Western Writers of America

Fredrick W. Boling -- Writing Western

Author of novels, short stories and articles about America's Frontier

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Our Western Heritage

Fredrick W. Boling

Published in October 2002 Western Writers of America ROUNDUP Magazine.

"All aboard for Rock Springs,..." by permission of Richard Huseth

 

     The West has always been America's frontier. From the time that her first immigrants stepped onto the eastern shore, their eyes have looked westward toward the horizon of their dreams. Out there, somewhere was a new beginning for those that were ready to shuck life's misfortunes or find fortune's larder or just thrill to the adventure of taming the wilderness.

     The Western wilderness became the mistress of many adventurers that dared to set their steps across the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley and the Alleghenies into the valleys of the Ohio and Tennessee.

     All the time, the West stood beyond the western banks of the mighty Mississippi like Lorelei of the Rhine, beckoning them to cross over the muddy waters and savor adventure to its fullest. Adventure had lost its luster for some, so they homesteaded farms and built cities along the Ohio, Tennessee and Big Muddy. Others yielded to the temptress and crossed the rivers and struck out across the great open spaces of the plains toward the snow-capped pinnacles of the Rocky Mountains. A few ventured deeply into the mountains where they trapped beaver and lived among the lords of the West, those native peoples such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, and Shoshone. Known as mountain men, these brave souls explored the West and discovered mountain passes that later served tens of thousands of migrants headed for the fertile lands of California and Oregon.

     "Remember the Alamo!" echoed across the land in 1836. Several thousand Mexican troops under the command of General Santa Anna had massacred less than 200 defenders of the mission-fort at San Antonio. But soon thereafter, Texas patriots under the command of General Sam Houston brought their rebellion to an end at San Jacinto when they defeated the Mexicans.

     Texas independence opened the Southwest for thousands of immigrants that built vast ranching empires where longhorns soon roamed the range by the millions. The range was now the home of many an adventurer that took up the lariat and branding iron as the tools of their new trade. They were cowboys. They were unique individuals; a product of their times. Here on the range, the songs known as cowboy ballads were conceived. These songs, telling their stories about life on the range, were sung around campfires at night and out among herds of cattle to calm men and beasts alike

     In 1846-1847, Brigham Young led 5,000 Mormon pioneers across the plains from their winter quarters in Nebraska, into the Rocky Mountains, and finally to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, where they established Salt Lake City. They had finally found the "promised land" of their dreams. Some of them pulled two-wheeled carts, called Mormon carts, all the way across the plains and mountains. Many of them walked, carrying their worldly possession on their backs. Mainstream America had rejected them and their religious tenets. Now, they could make a new start in the wilds of frontier America.

     Gold! Gold!! Gold!!! Gold!!!!, became headlines on newspapers all across America. James Marshall had discovered gold nuggets glistening on the graveled riverbed at Sutter's mill on California's South Fork of the American River in 1848. Argonauts, as the men and women rushing to California to mine gold were called, soon were crossing the great plains and mountains of America by the thousands. Primitive trails were turning into rutted roads by steel-rimmed wagon wheels as long wagon trains invaded the Wild West. Diseases such as cholera, and accidents while fording rivers and traversing mountains, blizzards, scorching deserts, angry Indians and violent marauders took their toll on the seekers of gold.

     Following the Civil War, many men and women looked toward the West for their inspiration. They saw a new life beyond the Mississippi River, away from the destruction rendered by four years of war. Visionaries were setting themselves to the task of tying the East to the Far West with telegraph lines and railroads. These actions brought enmity between the Plains Indians and white America. Tribes like the Brule and Oglala Lakota had signed peace treaties with the U. S. Government in 1851, only to have them nullified by congress. When gold was discovered in Montana, a new wave of white migration surged across the plains. This influx of men and women crazed by the lust for gold was met with armed resistance by the affected tribes. Alarmed by the mounting hostilities, the Taylor Peace Commission called for a new conference to be held at Fort Laramie in the spring of 1866. Oglala War Chief Red Cloud gave the commission a scathing lecture and declared war on white America if the Army invaded Lakota lands. They did-and Red Cloud carried out his threat.

     The Lakota laid siege and began to harass the 18th U. S. Infantry, which was trying to build Forts Phil Kearny and C. F. Smith along the Bozeman Trail. A new respect for the hostile Lakota impacted the U. S. Army on December 21, 1866. A superior force of Lakota and Cheyenne under the command of Crazy Horse attacked and slaughtered brash Captain William Fetterman and his 80 troopers.

     Chief Red Cloud won his war two years later when the U. S. Army agreed to abandon Forts Phil Kearny and C. F. Smith. Peace was short-lived for all Plains Indians as the flexing muscles of white America brought more and more pressure on the U. S. Government. Treaties were made and broken. Disillusioned and furious, the Plains Indians rebelled against any more encroachment. Their refusal to be restricted on assigned reservations became a driving force, reaching a tumultuous event on June 25, 1876. Several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors annihilated Lt. Col. G. A. Custer and 225 of his 7th U. S. Cavalry on a barren knoll east of the Little Bighorn River.

     Even though the Cheyenne and Lakota had won the battle at the Little Bighorn, they were destined to lose the war. The U. S. Army, determined to avenge their tarnished image, set out to subjugate or annihilate every Plains Indian tribe in the West. It would require about ten years for their campaign to be accomplished.

     All of Wyoming and Montana's high plains east of the Rocky Mountains became a vast open-range pasture for great herds of cattle. The demand in the East for Western beef was spawning America's love affair with the West and the cowboys riding the range. In 1879, Moreton Frewen, an emigrant from England, bought a huge herd of cattle from a Sweetwater rancher. He drove his herd to the Powder River Basin east of the Bighorn Mountains and turned them loose to forage for themselves. Thus began the great open-range cattle industry that swept across the West.

     The cattle boom flooded the West with cattle barons, ranches, open range, rustlers, outlaws, gun-fighters and fast-drawing lawmen. Conflicts of major proportions were destined to bring armed uprisings to the West. The Johnson County, Wyoming Cattle War is one example when open-range cattle barons decided to rid Wyoming of all rustlers. Unfortunately, many of the so-called rustlers were homesteaders of small ranches and farms. The cattle barons lost the ensuing battle when a posse of over 200 men cornered the invaders at the TA Ranch compound south of Buffalo.

     As the railroads extended their lines across the plains, Texas ranchers started driving their cattle across Oklahoma and Indian territories to the railheads at Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas. The invasion of drovers with pockets full of silver overwhelmed these towns. Saloons, bawdy houses and gambling tables flourished, providing the vices desired by trail-weary cowboys. Alcohol, quick tempers and guns turned these railheads into lawless havens for brash and boisterous men who had endured six weeks of misery. The situation was resolved by the hiring of hardheaded, fast-drawing lawman, such as Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson. Their actions, some heroic and others shady, spawned an era of heavy-handed law enforcement in the West. Many stories, some true but embellished, others outright fabrications, began to be written by freelance journalists like Ned Buntline. Then, Owen Wister came on the scene. He was born in 1860 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and traveled to Wyoming as a young man to recuperate from an illness. The American West enthralled him, and being a writer of some merit, he penned our first Western novel, The Virginian.

     Nobody has won the West. It is more than a stretch of land joining the Mississippi, River to the Pacific Ocean. Any inhabitant in the West has been or is a privileged person, no matter the color of skin, or language, or creed. Since the dawn of our age, the great American West has been the home of many tribes. There were ancient people who left archeological relics such as the Medicine Wheel atop Medicine Mountain in northern Wyoming. Tribes of American Indians who worshiped their mother, the earth-the four winds-the Great Spirit who created everything, followed them. Then the white, black, brown and yellow people came, all of them seeking after their individual dreams.

     As we ride into the sunset, we rein our horses around and gaze across the land that we affectionately call the West. On the silver screen of history, we see great open plains, snow capped mountain peaks, exploring mountain men, trains of canvas covered wagons, railroad tracks stretching from horizon to horizon, vast herds of cattle, and boom towns that have disappeared. We listen to the haunting chants and pulsating drumbeats of our native Indians as they struggled for survival. The sounds of steel rimmed wagon wheels grinding across the prairies, the lowing of cattle, the yelping of cowboys riding herd, and a myriad of sounds made by a growing nation.

Copyright © 2002 Fredrick W. Boling. All rights Reserved.