The Comanche and his Horse

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The Comanche and his HorseThe acquisition of the horse in the 1600s brought immediate and sweeping changes to the Plains Indians.

Comanche indians horses true west magazine
Comanche tribe members with their horses.

The acquisition of the horse in the 1600s brought immediate and sweeping changes to the Plains Indians. For the first time it gave them a wide range and mobility for hunting and military might. It brought about the most glorious period in their history. The Comanche were the first to acquire the horse referred to them as their “God Dogs.” They built an entire culture around them.

The Comanche became expert ropers and popular way to capture and break a young horse was to rope him, choke him to exhaustion and while the horse was down on the ground the captor would then blow his breath into the nostrils of the animal and remove the “wild hairs” around its eyes. A headstall or hackamore, a loop was placed around the jaw and tied at the neck. The horse would then be attached to a gentle mare. The warrior would then handle him enough to get him used to being around humans. After a few days he would be turned loose to be free but would remain with the mare, following her everywhere she went. When it came time to ride the handler would take the horse into deep water or a sand-bottomed creek to mount. This served to take some of the starch out of his bucking and make the landing softer if the horse succeeded in unloading its rider.

Capturing and breaking a wild horse was good but the Comanche was also an excellent horse thief and stealing them was developed into an art. Getting horses by plunder and especially under dangerous conditions gave the warrior an opportunity for valor and prestige. The Comanche raided for other plunder and scalps but more often than not he preferred to go on horse-stealing forays.

There were a lot of ways to break a horse and over time the Indians adopted some of the methods of the white man and vice versa. Kindness rather than cruelty was always the most effective way to break a horse.

They also practiced selective breeding, gelding the inferior males and breeding the best stallions with their mares.

Rival Plains Indians tribes noted the Comanche affinity for his mounts in their campfire stories noted that in time of danger a Comanche would bring his favorite horses into the tee pee and make his wives sleep outside. They also claimed that when a Comanche copulated with his wife he would mount her from behind and whinny like a stallion.

Artist George Catlin, who was one of the first to write about them wrote: “A Comanche is out of his element and comparatively almost as awkward as a monkey on the ground without a limb or a branch to cling to; but the moment he lays his hands upon his horse his face even becomes handsome and he gracefully flies away like a different being.”

William Blakemore, an Englishman spent eight years with the tribe left this description: “On foot slow and awkward, but on horseback graceful, they are the most expert and daring riders in the world. In battle they sweep down upon their enemies with terrific yells, and concealing the whole body with the exception of one foot behind their horses, discharge bullets or arrows over and under the animal’s neck and accurately. Each has his favorite war-horse which he regards with great affection and only mounts when he goes into battle. Even the women are daring riders and hunters, lassoing antelope and shooting buffalo.”


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.

Wyatt Earp Donation

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Sitting with Wyatt Earp Never-before-seen biographer materials donated to the Tombstone Courthouse.

Wyatt Earp True West Magazine

Dreams of a “fly-on-the-wall” moment in Western history certainly include sitting with Wyatt Earp in the 1920s as he set the record straight about his life and legend, including
his take on the 1881 Gunfight Behind the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory.

During Sunday visits to the Los Angeles cottage Wyatt shared with his wife, Josephine, Wyatt’s secretary John H. Flood Jr. captured every word.

For nearly 100 years, those shorthand notes—along with an early typed manuscript of Earp’s biography and photos of the last years of the Earps’ lives—have been in private hands.

Now the public can become a fly-on-the-wall to Wyatt’s version of his days in Arizona, Kansas and Colorado, thanks to a donation to the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park by Eric Weider, former owner and publisher of Wild West magazine.

“This is as close as you can get to talking to Wyatt Earp, and hopefully will contribute to the knowledge of the West,” Weider says.

That “coming home” is thanks to two persuasive Arizonans. First, Gordon Anderson, owner of Tombstone’s Larian Motel, was dismayed to learn Weider intended to donate the collection to Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and asked that the courthouse be considered. Weider was lukewarm to the idea until he talked with Arizona State Parks and Trails Curator Joanne Brace.

“I was really impressed with her enthusiasm. And she was so responsive, she got me to rethink my plan,” Weider says.

Thrilled with that decision, Brace says,  “This is one of, if not the most, significant item ever given to Arizona State Parks and Trails. Everyone who’s interested in Wyatt Earp will find their way to Tombstone to see this display.”

The location is particularly significant, since Wyatt watched the two-story Victorian-style courthouse being built. He and his brothers arrived in Tombstone in 1879 and left in the spring of 1882, as the courthouse was under construction.

The collection includes Wyatt’s description of his move from Kansas to Tombstone, and his decision to abandon law enforcement work: “So I purchased a Concord coach, two wagons and sixteen head of horses and started for Arizona for the purpose of starting a stage line.

Arizona is calling the donation the Josephine Earp Collection because it includes 33 of her handwritten letters—in her “messy handwriting,” as Weider puts it—including one expressing her grief when Wyatt died at the age of 80, on January 13, 1929: “I am telling you Mr. Flood I am sick grieving over my husband and after this is all over and I have my property all fixed up, I really don’t care what happens to me as I have lost my best friend.

Weider stipulated the collection be available to the public. “We know the legend,” he says, “but this is a look at the real people.”

Jana Bommersbach has earned recognition as Arizona’s Journalist of the Year and won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She cowrote the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.

Judge Roy Bean

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Judge Roy Bean Justice West of the Pecos.

Judge Roy Bean True West
Judge Roy Bean

When a passenger train pulled into the little town of Langtry to take on water the passengers had about twenty minutes to flock to the Jersey Lillie and wet their whistles. Bean advertised ice cold drinks but the saloon had no ice so he’d put large chunks of clear glass in them to provide a tinkling sound. It’s assumed the noise provided the desired psychological effect.

When the conductor shouted “All aboard,” Bean would deliberately linger when giving the passengers their change. Most gave up and rushed to board the moving train. The judge considered it gratuity and stuck it in his pocket.

However, the judge had little tolerance when the shoe was on the other foot. When a local restaurant owner who owed him some money didn’t pay up Bean waited until his café was full one evening then stood by the door and acted as cashier. When enough money was collected to satisfy the debt he kept on collecting, considering the excess as interest owed.

Judge Bean had no problem exceeding his authority as justice of the peace either when it came to marrying couples. He defended that by declaring he was saving his constituents the cost of having to travel to the county seat at Del Rio.

He also granted divorces justifying that by declaring he’d married them and he had a right to rectify his error. Once two couples came in the saloon requesting divorces. Divorces, like marriages cost two dollars each. As they headed for the door he noticed they’d swapped partners. He called them back to court, informed them fornication outside the marriage was illegal and he’d have to fine them or perform two more marriages. This time he charged them five dollars each.

Sometimes this business of divorce got complicated. One evening he stopped by Mrs. Dodd’s boarding house to eat. “You look awfully tired Judge,” she opined, “what’s been happening?”

“I’m tired” he replied. “I divorced two couples today then swapped ‘em around and remarried them. Then I spent the rest of the day dividing up the children.”

Pony Express Riders

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Death-Defying Riders of the Pony Express Sifting through the myths to uncover the gritty truths about Pony Express riders.

Pony Express True West
The idea that Pony Express riders wore buckskins can be traced to the popularity of Frederic Remington’s 1901 oil, The Coming and Going of the Pony Express. But the master cowboy artist made a major mistake.
— Courtesy Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma —

When America’s first Pony Express rider set off on April 3, 1860, from St. Joseph, Missouri, launching a coast-to-coast transfer of news and messages that would take 10 days instead of months to arrive, pioneers hailed the news with joy.

Yet what seemed so monumental in 1860 was already old news in 1861. The telegraph promised instant communication. Instead of riders racing back and forth with your news, a series of electric current pulses would transmit messages over wires.

But first those wires needed to be strung across the nation. And thus, the Pony Express rider remained a vision of death-defying courage crossing the prairies and deserts when one steamboat pilot struck out on his stagecoach journey, abandoning his Mississippi River life to travel across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. On his way to his destination in Nevada Territory, this adventurer came face to face with destiny.

Pony Express True West
The Pony Express ended up lasting only from April 3, 1860, to October 24, 1861, because telegraph lines got strung up across the nation, allowing for quicker transmit of messages. For such a short-lived endeavor, the Pony Express sure withstood the tests of time.
— George M. Ottinger’s 1867 wood engraving courtesy Library of Congress —

“In early August 1861, near what is now Mud Springs in remote western Nebraska, Twain saw an Express rider,” so said Christopher Corbett, author of Orphans Preferred, at this summer’s Western Writers of America convention in Kansas City, Missouri.

Corbett continued to set the scene: “The stagecoach driver had been promising him that he would see one, and Twain had taken to riding on top of the coach to take in the view, wearing only his long underwear. The entire encounter took less than two minutes.

“Writing entirely from memory (with his brother’s diary to stimulate him) in Hartford, Connecticut, 10 years later, Twain wrung an entire chapter of Roughing It from that moment. He thus initiated what many a chronicler would continue after him: he preserved the memory of the Pony, with perhaps a little embellishment.”

Of course, when the budding journalist was traveling on that stagecoach to Nevada Territory, he wasn’t yet known by his nom de plume. He was still Samuel Clemens. But by the time Roughing It got published  in 1872, the world knew him as Mark Twain.

Pony Express True West
Walter Martin Baumhofer painted a grandiose and iconic portrayal of a Pony Express rider, complete with a classic wagon train in the background and plenty of sky above.
— Courtesy Heritage Auctions, March 1-2, 2012 —

No Stetson, No Pistol, No Buckskins?

In his humorous American travelogue Roughing It, a favorite book of many to this day, Twain gave one of the most noteworthy descriptions of Pony Express riders, clothed differently than how they are popularly pictured.

“The rider’s dress was thin, and fitted close; he wore a ‘round-about,’ and a skull-cap, and tucked his pantaloons into his boot-tops like a race-rider.

“He carried no arms—he carried nothing that was not absolutely necessary, for even the postage on his literary freight was worth five dollars a letter….

“His horse was stripped of all unnecessary weight, too. He wore a little wafer of a racing-saddle, and no visible blanket.

Pony Express True West
Pony Express riders carried messages in four pockets (cantinas) as shown in the reproduction mochila. Openings cut into the leather allowed riders to fit the mochila over the saddle horn and cantle.
— Reproduction mochila Courtesy Smithsonian National Postal Museum —

“He wore light shoes, or none at all. The little flat mail-pockets strapped under the rider’s thighs would each hold about the bulk of a child’s primer.”

Isn’t that kind of shocking? An actual Pony Express rider did not wear a big ’ol cowboy hat—he wore a skull cap! He did not wear a fringe coat, nor did he carry a pistol! And his saddle didn’t have bulging mail packets on the side!

What seems odd at first, only because of numerous artistic representations that contradict the description, actually makes sense when one remembers: the lighter the ride, the faster the speed.

One of the partners behind the Pony Express, Alexander Majors, explained the saddle’s slim pockets, in his 1893 autobiography, Seventy Years on the Frontier.

The business letters and press dispatches were printed on tissue paper, which allowed for a light weight required for transporting the mail quickly via horses (usually a thoroughbred on the Eastern route and a mustang for the rugged Western terrain). The weight was fixed at 10 pounds or under; each half of an ounce cost $5 in gold to transport.

Pony Express True West
An inaccurate graphic of a Pony rider carrying his mail in a backpack,.
— True West Archives —

A rider’s desire to keep the weight as light as possible also explained why Twain’s rider didn’t carry a gun.

“Along a well-traveled part of the trail (as where Twain encountered him), a rider wouldn’t have to think about carrying a gun,” says Paul Fees, the retired curator from the Buffalo Bill Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.

“At night, or through more dangerous territory, I suspect he would arm himself. The revolver of choice, apparently, was the Colt Model 1849 percussion pocket revolver in .31 caliber.”

Now we know why the 80 chosen to be riders were called the “pick of the frontier.” To put your life on the line so you could faithfully meet the 10-day schedule required grit and gumption. Yet Pony riders must have felt the gamble was worth the gig; their $50 a month salary was good pay in the days when a skilled blacksmith made $33.

Okay, so we’re making the mochila lighter and, for the most part, tossing any firearms, but what about the attire? Would a Pony Express rider really go without his cowboy hat, his boots and his buckskins?

Pony Express True West
The skulls littering the landscape remind viewers of the hostile country toward San Francisco, California, faced by this rider—he’s hoping he’ll outride those American Indians racing after him!
— True West Archives —

Dressing for Success

Hold your horses! Your notion of what that Pony Express rider looked like during his short-lived yet impressive career may still be somewhat accurate. Although one aspect does not appear to be true to history at all.

“Boots were the main footwear, although it wouldn’t be out of line for some riders to wear leather moccasins if they had them as normal footwear,” says Elanna “Quackgrass Sally” Skorupa, who has ridden the Pony Express trails for more than 25 years and is the only member of the National Pony Express Association to belong to all eight state divisions (she even carried the Olympic torch for the Pony Express!). 

The clothing changed with the seasons and was as varied as the riders themselves, Skorupa says, adding, “Hats of all shapes and styles would have been worn…. Wool, calico and cotton shirts, wool britches and homespun sackcloth would have been the norm. I have heard mention of some gloves and even perhaps some gauntlets, but these were very young men, so their personal items would have been few.”

Twain’s rider just had a penchant for a skull cap over a cowboy hat and light shoes over boots. And instead of a buckskin fringe coat, he wore a…round-about? That’s not such a familiar term.

Pony Express True West
Billy Johnson, who performed the Pony Express history for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, stands next to a mochila incorrectly stamped “U.S. Mail.”
— Johnson photo courtesy Heritage Auctions, December 11-12, 2012 —

Turns out, a round-about is a fitting choice for someone looking to literally lighten the load on his shoulders. It is a short, close-fitting jacket. Readers may be familiar with the ornate version of this jacket, worn by U.S. Dragoons of the Antebellum era, military historian John Langellier says.

Picturing Twain’s Pony rider in a short jacket, tucked-in pants, light shoes, skull cap and minus a pistol may make logical sense. (And he possibly wore boots. Twain was contradictory on this point. Perhaps his rider changed footwear for the terrain?) Each rider’s style adjusted with the seasons and topography, and beyond that, he wore what felt comfortable and light for the task at hand.

Yet getting Twain’s rider to gallop in the Pony Express movie in our minds may prove difficult. After all, the popular idea of how a Pony Express rider should look is best portrayed in Frederic Remington’s The Coming and Going of the Pony Express. His Pony Express rider is superbly clad in a buckskin suit, with his cowboy hat flared up to the sky and his trusty pistol strapped to his waist.

But the master cowboy artist got this attire wrong.

Pony Express True West
The romance of the American West’s Pony Express has reached as far as Russia, as demonstrated by Valeriy Kagounkin’s painting of a rider.
— Courtesy C.M. Russell Museum Benefit Auction, March 18-19, 2016 —

Romancing the Pony

“I have seen several artists clothe these riders in buckskins,” Skorupa says, “and usually the Pony Express rider is portrayed older than the young age of the true riders.”

Then she twists the knife in: “I have never found any evidence of the riders wearing buckskins.”

Oh, say it’s not so. Yes, the artist was a New Yorker, but his bloodlines link him to the esteemed American Indian portrait artist George Catlin, to the founder of Remington Arms Eliphalet Remington, to Mountain Man Jedediah Smith and even to our country’s first president, George Washington. He’s not the caliber to swap the real for the mythic!

When actually, that’s somewhat Remington’s appeal as an artist. When he tried out sheep ranching in Kansas in 1883, he found the work boring and rough. He was more of a pseudo-cowboy. He had real-life adventures that gave him an honest connection to the frontier world he was depicting, but you could never call him a bona fide frontiersman. His style was more hearty and breezy than scrupulous, and if he wanted his Pony Express rider to wear a buckskin suit, then truth be damned.

Pony Express True West
These riders exchange their mail in Percy Van Eman Ivory’s The Spirit of the Pony Express oil, allowing for messages to reach the coast in 10 days. Before then, news was dreadfully slow. By the time people back East heard about the 1848 gold strike in California, six months had passed and some boomtowns had gone bust!
— Courtesy Heritage Auctions, October 15-16, 2010 —

Even so, Remington paid proper homage to the Pony Express rider’s history. In the dead of winter, blinding snow all around him, his rider gallops off, having just changed his horse at one of the relay stations that made the endeavor such a success (the stops gave both horses and riders time to rest without gaps in the service of delivering the mail). All the inappropriate weight the artist threw onto his rider clothing-wise, he more than made up for in the overall tone that these riders were boys and young men to admire, who set forth in any kind of weather, in unforeseen worlds of danger, to do a job well done.   

Perhaps Remington and all the others who clothed these daring riders in buckskins were paying too much attention to “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s portrayal of them.

“For three decades a representation of the Pony Express was a spectacle at every performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” Buffalo Bill biographer Don Russell wrote. “No other act was more consistently on its program. It was easy to stage, and it had the interest of a race, as well as re-creating a romantic episode.”

Russell pointed out that “almost nothing was written about [the Pony Express] for half a century after its brief existence” and later added, “It is highly unlikely that the Pony Express would be so well remembered had not Buffalo Bill so glamorized it; in common opinion Buffalo Bill and Pony Express are indissolubly linked.”

Pony Express True West
A chip off the Frederic Remington block, Dwight V. Roberts’s oil of a Pony Express rider offers yet another buckskin blunder.
— Courtesy Heritage Auctions, December 9, 2009 —

Remington would have known of Buffalo Bill’s Pony Express presentation. He studied the Wild West show cast for his illustration published in Harper’s Weekly on August 18, 1894. He, like many Americans, undoubtedly saw Buffalo Bill as a buckskin-clad Pony Express rider on the September 19, 1888, cover of Beadle’s Dime New York Library.

We should forgive Remington for his buckskin suit rider, even as we reshape our world view to imagine one of these brave souls wearing a skull cap instead of a cowboy hat. After all, without the romance, would we even remember these Pony Express riders today?

Arizona Cattle Company

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Arizona Cattle Company and the A1 Brand

arizona cattle company a1 true west

The arrival of Mormon colonists from Utah in 1876 heralded the first permanent Anglo-American settlements in northern Arizona.  Even though cattle ranching was one of the territory’s largest industries, it was still in its infancy in the area around Flagstaff until the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1881.

John Young, a son of Mormon leader Brigham Young was one of the earliest settlers.  He was contracted to deliver 50,000 railroad ties for the new line.  He built a camp for his tie cutters in what is today Fort Valley, a few miles north of Flagstaff.  The threat of Indian raids caused Young to turn the camp into a fortress, which he called Moroni, after the Mormon angel.  A log cabin 75 feet long acted as one side of the bastion.  The other three sides of the square consisted of railroad ties set in the ground on end.

The arrival of the iron-bellied locomotives in 1881 marked the real beginning of the cattle business in northern Arizona.  Young and several companions organized the Mormon Cattle Company, stocking the virgin ranges around Flagstaff for the first time on a large scale.  By 1883, the price of cattle was $50 a head, up from $15 a head just two years earlier.  That same year Young teamed up with a group of Eastern capitalists, led by Colonel Jake Ruppert Sr. father of the man who would own the New York Yankees during the heyday of Babe Ruth.  They founded the Arizona Cattle Company, headquartering at Fort Moroni.

Young, a polygamist, didn’t stay in the business long.  In 1885, a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was forced to sell his share and make a hasty exit for the hills.

After Young left, the outfit build several new buildings at Fort Moroni and renamed it Fort Rickerson, in honor of C. L. Rickerson, an officer in the New York based company.  During its heyday, the Arizona Cattle Company, or A1, ran some 16,000 head on some of the finest cattle country in Arizona.  They ranged from south of Flagstaff near Lake Mary, north to the Grand Canyon, and from Ash Fork on the west, to the Little Colorado on the east on 132,000 acres of land purchased from the railroad at fifty cents an acre.

In 1885 the absentee owners selected a field manager, a colorful, blustering ex-Chicago fire captain named B. B. Bullwinkle, who literally talked his way into heading up one of northern Arizona’s largest cow outfits.  In spite of his inexperience, Bullwinkle learned the cow business quickly.  His commanding presence more than made up for his lack of knowledge, and the ranch flourished with the captain at the helm.  He erected fences, built barns and bridges on the ranch.  He even strung a telegraph line from Fort Rickerson to Flagstaff.  His range boss was a hard-riding cowboy named Jack Diamond, who held the job until the company folded in 1899.

Bullwinkle was a gentleman who liked pretty women, fast horses, and poker.  The epic poker games the flamboyant captain engaged in with other cattlemen were a reflection of the prosperous times in the business. In one game, with just the turn of a card, the captain held three aces, became the new owner of 762 cows, and a big stock ranch.

A few days after that historic poker game, in 1887, Bullwinkle was killed when his horse took a fall while he was racing another cowman at breakneck speed into Flagstaff.

The Arizona Cattle Company prospered a few more years before a prolonged drought and overstocked ranges drove the company out of business in 1899.  That year range boss Jack Diamond shipped a record 10,000 head to market.  But the good times were gone.  That same year the Hash Knife outfit went bust closing the book on a colorful chapter in Arizona history.

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.

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.

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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