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  • History Weekend: Stephens, Townsend, Greenwood, Murphy

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 6th June 2015 (All posts by )

    (An early version of this essay began as a sorrowful rant about the lack of good adventure movies a number of summers ago. It turned into a multi-part blog post, and then into a novel about the first wagon-train party to get their wagons over the Sierra Nevada – in winter yet. They got lost, had to break up into separate groups, were caught by winter while still in the mountains, nearly ran out of food … but unlike the Donner Party of two years later, this party managed to hang together and negotiate the mountain obstacle without any loss of life. This is part one of two.)

    In comparison to the notorious and hard-luck Donner-Reed Party, hardly anyone has ever heard of a similar wagon-train company who crossed over almost the exact same trail two years previously. The party led by Elisha Stephens and John Townsend, and advised by the old mountain-man, Caleb Greenwood, walked much of the way between the Mississippi-Missouri and the Sacramento Rivers, across plain and desert, blazed a trail up the wilderness of a steep canyon, and finally hauled wagons up a sheer mountain cliff. Generally they remain a footnote in the history books, mostly noted for being the first to bring some of their wagons up the Truckee River canyon and over the Sierra Nevada into California. There was no tireless letter-writer or professional memoirist among them, no extensive first-hand accounts, although John Townsend, a medical doctor and Mason may have kept a diary.

    In the year 1844, only a bare handful of explorers, missionaries and fur trappers had ever seen for sure what lay beyond the jumping-off points at Council Bluffs, Independence, St. Joseph. There was southern trail to Santa Fe, and beyond that to the thinly-populated enclave of Spanish and then Mexican territories in California, and a northern track which followed along the Platte River and terminated in Oregon Territory. Lewis and Clarke, and William Ashley’s fur-trapping brigades – all had gone that way, by boat, horseback or on foot. Hearing of the rich lands in the Pacific Northwest, farmers and small tradesmen also began following the siren call. This was not a journey for the impoverished. Besides a wagon, and stock to pull it, the journey required a six-month food supply, tools, clothes, bedding and cooking gear. There might be space in the wagon for books, and other small treasures, for the wagons were small, and food took up most of the space. The draft animal of choice was not the horse, as many would think. Horses were expensive, and the road was too rough in the early days for even the toughest horse in dray harness. Mules made a good showing on the southern trail, but they were also expensive. Most emigrants could better afford ox teams; four to six pair to a wagon, guided by a driver who walked by the lead team and controlled them by verbal commands.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in History, North America, Society | 6 Comments »

    History Friday: The Lady and the Bear-Fighter

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 1st August 2014 (All posts by )

    (I have been sidelined this week, working on a chapter of The Golden Road, and discovering about the place where Fredi and the herd of Texas cattle would have finished in California. So, a bit of a break from all the disquieting current events, and a journey to a past … which actually was probably just as disquieting, but then we know how it all turned out…)

    California marked the high tide-line of the Spanish empire in the New World. The great wave of conquistadors washed out of the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century looking for gold, honor, glory and land, roared across the Atlantic Ocean, sweeping Mexico and most of South America in consecutive mighty tides, before seeping into the trackless wastes of the American Southwest. Eventually that tide lapped gently at the far northern coast, where it dropped a chain of missions, a handful of military garrisons and small towns, and bestowed a number of property grants on the well-favored and well-connected. There has always been a dreamlike, evanescent quality to that time – as romantic as lost paradises always are. Before the discovery of gold in the millrace of a saw-mill built to further the entrepreneurial aims of a faintly shady Swiss expatriate named John Sutter, California seemed a magical place. It was temperate along the coast and perceived as a healthy place; there were no mosquito-born plagues like malaria and yellow fever, which devastated the lower Mississippi/Missouri regions in the 19th century. Certain parts were beautiful beyond all reasoning, and the rest was at the least attractive. The missions, dedicated primarily to the care of souls also had an eye towards self-sufficiency, and boasted great orchards of olives and citrus, and extensive vineyards. The climate was a temperate and kindly one in comparison with much of the rest of that continent; winters were mild, and summers fair.
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    Posted in History | 9 Comments »

    Helter-Skelter

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 11th February 2013 (All posts by )

    I was a teenager when the Manson murders went down, in the autumn of 1969 – of course, the cruel and inexplicable murder of a movie star and several of her friends made all the headlines, and had lots of law-abiding citizens looking over their shoulders and being very careful about locking the doors and windows of their homes at night. It wasn’t until some time later that the associated murders of an elderly retired couple also hit the headlines of the LA Times, and other national newspapers. A blood-drenched, hippy cult with a weirdly charismatic leader had committed those murders in order – so they claimed – to trigger a devastating racial war, which they termed ‘helter-skelter’ from a Beatles song moderately popular at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Civil Society, Crime and Punishment, History, Law Enforcement, Predictions, Society, Terrorism, Urban Issues | 9 Comments »