at Serendipity. Stop by there for a visit and stay awhile. You will be entertained and educated.

Before I started graduate school, I knew that I wanted my studies to focus on the American West. As I got further involved, the realization hit that the American West is a broad subject that needed to be whittled down. With a background in business, I became interested in the economic aspects of the West. I had grown up watching movies where cowboys rode alone across the Plains. It turns out that they were really working for huge corporations, and I found that totally fascinating.

With that in mind, I walked into my professors office and said that I wanted to research the cattle industry.

Nope. That had been done by many historians. I needed to pick something else.

The next choice was the mining industry.

Nope. That one has been covered.

What about the lumber industry?

That one was not going to work, either.

After several more rejections, I asked if he had something in mind. He did.

He suggested that I research the prostitution industry in the West.

It sounded good to me, and I agreed. After all, I had run out of ideas.

I researched, wrote and did all of the other things that aspiring historians are told to do. Fast forward a few years, and our story begins.

I got a call from George Harding, a local man who was quite the character. He loved being involved in politics and was most comfortable in the proverbial smoke-filled room. Most people do not realize the effect George had on our community because he mostly operated out of the public eye. He is the kind of man who would say anything and not care who heard him. A lot of people liked George, but a lot of other people did not.

I always liked him because he was full of good stories about people around town. One day, I got a call from him saying that he wanted to see me.

George had family in New Mexico, and they sent a book for him to read. That is one other reason I liked George. He loved to read about history. This book was called Madam Millie: Bordellos from Silver City to Ketchikan.Madam Millie

When he brought out the book and talked about reading it, I thought he was going to ask me what I knew about Millie. That is one of the problems with teaching history. People tend to think that if you are a historian, then you know everything. A wise man once told me that going far in graduate school means that you know more and more about less and less. I think that is an excellent description.

However, George was not there to ask questions. He said that he was reading through the book when he recognized a name. Opening to the page, he pointed to the spot where I was used as a source. Holy crap, I was deemed by someone to be such an expert in prostitution that they used me as a source in their book.

That was the first time I had ever seen my name in print and was pretty fired up about it. Immediately, I ordered the book, and, when it arrived, I took it to my parents.

I guess they were excited, but you could not tell it by the response.

“You have spent all of these years in school, and you are in a book with a picture of a naked woman on the cover.”

Yep, I had made it. I was an official historian of prostitution in the American West.