Old West Book Reviews Archives

Hog Ranches of Wyoming; Liquor, Lust and LiesThe Hog Ranches of Wyoming; Liquor, Lust and Lies Under Sagebrush Skies, Larry K. Brown, High Plains Press, (800-552-7819) $9.95, Paperback.

When the comment is made by those who know little about the Old West, “The Wild West is a Hollywood myth,” I always chuckle.  I can’t imagine life getting much wilder than at the “Hog Ranches” that appeared near almost every military fort on the old frontier.  Whiskey, women, card games, shoot-outs, music and murder were all part of these establishments built for the express purpose of separating lonely soldiers, wayward frontiersman and even cowboys from their wages.

This book centers around those infamous establishments far from law and order where good guys, bad guys, lawmen, cowpokes, soldiers and highwaymen gathered for a good old time.  The author has sifted through newspaper articles, court documents, letters and census records, Military Post Returns, and diaries for the facts regarding some Wyoming Hog Ranches we don’t usually read about in history books.

The origin of the name “Hog Ranch” suggests a certain unpleasantness about the property, but it is pointed out while hogs were sometimes raised here, the name probably referred to the lowdown characters who inhabited these walls.  How the name came to be has never been entirely proven, but what has been proven are the illicit activities that drew lonely people to these dens of iniquity.  Here they found camaraderie and enjoyed the crude buildings, rustic furniture, out-of-tune pianos, earthen floors, missed spittoons and mortal injuries that sometimes ended the careers of those who paid their money and took their chances.

With names like “Bad Man Charlie Anderson’s Hog Ranch”, and “Six Mile Hog Ranch”, they were visited by members of the Wild Bunch and even Alfred Packer, the notorious cannibal who had escaped from prison after dining on at least seven of his fellow travelers during a snow storm in the Rockies.

To say the characters found at these places were dangerous, is putting it mildly.  Calamity Jane worked for a time at the Six Mile Hog Ranch.  She is pictured in the book dressed in garb once worn by her military customers.  Calamity stares back at the camera while showing off a big pistol on her hip.  Other stories include women who helped their husbands run the saloons at these ranches and tell how they cheated customers when selling drinks.  One interesting character was “Old Mother Featherlegs” who ran her place of entertainment on the Cheyenne-Black Hills stage route in 1876.  The lady was said to have flowing red hair and wore a pair of long red pantalettes.  When riding horseback, she was compared by a local wag to a “feather-legged chicken in a high wind.”  In cahoots with some local road agents, Featherlegs hid their stolen money under her shack, but got mixed up with a trapper nicknamed “Dangerous Dick” who eventually murdered her for the dough.  Her body was found shot in the back; Dick’s moccasin prints were recognized nearby.

Murder, shoot-outs, venereal disease and double-cross were all part of the game people played when they associated with the hog ranches.  Tragedy struck in other ways as was evidenced by the tiny graves on nearby hillsides where some soiled doves buried children born here.  Cold, snow, dust and disease were all part of the desolate lifestyle known to these girls.

Some of the stories related here are humorous, some are harsh and sad.  This book is only 120 pages in length, but is filled of interesting material including photographs of some buildings, a few felons, a couple of sheriffs, and a peek into the wild side of life on the Old Frontier.

Grab a copy HERE.

Editor’s Note: The reviewer, Phyllis Morreale de la Garza is the author of numerous books including Wild Women of the Old West, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988-0700 (845) 726-3434

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

Old West Book Review: The Mysterious Private Thompson

Mysterious Private ThompsonThe Mysterious Private Thompson, Laura Leedy Gansler, Free Press a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., $25.00, Hardcover.

It is not unusual for women to become soldiers in our day and age, but back in the 1860s, it was shocking to think a girl would don men’s clothing, cut off her hair, change her name and join the Union Army.

This is the fascinating story of Emma Edmonds, born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1841.  The last of six children, five of whom were girls, Emma grew up on a hard-working farm in a remote wilderness with a father who let it be known he wanted sons.  In an effort to please her father, Emma learned to ride and shoot, follow a plow, split logs and work in the fields like a man to please her pa.  However, she was never quite good enough.  The girl developed a deep resentment toward men, read lots of books, and dreamed of becoming a missionary.  She finally ran away from home at seventeen when her father tried to marry her off to an elderly, newly widowed neighbor with a passel of children who needed a mother.

Hiding in the back of a carriage while her father was in the fields, Emma made her escape.  She worked briefly in a millinery store in town but feared her father would find her.  Desperate not to be dragged back to the farm, Emma hacked off her hair, dressed as a boy, and dared to answer an ad in an American newspaper advertising for help as a subscription salesman and book agent in the vicinity of Hartford, Connecticut.  Practicing masculine walk and talk, Emma ventured to the United States and got the job.  Having changed her name to Frank Thompson, she embarked on this daring lifestyle, always careful not to become too friendly with anyone who might discover the truth.

Cherishing her freedom as a man, she became a successful book salesman, continually moving about and even enjoying a few “dates” to keep up appearances.  By 1860, with Civil War looming, Emma got caught up in the excitement of North vs. South, and vowed to perform her duty.  She enlisted in the Union Army as a member of the Michigan Brigade.  Fortunately for her, physical examinations during those early days consisted of mere questioning by the military doctors to determine a recruit’s health.

It has been estimated that between 250 and 500 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, so Emma was hardly the only woman to do this.  Nevertheless, Emma, now known as Frank Thompson, knew she would not like to carry a gun so she volunteered to work in the field hospitals.  This turned out to be easy since most recruits shied away from the ghastly chores associated with assisting battlefield doctors under crude field conditions.  Too, among her duties, she became a mail courier since she was lighter than most men and excelled in riding horses at a quick pace over long distances.

The book tells about battles fought, Emma’s spy escapades, her falling in love with a fellow soldier, her desertion and ultimate return to life as a civilian female.

The author of the book, Laura Leedy Gansler follows Emma all the way to her life in Kansas where she applied for her military pension, wrote about her escapades, and surprised her fellow soldiers-in-arms when they discovered the courier and hospital attendant they knew during Civil War days was really a woman.  Even after Emma became a married woman with children, she wore pants around town, rode her horse astride, and was known as an eccentric who did not care what her neighbors thought of her.  Mrs. S.E.E. Seelye of Fort Scott, Kansas had never been one to worry about wagging tongues. That said, you can get this amazing book HERE.

Editor’s Note:  The Reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of many published books, including Silk and Sagebrush: Women of the Old West, 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.

Charles M. RussellCharles M. Russell: Printed Rarities from Private Collections, Larry Len Peterson, Mountain Press Publishing Co., (800-234-5308),74 black-and-white images, 35 historical photographs, Index, Cloth $70, Paper $45.00.

This magnificent book, filled with dozens of Charles M. Russell Western images, tells the story of a modest man who came to be one of the most famous artists of the American West.

Charles Marion Russell was born March 19, 1864 in St. Louis Missouri.  The third of six children, Charlie’s early life was one of financial security.  He wanted for nothing, and his father expected the boy to become a businessman.  However, Charlie chose to spend his time riding horses, reading dime cowboy novels, and drawing pictures.  Determined to go “Out West”, Charlie convinced his father to send him to Montana on his sixteenth birthday.  The boy traveled by train, then stagecoach and wound up on a Montana sheep ranch owned by a family friend.  Charlie’s father was sure his son would sour quickly from this experience, but Charlie fooled him.  For the next fifteen years the young man worked at various ranches; horses and cattle became his way of life. Meanwhile, he continued sketching pictures of horses, cattle, Indians, and the wilderness around him.  He carried wax in his pockets, and when not sketching, he modeled little figurines he gave away to friends.

Charlie Russell admitted he was not a good businessman.  He wanted to earn his living as an artist, but he often gave his drawings away.  Too embarrassed to ask a fair price for his pictures, he barely eked out a living.

That all changed in 1896 when he married Nancy Cooper, a seventeen-year-old who had been abandoned by her stepfather.  When Nancy’s mother died in 1894 of tuberculosis, Nancy went to work as a housekeeper for a family in Cascade, Montana where Charlie rented a small artist’s studio.  Nancy was Charlie’s most loyal fan, determined that his artwork should bring a fair price. Nancy stood by her man, driving hard bargains, promoting Charlie’s artwork, and eventually hiring lawyers, if necessary, to draw up contracts and make important business deals.

They traveled, built a new home and artist studio, and took trips while Charlie enjoyed celebrity status during his lifetime.  The Russells had no children, but adopted a boy they named Jack whom they spoiled and adored.  During his lifetime, Charlie’s friends included such notables as screen star Harry Carey and political humorist Will Rogers with whom he spun many yarns.  Charlie Russell loved to tell funny stories, had a great sense of humor and while he did not drink alcohol, spent many an evening “swapping windies” with his old cowboy buddies at the local saloons.

In his old age he suffered from gout, together with breathing difficulties due to his years of chain smoking.  Charlie Russell died of heart failure on October 24, 1926 in Great Falls, Montana. The “Cowboy Artist” was buried at the Highland Cemetery in Great Falls on a day when all businesses and schools in that community closed in his honor.

His widow lived another fourteen years until dying of a heart attack in 1940.

Nancy spent all of her remaining fourteen years promoting Charlie’s work, and finalizing the disposition of his estate.  Much of his artwork including his sculptures are today found in museums throughout the United States.

This book contains images of famous paintings, as well as rare sketches commissioned to appear on advertising trays, phony money, menus, stationery, business flyers, Western novels, rodeo flyers and calendars.  Charlie Russell’s artwork is known for its authenticity depicting ornery broncs, marauding Indians, killer snow storms, bawling cattle, howling wolves and buffalo hunters.  This book makes a wonderful gift, or a treasured keepsake for your Old West library. You can get it HERE.

Editor’s Note: The reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of fourteen published books about the Old West including The Apache Kid, published by Western lore Press, P.O. Box 35305, Tucson, Arizona 85740

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

The Wild West Story of S. F Cody & Maud LeeA Pair of Shootists; The Wild West Story of S. F Cody & Maud Lee, Jerry Kuntz, University of Oklahoma Press, (405‑325‑3200) $29.95, Hardcover. Photos, Notes to the Chapters, Index.

This carefully researched book brings to light the story of S. F. Cody, a Wild West performer who was in no way related to the famous Buffalo Bill Cody.  Included in this book is background information regarding many of the Wild West performers and the numerous shows that featured cowboys, Indians, acrobats, wild horse stampedes and the carnival atmosphere surrounding the entertainment of long ago.  Beginning around 1888, these shows became popular and grew in number. Touring every state in the Union, they hauled horses, cattle, equipment, Indians, trick riders and shootists who dazzled audiences with their derring‑do.

The forerunner of the Wild West shows actually began around 1883 when various sharpshooters held public contests to see who could out‑shoot the other using moving targets.  In the beginning live birds were used, but eventually the sport graduated to glass‑ball targets.  Soon these shooting contests added wild horse races, stagecoach holdups, and circus acts.

In this book, Samuel F. Cowdery is the central figure.  Born in Davenport, Iowa in the 1870s, he traveled Out West seeking adventure and became an experienced buffalo hunter, horse trainer, cowboy and miner.  In the late 1880s he joined the Forepaugh’s Wild West Show.  His name was shortened to S. F. Cody by show promoters who were not bashful about fooling people into thinking Cowdery was either Buffalo Bill himself, or, at least Bill’s son.

There was no question that S. F. Cody could ride hard and shoot straight.  He even looked like Buffalo Bill with his long hair, distinctive moustache and fringed buckskin garb.  Next came Maud Maria Lee, a sixteen year old girl in 1888 who hailed from Norristown, Pennsylvania. Maude was the same size and shape as the famous Annie Oakley.  An attractive brunette, Maud had some gymnastic training, loved the circus life, rode horses and was a crack shot.  Also a member of the Forepaugh Wild West Show, it did not take long for Maud to meet Cody, and it did not take long for the Forepaugh promoters to seize upon the opportunity to make audiences believe that Maud Maria Lee was Annie Oakley.

The story tells of the pair’s travels with various touring groups, their trip to Europe with the Wild West extravaganza complete with advertising posters done in England bragging that S. F. Cody was the son of Buffalo Bill.

Long travel, harsh weather conditions, serious injuries, and the vagaries of salary payment took their toll.  Maud began using narcotics to ease her pain and she gradually slid into mental instability.  Maud returned to her parents in America while Cody took up with a new lady partner for his shooting act as well as in real life. While still in England, Cody developed an interest in the early airplane experiments.  Certain the airplane would be invaluable for war, he even worked for a time for the British government.  Cody was killed in 1913 in a crash with his biplane, and is buried in the military service cemetery at Thorn Hill.

After drug use, arrests, lawsuits, and brushes with the law, Maud was committed by her parents to the Norristown State Hospital, a mental institution where she died in 1947 from heart failure at age seventy‑five.

The wild west story of S. F. Cody and Maud Lee is not a happy one.  Their best years together were those few when they first met, when the world was young, when they were the center of attention.  Crowds cheered, the horses were fast, the shooting was usually straight, but they were never really Buffalo Bill or Annie Oakley.  They had to settle for second best, and until now have been mostly forgotten.

A haunting story, this book is filled with good information heretofore overlooked. 

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.

The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland MailThe Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail 1858-1861, Glen Sample Ely, University of Oklahoma Press, $34.95, Cloth, 440 pages, Illustrations, Maps, Photographs, Notes, Index.

Anyone interested in early Texas history will find this book a fascinating journey across that state during the years prior to the Civil War.  While the Butterfield Overland Mail extended 2,795 miles from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California this book targets the 740 miles, border to border, across the Texas frontier.

The book combines Texas politics and intrigues while at the same time explaining the history and workings of the Butterfield stagecoach line.  Throughout the book readers find both early photos taken by original Butterfield researchers Margaret and Roscoe Conkling, with modern-day pictures taken by author Ely as he meticulously followed their trail.  Comparisons are made between Conkling photos taken 80 years ago, and the new pictures and how the sites look today.  Changes due to weather erosion and human agricultural disruptions are noted.

All of the stagecoach sites are pictured; the crumbling walls, rock foundations, and long-forgotten artifacts help tell the story.  Belt buckles, bullets, bridle bits, forks and knives plus various tools have been unearthed and on display here, including some graves with the stories of their occupants.  At the end of the book readers will find notes containing all of the information available regarding dates, locations, employees, station masters, Indian raids, and everything you could ever possibly want to know about these stagecoach station sites.

As the author and friends traipsed from one location to the next across Texas, he brings to us the stories of those people who braved this frontier at a time when great changes were occurring in our country.  Prospectors, adventurers, cattle ranchers, military men, schemers as well as honest pioneers tried to build and tame this unforgiving land.  Always the threat of murderous Indian raids loomed as hardy people determined to make homes for themselves.

Meanwhile, scattered throughout the book are wonderful paintings done by Frederic Remington showing the dangerous journey traveled by these coaches.  Butterfield crews, passengers, and hostlers alike braved this rugged road.  Indians lurked along the way, and the accommodations at home stations usually offered little more than poor food and scant lodging.  The coaches are described as rough-riding, jostling contraptions rattling over hard-packed roads or wallowing in muddy streams.

Apart from the actual everyday management of the stagecoaches, there were business executives back east busily working to make the enterprise financially lucrative.  Some joined with Texas politicians and businessmen to make decisions about everything from toll bridges to the establishment of small communities.

Readers are taken on a journey through a rough and tumble time in antebellum Texas, covering everything good and bad about people striving to settle a wild frontier.

This book is a huge project by author Glen Sample Ely, a Texas historian and documentary producer. His love for Texas history is proudly displayed here, along with his talent for careful research and dogged determination to get it right.  Readers will learn from the narrative, while being mesmerized by the haunting photographs showing what happened here.  He also authored the book Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity.

The book is a must for your Old West library if you are interested in Texas history and the Butterfield Overland Mail.

Editor’s Note: The reviewer Phyllis Morreale-de Ia Garza is the author of numerous books about the Old West including the novel Charissa of the Overland, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988 (845) 726-3434.  www.silklabelbooks.com

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