Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sawdust Brandy, Pilfering, and Virgin Alley #western #history @JacquieRogers

June in the Old West
by Jacquie Rogers

June brings more stable weather to the high country and the mining camps were abuzz with activity. The tough and determined people of the Owyhees worked hard and played harder.

I spent a day at the Idaho State Archives and found a bunch of interesting items that give us an idea of how they thought, what their working conditions were like, and even an inkling of their humor. All these articles are from The Owyhee Avalanche, the first and longest running newspaper in Idaho, and still operating in Owyhee County, although they’ve moved north to Homedale.

Mail delivered to the wrong address is nothing new, and the editor lamented of its frequency. This article was in the June 1, 1867 issue:

CITIZENS of Paradise and Queen River Valleys may find no consolation in being told that every Humboldt mail brings papers and letters to the Owyhee Office that should have been left at the offices in their settlements. We mention this fact that it may be known why the mails referred to are a great while reaching their destinations.

The weather’s nice and people are out and about — including the Paiutes. The reporter reflects the white people’s fear and suspicion of the existing residents. Here’s another article from the June 1, 1867 issue:

INDIANS are still prowling along the road between here and Humboldt. The passengers that arrived Thursday evening report having seen their signal fires at China Caftan beyond the Owyhee River. The guard saw several Indians in close proximity to the road.

With the warm weather comes time to grow food crops, and the hope that trees and perennials can make it through the long, cold winter. The next article, printed in the June 5, 1869 issue, points out how precious one tree can be.

PLANT APPLE TREES. The Mining and Scientific Press says plant apple trees. That’s just what we are doing in Owyhee. We had fourteen trees, from the seed which we sowed last fall; but a squirrel nipped one of them, so that we have only thirteen left, which are valued at ten dollars a piece in green backs.

Silver City was (still is) a mining camp and there are powder shacks all over the place. But at some point, the explosives have to be brought into the mine for use. This is a dangerous proposition, as shown in this article reported in the June 8, 1872 issue.

FEARFUL MINING ACCIDENT. About half past four o’clock last Thursday afternoon the miners at work in the Mahogany were startled by a tremendous explosion which extinguished the lights in the mine and shook the ground like an earthquake. Upon investigation it was found that a man named Ole Anderson was nearly dead at the windlass of the 5th level winze. From what information we can obtain, it appears that Anderson, who was working at the windlass, inadvertently dropped a candle snuff into a box in which there were six or seven giant powder cartridges, together with a quantity of fuse and caps, and then sat down upon the box. A terrific explosion ensued, which threw him a distance of several feet, mangling, lacerating, and stripping the flesh from the lower portion of his body and limbs in a most fearful manner, although fortunately no bones were broken. The unfortunate man was found in an insensible condition, but the wonder is, that he was not killed outright. He is now at Borman’s boarding house, under the care of a good physician and careful attendants, and is in a fair way to recover, although he will be disabled for a long time.

I’m not sure what sort of medical treatment they could give Mr. Anderson since they had no antibiotics and certainly couldn’t perform skin grafts, but maybe our good doctor (Keith Souter, who writes westerns as Clay More) will clue us in.

Recreation in the Old West wouldn’t exactly be considered politically correct today. One of the most popular activities, which generated huge wagers, was cockfighting. In the June 1, 1867 issue:

COCKFIGHTING is sort o’ popular in these parts. A pair of roosters are to be made to amuse admirers of the sport next Thursday. Several gentlemen are intensely interested and will act as seconds and bottle-holder. Principal stakes, $25. Owyhee capitalists are expected to put up large sums — variously estimated at from eleven to eight dollars. Sommercamp expects dividends.

The Sommercamps (I’m not sure which one this refers to) owned a billiards saloon, the largest general store in Silver City, and was involved in both mining and ranching operations. The family’s fingerprints are all over Owyhee County. In fact, my sister lives not far from Sommercamp Road.

With the warm weather come shenanigans and Silver City had her share of them as reported June 5, 1869:

A LITTLE pilfering from cabins is reported. Mr. Chauncey says that his cabin near the Shoenbar Mill was busted open some days ago and a windless rope one hundred feet in length stolen. It occurs to us that a rope is just what a thief would try to avoid, but Mr. C. says an exception was made in this case.

Western settlers took their liquor seriously, but I’m not so sure about this next article, printed June 29, 1872.

SAWDUST BRANDY. In the current monthly report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, it is announced that there is an immense waster of material in our saw-mills, where the sawdust is thrown away; and that it is possible to produce from this dust a good quality of brandy. It is suggested that the sawdust of pine and of fir timber be mixed, and that a compound be prepared composed of nine parts of moist sawdust, 33.7 parts of water, and one part of hydrochloric acid, making 43.6 parts altogether. These are to be boiled under steam pressure eleven hours, when it will be found that nineteen per cent of the mass will be grape sugar. The acid is to be neutralized with lime, and the mash supplied with yeast. After ninety-six hours’ fermentation, a distillation of the mash will produce sixty-one quarts of brandy of fifty per cent strength, and free of any smell of turpentine. It is claimed that in all probability many other woods than pine and fir will prove even better adapted to the production of brandy.

The lower section of Silver City's Jordan Street was called Virgin Alley by the locals, and business was brisk. Lots of curious goings-on were reported, but always in vague and flowery terms. Such is the case in this article printed June 8, 1867.
JORDAN STREET has been the scene of some curious amusement since last Saturday. There is a stable down there that will be better known to many hereafter than the one of Bethlehem, to which, by the aid of a star, several wise men were directed several years since. Mars has reigned over the stable on Jordan Street — two parties laying claim to it with shotguns. Through strategy and whisky the honors of possession have been easy — the parties enjoying it alternately between drinks. How long this dong-in-the-manger affair will last, it is impossible to say. Something amusing in the legal way has already occurred—in fact, some of the officers of the law have themselves been arrested among other things, and a Justice of the Peace interpreted the statute to a couple of lawyers about in this wise: Now a person would naturally suppose that this section means something of that sort, &c., showing much positive learning and judgment; while attorneys likened each other and the Court to various things ridiculous. There was no Sheriff or Constable in attendance — the prisoner under arrest having searched high and low for the constable, who had lost himself and gone to sleep. The Police Courts of Owyhee sustain their reputation for originality, and, owing to a scarcity of other amusements, the community should feel thankful for incidents like these.

Short items from various June issues of The Owyhee Avalanche from 1866 to 1885:

  • Some of the young misses have been collecting money for the picnic on the coming Fourth.
  • Fresh milk and butter are indispensable to a healthy diet, and it is pretty rough to live-it without these articles. M. H. Presby, Esq., says to the public this week that there is no excuse to be longer without the best of both. Read his ad and buy his milk and butter.
  • Telegraph poles between here and Kuna are down in many places, and the wire on the ground.
  • Jim Bernard’s ferry on Snake River is once more ready for business.
  • The race track is now being put in good repair, and will be in splendid condition for the races on the 4th of August next. Everything will be conducted honestly and fairly by managers, and everything done on that occasion to make all in attendance happy.
  • Henry Bernard, formerly of this place and late editor of the Pioneer of Murray, Shoshone County, shot and killed a typo named Enright, because the deceased asked for his pay. If the reports are true Bernard made a serious mistake, and will probably suffer the penalty of the law.
  • Mrs. Walker is scouting after Indians. Gen Crook is busy somewhere — can’t keep track of him more than one day in a month.

June Events

  • June 10, 1857: First Lieutenant George Crook, while leading the 4th Infantry in the second Pitt River Expedition, was shot by an arrow and severely wounded. 
  • June 22, 1857: The U.S. government awarded James Birch a contract to carry mail and passengers between San Antonio and San Diego. Because he used saddle mules between Fort Yuma and San Diego, the line became known as the Jackass Mail
  • June 10, 1859: The Grosch brothers discovered the Comstock Lode. Neither profited (one died) but over $300 million worth of gold and silver was mined over the next two decades. The Comstock Lode financed much of the Civil War as well as the transcontinental railroad. 
  • June 1, 1859: Horace Greeley was a bit shaken when the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Stagecoach overturned when the mules shied at the appearance of friendly Indians.
  • June 2, 1860: Troops led by Colonel John C. Hays defeated Numage and the Paiute forces near Pyramid Lake, and the army built Fort Churchill to keep the band from returning to their homeland. 
  • June 3, 1860- Over 175 people lost their lives in the Great Comanche Tornado, named for the Iowa town it destroyed. 
  • June 6, 1861: Congress created Colorado Territory out of the illegal Jefferson Territory, carved out of Kansas Territory.
  • June 6, 1865: William Quantrill, suffering a chest wound near Taylorville, Kentucky, died in a Louisville military hospital. He was 27. 
  • Louisville, Kentucky- William Quantrill died in a military prison from wounds he received on May 10th when his band of guerrillas had a brush with federal troops.
  • June 1, 1867: The Dominion of Canada was created by the enactment of the British North America Act.
  • June 4, 1870: Wild Bill Hickok is sworn in as Abilene marshal.
  • June 3, 1871: Jesse James and his gang stole between $15,000 and $45,000 from the Obocock Bank in Corydon, Iowa.
  • June 1, 1873: Captain David Perry captured six Modoc Indians and their chief, Captain Jack (Kintpuash), who was later hanged at Fort Klamath. 
  • June 3, 1873: Gunfighter Edward T. Beard, aka Red Beard, owned a rowdy dance hall in Delano, Kansas. A prostitute who worked for him got into an argument with a drunk soldier, who shot her in the leg. Beard shot two other soldiers but the offending man got away. But a couple days later, 30 soldiers shot up the place and torched it. 
  • June 3, 1874: Bessie Earp, wife of James Earp, and Sallie Earp were arrested, jailed, and pled guilty for setting up a bawdy house in Wichita, Kansas. 
  • June 2, 1875: Comanche Chief Quanah Parker led his people onto the Fort Sill reservation. 
  • June 25, 1876: The Battle of Little Bighorn began, lasting until the next day. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Regiment of the U.S. Cavalry were defeated by warriors of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. 
  • June 13, 1877: Nez Perce Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, "Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain") began the four-month escape with five hundred women and children, and only a couple hundred warriors, leading them on a 1,100-mile journey over the brutally rugged Rocky Mountains. He surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles on October 5, 1877, and gave his famous speech, "Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad. From where the Sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." 
  • June 14, 1877: Frank Mitchell was killed and Bill Wren were wounded as a result of the Horrell-Higgins Feud in Lampasas, Texas. 
  • June 17, 1877: The Battle of White Bird Canyon, Idaho Territory, took place. Captain David Perry lost a third of his men, and the Nez Perce were the decided victors. However, the army pursued them relentlessly, so they won the battle but lost their home. 
  • June 5, 1880: Myra Maybelle Shirley married her second (or third) husband, Sam Starr. 
  • June 2, 1884: Lillie Langtry performed at the Opera House in Wyoming, Wyoming Territory. 
  • June 4, 1889: Nat Oliphant, who murdered Topeka tailor Alonzo Rodgers when he caught Nat burglarizing his home, was lynched. 
  • June 8, 1892: In South Creede, Colorado, Deputy Sheriff Edward O’Kelly shot Robert Ford, the man who killed Jesse James, twice with a shotgun, killing him. 

May your saddle never slip.

Jacquie Rogers 
Romancing The West
Hearts of Owyhee series
#1: Much Ado About Marshals
#2: Much Ado About Madams
#3: Much Ado About Mavericks


  1. Jacquie, I always love these posts of yours. Just getting glimpse into the lives of the people back then, and reading these articles from the paper is so interesting to me. I know it takes a lot of time and effort on your part to put it together, but I surely do appreciate all your work. Great post, as always!

  2. That was so interesting, Jacquie.

  3. Another fascinating post, Jacquie. Packed full of interesting stuff.

    The treatment of burns was very hit and miss, partly because there was no clear understanding of the issues involved, since germ theory was only established during the closing decades of the 19th century, and fluid replacement was in its very infancy. In the Civil War, for example, there were only two blood transfusion attempts, one patient died and one survived.

    Burns were treated by soaking flannel in brandy or other spirit or turpentine spirit and laying them over the burns. Sometimes doctors rubbed fat on, or made ointment of chalk and white of eggs. Patients probably recovered despite doctors' interventions rather than because of them. The caring role would have been very important.

    Nowadays we divide burns into superficial and deep. Deep burns need local protection to maintain sterility and promote healing. We would use sterile dressings, but if needed excise dead tissue and skin graft.

    Fluid replacement is vitally important with deep burns over a large area of the body. We have several rules of thumb. First the rule of 9s, divides the body into segments, each part having 9 per cent surface area of the body. Thus the head and neck is 9 per cent, each arm is 9 per cent, each leg is 18 per cent and so on. Second rule of thumb, give 1 litre of fluid intravenously for every 9 per cent area burned. If the burns are full thickness deep burns then half the fluid should be as a blood transfusion.

    So this case with about 40 per cent (plus) burn area, would need a lot of fluids (today). He was fortunate to survive, if indeed he did.

    Sorry to ramble.


  4. I agree, very interesting. Thanks, Jacquie, and to you, too, Keith for your insight.

  5. Nice post, Jacquie. Always informative.

  6. Cheryl, thanks! And unlike some of the other blog articles I write, this one always gives me more fodder for my own books, which are set in the Owyhees.

  7. Gerri, I appreciate you stopping by.

  8. Keith, I had no idea about the 9% estimates but it does make sense. I imagine they dosed him up pretty well with laudanum before they commenced to treating him, whatever they did. At any rate, you've just gotta feel sorry for Ole Anderson. Thanks for weighing in. I'd hoped you would have time to drop by.

  9. Thank you, Linda. Would you like a little nip of sawdust brandy?

  10. Hi, Marc! I saved a cup of hot cocoa for you. No, I didn't put any sawdust brandy in it. Want some? :)

  11. Thinking of sawdust, my father used to claim he could teach a dog to eat nothing but sawdust. He would have demonstrated except every time he got a dog trained to the food it up and died. No idea why such a coincidence.

  12. Frank, what a character! LOL. I have a feeling the same would happen to imbibers of sawdust brandy.

  13. Very very good stuff. Must see if I can rake up some neat information while I am here in USA.

  14. WOW - talk about a gold mine of info. And thanks to Keith for chiming in with burn info. Sawdust brandy? Hmm. I guess they were pretty desperate to get a hold of any liquor. LOL

  15. Charlie, I love visiting the archives. Some states have better archives than others, though. The archives in Washington State aren't nearly as well-organized as Idaho's. I'm going to check out the Idaho State Library next time I'm there, and maybe visit the museum again. Haven't been there since about 1985 .

  16. Meg, some of the alcohol mixtures were not exactly to our modern taste--theirs, either; hence, rotgut.

  17. One of my favorite archives is the Western History Collection at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman. Another is the Sequoyah Research Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.

  18. I've only been to Washington State's and Idaho's. I keep hearing about the archives in Norman--it's definitely on my bucket list.

  19. Don't you just love those old newspaper articles? They always seem more informative than what modern papers can print!

  20. What a great and informative post, Jacquie. Loved it!

  21. C.K., same here. I could spend all day at the archives. Oh wait, I did. I could spend all week there. :)

  22. Thanks, Linda. These articles are dual purpose because they also help me out with my story line, since my current WIP is set in Silver City.

  23. Jacquie, this was great. You couldn't make this stuff up, could you? No one would believe it. LOL I loved each of these, but my favorite is the Jackass Mail. Thanks for an entertaining post!

  24. That's just it, Caroline--no one would believe half this stuff in a fiction work. Maybe that's why it's all so fascinating.

  25. Doesn't seem that anyone was bored in Silver City in June. I know gin is made from pine needles, but I can't imagine brandy made from sawdust.
    A very interesting article, Jacquie.

  26. Sarah, thanks for stopping by. Yep, I think they were too busy to be bored. They probably had a plentiful amount of gin there. Gin is flavored with juniper berries--and they do have a lot of juniper in Owyhee County. :) But sawdust? Not. Ugh.