BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Gold, Natives & Wild West Shows ...

This was a “win” from the “Early Reviewers” program … and something of a surprise. First of all, it was a release from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, which certainly is a “niche” publishing house, and I doubt that I would have come into contact with it had it not been a LTER book. The book, in hardcover, has been out since this summer, but this is quite “early” for the paperback, which isn't due out until next July. While I do, from time to time, read “histories”, the format of Paul L Hedren's Ho! For the Black Hills: Captain Jack Crawford Reports the Black Hills Gold Rush and Great Sioux War is, I believe, quite unique in my reading, being about 2/3rds primary resources (letters reporting to the Omaha Bee and other newspapers) from Captain Jack Crawford, and about 1/3rd contextifying material from the editor/author.

The period of time dealt with in the book is primarily 1875-1876, the start of the gold rush into the Black Hills, in Nebraska and the Wyoming, Montana, and Dakota Territories. This region is still controversial, as the area is held as sacred to the Native American tribes, and there had (at that point) only fairly recently been established reservation lands for the Lakota and Cheyenne in the area. Where it must have seemed to the US government and many of the tribal leaders that they'd finally reached a territorial compromise, the discovery of gold brought in a large number of fortune-seekers. Initially the government made efforts to dissuade these miners … General George Crook had posted the following throughout the gold prospecting camps:
         Whereas the President of the United States has directed that no miners, or other unauthorized citizens, be allowed to remain in the Indian reservation of the Black Hills, or in the unceded territory to the west, until some new treaty arrangements have been made with the Indians.
          And Whereas, by the same authority, the undersigned is directed to occupy said reservation and territory with troops, and to remove all miners and other unauthorized citizens, who may be now, or may hereafter come into this country in violation of the treaty obligations: -
          Therefore the undersigned hereby requires every miner and other unauthorized citizen to leave the territory known as the Black Hills, the Powder river, and Big Horn country by and before the 15th day of August next.
          He hopes tha the good sense and law abiding disposition of the miners will prompt them to obey this order without compelling a resort to force. ...
Needless to say, the majority of the miners, etc., ignored these orders, and the military was very unwilling to “resort to force” to clear them out, especially as there was a constant stream of new folks coming into the region. This build-up, and infiltration into the lands set aside for the Sioux via the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 by the miners and speculators, was one of the main triggers of the “Great Sioux War of 1876”, famed for skirmishes such as Custer's demise at the Little Big Horn. However, with the US still reeling from the Civil War, economic stresses such as the “Panic of 1873” encouraged many men to head west to seek their fortunes.

Jack Crawford had been born in Northern Ireland and had immigrated to the US with his family. His father had been wounded in the early parts of the Civil War, and Jack followed him into the military, enlisting when his father re-entered the army in 1864. Jack was wounded, recuperated, rejoined his unit, was wounded again, and eventually mustered out at the end of the war in 1865. During his second, extensive, hospitalization, he was taught to read and write by the Sisters of Charity. By 1875 he was presenting himself to the editors of the Omaha Bee, gaining employment at first as a watchman, and eventually getting an assignment to cover the Black Hills gold rush for the paper.

Ho! For the Black Hills is mainly based on Hedren's research in the microfiche archives of the handful of newspapers that Crawford ended up “corresponding” for over those next couple of years. What is less clear here is how exactly Jack went from illiterate guy working in a series of jobs to the flamboyant “Scout” persona he affected in his journalistic career and beyond. The author tries to piece together the itineraries of various Wild West shows that Crawford might have encountered, and makes a good case of how these likely provided a template and impetus for his character and westward adventures. Again, most of the book is comprised of the materials that Hedren was able to dig up from the writings that “Captain Jack Crawford - Poet Scout” had submitted to the newspapers. These are largely rambling reports of what he saw, who he met, what was happening in assorted locales, what sort of gold was being produced where, how communities were developing, and even on-going reports on what basic supplies cost. This is a fascinating window into a different time and place, but it generally does not lend itself to excerpting here.

The last of the newspaper pieces comes from October of 1876, at which point Jack Crawford began moving into his new career as a Wild West show character. He had, essentially, resigned as a scout upon taking up the cause of a New York Herald reporter, and rushing back to civilization to get that story placed before others … netting him both the gratitude (and significant payment) of that paper, and the animosity of the US military. He had made contact with assorted notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, and eventually became part of that show, before setting out to produce his own. He died in New York in 1917.

If you're interested in “the wild west”, and the period of the Indian Wars, you will no doubt find this a very attractive book. The combination of “history” and original documents is quite enticing, and it provides a very interesting perspective on those conflicts. Again, the main part of Ho! For the Black Hills covers Crawford's reports over just about a year and a half, so is a very detailed look at his experiences in that time. As noted above, this is sort of between editions … the hardcover has been out for several months, and the paperback (which is what they sent out for review) doesn't come out till next summer. The on-line big boys have copies of the former, and are now taking pre-orders for the latter. Because of it coming from a small press, I don't know how much luck you'd have finding this at your local brick-and-mortar, but you could, I suppose, order it through them, or from the publisher at I rather enjoyed reading this, and I'd suppose anybody with an interest in any of the basic themes here would find it worth picking up.

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