Old West History Archives

Sodbusters

SodbustersIn order to get, what were to become the plains states, settled, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. And, it worked as thousands of people, who were soon called Sodbusters, took up the government’s offer for free land.
           
They expected to settle on treed land with running water similar to the places they left behind. But, what they found was a treeless plains.
               
With shelter the first priority, and no trees or stones to build one, they resorted to burrowing a cave in the side of a hill. It was called a dugout home. Although these dugouts were protection from wind and cold, they were dark, crowded and damp.
 
Being ever resourceful, they discovered they could build a home using one foot by two foot pieces of sod cut from the ground with a shovel or special plow. These pieces of sod were called “Nebraska marble.” As one pioneer put it, a house could be built “without mortar, square, plumb or greenbacks.”
 
A 12 ft by 14 ft home could be built in 10 days. The sod houses were ideal for the plains. They were cool in the summer, warm in the winter and in case of a prairie fire, wouldn’t burn.
 
However, there was the down side. The roof shed dirt into food and bedding, in addition to an occasional snake. When it rained, it would drip muddy water, forcing wives to hold an umbrella in one hand while cooking with the other.
 
But, these “sodbusters” rarely complained. It truly took a special person to settle the West.

Sitting Bull Goes to Canada

After the defeat of Custer in 1876, realizing there would be retaliations, the Indians broke up into smaller bands so they could move faster and not be easily found. But many of the bands were tracked down, and relocated to reservations.

Sitting Bull, in command of the western party, took his people to Montana, and avoided any major confrontations with the army. Four months after Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull met with American commander Nelson Miles. Sitting Bull refused to surrender. So Colonel Miles stepped up his campaign against him and his people.

With the scarcity of buffalo, the cold winter and the army’s constant pressure, Sitting Bull’s people began to suffer. So, on May 5, 1877, Sitting Bull decided to avoid war by going to Canada. The Canadian government, with a more tolerant attitude toward Indians, let them stay in peace. With plenty of buffalo and no harassment from the military, it was a great life. But within a couple of years the young warriors, who had grown up doing battle, became restless. They started making trouble with their neighboring tribes, and the Canadian government started putting pressure on Sitting Bull to leave Canada.

The final straw was the disappearance of Canadian buffalo. With promises that they would have plenty of food, and with most of his people having already returned to America, four years after he had left, and five years after his great victory at Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull returned to the United States leading just 187 Indians, most of who were old and sick.

 Deacon Jim Miller

Deacon Jim MillerDeacon Jim Miller was a little man who was quiet, and he never cussed. He dressed like a traveling minister, and was an avid churchgoer. At the same time, he was one of the most ruthless assassins of the Old West. It’s estimated that 40 or more people died from lead that came from his guns… Some of them were even his relatives. His contracts were usually carried out on unarmed men from behind a rock or tree, while using a rifle.
           
There are those who say he was involved with the death of Pat Garrett, the lawman who shot Billy the Kid. A man named Brazel confessed to killing Garrett. But at the time, a mysterious man, who fit Deacon Miller’s description, by the name of Adamson, was negotiating the purchase of the ranch. Some feel that if he didn’t actually pull the trigger, he paid Brazel to do it. But like many theories about events from the Old West, we’ll probably never know the truth.
               
Deacon Miller’s last contract kill was on a lawman named Gus Babbitt. As was his style, Miller ambushed Babbitt. Unfortunately, Babbitt lived long enough to describe Miller. Miller and his three helpers were arrested.
 
Now, Deacon Miller was noted for being a smooth-talker. And he bragged that with his ability to con, and a high-priced lawyer, he was going to beat this rap. Some of the Ada, Oklahoma locals believed him. So, on April 19, 1909 they broke Deacon Miller and his three friends out of jail; escorted them to a barn; and hanged them. Deacon Miller went to his reward. And there was little doubt by anyone who knew him, the direction of that reward. 

Teddy Roosevelt’s Boat Thieves

On March 24, 1886, three hard cases were on the move. Unfortunately, an ice-swollen river stood between them and their destination. They came across a small rowboat, and decided to commandeer it. Now, normally the owner would chalk it off as a loss, but not this owner. He happened to be a tenderfoot easterner who had recently become the chairman of the Stockmen’s Association, a position that also carried with it the title of deputy sheriff. This easterner turned cowboy and rancher was a man of grit and determination who was later to hold the highest office in our land. His name was Theodore Roosevelt. This is the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s boat thieves.

Roosevelt had another boat made, and within a week, he and two cowboys were going after the thieves. After three days, they found them.

Because of the icy river, the group traveled eight days trying to get back home. With provisions almost gone, they finally came across a ranch. Roosevelt hired a wagon and driver to take him and the three ruffians the rest of the way. Roosevelt’s two companions remained with the boats.

It took two days and a night to get to the nearest town. Roosevelt stayed awake, with rifle at the ready, the whole time. To make sure he wasn’t jumped, Roosevelt had to walk along behind the wagon.

As deputy sheriff, Roosevelt received a fee for bringing in the men, and mileage for the over 300 miles he had traveled to retrieve them. It was a total of $50. But he had accomplished two things: First, he had upheld the law. Second, people would think twice before stealing anything from him again.
Teddy Roosevelt's boat thieves

Pony Bob

When the Pony Express was formed they advertised for “Young skinny wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” Because of the amazing men who answered that ad, only one mail pouch was lost during the existence of the Pony Express. The most amazing of the riders was Bob Haslam, who was known as Pony Bob. In May of 1860 he rode horseback 380 miles in 36 hours. But that wasn’t his most amazing feat. 
Pony Bob & Robert Haslam in his later years
               
On March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the President of the United States. It was important that the people in California get Lincoln’s inauguration speech as soon as possible. Pony Bob was responsible for a 120-mile stretch in Nevada. He covered the 120 miles on 12 horses in about 8 hours. To give you an idea of how fast he traveled, a racehorse runs the short distance on a racetrack at a little over 25 miles per hour. Counting the time taken for changing horses and any other delays, Pony Bob traveled the 120 miles at approximately 20 miles per hour.
 
But Pony Bob had to contend with conditions no jockey has ever had to contend. Right after he left Cold Spring, Nevada he was surrounded by Indians riding stolen Pony Express horses. Pony Bob shot three of the Indians. Then he took an arrow in the left arm. He caught another arrow in his mouth that broke his jaw and knocked out five teeth.
 
Outrunning the Indians, at the next relay station he stuffed a rag in his mouth and successfully delivered this valuable document to the next rider.
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