History Friday: The Lady and the Bear-Fighter

(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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History Friday – Letters From a lady

(Since The Quivera Trail is launching next weekend – at New Braunfels’ Weihnachtsmarkt, no less – I have begun research for the next historical adventure, that picaresque California Gold Rush adventure which I have always wanted to write. This research takes the form of reading every darned history and contemporary account that I have on my shelves, or can get my hands on. One of these books is The Shirley Letters from the California Mines 1851-1852, by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith ‘Dame Shirley’ Clappe.)

Louise Amelia – better known by her pen-name, Dame Shirley – was an irreproachably Victorian lady, possessing a lively intellect and observant eye, which the education typically given to girls at that time did nothing to impair. Conventional expectations for upper-class women of her day seem hardly to have made a dent in her either. She was born around 1819 in Elizabeth New Jersey and orphaned by the deaths of both parents before out of her teens. She had a talent for writing, encouraged by an unexpected mentor – Alexander H. Everett, then famed in a mild way as a diplomat, writer and public speaker. He was twice her age, and seems to have fallen at least a little but in love with her. She did not see him as a suitor, but they remained friends and devoted correspondents. Eventually she was courted by and consented to marry a young doctor, Fayette Clappe – who even before the ink was dry on the registry, caught the gold fever. Fayette and Louise Amelia were off on the months-long voyage around the Horn to fabled California. The gold rush was almost overwhelmingly a male enterprise – wives and sweethearts usually remained waiting at home, but not the indomitable Louise, who confessed in one of her letters to her sister Molly, “I fancy that nature intended me for an Arab or some other nomadic barbarian, and by mistake my soul got packed up in a Christianized set of bones and muscles.”

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History Friday: Rescue at the End of the Trail

It was just one of those vagaries of the American frontier that the most challenging and perilous stretches of the overland trails to Oregon and California lay at the very end. The first weeks on the road west, beginning at various jumping-off towns on the Mississippi-Missouri River, led through a vast ocean of grass, and then along the veritable highway of the Platte River Valley. Game was plentiful, grass for the draft animals to eat was plentiful, as was water – and the terrain was mostly level to rolling. In a way, this was good, as it allowed the emigrants a kind of shake-down period, in which everyone involved could accustom themselves to the challenge of the wilderness, of moving their wagon or mule train the required fifteen or twenty miles daily, and for able leaders to emerge.
But such was the peculiar geography of the Oregon-California trail that those who embarked on that journey would face the most grinding challenge just at that very point when they and their draft animals were exhausted and worn-down from constant travel and their supplies of food for humans and animals alike dwindling. Implacable winter threatened to strand the late- season travelers either in the mountains or on the near side of them, starving, sick and weak. A number of early parties on the emigrant trail diced with disaster in this respect, arriving in California on foot with barely more than the clothes on their back, having subsisted on the dried meat from the last of their draft oxen. And everyone knew of the sufferings of the Donner-Reed party of 1846-47, stranded high in the Sierra Nevada range, in ten feet and more of snow. This tragedy would live long in the memories of emigrants and would-be emigrants, most of whom had been careful and prosperous bourgeoisie, intent on improving their lives by removing to a healthier climate and richer land. They did gamble, in venturing the 2,000 mile journey, but they usually had calculated carefully in doing so.

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History Friday: The Only Justice of the Peace …

Unlike the lawman featured in last week’s installation of ‘rowdy tales of the old west’ this week’s rogue contrived to live a long and eccentric life, and one – considering his reputation – remarkably unstained by deadly street shootouts, outlawry and violent death, although there was the little matter of that horseback duel … the unsuccessful hanging … and that jail escape. Although he was, as noted, a bit of a rogue and a personality to which legends readily attached themselves, often with his encouragement; he ended his days as justice of the peace in the tiny hamlet of Langtry, Val Verde County, Texas – famously the only law west of the Pecos.

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Committee of Vigilance – 1856 – Finale

(OK, everyone ready for the final chapter? Good!)

Three carriages entered the square, and as they halted before the jail door, the ranks of waiting men presented arms. Half a dozen men descended from the carriages – William Tell Coleman and the other leaders of the Committee. They talked for a few moments through the wicket-gate … and then they were admitted into the jail, to speak with Sheriff Scannell.
“We have come for the prisoner Casey,” Coleman told him. “We ask that he be peaceably delivered us, handcuffed at the door immediately.”
“Under existing circumstances,” replied Sheriff Scannell, “I shall make no resistance. The prison and it’s contents are yours.”
“We want only the man Casey at present,” One of the other Committee members added. “For the safety of all the rest, we hold you strictly accountable.”

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