READ ABOUT THE HISTORY OF INDIAN COWBOYS HERE
The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Sigh. Yes, I’m the sort of American who wishes I had the guts and courage of say Lewis, Clark or Sacajawea “Janey” (and boy do I hate Night at the Museum for its weird romance between Sacajawea and Theodore Roosevelt! Sacrilege on both counts!) Movie fans used to Transformers-style action will be bored out of their minds on this one. I loved every detail. I think it’s the brand new world thing that gets me–yeah, I know, it wasn’t new to the Indians (except when they first began trifling with the precious ecosystems of the America upon their own arrival).
So I have some “native” blood. There I’ve said it. It’s way back in time and the girl married a white member of my family. I guess she thought he was cute or maybe she liked his weaponry. I see no conflict in loving Janey and not being in awe of every Indian. I can also really love Clark without loving the fact he had a slave. There are certain people–individuals– whom I like and others I don’t. I just hate the whole grouping thing with a passion. Too much race pride leads to, well, all the bad things that go with ego. I hate stating what group I belong to on job applications–especially when I’m not a joiner and often times feel alienated from every group I’m supposed to belong to, but back to the journals.
Here’s what you should do for fun. Read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage first because Stephen Ambrose was super cool. He seemed to believe we Americans were complex and faulty, but at times quite spectacular. We think of road trips cross country in a kind of Jack Kerouac cliche way. Hipsters drinking– that bores me.
But a small bunch of guys, one girl and a mini-arsenal venturing on foot and by boat with hostile Indians lurking and grizzly bears sharpening their teeth in wait and BIG rivers with rushing currents and bugs and no GPS. No cell phone to call the rescuers and no reality TV crew eating donuts a few feet off–now that’s my kind of living–okay, more like my kind of reading.
These guys got malaria and venereal diseases in the old-school way–by sleeping with Indian chicks the hospitable chiefs sent to them as gifts. There were no cars and diners.
In high school I used to daydream about Walden Pond–I think I could walk a little ways out to a cabin in New England after the embittered Indians were long since pushed off and write about civil disobedience for a few summers.
Okay, so here’s a tidbit from the journals which you can read in their entirety online for free:
“Arrived at Bruno’s Island  3 miles below halted a few minutes. went on shore and being invited on by some of the gentlemen present to try my airgun  which I had purchased brought it on shore charged it and fired myself seven times fifty five yards with pretty good success; after which a Mr. Blaze Cenas  being unacquainted with the management of the gun suffered her to discharge herself accedentaly the ball passed through the hat of a woman about 40 yards distanc cuting her temple about the fourth of the diameter of the ball; shee fell instantly and the blood gusing from her temple we were all in the greatest consternation supposed she was dead by [but] in a minute she revived to our enespressable satisfaction, and by examination we found the wound by no means mortal or even dangerous; called the hands aboard and proceeded to a ripple of McKee’s rock*
Just because you’re nice doesn’t mean you’re going to be popular. This is what General Ben Grierson must have said to console himself. A hero of the Civil War, Grierson commanded the Buffalo Soldiers out West against Victorio and his Apache warriors after the war, but do you think that would have gotten him some respect and a few honors? No.
His wife Alice was pretty pissed about it and said so in letters. She said a lot in letters that might make a Victorian pretend to blush. At one point she left poor Ben to spend time in Chicago admitting after he begged her to come back to him that she knew they would have sex again (which she greatly enjoyed), and didn’t want to have any more children (I think they had 7 at that point). She felt contraception was a sin against God, loved her husband, but was afraid with her depressive tendencies that she’d end like her mother did–a used up mental case.
General Ben was such a decent guy and openly affectionate, devoted and supportive when Alice spoke about women’s rights and the stuff she’d read in The Revolution (I must admit, though I’d hate to be judged by my private letters and emails, that I found Alice’s constant complaining a bit annoying–I don’t think Ben deserved that. He just wanted her by his side. Sigh).
Ben was no slouch in the warrior department, but . . . and this is my opinion–one shared by General Sherman at the time–he was a bit too lenient with the Indians who used his kindness to screw him over (we don’t like to admit that being a doormat you get walked on but it’s true). He had kind words for his black soldiers though most people thought black recruits were less capable of the mental tasks of military life at the time, but again he may have in his easy-going way not pushed them quite hard enough–so says one of my characters in The House on Tenafly Road.
Anyway there’s much to think about–sex, war, mental health, relationships, Indians, military politics in these two companion volumes. You get the historian’s version and then the wife’s version and that’s fun.
Take a look at how small we are in the grand scheme of things. At a time when people fantasized about transcontinental railroads and nation building, Timothy H. O’Sullivan captured the enormity of the physical world and the tiny little men living upon it without the slightest hint of sentimentality.
Maybe his experience capturing the bloated dead of a generation of young men seared the notion into his brain that we are here for just moments and our big dreams are dwarfed by creation–or maybe he was just a tough Irish guy.
Here is the man who brought us some of the best, most unromantic photographs of the Civil War and The American West. Tim was great to have around from an early age. Brimming with confidence and machismo he apprenticed with Matthew Brady who happened to live nearby in Staten Island before the Civil War. At the age of 21 the young lad went off to war as an “operator” or hired hand photographer who also happened to be amazingly talented.
After the war he went west on geological expeditions–sometimes with a Yale dandy and sometimes with a military man–impressing both. Rugged, brave and fun he kept the romance in his courtship and marriage to Laura Virginia Pywell and kept the bleak, huge west and its inhabitants as they really were–formidable, inhospitable and sadly defeated in the case of the Indians.
I want a happy ending here yet once again death is always sad no matter how it’s done. Dear Tim and his wife Laura after losing their only child as a stillborn contracted tuberculosis. After the geological surveys Tim had trouble finding work. He applied for a job and all of his many friends sent recommendations that give us a glimpse into his special appeal. He got the job but had to quit five months later. He died soon after his wife at the age of 42. The tough guy couldn’t escape death, but his pictures do.
BEAUTIFUL SMITHSONIAN VIDEO:
Pictures Library of Congress
I haven’t actually read this one yet, but my husband surprised me with the book and I know I’ll love it since it’s by one of my favorite historians, Oliver Knight, of Life and Manners of the Frontier Army fame (famous to me anyway). A book about the journalists who traveled along with the army throughout the Indian wars has got to be exciting. The military men of my novels show a certain disdain for journalists informed by my reading of military journals and memoirs and I have carried a similar distrust since attending NYU journalism classes years ago. But I hope to have my mind opened. I’m charmed by the old library tag as well.