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​'The Real Dirt on America's Frontier Legends'

We think we know a lot about frontier legends Lewis and Clark, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass (of “The Revenant” fame), Jeremiah Johnson (whose actual name was John “Liver-Eating” Johnston) and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, but in fact much of what we think we know is a mishmash from sensationalized newspapers, dime novels and old penny dreadfuls — usually written by ghostwriters who never left their city offices — Wild West shows, highly speculative third-hand accounts and Disney movies from the coonskin cap days. Fact and fiction have intermingled in a fairly alarming way.

How popular were dime novels in their day, roughly 1860 to about 1900? Very. New York–based Beadle & Company published its first short book, “Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter,” in 1860, and its “Seth Jones” or “The Captives of the Frontier” (written by a 20-year-old schoolteacher who lived most of his life in New Jersey) sold 500,000 copies. By 1864, according to the North American Review, Beadle had more than 5 million novels in circulation — incredible in those days of a less-literate, less-populous America.

Dime novels made a star out of Edward Z.C. Judson, who wrote under the pen name Ned Buntline, and the real people he wrote about became famous. He met William Frederick Cody out West, and made him a household name with his much-reprinted from 1869: “Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men.” “Exaggeration was part of the natural idiom of the West,” reports American Heritage.

With all that in mind, here are excerpts from my new book, “The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Legends,” just published by Gibbs Smith (with more than 100 photographs). My goal in writing it was to separate truth from colorful fiction, so enjoy!

Wild Bill Hickok

Bill Hickok Newspaper accounts revealed the truth about Wild Bill. (Photo: [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

The few real notches on Hickok’s gun (one of them being his own deputy, shot by mistake) was inflated to 100 by the time the yellow press was done with him. The legend was abetted by the lawman’s appearances in Buffalo Bill’s 1873 melodrama “The Scouts of the Plains.” There, the legendary lawman did not distinguish himself as a thespian. According to The West:

“He had a high girlish voice that was hard to hear, and whenever the spotlight failed to follow him closely enough, he would step out of character and threaten to shoot the stagehands. Buffalo Bill finally had to let him go when he could not be dissuaded from firing blank cartridges at the bare legs of the actors playing Indians, just to see them hop.”

In later years Hickok suffered from glaucoma and lived on his fame as a gunfighter, posing for tourists, gambling, getting drunk and arrested for vagrancy. He was shot in the back of the head during a card game in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876, holding what became the “dead man’s hand” — aces and eights.

The Cheyenne Daily Leader struggled to reconcile the legend with the actual man they had known. “Seven or eight years ago his name was prominent in the … border press, and if we could believe the half of what was written concerning his daring deeds, he must certainly have been one of the bravest and most scrupulous characters of those lawless times,” the newspaper said. “Contact with the man, however, dispelled all these illusions, and of late, Wild Bill seems to have been a very tame and worthless loafer.”

Daniel Boone

Portrait of Daniel Boone by Chester Harding Chester Harding painted this portrait of Daniel Boone in 1820. (Photo: Chester Harding [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

Daniel Boone’s many real-life adventures inspired James Fenimore Cooper, and even Lord Byron wrote about “The Colonel Boon, back-woodsman of Kentucky.” Byron’s 1823 poem, a eulogy, added that Boone was happiest going after his bears and bucks, and in such pursuits he “enjoyed the lonely, vigorous, harmless days of his old age, in wilds of deepest maze.”

Of course, it gets less literary than that. Typical is a 1950s comic book called “Exploits of Daniel Boone,” which depicts him in full buckskins and coonskin cap, having gun-totin’ adventures with his sidekick, the similarly clad Sam Esty. This version of Boone is also displaying some of the real man’s legendary honesty. In one panel, he tells a group of Indians, “Most of you know me! We’ve fought, but fought honorable. No man can say Dan’l Boone ever lied to him or broke a promise!”

This rough-and-tumble image is contradicted by Laura Abbott Buck’s 1872 book, “Daniel Boone: Pioneer of Kentucky,” which notes, “Many suppose that he was a rough, coarse backwoodsman, almost as savage as the bears he pursued in the chase, or the Indians whose terrors he so perseveringly braved. Instead of this he was one of the most mild and unboastful of men; feminine as a woman in his tastes and his deportment, never uttering a coarse word, never allowing himself in a rude action. He was truly one of nature’s gentle men.”

Boone certainly dispatched Native Americans during his lifetime, but on balance he was not unsympathetic to their plight. In later years, when asked how many Indians he’d killed, he replied, according to “Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer” by John Mack Faragher, “I am very sorry to say that I ever killed any, for they have always been kinder to me than the whites.”

Davy Crockett

Portrait of Davy Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman The stories about Davy Crocket don’t line up with reality. (Photo: John Gadsby Chapman [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

To quote from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That appears to be particularly true in the case of Davy Crockett. “Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee/Greenest state in the land of the free/Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree/Killed him a bear when he was only three.”

So goes the song from the Disney TV show that every boy knew in the 1950s. But in fact, Crockett was born in the Tennessee lowlands, and — despite actor Fess Parker turning it into a fad — there’s only sketchy evidence that he ever wore a coonskin cap. He preferred to be called David Crockett, not Davy, and only headed for Texas — and his appointment with destiny — after failing as a politician.

Crockett may have been a crack shot and the terror of the raccoon and ursine population, but he always struggled to be a provider. As he described it, “I found I was better at increasing my family than my fortune.” After his first wife died, leaving him in humble circumstances with three children, he “married up” to a well-to-do widow, Elizabeth Patton, who also had a 200-acre farm.

Luckily, Crockett found his calling in public life. After moving west to Lawrence County, Tennessee, in 1817, he was elected as a magistrate, then, in 1821 — thanks to the generous provision of applejack and corn liquor to the voting public — as a state legislator. He became known as “the gentleman from the cane,” which was meant as an insult, but Crockett embraced the backwoods image.

There are numerous reports that Crockett actually survived the fighting at the Alamo, but was then executed. The evidence is inconclusive. It isn’t even clear that he ever wore his signature coonskin cap.

Mike Fink

A sketch of Mike Fink by Thomas Bangs Thorpe Mike Fink was man followed by tall tales. (Photo: Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815-1878) [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

The first thing you have to accept about the legendary Mississippi river boatman Mike Fink, a crack shot who was “half horse and half alligator,” is that he may never have existed, at least not in the form in which he’s come down to us. The historical record is scant, even his name, which is sometimes spelled “Micke Phinck.” Once you accept the concept of a wild man who did everything to incredible excess — and better than anyone else — the teller of tall tales can take it from there. Eudora Welty wrote about him, as did Carl Sandburg, and he also appears in Orson Scott Card’s “The Tales of Alvin Maker.”

According to the 1956 “Half Horse Half Alligator: The Growth of the Mike Fink Legend,” tall tales tend to cluster around certain figures, and their number includes half the characters that are the subject of this book—and especially Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and Mike Fink.

“Printed stories as well as oral traditions contributed to Fink’s fame,” Half Horse Half Alligator notes. “In some instances, authors, one is sure, based their statements about oral traditions upon published claims rather than upon personal experiences. In other instances, authors may well have invented stories on their own or may have adapted to Fink printed or oral tales originally told about others.”

Crockett was “a suitable peg upon which almanac makers hang a host of anecdotes originally attributed to others,” authors Walter Blair and Franklin J. Meine write, and so was Mike Fink. His life, what we know of it, is perfect for embroidery, embracing as it does the Revolutionary War, the glory days of the Mississippi River, and a career-ending stint as a scout among the trappers and mountain men of the Rockies.

Jeremiah Johnson

John Jeremiah Johnson The ‘liver-eating’ part of his name is questionable. (Photo: http://johnlivereatingjohnston.com/ [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

When the popular image of Johnston is formed by Robert Redford in the title role of the 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson,” it’s likely that we’re going to be carried far from the gritty frontier. The real “Jeremiah Johnson,” whose name at birth may have been John Garrison (later changed to John Johnston), was a far less audience-friendly character who went by the nickname “Liver Eating” Johnston. He was so named because of his alleged passion for eating the livers of the Crow Indians who reportedly killed his wife. But that story stems more from a fanciful novel than from Johnston himself, who always swore it wasn’t true (despite appearing in vaudeville shows recreating the liver eating).

Hugh Glass

Illustration of Hugh Glass and his legendary bear attack published at the time for a newspaper Hugh Glass’s bear attack was probably true — but the rest is sketchy. (Photo: See page for author [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

“The Revenant” is a recent film dramatization of the life of frontier trapper Hugh Glass, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Although the bear attack in the movie is fairly faithful to what happened to Glass in real life, the subplot involving Glass’s Indian family (and semi-mystical encounters) is wholly grafted on.

The Indian attack seen in the film actually happened — it left 13 to 15 of the company’s men dead — but Indian princesses weren’t involved.

There are strong parallels between Hugh Glass/”The Revenant” and John “Liver-Eating” Johnston/Jeremiah Johnson. In both films, the real people are given Native American wives and children to both humanize (or spiritualize) them — and give them a motivation for revenge.

The irony here is that the story of Hugh Glass is actually fairly clear in the historical record. He was a trapper, he got mauled by a bear, and he survived. There’s no evidence that Glass had a Native American family, though he did spend time with the Pawnees. He stayed in the wilderness, resumed trapping, and was in fact killed in an encounter with the Arikaras some years later. Because he didn’t live to give interviews or write a book, there’s no story that got wildly embroidered in the telling. Glass remains a rather mysterious figure, and there were remarkably few tall tales surrounding him—at least until Tinseltown found the story.

“The Revenant,” based on the harrowing novel by Michael Punke, is actually the second film about Hugh Glass and the bear attack. The first — 1971’s “Man in the Wilderness,” starring Richard Harris and John Huston — also grafts on some Native American mumbo jumbo.

Calamity Jane

Martha Jane Cannary, best known as 'Calamity Jane' Martha Jane Cannary was best known as ‘Calamity Jane.’ (Photo: C.E. Finn, Livingston, Montana [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

Virtually none of what Martha Canary (a/k/a “Calamity Jane”) claims in her short autobiography is true, nor are many of the legends that grew up around her. The real Calamity Jane was trouble, a drunk, an illiterate, and a teller of tall tales who caused mayhem wherever she went — and that’s the real origin of her name.

She didn’t ride with the Pony Express, nor with Custer, didn’t rescue anybody, and the story about her personally avenging the murder of Wild Bill Hickok is romantic nonsense. The pair did meet, but Hickok thought she was obnoxious, and had only very limited dealings with her. (They are buried next to each other, though.) Her vaunted ability with firearms was often employed to shoot up saloons, and far from being honored by her presence, many communities offered her one-way passage to the city limits (or threw her in jail until she sobered up).

Calamity Jane wasn’t completely without accomplishments, but her legend was created mostly by dime novelists. Those ink-stained wretches—and later “biographers”—so obscured the actual facts of her life that it’s difficult to form an accurate picture. What we can say is that Jane had an uncanny ability to be where western history was being made. And that made it easy for her to place herself at the center of events when she was really at the periphery.

Cathay Williams

Painting of Cathay Williams, African Americans in the U.S. Army Profiles of Bravery Cathay Williams’s true story was not uncovered until 1868. (Photo: William Jennings/U.S. Army [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

Cathay Williams, who had been an Army cook, dressed herself as a man and enlisted as an African-American buffalo soldier on Nov. 15, 1866, telling the St. Louis recruitment officer that she was from Independence, Missouri. She was illiterate, so the “Cathay” became “Cathey” on the form, and that’s the name she served under. Her career was not remarkable — until she was discharged, the army singled her out neither for praise or condemnation.

Williams’s masquerade was not discovered until 1868, even after several hospitalizations. Until February of 1867 she was stationed at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, training and taking part in camp life. The first of her hospital stays occurred during this time. In April of 1867, she was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, and soon after was again in the hospital, complaining of an itch, and was off duty until May. If doctors examined her, they didn’t do it all that closely — she was in four hospitals a total of five times without being uncovered.

Also profiled at length in “The Real Dirt” is African-American trapper and guide Jim Beckwourth, bear lover John “Grizzly” Adams, Kit Carson, Native American guide Black Beaver, Lewis and Clark, and Joseph Knowles, the “Nature Man” who is the subject of my earlier book, “Naked in the Woods.”

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

​’The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Legends’

Jim Motavalli shares an excerpt from his just-released book, ​”The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Legends”

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