Knuckleheads!

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The Knuckleheads: The amazing story of how the adventurous Kolb brothers helped inspire the creation of Grand Canyon National Park.

emery and ellsworth kolb with their boats defiance and edith true west magazine
Ellsworth and Emery are shown with Defiance and Edith, the boats that saw them through their months on the Green and Colorado rivers from September 8, 1911 to January 18, 1912. Emery christened his boat Edith, after his daughter, and Ellsworth named his Defiance, because “nobody loves me.”
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

Long before Grand Canyon was a national park, it attracted some colorful characters. Men dug for ore and built trails and camps. Later they guided tourists and were noted for their storytelling prowess.

And then there were the knuckleheads.

a leap in the interest of art emery kolb true west magazine
A Leap in the Interest of Art typifies the adventurous spirit and drama that the Kolb brothers always liked in their photos. The person in the image remains unidentified, but several scholars think it is Emery, based on the hat and his known fearlessness in pursuit of the most dramatic photograph.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

That’s the word I used to describe groundbreaking photographers, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb, in my book The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon. I thought it best summed up their full-tilt, damn the torpedoes, you-think-that-was-crazy-here-hold-my-beer lifestyle. But my publisher thought it could be misconstrued by their family and asked me to remove it. No problem. I still call them knuckleheads at talks and book signings, and in my blog posts. Emery’s great-grandson gets a big kick out if it.

The point is the Kolbs went way beyond colorful. They were the real deal, genuine explorers who probed every corner of Grand Canyon, on foot, in the saddle, by boat and even from the air. In 1922, when aviation experts declared it impossible to land a plane in the abyss because of treacherous updrafts, Ellsworth hired a stunt pilot, climbed aboard as cameraman, and proved them wrong when they set down in the inner canyon at Plateau Point.

Yet it was the Kolbs’ astonishing journey down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1911-’12 that made them famous. John Wesley Powell first rafted those unknown waters in 1869. In the ensuing four decades only a handful of men had succeeded, and plenty had perished in the attempt. With virtually no boating experience, the Kolb brothers spent nearly four months in deep river canyons, traveling 1,100 miles, navigating 365 large rapids and numerous smaller ones. They became just the 26th and 27th men to accomplish the feat. Ellsworth would go on the next year to complete the journey, following the Colorado River all the way to the sea, just the fourth expedition to do so.

The Kolbs not only survived their river trip but shot a moving picture of it. That little film would become the longest running movie of all time, playing at their studio from 1915 until 1976. When the Kolbs weren’t filming history, they were making it.

The biggest beneficiary of the Kolbs’ work was the Grand Canyon itself. President Theodore Roosevelt, a Kolb friend and occasional houseguest, had used the Antiquities Act to designate Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Even that level of protection was fought tooth and nail by some Arizona politicians (primarily Ralph Cameron) who wanted to continue to profit off the Big Ditch. The Kolb photos, motion picture and lectures sparked a more widespread interest in the canyon. The August 1914 issue of National Geographic was commandeered by the Kolbs. The entire issue is filled with their words and photos detailing their life at Grand Canyon and river trip. Increased attention and growing tourism numbers shifted the political landscape. Grand Canyon National Park was finally established by an act of Congress and signed into law by Woodrow Wilson on February 26, 1919.

Young Men Going West

r v thomas and ellsworth kolb with a plane by the grand canyon true west magazine
On August 8, 1922, World War I veteran pilot and barnstormer R.V. Thomas and passenger and cameraman Ellsworth (left, standing with camera) did what many thought impossible by landing the first airplane in the Grand Canyon at Plateau Point near Indian Garden. They took off from the small Williams airstrip and landed on a makeshift strip scraped out by the park rangers near the canyon oasis.
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

It all began with Ellsworth Kolb’s restless feet.

Ellsworth, who never saw a horizon that didn’t seduce him, left his Pittsburgh home in 1900, with $2 in his pocket. He rambled westward, working as he went. He manned a snowplow at Pikes Peak, swung a pick and shovel on the roads of Yellowstone and Yosemite and served as a carpenter’s helper in San Francisco. He signed on with a freighter bound for China but before shipping out decided to take a peek at a savage hole in the ground somewhere in the Arizona Territory.

Ellsworth hired on with the Santa Fe Railroad so he could travel east to Williams, a town that lay 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon amid a forest of ponderosa pines. From there, nearly broke, he walked the tracks of the spur line to the canyon for 50 miles then finally flagged down a train. He paid the reduced fare and rode the cushions the rest of the way.

The Santa Fe ran the first train to the South Rim on September 19, 1901. Ellsworth Kolb got there just a few weeks later. Both arrivals would significantly impact Grand Canyon history.

kolb brothers grand canyon south rim tanner trail true west magazine
During the Kolb brothers’ first years at the South Rim, they explored numerous new and old trails. In 1909, they decided to treat themselves to a vacation, so they traveled to the far eastern edge of the canyon where they located the abandoned Tanner Trail, a steep, long-neglected sketchy route that leads northeast towards the river.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

Ellsworth fell in love and forgot all about China. He quickly landed a job chopping wood at the Bright Angel Hotel. When he wrote home, he regaled his younger brother with tales of the spectacular canyon. It intrigued Emery, who had begun pursuing photography as a hobby.

Five years separated the two Kolb boys as well as a difference in personalities. Emery was more practical, more cautious and he tended to be more intense than the easygoing Ellsworth. Still, they were inseparable as kids, wading into a fair share of adventure and mischief.

Now with Ellsworth living on the edge of one of the world’s greatest photo ops, it seemed only natural to pursue this artistic calling. In 1902, Emery traveled west to join his brother.

Running with the Mules

theodore roosevelt john hance on horseback in the grand canyon kolb brothers true west magazine
The Kolb brothers’ primary source of income was from taking photographs of mule riders, including Theodore Roosevelt (front) and famed Grand Canyon pioneer, explorer and storyteller John Hance (on white horse), near the top of the Bright Angel Trail.
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

The bulk of the Kolb brothers’ business was photographing mule riders as they clip-clopped into the canyon. The Kolbs would go on to photograph more than 50,000 mule strings descending the trail. They built a darkroom at Indian Garden, halfway down the canyon where there was fresh water, and created a business plan that would make hardened athletes weep.

The mule trains would pause for a photo to be taken at the rim and then start down the trail, only to quickly be passed by the photographer himself. After snapping the photos, Emery or Ellsworth loaded the glass plates into their pack and sprinted into the abyss.

They hurtled down the switchbacks, 4.6 miles to the clear spring at Indian Garden, where each plate had to be hand-washed once, twice, three times. Repacking the plates, they turned and charged back toward the rim. This time every step pointed uphill, always up, often in a snarling heat, passing the mules again, glass plates clattering as they ran, sweat stinging their eyes, regaining over 3,200 vertical feet—9.2 miles round trip. They would reach the studio in time to sell prints to the returning riders. This mini-marathon was often repeated twice, and occasionally, three times a day.

There are mules and then there are simply the mule-headed.

The View Stalkers

view hunters grand canyon ellsworth and emery kolb true west magazine
Ellsworth and Emery Kolb made themselves and the Grand Canyon famous through daredevil photography of the natural wonder in northern Arizona, including their famous series of images they named View Hunters.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

That was part of the Kolbs’ enduring legacy. They captured not just a landscape but a spirit. At the dawn of the 20th century, when technological advancements seemed to be shrinking the country, the Kolbs showed America that the frontier still existed— and they were living right on its raggedy edge. Wild places could be reached but it took daring and nerve, and they were just the camera-slingers to pull it off. Their mule photos were mementos, but their canyon portraits were lusty dreamscapes.

The Kolbs invented the selfie. They inserted themselves into many of their photographs as markers to the scope and perils of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes they are there to provide a measure of scale, a human speck perched atop a towering ledge, a living comma pausing the viewer’s eye, at the base of precipitous cliffs. But often they emerged as characters in a larger drama. They appeared in photos clinging to cliff faces, climbing hand over hand on ropes stretched from treetops and leaping across gaping chasms.

Their signature photograph is one titled View Hunters (featured on the cover of our May 2019 issue). It perfectly captured that reckless audacity that would become their trademark. Ellsworth straddles a high crevasse with a slender tree trunk stretched across the gap. Far below him Emery dangles in mid-air clutching a rope with one hand and a camera in the other. He’s angling for the impossible shot as Ellsworth holds the rope taut.

They turned the image of View Hunters into postcards and it graced the cover of the souvenir photo album they sold at the studio and through the mail. It came to define their artistic style. Hard to imagine Ansel Adams hanging from a rope in a crevasse. Or Grand Canyon painter Thomas Moran inching across a cliff face with a brush in his teeth. The Kolbs were adventurers who just happened to carry cameras.

The Last Pioneer

emery kolb ellsworth kolb hummingbird trail grand canyon true west magazine
Emery’s photo of Ellsworth clinging to the legendary Hummingbird Trail—using ropes, ladders and chiseled toeholds and plunges down a sheer cliff face to reach an abandoned mine shaft—was just the type of image that created the Kolbs’ enduring legacy of adventure.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

When Emery was born, the Apache Wars still raged across the Arizona Territory. The Earps and Doc Holiday had not yet shot it out with the Clantons and McLaurys in a vacant lot near the OK Corral in Tombstone. He lived long enough to witness every Apollo moon landing. Emery Kolb died December 11, 1976. He was 95.

Kolb Studio

kolb brothers photography studio grand canyon south rim bright angel trail true west magazine
The Kolb Brothers’ 1911–’12 Colorado River trip brought them a measure of fame, which they promoted at their studio on the South Rim near Bright Angel Trail. They became the 26th and 27th men to row the Grand Canyon and they were the first to record it in a motion picture.
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

The Kolb Studio remains. The wood frame building originally constructed by the two young novices in 1904 on an eyebrow ledge, affixed to the world’s greatest erosional masterpiece, still hangs on at the head of Bright Angel Trail. There’s a lesson in tenacity there somewhere.

The original little two-story structure grew and sprawled and now cascades down the cliff face. This wooden aerie has teetered and tottered and swayed with every breath the canyon took for over a hundred years.

Now beautifully restored by the Grand Canyon Conservancy and operated as a retail outlet and exhibition space, the Kolb Studio perches on the edge of a wilderness of towers and temples, pinnacles and promontories—a cathedral of light and stone and sky. It sits on the shore of an ocean of shadows and shapes. Clouds sweep the porch and ravens swoop past the basement door. Clusters of stars peek in the windows each night and the moon uses the roof for a footrest. And the simple rotation of the earth, the rising and setting of the sun, floods the studio with a crescendo of shimmering color, both eloquent and scandalous. Every day. The Kolb Studio is the only house still standing that has the entire Grand Canyon for a front yard.

Ellsworth and Emery may have been knuckleheads but, holy mackerel, they knew how to live!

Editor’s Note

“Knuckleheads” is an excerpt from Roger Naylor’s The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon, published by the Grand Canyon Conservancy, the nonprofit partner of Grand Canyon National Park. Thanks to Roger Naylor, Grand Canyon Conservancy, Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection and Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library, Kolb Collection for sharing the images and excerpts with True West.

Roger Naylor is a travel writer who hates to travel—at least anywhere beyond the Southwest. He spends his days rambling around Arizona and writing about what he finds. In 2018, he was inducted into the Arizona Tourism Hall of Fame. He is the author of several books, including Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers, Arizona Kicks on Route 66 and Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth.

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Texas Jack

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https://truewestmagazine.com/the-tragedy-of-texas-jack/

The Tragedy of Texas JackTexas Jack Omohundro and Giuseppina Morlacchi’s doomed romance

texas jack omohundro giuseppina morlacchi combination acting troupe on set true west magazine
Texas Jack Omohundro poses with his wife and business partner, Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi, in this colorized publicity photo. It was probably taken shortly after the couple began their Texas Jack Combination acting troupe in 1876.

Texas Jack could have been the person about whom the phrase “tall, dark and handsome” was coined. And Giuseppina Morlacchi was a heartbreaker. She was a ballet dancer from Italy and he was a cowboy from Virginia. Born John Burwell Omohundro, he later decided that “Texas Jack” was a lot easier for people to remember, and pronounce. She moved to the United States at age 21 to perform and never left. Theirs became a fairy tale romance, forged in the imaginary West of the stage but eventually broken in the real West.

texas jack omohundro headshot black and white sepia true west magazine
Former Confederate cavalryman Texas Jack Omohundro’s stage career and story book marriage to Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi were cut short by pneumonia in Leadville, Colorado, where he died in 1880 at the age of 33.
— All Images Courtesy True West Archives Unless Otherwise Noted —

After fighting on the side of the Confederacy under Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, John Omohundro moved to Texas at the end of the war. There he got involved with cattle herding, driving cattle north along the Chisholm Trail to railheads in Kansas several times. It may have been on one of those drives that he made the decision to relocate once again, moving first to Fort Hays, Kansas, and then to the North Platte, Nebraska, area. Drawing on his past experience, including time spent as a scout during the Civil War, Omohundro picked up odd jobs scouting, hunting and guiding. He also became “Texas Jack.”

texas jack omohundro headshot western true west magazine
Texas Jack.

In 1869, Texas Jack met William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was also scratching out a living scouting, hunting and guiding. They became fast friends, scouting together for the Army and engaging in hunts with the likes of the Earl of Dunraven and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. They also caught the attention of dime novelist Ned Buntline. In late 1872, their fortunes changed when he invited them to become stars of Scouts of the Prairie, a play he was creating. The cast was strengthened by the presence of the noted ballerina and actress Mademoiselle Giuseppina Morlacchi.

texas jack buffalo bill acting troupe giuseppina morlacchi true west magazine
This 1873 cast photo shows the stars of Scouts of the Prairie in their stage costumes. Buntline, Cody and Omohundro wear typical frontier scouting attire. Giuseppina Morlacchi has abandoned her ballerina outfit and wears the costume for her role as Dove Eye, an heroic Indian princess.
— Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado —

Born in Italy, Morlacchi was the same age as Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill. She became a classically trained dancer, traveling throughout Europe until her American ballet debut in 1867. She introduced the can-can to the country the following year. A fine actress as well, she was soon appearing in the major cities of the American Northeast. Just weeks before his buffalo hunting expedition with Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, the Grand Duke Alexis saw Morlacchi on stage. Buntline also saw her and recruited her to join his new play.

texas jack omohundro globe theater poster play western true west magazine
The Texas Jack Combination was successful for Giuseppina Morlacchi and Texas Jack, but they continued to perform separately as well. In 1878, Texas Jack appeared with Dr. W. F. “Doc” Carver, a dentist turned exhibition shooter who he met several years earlier in North Platte, Nebraska. Five years later Carver joined forces with Buffalo Bill to create Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

Giuseppina did not come alone to the United States. She was accompanied by her manager of five years, John Burke, who was smitten by her. He had presented her with rings and was planning on settling down with her in a house in Lowell, Massachusetts. Those dreams ended when she met Texas Jack. For the Virginian and the Italian, it was love at first sight. She returned the rings to John Burke and pledged herself to John Omohundro. Heartbroken, Burke wore the rings and never married. Instead of devoting his life to her or to any another woman, he spent it instead promoting his new friend Buffalo Bill. It was a task he pursued until Cody’s death.

texas jack buffalo bill buntline scouts of the prairie play actors true west magazine
Scouts of the Prairie, a play written by dime novelist Ned Buntline in four hours, debuted
in Chicago in December of 1872. In this publicity photo, Texas Jack points at his friend William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who reclines in front of Buntline. The play was the first appearance onstage for all three.

With Scouts of the Prairie’s combination of the two well-known scouts with the lovely and talented Morlacchi, the 1872-73 season of the road show was a resounding success. The relationship between Morlacchi and Omohundro was also a success; they were wed on August 31, 1873. The following year Texas Jack, Morlacchi and Buffalo Bill struck out on their own with a new play, Scouts of the Plains, and a new co-star, their friend Wild Bill Hickok.

texas jack buffalo bill wild bill hickok scouts of the plains true west magazine
Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill pose with their friend “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hickok joined them onstage in the play Scouts of the Plains in 1873-74. He preferred gambling to acting and left the show mid-season.

Hickok, who was never very excited about acting, was the first to leave the combination after several months. The Omohundros parted amicably with Buffalo Bill in 1876 to create their own troupe, re-enacting scenes from the West on stage. They happily toured together for the next several years, with periods of relaxation at the Massachusetts home once desired by John Burke. Finally their show business career took them to Leadville, Colorado, for a series of performances. They decided to stay in the Rocky Mountain West rather than return to Massachusetts.

texas jack costume acting troupe combination true west magazine
Texas Jack.

Three months into their stay, Texas Jack succumbed to pneumonia in Leadville, dying on June 28, 1880. The fairy tale romance had lasted just seven years. Grief stricken, Giuseppina Morlacchi departed for their Massachusetts home, never to return to the stage, and died of cancer six years later.

Author’s Note: Texas Jack Omohundro is buried in Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery. In 1908, Buffalo Bill commissioned a permanent granite marker in his friend’s honor. In 1994, Omohundro was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers.

Battle Tested in the Rockies

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Battle-Tested in the Rockies Mountain man Patrick Gass deserves more attention in accounts of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Mountain man Patrick Gass rockies true west magazine
Finding shelter to protect against a Rocky Mountain winter on the frontier required fortitude, as portrayed in John Clymer’s The Trapper’s Tree. Snow began to fall after the Corps of Explorers descended what Patrick Gass called the “most terrible mountains I ever beheld,” Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. By the time the trailblazers had traveled roughly 4,100 miles from the mouth of the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, they decided to build their winter quarters. The crew celebrated Christmas day in 1805 in their brand-new Fort Clatsop, near modern-day Astoria, Oregon.
— Courtesy Eddie Basha Collection, Zelma Basha Salmeri Gallery of Western American and American Indian Art, Past winner of True West’s Best Western Art Gallery award —

In 1925, Kathryn Downing-Smith, the wife of one of Patrick Gass’s grandsons, wrote a letter to her niece Pearl about Gass. She offered keen insight into a man who, until his dying years, had been a soldier and teller of tall tales of his time with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the Rocky Mountain West.

“In height he [Gass] was medium, had gray-blue eyes, and dark brown hair. You will see the resemblance in their faces and you will recall mother’s stalky build, and she is very light on her feet,” she wrote.

“She must be like him in disposition too, for I have never heard her complain of her deafness and is even tempered, always making the best of hard circumstances, quiet, methodical, and persevering….

“He was sociable and liked company. Many people came to hear him tell of his experiences on the [Lewis and Clark] expedition. He always spoke with praise for Lewis and Clark…[and] he had a black cat which he named Sacagawea for the Indian woman who accompanied them.”

Gass lived the waning years of his life far from the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, in Wellsburg, West Virginia, which is situated roughly between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. He died there on April 2, 1870, just before his 100th birthday, far outliving any of the other Corps of Discovery members.

Mountain man Patrick Gass rockies true west magazine
Meriwether Lewis hoped his experimental iron frame boat would help the Corps of Discovery make good time. Joseph Field, Meriwether Lewis, Patrick Gass and John Shields (from left) stretch leather skins over the iron framework near the Great Falls of the Missouri River.
— Illustrated by Keith Rocco/ Courtesy National Park Service —

Sought for Corps of Discovery

Born on June 12, 1771, near Chambersburg, in central Pennsylvania, Gass later moved to the central part of the state with his family, serving in the local militia and working as a carpenter. In 1779, Gass enlisted in the regular Army and was stationed at Fort Kaskaskia in Illinois Territory. That post is where, in 1803, an equally young and ambitious man named Meriwether Lewis, with orders from U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, sought Gass for a most singular task: to join the celebrated Corps of Discovery.

The mission of the Corps was to chart a path to the Pacific Ocean in the newly-opened expanse of territory recently acquired by the U.S. from France in the Louisiana Purchase.

After the expedition left St. Louis, Missouri, and ascended the Missouri River, Sgt. Charles Floyd died in what is now known as Floyd’s Bluff in Sioux City, Iowa. The 22-year-old sergeant died on August 20, 1804, from a ruptured appendix.

Captain William Clark’s journal entry for that day read (typos left intact): “Floyd Died with a great deal of Composure…. We buried him on the top of the bluff. 1/2 Mile below [is] a Small river to which we Gave his name, He was buried with the Honors of War much lamented, a Seeder post with the Name Sgt. C. Floyd died here 20th of August 1804 was fixed at the head of his grave.

“This Man at all times gave us proofs of his firmness and Determined resolution to doe Service to his Countrey and honor to himself. after paying all the honor to our Decesed brother we camped in the Mouth of Floyd’s River about 30 yards wide, a butiful evening.”

That same night, the men elected Gass to serve as sergeant in Floyd’s place.

Floyd’s untimely passing was fortunately the only one of the entire 1804-05 expedition. Despite the sadness of the affair, all was not lost for the Corps. In Gass’s journals, he wrote of spending Christmas at Fort Mandan that year: “This evening we finished our fortification. Flour, dried apples, pepper and other articles were distributed in the different messes to enable them to celebrate Christmas in a proper and social manner.”

The completion of the fort was cause for celebration. On Christmas Day, Gass wrote: “Captain Clark then presented to each man a glass of brandy, and we hoisted the American flag in the garrison, and its first waving in fort Mandan was celebrated with another glass. The men cleared out one of the rooms and commenced dancing, which was continued in a jovial manner till 8 at night.”

The expedition built the fortified encampment along the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota. Gass’s skills as a carpenter were put to good use in constructing Fort Mandan.

Gass also oversaw the construction of winter quarters at Camp Dubois and Fort Clatsop. He hewed dugout canoes in Mandan, near White Bear Island in present-day Montana, and Canoe Camp, in Idaho, and constructed wagons to portage the canoes to the Great Falls in Montana Territory.

Not everything was a success. Gass also helped Lewis try to build his experimental iron frame boat near the Great Falls. Lewis had conceived of the idea back East, believing a lightweight and maneuverable boat would allow the expedition to make good time.

Once Lewis unpacked the boat, however,  he realized the lack of pine trees meant he didn’t have a substance to make the pitch to seal the boat.  Working obsessively, Lewis devised a makeshift formula of buffalo tallow, bees wax, charcoal and hides for the seal, but it proved unsuccessful.

“…to make any further experiments in our present situation seemed to me madness; the buffaloe had principally deserted us, and the season was now advancing fast,” wrote Lewis on July 9, 1805.

Mountain man Patrick Gass rockies true west magazine
Patrick Gass authored the earliest published firsthand account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, in 1807. An 1811 edition of his journal featured illustrations by an unidentified artist, including the shown “Captain Clark & his men building a line of Huts.”
— Journal courtesy Heritage Auctions, June 4-5, 2008; Illustration courtesy Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois —

The Intrepid Fighter

After Gass returned to civilization in September 1806, he sought out and formed a partnership with David McKeehan, a Pittsburgh book and stationery store owner, to edit his expedition journals.

Gass, by his own admission, “never learned to read, write, and cipher till he had come of age.” Much of Gass’s journals paraphrase original field notes, which were destroyed during the initial publication.

Issued in 1807, Gass’s journal is important not only for its contents, but also for being the first published journal of the expedition, seven years before the first publication based on Lewis and Clark’s journals. The title page featured “Corps of Discovery,” and thus, Gass is credited for popularizing the name coined by the explorers.

Now middle-aged, Gass returned to military service and found himself stationed at the same fort in Illinois Territory he had been so eagerly recruited from in 1803. Gass saw service in the War of 1812. Two years later, he saw action at one of the war’s bloodiest battles in Niagara Falls, Canada, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. During that battle, a falling and splintering tree caused Gass to lose one of his eyes.

Despite his injury, the intrepid fighter persisted. He wouldn’t stop until after the U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war.

In the years following the war, Gass found himself with little excitement and took to drinking and relaying to anyone who would listen stories of his days with Lewis and Clark in the Rocky Mountains.

He worked variously as a brewer, a ferryman and a carpenter. His respectable living was strengthened by the 1827 death of his father, who left Gass a sizable inheritance.

By 1829, Gass, now 58, had fallen in love with a 20-year-old woman. The two married in 1831, and, over the next 15 years, she bore him seven children. She tragically died of measles in 1846.

In 1860, he was kicked out of a local recruiting station for insisting on fighting in America’s Civil War. The chief complaint against Gass was not his fighting spirit, but his age, about 90 years old.

While Gass’s later years did not exhibit the excitement and adventurous spirit of his youth, he felt they were of equal importance, as reflected in Downing-Smith’s 1925 letter:

“Up to four years before his death when he became helpless, he walked weekly to Wellsburg to get the Wellsburg Herald for which he subscribed. At home he read the paper [and] cared for the small children. He was exceedingly fond of small children. The boys he held, one on either knee, and sang to them “Yankee Doodle,” queer Irish songs, and nonsense rhymes. This is one of them:

“A blue bird sat on a hickory limb;

He winked at me and I winked at him;

I up with my gun and broke his shin

And away the feathers flew!”

Erik J. Wright is an emergency management coordinator, in northeast Arkansas, an assistant editor for The Tombstone Epitaph newspaper and author of four books. He got his start in publishing at 16, when True West published his first article.

Jack Swilling

Thanks to True West Magazine for this content – you can check the original post here https://truewestmagazine.com/jack-swilling-forrest-gump/

Jack Swilling might well be called Arizona’s “Forrest Gump” because seems to have had a penchant for being involved in a number of historic events in Arizona’s early history.

In 1858 he was a prospector at Gila City, site of the first gold rush. When Tonto Apache and Yavapai Indians raided the new camp, Jack was elected leader of a group of rangers whose mission was to protect the prospectors.

A couple of years later he was in Pinos Altos, New Mexico, where miners were being attacked by Mimbres Apache under the leadership of the great chief Mangas Colorados. Jack was elected lieutenant of a militia group who called themselves the Arizona Rangers.

During that time the Civil War broke out Southern forces from Texas invaded New Mexico and the rangers were drafted into the Confederate Army. Lieutenant Jack Swilling joined a force of some 100 Texans who arrived in Tucson and created the Confederate Territory of Arizona. Jack was familiar with the land and proved invaluable assisting the Texas guerilla tactics along the Gila River trying to impede a Union force of some 2,000 troops from California who were coming to retake Arizona.

The Union forces vastly outnumbered the Rebs and in a few weeks, drove them out of the New Mexico Territory. Jack remained in New Mexico where he was recruited by the great mountain man and explorer, Joe Walker, to guide them into the unknown central mountains of Arizona.

Walker’s party was looking for gold in an area where few white men had ever dared to travel. At Pinos Altos, near today’s Silver City, New Mexico, they encountered Jack’s old nemesis, Mangas Colorados and his Mimbres Apache. During a parley, Jack managed to get the drop on the old chieftain and turned him over to the Union troops occupying New Mexico.

Following the encounter with the Mimbres Apache Jack would guide the Walker party up the Hassayampa River where, in 1863, they discovered rich deposits of gold that led to the founding of Prescott a year later. That same year Arizona became a territory and Prescott was chosen to be the capital city.

Jack also became a founder of another rich gold strike near the Hassayampa, Wickenburg. He was also with the party that found gold at Rich Hill, a few miles north of Wickenburg. It was the richest single gold strike in Arizona history.

Then in late 1868 he led another group into the Salt River Valley. This time they weren’t looking for gold but for farm land. With mining camps and military post springing up there was a great need for farm products. They cleaned out the ancient canals originally dug by the Hohokam Indians some 1,500 years earlier and by 1870 a new community rising out of the ashes of an old civilization the future capital city of Phoenix was born.

Jack Swilling is a name that goes almost unrecognized by Arizonans today. Much of what is known about him today comes from tall tales, lies and half-truths. He was a tall, powerful man, brave, generous to a fault, a wonderful family man and for the most part was respected by his contemporaries. Swilling was the stuff of legends and certainly deserves a better place in history.

Badlands, Bison & Rough Riders

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Badlands, Bison and Rough Riders Medora, North Dakota, is the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

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Every summer visitors to Medora can enjoy horse-drawn wagon tours of the historic North Dakota town that future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, first visited in 1883 on a hunting expedition. The natural beauty of the Little Missouri Badlands inspired the New Yorker to buy the nearby Maltese Cross Ranch. – Medora Photo by Chuck Haney, Courtesy North Dakota Tourism –

Teddy Roosevelt first came to Medora, North Dakota, in September of 1883 to
hunt buffalo. He so loved the region that he later operated two ranches there, and included the town on a Presidential tour in 1903.

He later recalled that visit, saying the entire population of the Badlands “down to the smallest baby had turned out to greet me.” He “shook hands with them all” and regretted that he couldn’t spend more time with them.

The Roosevelt name still echoes at venues around town, including in the Medora Musical, an outdoor variety act based largely on the 26th president. Over three summer months, the patriotic, Western-style show draws as many as 125,000 people to the Burning Hills Amphitheatre.

“If you plan to go over a weekend, expect a sellout,” says Natalie Beard, executive director of the Medora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re quiet until June 1 and all of a sudden it’s a different place. Things start jumping.”

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The Medora Musical (right) is presented for three months every summer in Medora’s Burnt Hills Amphitheatre in celebration of the life of Theodore Roosevelt and America. – John Weber, Courtesy Medora CVB –

The town has about 350 hotel rooms, but only 112 residents. Still, it ranks as North Dakota’s most popular destination, a place of great beauty on the western edge of the Badlands.

The biggest draw is the 70,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park,
the entrance to which bumps against downtown. Visitors can take a 36-mile loop drive through the park, past grazing buffalo, wild horses and stunning rock formations.

The Marquis’ Dream

Set on the Little Missouri River, the town began in 1883 as a stop on the Northern Pacific Railway. Its founder, the 24-year-old French nobleman, Marquis de Mores, named it after his bride, Medora von Hoffman.

His two-story frame chateau, now part of a state historic park, has 26 rooms furnished in the finest 1880s style. Be sure to stop at the restored von Hoffman House nearby, built by Medora’s parents and recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Take a walking tour of Medora’s charming downtown, with its board sidewalks and quaint shops. The Rough Riders Hotel, completed in 1885 and originally called the Metropolitan, was renamed in honor of Roosevelt’s famed 1st Volunteer Cavalry, which stormed San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.

The mansion Marquis de Mores built for his wife, Medora, is now part of a state historical park. The chateau has been restored and its 26 rooms  are decorated with 1880s furnishings. – Inset, Antoine Mores, True West Archives/Chateau Mores Courtesy Medora CVB –
The mansion Marquis de Mores built for his wife, Medora, is now part of a state historical park. The chateau has been restored and its 26 rooms are decorated with 1880s furnishings.
– Inset, Antoine Mores, True West Archives/Chateau Mores Courtesy Medora CVB –

The lobby doubles as a library with a massive stone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with books about Roosevelt.

The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame features a 15,000-square-foot interpretive center with exhibits that explain all aspects of the area’s Western heritage. Visit the Western Heritage & Cultures exhibit on the second floor of the museum to read about its honorees, including Sitting Bull and popular Western author Louis L’Amour.

At the Billings County Courthouse Museum, see exhibits about the pioneers and a fine gun collection. Former mayor and local historian Doug Ellison recommends reading the notes that cowboy actor Tom Mix wrote to the ranch family he worked for near town.

Mix married his third wife, Olive Stokes, in Medora in 1909. “She visited from Oklahoma and Mix pursued her here, intending to marry her,” says Ellison. “She came to buy horses and left town as Mrs. Tom Mix.”

After touring the museum’s Hall of Honor, which tells about sheriffs who’ve served Billings County, stop at Ellison’s Western Edge bookstore, where Ellison will tell you all about Fred Willard, a little-known Black Hills gunfighter who became the first sheriff. Ellison is writing a book about Willard.

Medora has a strong Custer connection, too. On May 28, 1876, as his command marched toward legend at the Little Big Horn, they camped along Davis Creek, about 15 miles southeast of town.

Unaware of what awaited them, Frank Neely and William Williams, who served under Maj. Marcus Reno and survived the fight, took time to carve their names on a sandstone bluff. Those etchings are still visible at a site called Initial Rock.

Leo W. Banks is an award-winning writer based in Tucson. He has written several books of history for Arizona Highways.

A pistoleer…

A Pistoleer Goes Semi Auto Frank James started riding the outlaw trail in the 1860s, armed with percussion revolvers, and ended up in the 20th century, packing a 1903 Hammerless Colt.

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Outlaw Frank James, shown here in his later years, rode with his brother Jesse and the notorious James-Younger gang in the 1860s and ‘70s. He started riding the “owl hoot trail” with percussion black powder revolvers, but by the early 1900s, he packed a 1903 semi-auto, smokeless ammo pistol to defend his life. – Photo Courtesy Library of Congress –

While we generally think of the Wild West as the era of the revolver—and it certainly was—the last decade of the 19th century and the dawning of the 20th century saw the debut of the automatic pistol. Early autos like the Borchardt (1893), “Broomhandle” Mauser (1896), Luger (1900), and early 1900s Colts had become available and a small number were finding their way into the hands of Westerners. Men who had made their reputations with six-shooters were taking notice of the new semi-auto handguns and a few started packing these slab-sided auto pistols.

Notable frontier figures Bat Masterson and Buffalo Bill Cody and some lawmen owned auto pistols. One former outlaw, who, ironically, started his lawless career with percussion revolvers, chose a semi-auto sidearm for protection in the early 1900s. He was none other than Frank James, the older brother of the infamous Jesse James, and former Confederate guerilla raider, train and bank robber, and deadly member of the notorious James-Younger gang of the 1860s and ’70s.

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The hammerless .32 Pocket Autos produced before 1915 are stamped on the right side of the slide “AUTOMATIC COLT/CALIBRE 32 RIMLESS SMOKELESS” in two lines because there were many black powder firearms still in service. – Courtesy Phil Spangenberger Collection –

Although Frank James had been living the straight and narrow life for years after his 1883 acquittal for robbery and murder, by 1904 circumstances required his packing a gun once more. What this ex-rebel raider chose as his last sidearm was a 1903 Colt Hammerless Pocket Auto in .32 ACP (Automatic Colt’s Pistol) chambering.

Introduced in 1903 as Colt’s second pocket auto, but its first automatic with a concealed hammer, the handy little handgun was called the “Model M,” and ad vertised as a nine-shot automatic with a magazine capacity of eight rounds, plus one in the chamber. It was also promoted as an ideal hideout pistol since it was “flat like a book in the pocket.” Another John Browning-designed pistol, the 1903 Hammerless traced its design principles back to Browning’s patent of April 20, 1897, and to December 22, 1903,which covered the concealed hammer design. While barrels on the first 71,999 guns measured four inches, all models after that had 33⁄4-inch barrels. With the exception of the later-produced military models, there was no magazine safety.

Standard finish on the .32 Hammerless was blue, although other coverings were offered. Grips varied throughout production, with three types of hard rubber Colt logo’d panels used up through 1924. Later, checkered walnut with the Colt medallion adorned those up through 1945. Few guns in Colt’s history can boast of the production numbers of the 1903 .32 Hammerless with a total of 572,215 manufactured between 1903 and 1945.

As with other Colt automatics to date, the 1903 Hammerless was a John M. Browning design, with a Dec. 22, 1903, patented improvement which covered the concealed hammer. Early ‘03s, like this circa 1905 example, had 4-inch barrels. Starting wi th ser. no. 72,000, guns had 33⁄4-inch barrels. – Phil Spangenberger collection –
As with other Colt automatics to date, the 1903 Hammerless was a John M. Browning design, with a Dec. 22, 1903, patented improvement which covered the concealed hammer. Early ‘03s, like this circa 1905 example, had 4-inch barrels. Starting wi th ser. no. 72,000, guns had 33⁄4-inch barrels.
– Phil Spangenberger collection –

In 1904, while Frank James and fellow ex-gang member Cole Younger were promoting “The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West Show,” trying to run it as an honest business, the owners had ideas of their own and brought in gamblers, con men, grifters and other lawless types. Concerned about the thugs the bosses were bringing with them, and after an attempt by the owners and managers at strong-arming the two former outlaws, Frank and Cole quit the show amidst a quarrel where threats were made and guns were drawn. From then on, both James and Younger “went heeled” once again.

Afterward, Frank went on a lecture tour and, while in Butte, Montana, later that year, a man who supposedly a relative of a cashier killed in the 1876 Great Northfield Raid, threatened to kill Frank James. Not one to shirk a fight, James armed himself with the 1903 Colt Hammerless. When the local authorities asked Frank to leave town, the old outlaw replied, “I will go when I am ready.” Fortunately, the would-be shooter, who was armed with a .45 caliber wheelgun, was subdued before Frank arrived at the theater where he was speaking. Even at 60-plus years old, Frank James and his 1903 Colt Hammerless were not “a pair to draw to.”

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