Old West Book Reviews Archives

Old West Book Review: Riding For The Brand

Riding For The BrandRiding for the Brand, 150 Years of Cowden Ranching, Michael Pettit, University of Oklahoma Press, (1-800-627-7377), $19.95, Paperback. 320 pages, Notes, Bibliography, Photographs, Index. Best Southwest History Book, New Mexico Book Award.

Author, rancher, researcher and historian, Michael Pettit is a Cowden family descendant who chronicles his sentimental journey about trailing his family history in this book.  His ancestors began migrating toward Texas in the 1850s, seeking land and opportunities in a country where few white settlers had gone before them.  From place to place, the Cowdens found fertile valleys and water thinking this was their final stop.  However, drought and vagaries of Comanche wars plus uncertain boundary lines caused them to move yet again.  Over the years they migrating all the way across Texas and eventually into New Mexico where some family members remain today on their 50,000 acre ranch near Santa Rosa, in the western part of the state.

Pettit follows his family trail using personal letters, oral accounts, plus newspaper stories and legal documents found in libraries and courthouses.  He visited lonely graveyards, always seeking the names of relatives who passed this way. They were born, lived, fought the elements, while standing up to every conceivable difficulty that made ranching pioneers tough.  Cowdens lost family members from old age, childhood plagues and ranch accidents, but still they persevered.

Life for the Cowden women going back to the old days was never easy. Early graves are scattered across Texas, showing how many of these women died young.  We can only imagine the hard work and drudgery on these ranches combined with moving to new locations and setting up households yet again inside hardscrabble shacks and raising large families many miles from friends and neighbors, town and supplies, or doctors and medical attention.  These ranch women put in long, hard days and learned self-sufficiency.

While discovering facts about his family, Pettit finds a wealth of information about the land, weather conditions, Indian culture, economic woes, the oil business, cattle raising and cowboy life.  He delves into old time cattle drives, and the stories of cowboys who worked for the ranchers.  The book explains how early ranchers eventually organized Cattle Raisers Associations to protect themselves from rustlers and other woes.  Brand inspectors were hired, while new brands and symbols were registered.  Ranchers shared information regarding disease, vaccinations, predators, and opportunities in the cattle market.

Meanwhile, Pettit spends time on his relative’s ranch in New Mexico, telling the history of the outfit while helping with modern day ranch work.  The horses, the branding, the care of livestock and life inside the bunkhouse telling tall tales for entertainment makes reading a combination of Old West history entwined with present-day life on a large working cattle ranch.

Pettit’s storytelling is straightforward, honest, and always with an eye for accuracy.  He keeps a diary which in itself is filled with important data as he makes the rounds each day.  He knows his family, understands the people and tries to explain how life on these ranches is never easy.  As the book evolves, it becomes apparent that modern-day Cowdens have continued their ancestral way of life.  Perhaps they now have telephones, pickup trucks and other modern conveniences, but this rugged existence is never easy and certainly not for the frivolous or faint of heart.  However, the Cowdens wouldn’t have it any other way.

Riding for the Brand is warmly written and gives readers a wonderful insight into modern day ranching as well as an appreciation for the old Texas cattle ranching days.

Editor’s Note:  The reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of numerous books about the Old West including Silk and Sagebrush, Women of the Old West, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988 www.silklabelbooks.com

*Courtesy of Chronicle of the Old West newspaper, for more click HERE.

Old West Book Review: Myth, Memory and Massacre

Myth, Memory & MassacreMyth, Memory and Massacre, Paul H. Carlson and Tom Crum, Texas Tech University Press (800-832-4042) $29.95, Hardcover.

Students of Texas history are familiar with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the nine-year-old white girl taken captive by Comanches, May 19, 1836.  For the next 24 years, Cynthia Ann lived with her Comanche captors, bore at least four children and somehow survived the rigors of life among the Indians until her rescue in 1860 by a troop of Texas Rangers in a fight known as “The Battle of Pease River.”

By now Cynthia Ann had been assimilated into the tribe, had forgotten most if not all of the English language, resisted parting with her Comanche children, and had become a hardened, sun-burned woman with huge work-worn hands, chopped hair and haunted eyes.

Ripped from her family at age 9, having witnessed the brutal murders of her parents and friends, faced with abuse and humiliation in a Comanche camp, Cynthia Ann Parker became the most famous of the white captives in Texas. There were many hundreds of other white girls and women taken captive by marauding Comanches, too.  Most were raped, tortured and killed.  Others traded back to their families were covered with scars and facial mutilation.  But what made Cynthia Ann different is that one of her children grew up to become Quanah Parker, famous in his own right as a chief and important negotiator between Indians and Whites.

After her rescue, Cynthia Ann never did adjust completely to return to White society. She died of a broken heart in 1870 and is buried at Fort Sill, Oklahoma between two of her Comanche children.

If you are interested in the complete history of the life and times of Cynthia Ann Parker, you must look elsewhere because there are many books available on the subject.  This book, Myth, Memory and Massacre delves mainly into events regarding the accidental rescue of Cynthia Ann by the Rangers at Pease River.  When the Rangers attacked a Comanche hunting party, they had no idea Cynthia Ann Parker was living with this clan.  The Rangers nearly killed her as she ran away clutching her baby, but one of the men realized she had blue eyes and correctly guessed she was a White captive.  It took a while to figure out who she was.

From here the authors begin their discussion of who, why, where and how.  They carefully dissect events beginning with the initial raid upon the camp, pointing out this was a hunting camp filled with women and children who had been butchering and preparing buffalo meat for winter.  Most of the Indians killed were women and children.  The surprise rescue of the white woman is what caused such a sensation throughout Texas since nobody thought Cynthia Ann could still be alive.  The publicity gave some individuals riding with the Rangers the opportunity for self importance and political gain.  Their actions, motives and self-promotion are exposed with regard to their showing the battle of Pease River had been a great victory with many more Indians killed, and at least one war chief taken out of action, which was probably not true.

The authors have done a great deal of careful research and tedious fact- finding.  Their conclusions are meant to clear up, in their opinion, many falsehoods regarding the rescue of Cynthia Ann that after many years of telling and re-telling has become folklore.  The authors aim to show how the rescue of Cynthia Ann Parker was eventually used for political advantage, and finally how the analyzation of these events historically have been misleading.  For those interested in “the rest of the story” concerning Cynthia Ann Parker, this book might help close the final chapter.

Editor’s Note: The reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of numerous books about the Old West including Hell Horse Winter of the Apache Kid, Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988 vvww.silklapelbooks.

*Courtesy of Chronicle of the Old West newspaper, for more click HERE.

Old West Book Review: Cowboys

CowboysCowboys, John Eggen, Schiffer Publishing Co., schifferbooks.com, $19.95, 128 pages, Photos, Paper.

Beginning with the cover photo, western buffs will be mightily entertained by this unusual book made up mostly of beautiful, large, clear photographs.  On the cover readers see the chuck wagon cook pouring flour from a bucket into a washtub, one cowboy sitting inside a storage box on top of the chuck wagon, while another pours what looks like “white lightning” from a jug into somebody’s tin cup.  Here you have the makings of a fine outdoor dinner.  Bed rolls on the ground and smoke rising from the fire under enormous Dutch ovens tell it all.

The book begins by telling the story of the original photographer Frank M. Sherman, who, along with his three cowboy brothers before 1900 rode the old-time trails driving cattle throughout Colorado and beyond.  Frank eventually became a photographer, and by 1903 he owned a photo studio in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  He wanted to expand his post card collection, so re-joined his brothers on a cattle drive at that time.  During the drive he unexpectedly got information that President Theodore Roosevelt was traveling by train through Colorado, and the cowboys invited him to stop and enjoy a “cowboy chuck wagon breakfast” with them.  Thus the president appears in this book laughing with the crew.  His silk high-hat and elegant suit makes a comical contrast with the battered cowboy garb assembled around him.  Everybody looks like they are having a great time.

In 1906 Frank re-located to Oregon where he opened a photo shop, and also became a prominent small fruit grower.  He married, had a family, but was tragically killed in a shooting accident at his farm in 1921.  His widow abandoned the property, including Frank’s collection of glass negatives

These precious negatives languished in the basement of the house until 1966 when a new lady owner of the property discovered the box and just before hauling it all to the city garbage dump, contacted the local photographer John Eggen.  She asked if he would like to have the plates since she did not know anything about them and had no interest in it. Mr. Eggen accepted the offer, and when examining the contents of this mysterious box he found three hundred 5 X 7 glass plates, a treasure chest record of real old-time cowboys working on the open range.

Mr. Eggen compiled a book which was published in 1992. Having grown up on a ranch in western South Dakota, Mr. Eggen appreciated these wonderful photos and carefully preserved them here for us to see.

Page after page, readers will find the guns, the spurs, the chaps, the steely-eyed expressions on the faces of real working cowboys.  The chuck wagons and all the gear, bucking horses, cattle branding, ranch buildings and corrals, throwing a bronc to trim its hooves, roping steers, and the desolate plains are here.  Cowboys chop wood, haul “buffalo chips”, harness horses, run cows through the dipping pens, and doctor sick calves.  Readers see the dust and the smoke and the brand inspection.  Some of these men grinned for the cameraman, but most were a no-nonsense crowd doing a hard job.

Who said the Old West was merely a fantasy?  Surely that remark came from somebody who lived in Hollywood.  This book shows what true grit is all about.

Cowboys by John Eggen belongs in your Old West library.

Editor’s Note:  The Reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of many published books, including the novel Widow’s Peak, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988 (845-726-3434) www.silklabelbooks.com

*Courtesy of Chronicle of the Old West newspaper, for more click HERE.

Old West Book Review: Agnes Lake Hickok

agnes-lake-hickokAgnes Lake Hickok, Linda A. Fisher and Carrie Bowers, University of Oklahoma Press, 1-800-627-7377, $29.95, Hardcover.

The amazing story of the wife of Wild Bill Hickok appears for the first time in this wonderfully written and carefully researched volume.  Beginning with the early life of the girl born in Germany in 1826, the book tells how Agnes Messmann immigrated to the United States after a long ocean voyage.  Some family members died during the harrowing trip, but the rest eventually arrived at a German-speaking community north of Cincinnati, Ohio where they farmed.

At age twelve, Agnes witnessed her first circus.  After a sixteen-mile trip to town by wagon, the family was entertained by an elephant, an animal act featuring lions and leopards, trick dogs, an Indian rubber man, clowns and dancing horses.  Apparently this event impressed young Agnes so much that by her 19th birthday she declared her independence and eloped with a circus man named William Lake she met when another circus came to her hometown.

Against her family’s wishes, Agnes took up the grueling, albeit exciting life of a circus performer.  For nearly forty years the couple criss-crossed the eastern and southern United States working for a variety of circuses.  Lake himself had done equestrian acts, plus tricks and stunts with dogs and other animals, but he was primarily known for his clown act.  The Lakes even crossed the Atlantic to perform one season in Germany.  Back in America, Agnes was famous for her equestrienne “high school” routines riding highly trained horses, as well as her daring feat as a slack-wire walker.  Later, she worked as an animal trainer with lions and tigers.  Her daughter became famous as an expert circus equestrienne, too.  Agnes raised several children, and experienced the tragic deaths of two infants.  She understood the hard days of constant travel by wagon and later by train.  The shocking death of her husband at the hand of a murderer, tossed her into the position of running the circus by herself for several seasons.

In Abilene, Kansas, Agnes now widowed, met the dashing bachelor and town marshal known as “Wild Bill” Hickok.  Various versions of this encounter include the two people being instantly attracted to one another.  However, it was five years later when they met again, and married on March 5, 1876.  Their union has always been a curiosity since Hickok was an avowed bachelor, and Agnes was much older than him.  Shortly after their marriage, Hickok ventured to the Black Hills to make arrangements for the couple to settle on a ranch when he was murdered in August of 1876 in a Deadwood barroom while playing cards.

This is where popular history and Agnes Lake Hickok part company.  When he was killed, Wild Bill was already a legend in the west.  Since he had been acquainted with Calamity Jane, novelists and newspaper writers were quick to team those two up romantically. In reality, it is highly unlikely that Wild Bill and Calamity had any serious personal relationship.  Calamity Jane was a rollicking drunkard who made up enormous lies about herself, and Wild Bill was never known to consort with lewd women.  However, dime novels, plays, and eventually Hollywood movies found wonderful grist for their mill, thus Agnes was forgotten in connection with the life of Wild Bill.

Be that as it may, Wild Bill and Calamity rest in peace a few yards away from each other as a tourist attraction in a Deadwood cemetery.  Agnes died of old age in 1907, and rests in the family plot in Cincinnati, Ohio beside her first husband.

Agnes is seldom mentioned in connection with Wild Bill, but she had tremendous strength and fortitude and was one of the most admired circus performers of her day.  Bill and Agnes Lake’s Hippo-Olympiad and Mammoth Circus was one of the largest traveling tent shows in the United States.  It boasted of 240 men and horses and over the years entertained millions of people across the country. Known as the “Circus Queen,” with or without Wild Bill, Agnes Lake Hickok is a legend in her own right.

Editor’s Note: The reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of numerous books including the novel Silk and Sagebrush; Women of the Old West,, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988-0700

*Courtesy of Chronicle of the Old West newspaper, for more click HERE.

Old West Book Review: Captain John R. Hughes

captain-john-rCaptain John R. Hughes; Lone Star Ranger, Chuck Parsons, University of North Texas Press, (800-826-8911), Cloth, $29.95, 464 pp., Photos, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

The true story of Texas Ranger Captain John R. Hughes is another splendid work of author Chuck Parsons who specializes in writing about the life and times of various outlaws and lawmen.  His non-fiction books are fast-paced, exciting Old West adventures.

This one begins with the early history of John R. Hughes’ ancestors with examination of his younger days leading up to his adventuresome life with the Texas Rangers.  Hughes was born in 1855, one of seven children.  His family was in the farming business in the Midwest.

Young John was adventuresome, and when he became curious about stories he’d heard about Indian Territory,” he ran away from home and worked at a number of jobs.  At one ranch he single-handedly recovered a herd of stolen horses from a band of outlaws.  His wandering led him all the way to Texas, where John and his older brother ran a horse operation for nine years known as the Long Hollow Ranch.

In time John Hughes joined the Texas Rangers, and author Parsons carefully follows the monthly return records that chronicle the unrelenting hunt for cattle rustlers, horse thieves, drunkards, embezzlers, smugglers, train robbers, and murderers.  Many photographs appear throughout the text of steely-eyed Texas Rangers packing plenty of iron, including one filled with more than thirty armed Rangers standing at the ready to prevent the Fitzsimmons-Maher prizefight in 1896. This event alone is worthy of a separate story.

Not all who dealt with the Rangers admired them.  Bat Masterson, who lived in Texas during his early career considered the Rangers little more than “a four-flushing band of swashbucklers.”  This statement is wildly hilarious when one considers that Bat Masterson was associated with the Earps who were hardly choir boys.

This biography of Capt. John R. Hughes is filled with hard riding, straight-shooting derring-do.  Hughes covered thousands of miles in all kinds of weather, recovering stolen stock while faced with sudden death in ambushes and shootouts.  Combined with this, Hughes as Captain dealt with personal problems of his men along with administrative concerns and political distractions.

One photo in the book shows Hughes with the beautiful and mysterious Elfreda Wuerschmidt taken near Rockport, Texas.  This twenty-year-old beauty, the love of Hughes’ life, died of unknown circumstances, leaving Captain Hughes a lifelong bachelor who often visited the lady’s unmarked grave.  He never shared his broken-hearted feelings with snoopy biographers, thus we do not know how she died.

By 1915, after 27 years of faithful service, Hughes retired from the Texas Rangers.  Nearing sixty, he spent his remaining years gathering honors, and resounding best wishes from his legions of grateful and admiring citizens of the Lone Star State.  He became a celebrity giving newspaper interviews and riding in rodeo parades.  He traded his horse for an automobile and even became the protagonist in a Zane Grey novel, titled Lone Star Ranger.

At age 92, wracked with illness and infirmity, white saddened by the gradual loss of friends and family, on June 3, 1947 Captain John R. Hughes took his own life with his pearl handled Colt 45.

Chuck Parson’s well-written, carefully researched and deeply sentimental tribute to this fascinating Texas Ranger belongs in your Old West library.

Editor’s Note:  Reviewer Phyllis Morreale-de Ia Garza is the author of numerous books about the Old West, including the novel Railroad Avenue, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988-0700.  www.silklabelbooks.com

*Courtesy of Chronicle of the Old West newspaper, for more click HERE.

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