Frontier life, Dee Brown writes, “was hard, unpleasant most of the time,” and “ lacking in almost all amenities or creature comforts.” And yet, tall tales were the genre of the day, and humor, both light and dark, was abundant. In this historical account, Brown examines the aspects of the frontier spirit that would come to assume so central a position in American mythology. Split into sections—“Gambling, Violence, and Merriment,” “Lawyers, Newsmen, and Other Professionals,” and “Misunderstood Minorities—it is mindful in its correction of certain stereotypes of Western life, and is a mesmerizing account of an untamed nation and its wild, resilient settlers. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Dee Brown including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.
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About the Author
Dorris Alexander “Dee” Brown (1908–2002) was a celebrated author of both fiction and nonfiction, whose classic study Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is widely credited with exposing the systematic destruction of American Indian tribes to a world audience. Brown was born in Louisiana and grew up in Arkansas. He worked as a reporter and a printer before enrolling at Arkansas State Teachers College, where he met his future wife, Sally Stroud. He later earned two degrees in library science, and worked as a librarian while beginning his career as a writer. He went on to research and write more than thirty books, often centered on frontier history or overlooked moments of the Civil War. Brown continued writing until his death in 2002.
Read an Excerpt
Wondrous Times on the Frontier
By Dee Brown
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Dee Alexander Brown
All rights reserved.
The Chaucerian Way West
ANYONE TRAVELING WESTWARD BY wagon, stagecoach, steamboat, horseback, or on foot was not likely to enjoy a painless journey. Yet there were times of pleasure in which the wayfarers defied the daily miseries with merrymaking and a sincere wonder for the awesome land through which they were passing. Most of those traveling overland formed companies for mutual security against the unknown. The rate of movement was not much speedier than that of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims to Canterbury, and there were Chaucerian attitudes among the journeyers who represented the trades and professions of that time—millers, cooks, clerks, merchants, wheelwrights, saddlers, wagonmakers, lawyers, blacksmiths, typesetters, preachers, daguerreotypists, and physicians. Most of the men and women feared God and prayed regularly, but they enjoyed bawdy comedy and could break into sudden laughter if so moved. During the weeks required to reach their destinations, few secrets were concealed from one another. Over campfire in the long evenings they told each other amusing tales of roguery and romance in which the narrators played leading or supporting roles.
A surprising number were unprepared for an overland crossing and were forced to learn the routines for survival by hard experience on the trails. John Davies, a young Mormon bound for Utah, was handed a whip and told to drive the oxen, using the voice commands "woo ah" and "gee." It was all new to Davies. "When the cattle went gee too much, we would run to the off side, and yelling at them woo ah, and bunting. And we was puffing and sweating ... this was a great experience for us and indeed a tuff one, but by the time we got half way across the Plains, we could drive the ox teams as well as you can enny day."
Marian Russell, who traveled to Santa Fe at the impressionable age of eight, held a high opinion of oxen. "Mules draw a wagon a bit more gentle than horses," she recalled, "but oxen are best of all. 'Tis true they walk slowly but there is a rhythm in their walking that sways the great wagons gently."
Bad weather was the great spoiler of the pleasures of wagon travel. Wind blasts and driving rain and hail on the Plains ripped canvas off the beds of vehicles, and harried animals and human beings alike. The early trails tracked across naked earth that turned to muck after steady downpours. In the few places where ruts of the old trails are still preserved today, one can see how deep the wheels sank. A traveler across Kansas in 1877 was not amused when he recorded how often he had to stop to clean the wagons wheels, "the mud so sticky that it fills the wheels up solid from the fellows to the hub."
Many pilgrims also made darkly humorous observations of the jumpoff towns where steamboats loaded and wagon trains assembled for westward journeys. "St. Joe [Missouri] is the muddiest nastiest border ruffian town on the earth," one man noted in June 1859. "It offends the eye, ear and nose; with foul sights, sounds and smells, and in fact every sense made to minister to enjoyment, is here only an avenue to pain, and is the object of foul outrage." Upriver a few days later at Omaha, he was less acerbic, and was surprised to find the Indian women wearing petticoats and leggings. "They are very accommodating and smile when they meet you and pat you on the back."
Night encampments were enjoyed by the wagon passengers except for the most fearful, who interpreted every strange sound as an Indian signal for attack. Gradually they came to recognize the eerie cries of coyotes and the serenades of wolves. After supper, groups usually gathered around their cooking fires to dance to a fiddler's renditions or to sing the popular songs of the time—"Turkey in the Straw," "Betsy from Pike," "Soapsuds over the Fence," "Joe Bowers," and of course "O, Susanna."
Freight wagons sometimes joined the western trains of homeseekers, and the veteran bullwhackers who drove the oxen offered entertainment during the evenings. Their experience made them experts at handling the long whips with which they controlled the oxen, and they used these lashes in their contest. "A favorite pastime among them," said magazine illustrator Theodore Davis, "is the cutting of a coin from the top of a stake thrust loosely into the earth. If the coin is knocked off the stake without disturbing the stake it is forfeit; if the stake is disturbed the thrower of the lash loses the value of the coin. A bullwhacker, noted for the accuracy with which he threw his lash, bet a comrade a pint of whiskey that he could cut the seat of his pantaloons without touching the skin beneath. The bet was accepted. The blow was delivered at the stooping form of the acceptor of the wager, who is said to have executed the tallest jump on record, at the sight of which the thrower of the lash remarked: 'Thunder! I've lost the whiskey!' The other party was minus a piece of skin as well as a large fragment of breeches."
Sundays were generally welcomed as rest days, but the only holiday that brought wagon trains to a halt for merriment was the Fourth of July, noted in many contemporary diaries as "the Day we Celebrate." The degree of jollity depended somewhat upon the location, the mood of the travelers, and the ingenuity of the commemorators.
The wagon train in which Lemuel McKeeby was traveling in 1850 spent a considerable part of the Fourth trying to find a suitable stopping place for a celebration. When at last they halted and camped, it seemed that almost everyone was too weary for diversion. Finally one man organized a little parade and led the way to the front of a large wagon where he mounted the doubletree and waited until a crowd of about two hundred gathered around. "Then he commenced and gave a pantomime of a speech," McKeeby wrote, "putting in all the gestures and making all kinds of faces and contortions of body that would be assumed by an extravagant 4th of July orator, without uttering a word. For the first three minutes of his efforts the crowd looked on with wonder, then they comprehended and such shouting and laughter went up that it could be heard in every camp within a half mile. This wound up the speechmaking and all hands went to their tents laughing."
When possible, travelers camped near a fort where the Fourth was celebrated with the booming of cannon, flag raisings, drills, and other military exercises. "Evidently they had up their best flag today," George Hardesty wrote in his diary while in southern Colorado. "It was a new one and very large. It looked very pretty floating there with the grand old mountains in the background. I felt somewhat enthused and began singing Star Spangled Banner long may it wave much to the disgust of the balance of the party I suppose probably not because of the nature of the song as the execution of it."
No Fourth of July in those times was complete without a plenitude of toasts accompanied by suitable beverages. The first toast was drunk to the day itself, then to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and on to George Washington, and whatever western territory the pilgrims might be crossing, to the President, to women, to families left behind, and whatever or whomever might come to the minds of the happy celebrants.
Travel across the West by stagecoach was more rapid than by wagon, although the cramped seat space made it less comfortable. And they were probably more dangerous because the "knights of the reins" who drove them were determined to maintain schedules regardless of the hazards.
A Frenchman visiting Colorado in 1867 was reminded of the Louis XIV coaches of his native land, and noted that the vehicles had changed very little since America was first colonized. "Within are nine seats, priced alike, three in front, three behind, three in the middle. Ladies have a right to the front seats even if they come last. In the middle seats you are backed only by a leather strap, which runs across the stage from one side to the other, and takes you in the middle of the back—not exactly comfortable."
Although ladies may have had the privilege of riding in the front seats, this did not guarantee a joyride for them or anyone else. In May 1883, a passenger wrote an account for the Cheyenne Daily Leader of a typical stage journey across Wyoming. On getting aboard he found the two front seats piled roof-high with express packages and valises. Two Texas cowboys occupied the back seats. "Room was made for me by the driver removing some goods to the top of the coach and placing the valises on the passengers' knees. Once inside, the curtains were pinned down, and we passengers not being able to get out, glared in the dim light at each other ...
"Beside me was piled on the seat, a sack of flour and several boxes, the topmost being a twelve by sixteen wooden packing case, that appeared to be almost empty from the ease with which it tumbled on my head at every second jolt of the stage. A score of times I was tempted to hurl it out in the mud, but the thought of the possible value restrained me. I saw that box opened here at the Chug. It contained nothing more than a lamp shade packed in hay."
Runaway teams afforded passengers considerable excitement especially in mountainous areas. In 1881, Mrs. M.B. Hall and her young daughter were traveling by stage to Leadville, Colorado. On one of the sharp declines, the hand brake failed and the heavy coach lunged against the horses and frightened them into a downhill run. "Talk about the ride of Paul Revere," Mrs. Hall said afterward. "That was an easy canter compared to our wild ride. At the first plunge we went to the floor, but we did not stay there."
The driver managed to keep a tight hold on the reins but he could not slow the horses. "There were people on the road who depended on the stage for their mail. I remember glimpses of them staring at us, with letters in their hands for the outgoing mail, but even Uncle Sam's mail could not stop us ... We finally reached the station, the horses having run every step of the way."
The stage driver was generally a romantic figure, but he was harassed by weather, a multitude of dangerous emergencies, and by weariness of muscle and bone. If he drove without an armed guard on the high seat beside him—and most of them did—loneliness enveloped him. Against all these vexations the western coachman often resorted to strong spirits from a flask, with results sometimes highly amusing or disastrous to his passengers.
The driver of a stagecoach bound for the Black Hills once became so intoxicated that he fell off his seat to the ground. None of the passengers inside observed the incident, and horses continued for some miles along the crooked road. Eventually one of the women aboard began complaining about the unusual jolting of the wheels, and then one of the men noticed the coach was running perilously close to the edge of a deep canyon. Suddenly the horses halted. Two passengers stepped out, calling to the driver, but when they looked up they saw an empty seat with reins dangling. After a lengthy consultation, a volunteer climbed up to take the reins, and drove the coach and its perturbed passengers to Deadwood.
A similar but more tragic incident occurred in the Indian Territory during the great blizzard of 1886. Horses coated with frost and ice brought a stagecoach into Camp Supply with the driver sitting on the box frozen to death. None of the passengers bundled inside with robes and blankets was aware of the fatality until they alighted at the station.
Heavy drinking inside the coaches was fairly common also, and pilgrims unused to western ways frequently protested the constant imbibing by fellow passengers, especially those "armed to the teeth" with pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Celebrated humorist Artemus Ward (Charles F. Browne) made no protest while experiencing a terrifying ride from California into Nevada, but at the first stop he did ask the driver what he would do about casualties in the event of a serious accident. "Them as is dead," the coachman replied, "I shall let alone, but them as is mutilated I shall finish with the king-bolt! Dead folks don't sue. They ain't on it."
In the months immediately following the Civil War, when it seemed that every one in the eastern United States was westbound, obtaining a seat on a stagecoach became extremely difficult unless one was flush with money. A stranded traveler in Fort Kearney noted somewhat enviously in his journal on July 12, 1866: "Today there came up a chartered coach occupied by two New York City gents bound for Calif. They were young fellows not more than 25 years and paid 4,000 for the exclusive rights of the coach from Atchison to Va. City Nev. They had beds so arranged as to spread them down or take them up at pleasure. They had a full armament of guns, pistols, and knives to say nothing of the cigars and liquors absolutely necessary for such a pleasure excursion."
For those who could not obtain seats on a coach, there were horses in plenty, but buyers and hirers had to keep sharp eyes out for deceivers. No consumers' agency existed to protect them from misrepresentation by dealers in horseflesh. A schoolteacher on the Arkansas frontier wanted to hire a horse to take him to a town several miles distant, about a half day's ride. "I was shown a specimen of the equine species," he said, "standing in a corner of the fence, with head down and bones almost exposed to the light, apparently contemplating the uncertainties of life, or ruminating upon his younger days, when fodder stacks stood more ready to relieve his temporal wants. He was, in fact, a subject that a buzzard would gaze upon with delight. The landlord, however, informed me that he was, like a singed cat, better than he looked ... By dint of a great deal of persuasion and hickory, I succeeded in reaching my destination late in the afternoon well convinced that my horse would not carry me back that day."
Irate because the animal's condition forced a night's stopover, the schoolteacher refused to pay an added day's charge when he returned the horse to its owner. "I objected on the ground that the animal was unable to make the journey in less time. Mine host was indignant, and said that I should pay that or nothing and even proposed to give me the horse, if I were dissatisfied. This last threat was sufficient. I payed the sum demanded and left the village."
Even before the Civil War, inventive Americans sought to relieve the shortage of transport for travelers, and to offer more speedy crossing, by utilizing the constant winds of the Great Plains for propelling vehicles westward. In various staging towns along the frontier the talk of "wind wagons" created numerous jokes, although hopeful inventors sent off drawings of various models to the U. S. Patent Office. Gail Borden, who later won fame and fortune by devising methods for preserving meat and milk, actually built a "land schooner" in Texas, but apparently none was put into service before the railroads made them obsolete. After all, the prevailing winds blew from west to east.
In the spring of 1859, two letters sent to the Missouri Republican in St. Louis told of a visit to see a "prairie ship" or wind wagon near Westport. "The inventor is named Thomas," said one, "... and he takes advantage of these windy days to sail his ship a short distance over the prairie ... It is a queer looking affair, and I was forcibly struck with the picture it presented ... and thought at once of Don Quixote and the windmill. The affair is on wheels which are mammoth concerns, some twenty feet in circumference, and the arrangement for passengers is built somewhat after the style of an omnibus-body. It is to be propelled by the wind, through the means of sails. As to the wheels, it looks like an overgrown omnibus, and as to the spars and sails, it looks like a diminutive schooner. It will seat about twenty-four passengers."
Excerpted from Wondrous Times on the Frontier by Dee Brown. Copyright © 1991 Dee Alexander Brown. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Introduction: What This Book Is About
- The Chaucerian Way West
- Bigwig and Littlewig Sojourners
- There’s a One-Eyed Man in the Game
- Making the Calico Crack
- Stringing the Greeners
- Having Fun with the Phenomena
- Violence and Cruelty beneath the Laughter
- Lawyers as Entertainers
- A Free but Cantankerous Press
- Masters and Marms
- Servants of the Lord in a Turbulent Land
- Sawbones and Pill Rollers
- Greasepaint in the Wilderness
- Cowboys at Play
- Soldier High Jinks
- The Profane Sentimentalists
- Sage Hens, Fillies, and Calico Queens
- The Bawdy Natives
- A Biography of Dee Brown