Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Journal of Francois Antoine Larocque

 


The Journal was composed in French concerning events occurring in 1805 along the Assiniboine River to the Yellowstone. A translation was offered in 1911. A few other examinations of scraps of Larocque’s journal survive but his own words capture the rawness of the early fur-trading expeditions.

The tribes referred to within are variously called “Rocky Mountain Indians,” “Assiniboine,” and the offered incident below takes place near the Little Big Horn, 71 years before the notorious battle.

The tribal combatants in the well-known battle were Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. It is only a surmise that any of these tribes could be a portion of what is referred to in the described incident.

[See here for a further Arapaho offering.]

All escaped with the exception of two of the most advanced, who sent as spies, had drawn nearer to us than the others without perceiving us. After a long pursuit they were surrounded then killed and scalped in the twinkling of an eye. When I arrived near to the body I ascertained that the scalp and the fingers on the right hand had been taken off and that those who had done the trick had left. They borrowed my hunting knife to cut off the left hand and returned it to me all covered with blood as witness of esteem and expressed to me the desire “to […?] at him.”  Men, women, and children crowded to see the cadavers and tasted the blood. Each desired to poignard the corpse to show us what he would have done if he had met them living and to pour out then on these remains insult and outrage in a horrible language.  In a little while it became difficult to recognize in this debris that form of a human body. All the young men had attached a piece of flesh to their gun or on their spears, then they retook, while singing, the rush to the camp and showed their trophies with pride to all the young persons they met. A few women had an entire limb suspended from their saddle. The spectacle of such inhumanity made me shiver with horror and the sentiments that I had felt in setting out had made place for its state of mind very different.

The journals are rife with raw incident and ingenious scoutcraft. A treasure trove for historians, and Western genre readers who like to understand the reality behind the legend.

Resources for the Lived Side of Things.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

“THE SECRET OF MACARGER’S GULCH” by Ambrose Bierce

 


Nevertheless, there was something lacking. I had a sense of comfort, but not of security. I detected myself staring more frequently at the open doorway and blank window than I could find warrant for doing. Outside these apertures all was black, and I was unable to repress a certain feeling of apprehension as my fancy pictured the outer world and filled it with unfriendly entities, natural and supernatural - chief among which, in their respective classes, were the grizzly bear, which I knew was occasionally still seen in that region, and the ghost, which I had reason to think was not. Unfortunately, our feelings do not always respect the law of probabilities, and to me that evening, the possible and the impossible were equally disquieting.

A Ghost Story disguised as a Western story.

We find this one buried in Bierce’s collection Can Such Things Be?

I’ve enjoyed Bierce and I have also found some of his work to be slight.

This one falls into the latter category.

Caveat: One of my faults, I do not enjoy the subtle oblique ghost stories of M.R. James.

If you do, your tolerance for this tale may be higher.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Building a State in Apache Land by Charles D. (Charles Debrille) Poston

 

L'il Ol' Me

We could not explore the country north of the Gila River, because of the Apaches, who then numbered fully twenty thousand. For three hundred years they have killed Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans, which makes about the longest continuous war on record.

Poston, a miner, a poet, an explorer, a superintendent of Indian Affairs, a delegate to the House of Representatives, a rousing figure in the early rowdy days of the Arizona Territory composed a series of articles for the Overland Monthly in 1894.

These articles tell his experiences in the wildly violent Arizona pre-statehood and his sojourn as miner, Indian proponent and ultimately statesman to the region.

It is a political tract in some respects but not dry at all.

Full of incident.

A reference that sings to me is the following…

These Arizona cliff dwellings are the only edifices of the kind that are known to have been inhabited by mankind. They exist mostly in the mountains in the northern portion of Arizona. A more ancient race, still, lived in the excavations on the sides of the mountains, prepared, no doubt, as a refuge against enemies.

For the past two years my wife and I have made sojourns to Northern Arizona to track down many of these awe-inspiring edifices just as found mentioned in this work, Bourke’s and many other Hosses of the early days.

It is gratifying and soul-stirring to stand where these prior men and women stood and admire the work of the Sinagua who came far before us, far before the Apache.

A fine volume. A fine land.











Tuesday, March 26, 2024

An Historical Account of the Settlement of Scotch Highlanders in America by J.P. MacLean



The Real Josey Wales

Let us begin with an extract from Josey Wales creator, Forest Carter’s novel The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales.

This extract was Carter’s explanation for Wales’ background.

THE MOUNTAIN CODE.

“The Code was as necessary to survival on the lean soil of mountains, as it had been on the rock ground of Scotland and Wales. Clannish people. Outside governments erected by people of kindlier land, of wealth, of power, made no allowance for the scrabbler.

“As a man had no coin, his coin was his word. His loyalty, his bond. He was the rebel of establishment, born in this environment. To injure one to whom he was obliged was personal; more, it was blasphemy. The Code, a religion without catechism, having no chronicler of words to explain or to offer apologia.

“Bone-deep feuds were the result. War to the knife. Seldom if ever over land, or money, or possessions. But injury to the Code meant---WAR!

“Marrowed in the bone, singing in the blood, the Code was brought to the mountains of Virginia and Tennessee and the Ozarks of Missouri. Instantaneously it could change a shy farm boy into a vicious killer, like a sailing hawk, quartering its wings in the death dive.

“It all was puzzling to those who lived within government cut from cloth to fit their comfort. Only those forced outside the pale could understand. The Indian—Cherokee, Comanche, Apache. The Jew.

“The unspoken nature of Josey Wales was the clannish code. No common interest of business, politics, land or profit bound his people to him. It was unseen and therefore stronger than any of these. Rooted in human beings’ most powerful urge—preservation. The unyielding, binding thong was loyalty. The trigger was obligation.”

I offer that fictional extract as it mirrors the factual found in this volume of 1900 that tells the history of the hard men and women who settled the Appalachias.

I was raised in this region, still reside here and find much of what is outlined in this volume still pertinent and explanatory of mindset—something that many outsiders will never get.

Let us go to an extract from the factual.

These Highlanders were a race of tall, robust men, who lived simply and frugally and slept on the heath among their flocks in all weathers, with no other covering from rain and snow than their plaidies. It is reported of the Laird of Keppoch, who was leading his clan to war in winter time, that his men were divided as to the propriety of following him further because he rolled a snowball to rest his head upon when he lay down. "Now we despair of victory," they said, "since our leader has become so effeminate he cannot sleep without a pillow!"

Hardness was a virtue.

Now there are some dry places here and there as the author lists families that crossed the pond and settled, but for those of the region or who have an interest in what was considered the original Wild West, well, this is a mighty fine read for that cadre.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

A Tenderfoot Bride by Clarice E. Richards

 


This memoir, composed in 1920, tells the tale of Mrs. Richards and her husband Owen, Easterners, who decided to go West and run a ranch in the Colorado of 1900.

Her penetrating eye limns the contrasts between two lifestyles better than mere observers of the literature.

Here we have a wise intelligent woman who had lived in one Life [the Eastern Way] and then plunged whole-heartedly into another Life of a different, more vital timbre [The Western.]

To Mrs. Richards, the West was not just a region, but an entire state of mind.

Allow me to remove myself while Mrs. Richards testifies for herself.

[On the rough men she met upon arrival West. Keep in mind, she came from polite Eastern society, and yet here…]

I was becoming very much interested. This man was a distinctly new type to me. I did not know then that he was the old-time cowpuncher, with an ease of manner a Chesterfield might have envied, and an unfailing, almost deferential, courtesy toward women.

[There is no higher praise in comportment than to be compared to Chesterfield.]

[The next lengthy passage really gets to the meat of what makes the Western mind different.]

“For East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” The phrase kept haunting me all through these first days when everything was so new and strange. I almost felt as though I had passed into a new phase of existence….

 The compelling reality of this new life affected me deeply. Non-essentials counted for nothing. There were no artificial problems or values.

No one in the country cared who you might have been or who you were. The Mayflower and Plymouth Rock meant nothing here. It would be thought you were speaking of some garden flowers or some breed of chickens.

The one thing of vital importance was what you were-- how you adjusted yourself to meet conditions as you found them, and how nearly you reached, or how far you fell below their measure of man or woman.

I felt as though up to this time I had been in life's kindergarten, but that I had now entered into its school, and I realized that only as I passed the given tests should I succeed.

I learned much from the rough, untutored men with whom I was in daily association. They were men whose rules of conduct were governed by individual choice, unhampered by conventions. They were so direct and honest, so unfailingly kind and gentle toward any weaker thing, and so simple and responsive, that I liked and trusted them from the first.

·        An association based upon ability or at least the gumption to try.

·        Assigned identity means nothing, be you Lord, Lady, Aristocrat, Commoner, or any identity label we apply today.

·        You were judged and valued for what you did or waded into to or attempted to do.

·        Labels, titles, pronouns, certificates…all paper dolls to the squared away.

Ranch life might be difficult; It was never commonplace. The mere sight of a lone horseman on a distant hill suggested greater possibilities of excitement than a multitude of people in a city street.

·        Streets, screens, movie theater crowds—predictable.

·        Not the case with who you meet in areas where it is hard to get to.

·        Personally, I have met many an intriguing cat on backcountry outings, standing in the pit at demolition derbies, waiting my turn to plunge a rapid, generally anyplace that most don’t go.

·        If you are where it is uncommon to go, those you meet will be uncommon souls.

[The next, a lesson in facing life, and then facing it again—no need for back pats or commemorative t-shirts. The reward is the act and the satisfaction garnered for the next round of life experience.]

Should the horse rear and throw himself backward, there is the greatest danger that the man may be caught under him and killed, it happens so quickly, but these quiet, diffident chaps are absolutely fearless, past masters in the art of riding, facing death each time they ride a new horse, but facing it with the supreme courage of the commonplace, sitting calmly in the saddle, racked, shaken, jolted until at times the blood streams from their nose, yet after a short rest the rider “took up the next one” quite as though nothing at all had happened.

[Men and Woman of Courtesy & Chivalry, but…a little bit of Outlaw to the Soul—My cuppa!]

It was an unusual experience to live in daily association with these men, in whom were combined characteristics of the Knights of the Round Table and those peculiar to the followers of Jesse James.

[The world is levelled and we only raise another by dint of ability.]

Strange, contrasting personalities—in awe of nobody, quite as ready to converse familiarly with the President as with Owen, but probably preferring Owen because they knew he was a fine horseman.

[In the next lengthy bit, Mrs. Richards expounds on ethics, philosophy, and religion as she saw it there.]

Improvident and generous, however great their vices might be, their lives were free from petty meanness; the prairies had seemed to

“Give them their own deep breadth of view

The largeness of the cloudless blue.” [Lucretius]

The religion of the cow puncture? My impression was that he had none, for certainly he subscribed to no conventional creed or dogma. Yet what was it that gave him a code of honor which made cheating or a lie an unforgivable offense and a man guilty of either an outcast scorned by his associates, and what was it that would have made him go without bread or shelter that a woman or child might not suffer?

Rough and gentle, brutal and tender, good and bad, not angel at one time and devil at another, but rather saint and sinner at the same time.  Little of religious influence came into his life, and as for bibles--- there were none.

[Her sister Alice came to visit with her new husband in tow—a bonafide “Dude” of almost stereotypical fashion. The contrast between this man [lower case “m”] and the Men of the Weast is, well, a bit withering. To be candid, we must ask ourselves—How do we measure stacked against Upper case Men?]

During the drive back to the ranch I thought of Alice and her future by the side of a man of that type. Our [hers and Owen’s] future was uncertain enough, but if trouble and vicissitudes were our portion, at least I had someone with whom to share them.

[Calls to mind Steinbeck’s observation on men often growing more whiny and complaining as they age. “My wife married a man; I see no reason why should inherit a baby.”]

Unless we chanced to have guests come for weeks at a time the only women I saw were those in our employ, but I resented having any of my friends think of my life as “dull” or “lonely.” On the contrary it was fascinating, full of incident, rich in experience which money could not buy. Living so close to the great heart of nature during those years in the planes, the vision of life partook of their breadth and a new sense of values replaced old, artificial standards.  To be alone in the vast prairie was to gain a new conception of infinity and--eternity.

[The next on the diversity of those who went West, and decided to raise up to what it is to be a Westerner. One must not be born there to adopt the full-throated way of life.]

There was nothing prosaic about those who group themselves around the great stone fireplaces on the ranches in the old days. Here again were found those contrasts, so striking and unexpected; university men who had come West for adventure or investment, men of wealth whose predisposition to weak lungs had sent them in exile to the wilderness, modest young Englishmen, those younger sons so often found in the most out of-the-way corners of the earth, and who, through the sudden demise of a near relative, has such a startling way of becoming earls and lords overnight; adventurous Scotchmen, brilliant young Irishmen, all smoking contentedly there in the firelight discussing the “isms” and “ogies” and every other subject under heaven. But most interesting of all were their own reminiscences.

[All the philosophies, politics, et cetera of the world could be offered, but nothing matched the reminiscences, the lived experience. Perhaps we spend too much time in abstraction and not enough “get out there” living bumps and bruises to have reminiscences worthy to share around a ranch’s stone fireplace. May that not be true for us. Sad for us if it is.]

In the East life seems to be static. But in the West it is in a state of flux and conditions are constantly changing.

[In a truly lived life, more things occur and change than in our newsfeed.]

[Towards the end of the volume she offers the below, a more fitting prescription for living I can not fathom.]

From the vast spaces, under the guardianship of that commanding summit, we had gained a new sense of proportion, freedom from hampering trivialities and a broader vision of life and its responsibilities.

May we all learn from Mrs. Richards and get out there and live, gain a new sense of proportion and freedom from hampering trivialities and a broader vision of life and its responsibilities.

I simply adore this book.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Henry Thoreau As Remembered By A Young Friend by Edward Waldo Emerson

 


This slim 1917 volume was written by a son of Ralph Waldo Emerson, friend and proponent of Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau was a close family friend of the Emerson’s and spent much time with the family and aided in keeping up the household as Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson, aka “Mr. Self-Reliance” himself, well, he was not very self-reliant at all. As a matter of fact, he wielded a fine pen but his skills around house and farm were considered laughable.

It is thought, he had Thoreau in mind when he penned the magnificent essay, Self Reliance.

Thoreau was noted by all who knew him as a fine “mechanic,” a fine workman, a handy gardener, caretaker, repairer of all things, a jack-of-all trades and not a mere “Scholar with nose in books, and head in the clouds” pronouncer of ideals never lived.

Thoreau lived his life with skin in the game, soul in the game.

I state matter-of-factly that Thoreau’s Walden and his essay Civil Disobedience are easily in the Top Ten Most Influential Volumes I have ever read.

I consider his massive unfinished project on Native Americans one of the Greatest Books Never Written, based on his notes alone.

The problem is, upon Thoreau’s death, many pronounced upon his work, his intentions, and called him misguided, an imitator, and other less than kind valuations.

These criticisms always struck me as odd as I always detected a consistency in thought and action and word from Thoreau. He lived what he said. He did what he wrote. He was no mere pronouncer of ideals ala his friend and mentor Emerson [whom I also adore.]

No, Thoreau always struck me as the real deal.

Well, young Edward Emerson, who knew the man well, felt the same way. He bristled at what he considered unjust and misguided opinions regarding Thoreau and set to correct the record with this volume.

In it, he offers his own experiences with Thoreau and samples from copious interviews that he conducted with real flesh and blood people, people who knew the man, to see what they had to say.

Young Emerson’s take on Thoreau is far different than his critics.

It is even different than his father’s.

The Elder Emerson calls Thoreau a bit humorless.

But we find that “lack of humor” judgment a bit odd, as all else seemed to find him frolicsome and a fine companion. [BTW-No one thought of Emerson as a jovial sort himself.]

Upon Henry’s death, Thoreau’s mother left his journals to the Elder Emerson to edit for publication.

Edward recalls his father stating these copious tomes contained some of the finest prose and observations he had ever come across.

What is also curious is that Emerson edited out all instances of jokes or whimsy.

Turns out part of the “lack of humor” problem was Elder Emerson himself.

Why he excised these bits, no one can say.

I’ll stop here and leave you with extracts from Edward Emerson’s defense of his friend.

He wrote [Thoreau]: “I would not be one of those who will foolishly drive a nail into mere lath and plastering: such a deed would keep me awake nights. Give me a hammer and let me feel for the furring. Drive a nail home, and clinch it so faithfully, that you can wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction, a work at which you would not be ashamed to invoke the Muse. So will help you God, and so only. Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work.” Small things for him symbolized great.

·        Treat all things, ALL as worthy of time, worthy of effort, worthy of YOU.

 

As a man who once had some knowledge of the habits of our people, such as a country doctor acquires, I may say that I found that the root of much disease, disappointment, and blight was, that few persons stand off and look at the way their days pass, but live minute by minute, and as is customary, and therefore never find that the day, the year, and the lifetime pass in preparation to live, but the time to live never comes—here, at least. Thoreau couldn't do this, for he was a surveyor—one who oversees the ground, and takes account of direction and distance. Be sure his life at Walden was an experiment in keeping means and ends in their proper relative positions. He was not one who lived to eat.

Mr. Emerson noted in his journal, a few years before this Walden venture: “Henry made last night the fine remark that 'as long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way, — governments, society, and even the sun and moon and stars, as astrology may testify.”' Now he put aside doubt and custom, and all went well.

·        Never an excuse.

·        Always an act.

·        Never a complaint that was not stepped into with a remedy in the personal sphere.

·        No quiet desperation or justification to allow one “off the hook” to act.

 

They err entirely who suppose that he counselled every one to build hermitages in the woods, break with society and live on meal. This he distinctly disavows, but makes a plea for simple and brave living, not drowned in the details, not merely of cooking, sweeping, and dusting, but of politics, whether parish, town, state, or federal, and even of societies, religious, professional, charitable, or social, for, after all, these are but preparatory, — police regulations on a larger or smaller scale, — designed as means to make life possible, and not to be pursued as ends.

·        No need to go into the woods and “get away from it all.”

·        He didn’t.

·        No need to become mired in politics save where the effect is direct upon you.

·        Such enterprises drain time and soul.

 

He could afford to be a philosopher, for he was first a good common man. It takes good iron to receive a fine polish. His simple, direct speech and look and bearing were such that no plain, common man would put him down in his books as a fool, or visionary, or helpless, as the scholar, writer, or reformer would often be regarded by him. Much of Alcibiades’s description of Socrates in Plato’s “Symposium” would apply to Thoreau. He loved to talk with all kinds and conditions of men if they had no hypocrisy or pretence about them, and though high in his standard of virtue, and most severe with himself, could be charitable to the failings of humble fellow- men. His interest in the Indian was partly one of natural history, and the human interest was because of the genuineness of the Indian’s knowledge and his freedom from cant.

·        Might explain his higher regard among the Indians, woodsmen, “common worker” and children who knew him.

·        He was not here to impress scholars; he was here to press into real society.

·        No abstractions.

 

Some naturalists of the Dry-as-dust School are critical of him because he was not, like them, a cataloguer, and mere student of dead plants and animals. I remember once hearing Virchow, the great authority on physiology and pathology in Berlin, laugh to scorn the study of dry bones, for he said they are artificial, have no existence in Nature. The student of bones must study fresh bones with the marrow in them, the ligaments and periosteum still attached, the blood in their vessels and canals, if he would know anything of nature. Thoreau considered that one living bird for study, in its proper haunts, was worth more than a sackful of bird-skins and skeletons. A brown, brittle plant in a portfolio gave him little comfort, but he knew the day in March when it would show signs of life, the days in August when it would be in flower, and what birds would come in January from far Labrador to winter on those particular seeds that its capsule held stored for them above the snow.

·        No trivia.

·        No mere guidebook [or YouTube video.]

·        Honest to God, fingers in the dirt knowledge.

 

“Even the facts of science,’ said he, “may dust the mind by their dryness, unless they are in a sense effaced by the dews of fresh and living truth.’”

·        Life is where IT is found.

·        Not representations of life.

 

Thoreau and Alcott always had friendly relations, though they were not drawn one to the other. Thoreau, with his hardy independence, was impatient of Alcott's philosophic calm while failing to comfortably maintain his family. This invalidated his philosophy, of which Thoreau said he “hated a sum that did not prove."

·        Telling. Criticisms come from those who wrote of uplifted can-do souls, who’s only can-do was the words on pages and lectures in the auditorium.

·        Thoreau DID what the others did not, no matter how much they preached it.

·        Yet, he still got along with them.

·        I pronounce the critics jealous and a bit shamed.

 

[The next bit is from a copious section where people went to see him on his death bed—he died at 44. All tell a single tale; you can’t be unhappy around this guy even when he’s dying. BTW-He refused all pain medication, he wanted to live life straight and raw to the end.]

[PS-Staples in the below, was the jailer who held Henry when he was incarcerated for refusing to pay a poll church tax. He didn’t join the church and saw no reason to pay for what he did not indulge in. Seems even his jailer was charmed by him.]

His old acquaintance Staples, once his jailor, coming out, meeting Mr. Emerson coming in, reported that he “never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace." To his Calvinistic Aunt who felt obliged to ask, “Henry, have you made your peace with God?" — “I did not know we had ever quarrelled, Aunt,” was the pleasant answer.

The critics seem churlish to quarrel with a dead man who did not even quarrel with God.

I hold the man in high esteem.

If one is an admirer of Thoreau, this slim volume is an afternoon’s treat.

 

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

“Swamp Judgement” by N. B. Young, Jr.

 


From the light streaks in the sky overhead he could reckon the way the sun was setting. That was his course—due west with the sun. Somewhere in that direction was the other side of Big Swamp—“thirty miles as the crow flies” he had always heard.

Here we have a 1910 story of survival in an unforgiving cypress swamp. The survival is dual as the environment must be overcome and also what is pursuing our protagonist.

I shall not give away more than that regarding this fine story that strikes me as a Southern Gothic Jack London tale. The author, as a young man, lived next door to Booker T. Washington to parents born into slavery.

He went on to become president of Florida A&M College and Missouri’s Lincoln University.

The author won a story contest for the magazine Crisis with this fine entry.

Well worth a revival!

The Journal of Francois Antoine Larocque

  The Journal was composed in French concerning events occurring in 1805 along the Assiniboine River to the Yellowstone. A translation was o...