Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Bird Whisperer/Bird Killer?

 Post by Doris McCraw

writing as Angela Raines

Photo property of the Author

Charles Aiken. Have you heard of him? He presents an example of examing history through a modern lens, while still trying to understand the time in which he lived.

Charles E. H. (Edward Howard) Aiken was born September 7, 1850, in Vermont. The family was in Illinois by 1853 when the family had their daughter Katherine. After the 1871 Chicago Fire, which destroyed the family business, they moved to Colorado.

In 1868, at the age of eighteen, he began his study of birds. His method, shooting and collecting them. He continued his studies after the family moved to Colorado.

Photo from Find A Grave

Personally, the thought of killing an animal just for study purposes is like being back in high school biology class and dissecting frogs. I found that so creepy. Yet, in Aiken's time, that was the standard practice. Was that right or wrong? I think you might find people who would answer in the affirmative in both cases.

Yet, Aiken, because of his love of birds ended up making an impact on the knowledge of Birds of the West. Aiken not only studied birds but also mounted a number of them. AT the time of his death he had a collection of some 5,700 skins, mounted specimens, nests, and eggs.

According to the Audobon Society, his hearing was keen, he could recognize birds by their plumage, and could imitate many of them. For those who are interested, you can see an online version of his book "The Birds of El Paso County, Colorado. Bird of El Paso County

Headstone in Evergreen Cemetery

Aiken died in 1836 at the age of eighty-five in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His collection was purchased in 1907 by Colorado College. (Yes, I've seen a portion of it)

Here is an overview of his contributions: bionomia. Species identified by Aiken

So the question is, how do we look at Aiken and his contribution? Was he what we might call a 'bird whisperer? Where does his destruction of a bird fit in? There were no cameras, as we know it when he began his journey. That he made major contributions is undeniable. I still have not made up my mind about the questions. 

Photo property of Author

Doris Gardner-McCraw -
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History
Angela Raines - author: Telling Stories Where Love & History Meet

Monday, October 25, 2021

My 12 Favorite Western Movies - Part Two

Last month, I gave you the bottom six in the list of my 12 favorite Western movies (click here to read that post). This month, we continue the countdown to my number one favorite. Remember, this is not meant to be a list of the best Western movies, but a list of my personal favorites. I'd love to hear in the comments below what some of your favorites are.


#6 – The Shootist

The Shootist was released in August of 1976, and of the four films on this “12 Favorite” list in which John Wayne appears, this one is my favorite. Staring along with Wayne are James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Richard Boone, and Harry Morgan.

In this film, Wayne plays an aging gunfighter by the name of John Bernard Books. Barely ten minutes into the film, we find out that Books is dying when the town doctor, played by Stewart, informs him, "You have a cancer." He describes in detail the painful death that Books has in store for him. Over the next couple of months, Books develops a relationship with the woman who runs the boarding house where he is staying (Lauren Bacall) and with her son (Ron Howard) who idolizes Books. As his time draws near, Books has no plans to die a slow and painful death. He plans to go out the way a gunfighter should.

Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, whose son, Miles, worked on the screenplay, the life and death of J.B. Books parallel the passing of the American west and the advent of the twentieth century. Wayne’s performance is made all the more poignant by the fact that he had cancer at the time of filming, and in less than three years, he would succumb to stomach cancer at the age of 72.

The movie was directed by Don Siegel, who directed Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz. It was nominated for five awards, including an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.


#5 – Broken Trail

Broken Trail is based on the novel by Alan Geoffrion. It first aired as a two-part miniseries in June of 2006 and stars Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church.

The story takes place in 1898. An aging horseman named Prent Ritter, played by Duvall, and his estranged nephew, Tom Harte, played by Thomas Haden Church, hook up to drive a herd of horses from Oregon to Wyoming to sell to the British Army. Along the way, they rescue five young Chinese girls from a slave trader and reluctantly take on the responsibility of caring for and protecting the girls. Duvall develops a fatherly bond towards the girls, teaching them to ride and speak English. Thomas Haden Church – who played the dim-witted mechanic, Lowell Mather, on Wings, is a downright bad-ass as Tom Harte. The two men and the girls are being pursued by a gang of vicious killers who were hired by the madame who originally purchased the girls to work for her as prostitutes.

Broken Trail garnered 56 award nominations, winning 19 of them, including four Primetime Emmys.


4 – Windwalker

Windwalker was released in 1980 and is probably one of the best, little-known films depicting Native American life in the late 18th century. Windwalker is the name of the main character, an elderly Cheyenne warrior who remains behind to die when his family and tribe move south for the winter in what would become the state of Utah. Windwalker passes into the afterlife, but after having a vision of his wife, Tashina, who had been murdered by the Crow Indians, he is sent back by the Great Spirit to help his family survive another Crow attack and to search for his son who was kidnapped by the Crow as a baby.

The film stars several Native American actors, including Nick Ramus, Serene Hedin, and Chief Tug Smith, but the leading role of Windwalker was played (very convincingly) by British actor Trevor Howard. Native American actor Chief Dan George was supposed to star in the leading role but became ill before filming and had to be replaced.

Here’s an interesting piece of trivia about this film; It was the debut film for Bart the Bear—a Kodiak Brown Bear that would go on to star in several movies and TV shows, including The Great Outdoors, The Bear, White Fang, Legends of the Fall, and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, to name a few.

Windwalker only received one award nomination, winning a Special Jury Prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in 1991. But don’t judge it by its lack of award recognition. This is a wonderful film with themes of family identity and perseverance. It was filmed on location in Utah in the Wasatch Mountains, and the outdoor cinematography is stunning.

One of the reasons that Windwalker is near the top end of my 12-Favorite list is that the story is entirely about Native Americans. There are no cowboys, no mountain men, and no fur trappers; only Native Americans.


#3 - The Revenant

The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, was released in 2015 and was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who also directed Birdman. It’s based on the 2002 novel by Michael Punke which, itself, is loosely based on the life of legendary mountain man Hugh Glass.

The film was shot on location in Italy, Argentina, and Montana. The cinematography for The Revenant is stunning and earned the film one of its three Academy Awards. All told, The Revenant was nominated for an astounding 276 awards and won 90 of them, including three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, and one Screen Actors Guild Award.

DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a mountain man who, in 1823, suffered a brutal attack by a grizzly bear. Badly injured but still alive, he is abandoned by his companions in the wilderness and left to die. Instead, Glass rallies all of his strength and survival instincts to stay alive and embarks on a wintry trek to track down John Fitzgerald (played brilliantly by Tom Hardy), the man who killed his son and left him to die in the wilderness.

Note: The word “Revenant” comes from the French word for “ghost” and means someone who has come back from the dead.

#2 - Dances With Wolves

Dances with Wolves is an epic Western first released in 1990. It stars Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Green, and Tantoo Cardinal. Three prominent directors were offered the project, but each one turned it down. Finally, Costner decided to direct the film himself in his directorial debut.

Costner plays Army lieutenant John Dunbar, who, through a heroic act during the Civil War, is offered his choice of a duty post, and surprises his superiors by choosing a remote post on the Western frontier. Through an unusual set of circumstances, Dunbar finds himself the sole member of the detachment to the remote outpost of Fort Sedgwick. He enjoys the solitude and goes about repairing and restocking the outpost. During his time there, he gets to know his neighbors—a tribe of Lakota Sioux—and grows to appreciate and respect their lives and culture. Eventually, Dunbar leaves his old life behind and joins the Lakota. This will cause problems for Dunbar when the army learns about him.

The film was based on a novel by Michael Blake, who was a friend of Costner’s. Blake wrote Dances with Wolves as a novel after Kevin Costner convinced him to do so. Blake originally tried to sell the idea as a screenplay, but Costner believed that it would generate more studio interest as a novel.

The cinematography and the musical score for the film were both outstanding and accounted for two of the seven Academy Awards that the film won in 1991. It also won the Oscar for Best Picture, becoming only the second Western film to earn that honor—the first being Cimarron (1931). In total, the film was nominated for 88 awards, winning 51, including seven Academy Awards and three Golden Globes.


#1 - Lonesome Dove

Number one on my “12 Favorite” list is the epic miniseries, Lonesome Dove, based on the book by Larry McMurtry. It stars Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Ricky Schroder, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, and a host of others. Lonesome Dove was released as a four-part miniseries in February of 1989. McMurtry based the book on a screenplay that he had written with Peter Bogdanovich. The original plan was to make a movie starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart, but the project never panned out.

Duvall and Jones play a pair of aging Texas Rangers, Captain Augustus "Gus" McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call, who operate a livery in the town of Lonesome Dove. The two men decide to go into the cattle business. They plan to drive a herd of Longhorns from Texas to Montana to start a ranch. All of the expected dangers are there along the way; Indians, bandits, weather, prairie fires, treacherous river crossings, horse thieves, and cattle rustling. The film is a pleasant mix of drama, humor, action, and romance. Duvall in particular gives the performance of a lifetime. His character, Gus McCrae, is tough as they come when dealing with enemies like the half-breed Indian bandit, Blue Duck (Frederic Forrest), or surly bartenders, but he is tender-hearted toward the prostitute (Diane Lane) that wants desperately to get to San Francisco. He often waxes philosophical with his partner, Captain Call, and the other members of the Hat-Creek outfit.

Lonesome Dove was nominated for 35 awards, winning 18, including seven Emmys and two Golden Globes.

Mike is an award-winning Western author currently living in a 600 square foot cabin in the mountains of Western Montana. He has been married to his redheaded sweetheart, Tami, since 1989. He is a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Finalist three years in a row and his short stories have been published in numerous anthologies and are available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers as well as brick and mortar bookstores. His first Western novel, The Sons of Philo Gaines, was released in November of 2020. It is available everywhere books are sold. Mike is a member of Western Writers of America and Western Fictioneers. You can find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MichaelRRittAuthor, or at his website https://michaelrritt.com.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021


Several months ago, I blogged about starting on my “ancestry” journey. I gave myself a subscription to Ancestry . com, and voila! I was on my way!

I had put off doing that for a long time because I was afraid it would be too expensive and would take up too much time. I was wrong on both counts! I got my membership for only $59 during a Mother’s Day special, and as for time—you can spend as much or as little as you are able. I find myself just browsing through my ancestors, and learning things that one day, I hope to sit down and write into a linear genealogy “book” or journal.

What makes this so fascinating for me? Probably because family, to my mother and her generation, was everything. And my mom, being the oldest of 11 kids, was charged with “remembering everyone” – sort of like Aunt Pittypat in Gone With the Wind. So to her, it was very important to pass on family history and stories she’d grown up with.

How I wish I had paid more attention! When I write my books and novellas, I do find myself including some of the stories she told us in those writings. But seeing pictures of some of the people I’ve heard her talk about has been such a revelation. And I’m not sure why, but seeing their handwriting has somehow been almost spiritual for me…maybe because I write all my work in longhand in notebooks before I enter them on the computer. So seeing the handwriting of my ancestors lets me imagine them with a pen (or quill) in hand, writing their names—and on the census reports, imagining them writing their children’s names and ages.

Just picturing the point in their lives in these milestone documents—marriage licenses, military registration cards, death certificates, census documents—even some personal letters that have been included are slowly but surely bringing these long-ago relatives to life for me.

My mom's parents, Mary McLain and Tom Stallings, when they were 'courting'--this would have been around 1918 or so. These are my grandparents--my granddad died when I was 10, and my grandmother died when I was 16. (My granddad, Tom, is the son of John Stallings and Emma C. Ligon Stallings that I will mention later on.)

This is the page from the 1860 Census for Smith Co., Tennessee. My great grandfather, John Stallings, was only 2 years old. From this record, we can note his father is not in the picture, only his mother, Sarah Hale Stallings. Evidently, she was living with a relative—most likely a brother, Richard Hale, who is 5 years older than she is. There are two other children with the last name of Wooten. I’m anxious to research this part of the family. My mother told me many stories about John Stallings, who was her grandfather, my great grandfather.

John grew up and became the headmaster at a school, but he had a temper. The story goes that he was heavy handed with the paddle on one of the students, and had to “get out of town” quickly—but when he did, he did not go alone. He took my great grandmother with him and they eloped! That was when they left Tennessee and headed for Oklahoma, settling in the southeastern part of what was then Indian Territory.

John B. Stallings, my great grandfather, and Emma Christiana Ligon Stallings, my great grandmother.

There have been some surprises, too! I discovered that my grandmother’s oldest sister was born out of wedlock. Another couple who had lived together as man and wife and raised 11 children together were not legally married until the last child was in college.

My grandmother, Mary born 1900; oldest sister Maude born 1886; sister Byrdie born 1896, sister Grace born 1894. Mary is my father's mother.

This is a truly fascinating journey, and I’m always anxious to “get back to it” again whenever I can. I have a lot of work and ‘refining’ to do on my family tree, but oh, the discoveries I’ve made and look forward to making in the future!

On my father’s side, using documentation that has been added by other relatives on their trees, I’ve been able to trace my 8th great-great grandparents back to England and Ireland. Now that I know that, at some point, I will pay the extra money for access to global records and see how much farther back I can go.

Have you ever traced your family ancestry? Did you find a surprise or two? Doing this has inspired me with a couple of really great story ideas!

Saturday, October 9, 2021

The Teacher is Usually Right - Richard Prosch Interview

Richard Prosch is multi-talented and recently released a Western trilogy. So what brought him to this genre and place? What sparked the new stories? Read on to learn more about author Richard Prosch's journey. 

Richard Prosch - from his website

  1. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Neuharth, predicted I’d someday be a full-time writer. I liked the idea, and held on to it through an early career in cartooning and graphic design, always writing stories and nonfiction essays in my spare time.

  1. Did you choose the genre you write in or did it choose you?

I first chose to write mystery and crime stories, but they always ended up in a rural or Western setting. My grandpa loved Westerns, so around ten years ago I deliberately focused on the genre.

  1. What was the nudge that gave you faith that you could and wanted to be published?

I’m gonna go back to my fifth-grade teacher. She’s a smart cookie, and I had no reason to disbelieve her then, nor now.

  1. Do your life experiences influence or hinder your writing?

Absolutely influence. Everything I write finds some origin point, no matter how small, in my own life.


  1. Where did you get the idea for your latest release and tell a bit about the story?

The three-book Hellbenders series from Wolfpack offers readers traditional western action interwoven with historical events and characters occurring in the months prior to the Civil War. So much happened from 1858 to 1860, and I wanted to write a narrative tying some of the events together.

  1. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Pantser –absolutely. If I don’t know how it ends, then the reader won’t either.

  1. Is there a writing routine you follow or do you write when the muse strikes?

I always start in the morning re-reading what I wrote the day before, incorporating notes that struck me overnight, fleshing out details, or fixing mistakes. After an hour or so, I’m ready to add the day’s entry which sometimes comes at light speed and other times takes more effort.


8.  If you had a choice, which is your favorite to write, short stories, novellas, or full-length novels?

My first love will always be short stories.

  1. Do you ‘interview’ your characters before or at any time while telling their story and what do you do if they don’t cooperate with your story idea?

No, I trust the characters to reveal themselves through their dialog and actions. When they don’t cooperate with where the story needs to go, it’s usually a sign I’m tired and need to start fresh.

  1. Is there a process where you find your next story or does the idea just hit you?

The ideas come from all over—usually when least expected, but one thing I like to do to deliberately kickstart a bunch of ideas is to sit down with, say, ten different anthologies—preferably from different genres—and look at the table of contents. Then mix and mash titles. Take the first part of a western story and slam it onto the back of a crime story or SF story to create something new and intriguing. Then write the story the new title suggests.

  1. Is there anything else you feel people would like to know or would be surprised to learn about you?

My collection of vinyl jazz records is closing in on 1000.


  1. Do you write in other genres?

I write the Dan Spalding mystery-thriller series and am currently writing number eight. The first six have been collected by Wolfpack in a two-volume set and the seventh, Needle Drop, is also available.

  1. When and why did you start the Six-Gun Justice podcast?

Credit for the podcast goes to my partner Paul Bishop who called me up at the end of 2019 and suggested the idea. We kicked it around a bit before diving in headfirst in January of 2020. Our idea was to share our love of the Western genre through its representation in books, TV, movies, comics, and other media—but along the way shine the light on little-known trivia and real-life history. After the first month, we added our Wednesday Conversation segment where we visit with friends who work in the Western genre, and it quickly became a favorite for hundreds of listeners.

For more about Richard: 


Amazon Author Page



Thursday, October 7, 2021

On This Day in the Old West: October 8

 October 8, 1871 saw two horrific fires: the Great Chicago Fire and the forest fire that destroyed the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin and several towns in Michigan. The latter began as a series of smaller fires that were whipped into a major conflagration by high winds and dry conditions. Peshtigo is in northeastern Wisconsin, near Lake Michigan. The fire burned about 1.2 million acres in and around the town and is the deadliest wildfire in recorded history. Somewhere between 1,200 and 2,500 people perished in this fire, which also affected several cities in Michigan (including Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron).  

The setting of small fires was common in the 19th Century to clear forest land for farming and railroad construction. On the day of the Peshtigo fire, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned several small fires out of control. “When a firestorm erupts in a forest,” according to Gess and Lutz (Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History), “it is a blowup, nature’s nuclear explosion.” Firestorms can create superheated flames of at least 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and winds of up to 110 miles per hour. The diameter of such a fire ranges from 1,000 to 10,000 feet. By the time the Peshtigo fire was all over, 1,875 square miles of forest had been consumed. This is an area 50% larger than the state of Rhode Island. In all, twelve communities were destroyed.


An accurate death toll has never been determined for this fire because all local records were destroyed in the fire. In 1870, Peshtigo had 1,749 residents. The 1873 Report to the Wisconsin Legislature listed 1,182 names of dead or missing residents. More than 350 bodies were interred in a mass grave, primarily because so many people had died that there was no one left who could identify these poor souls.


The fire jumped across the Peshtigo River and burned both sides of the town. Survivors reported seeing fire tornadoes that threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many escaped the inferno by throwing themselves into the river, a well, or other nearby body of water. Some drowned, and others succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid river. The Green Island Light was kept lit during the day because of the obscuring smoke, but the three-masted schooner George L Newman was wrecked offshore anyway, although the crew was rescued. 


At the same time, yet another fire burned parts of the Door Peninsula. Because of the coincidence, many incorrectly assumed the flames had jumped the waters of Green Bay. Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan, along with nearby areas, burned to the ground. Some 100 miles to the north of Holland, the lumber community of Manistee also went up in flames in what became known as the Great Michigan Fire. Further east, along the shores of Lake Huron, the Port Huron fire swept through Port Huron, Michigan and much of Michigan’s “thumb.”

In Robinsonville (now Champion), Sister Adele Brise and other nuns, plus farmers and their families, fled to a local chapel for protection. Although the fires surrounded the chapel, the building was spared. The chapel is now known as the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. The fires also spared the then village of Sturgeon Bay, on the east side of the bay.


Occurring on the same day, the Great Chicago Fire killed approximately 200 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles of the city, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. The fire began in a neighborhood southwest of the city center. A long period of hot, dry, windy conditions, plus the wooden construction prevalent in the city, led to the conflagration. The fire leapt the south branch of the Chicago River and destroyed much of central Chicago, then leapt the main branch of the river and consumed the Near North Side.


The fire is claimed to have started at around 8:30 pm, in or around a small barn belonging to the O’Leary family. The barn bordered an alley behind 137 DeKoven Street. The shed next to the barn was the first building consumed by the fire. Officials never determined the cause of the blaze, but the rapid spread of the fire was due to a long drought, strong winds from the southwest, and the destruction of the water pumping system. This explains the extensive damage to the mainly wooden city structures. There has been much speculation over the years on a single start to the fire. The most popular tale blames Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, who allegedly kicked over a lantern. Mrs. O’Leary made a convenient scapegoat: she was a poor, Irish catholic immigrant and anti-Irish sentiment was strong during the latter half of the 19th Century. Other speculations state that a group of men were gambling inside the barn and knocked over a lantern, or that the blaze was related to the other fires in the Midwest that same day. Amateur historian Richard Bales has suggested that the fire started when Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan, who first reported the fire, ignited hay in the barn while trying to steal milk. 


The fire’s spread was aided by the city’s use of wood as the predominant building material in a style called balloon framing. This style of building uses long continuous studs that run from the sill plate to the top plate, with intermediate floor structures let into and nailed to them. Once popular when long lumber was plentiful, balloon framing has largely been replaced by platform framing. More than two-thirds of the structures in Chicago at the time of the fire were made entirely of wood, with most of the buildings topped with highly flammable tar or shingle roofs. All of the city’s sidewalks and many roads were also constructed of wood. Compounding this problem was the fact that Chicago had received only one inch of rain from July 4 to October 8, causing severe drought conditions, while strong southwest winds helped to carry flying embers toward the heart of the city.


In 1871, the Chicago Fire Department had only 185 firefighters and 17 horse-drawn steam pumpers to protect the entire city. The initial response by the department was quick, but an error by watchman Matthias Schaffer sent the firefighters to the wrong place, allowing the fire to grow unchecked. An alarm sent form the area near the fire also failed to register at the courthouse where the fire watchmen were, while the firefighters were tired from fighting numerous small fires and one large one in the week before. These factors all combined to turn a small barn fire into a huge conflagration. 


When firefighters finally arrived at DeKoven Street, the fire had spread to neighboring buildings and was moving toward the central business district. Firefighters had hoped the South Branch of the Chicago River, along with an area that had previously burned, would act as a firebreak. However, all along the river were lumber yards, warehouses, coal yards, barges, and numerous bridges. As the fire grew, the southwest wind intensified and became superheated, causing structures to catch fire simply from the heat, as well as from flying debris. Around midnight, flaming embers blew across the river and landed on roofs and the South Side Gas Works. With the fire now across the river and headed for the heart of the city, panic set in. About this time, Mayor Roswell B. Mason sent messages to nearby towns asking for help. When the courthouse caught fire, he ordered the building be evacuated and the prisoners jailed in the basement released. At 2:30 am on the 9th, the cupola of the courthouse collapsed, sending the great bell crashing down. Some witnesses reported hearing the sound from a mile away.


As more buildings succumbed to the flames, a meteorological phenomenon known as a fire whirl became a major contributing factor in the fire’s spread. As overheated air rises, it meets cooler air and begins to spin, creating a tornado-like effect. These fire whirls are likely what drove flaming debris so high and so far. Such debris was blown across the main branch of the Chicago River to a railroad car carrying kerosene. The fire had now jumped the river a second time and was raging across the city’s north side. Also a likely factor in the fire’s rapid spread was the amount of flammable waste that had been allowed to accumulate in the river from years of improper disposal methods used by local industries.


Despite the fire’s spread and rapid growth, firefighters continued to battle the blaze. A short time after the fire jumped the river however, a burning piece of timber lodged on the roof of the city’s waterworks. Within minutes, the interior of the building was engulfed in flames and the building was destroyed. With it, the city’s water mains went dry, and Chicago was helpless. Finally, late into the evening of October 9, it started to rain. The fire had already begun to burn itself out, having spread to the sparsely populated areas of the north side. Once the flames were extinguished, the smoldering remains were too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for many days. 


Eventually, the city determined that the fire destroyed an area about four miles long and averaging ¾ mile wide, encompassing an area of more than 2,000 acres. Also destroyed were more than 73 miles of roads, 120 miles of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings and $222 million in property, which was about a third of the city’s valuation in 1871. Of the approximately 324,000 inhabitants of Chicago in 1871, one in three were left homeless (90,000 residents). 120 bodies were recovered, but the death toll may have been as high as 300. The county coroner speculated that an accurate count was impossible, as some victims may have drowned or been incinerated, leaving no remains.


St. Michael’s Church in Old Town and the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station were both gutted in the fire, but their exteriors survived, and the buildings were rebuilt using these walls. Additionally, although the inhabitable portions of St. James Cathedral were destroyed, the bell tower survived and was incorporated into the rebuilt church. The stones near the top of the tower are still blackened from the soot and smoke. Additional structures which survived the blaze include the Chicago Water Tower, St. Ignatius College Prep., Police Constable Bellinger’s cottage at 21 Lincoln Place (2121 North Hudson today), and 2323 and 2339 North Cleveland Avenue.


The city of Singapore, Michigan, provided much of the lumber to rebuild Chicago. As a result, the area was so heavily deforested that the land deteriorated into barren sand dunes that eventually buried the town, which had to be abandoned.


Since 1883, speculation has suggested that the coincidence of both major fires starting on the same day was caused by impact fragments from Biela’s Comet. This hypothesis was revived in a 1985 book, reviewed in a 1997 documentary, and investigated in a 2004 paper published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. However, scientists with expertise in the field have pointed out that there has never been a credible report of a fire being started by a meteorite. Also, Biela’s Comet was not even visible from Earth until 1872. In any event, no outside source of ignition was needed for the Peshtigo Fire. There were already numerous small fires burning in the area as part of land-clearing operations. These fires created so much smoke that the Green Island Light was kept lit continuously for weeks before the firestorm erupted. All that was needed to trigger the disaster in the Midwest was a strong wind from the cold front that had moved in.


Many of our modern fire codes stem from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but during that era, your characters would have worried about fire and been in serious danger from it. If they lived in a city or even a small town, fire was a real threat, especially if the buildings were close together. Your characters could easily have experienced such a disaster or know someone who had. Men could be part of the volunteer firefighting force in town or could be called in to help fight a large fire. Women, while not allowed to become firefighters, would have done what they could to protect their homes, such as forming bucket brigades to douse the flames. In short, fire was something everyone in the Old West thought about on a regular basis, and something that should be incorporated in your historical fiction.


J.E.S. Hays



Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Helping Dude Ranchers for 95 Years



     When he was a teenager, New York native Larry Larom saw Buffalo Bill’s Wild West during one of its appearances in the city between 1907 and 1909. Larom actually got to meet the great man, and rode in the Deadwood stage during one of the performances. His father was a partner in the Mark Cross leather goods company, so perhaps he had some connections to get his son an introduction. 

     Anyway, the young Larom was already an outdoorsman, and in 1910 he took his first trip West, spending the summer in a cabin on the south fork of the Shoshone River near Cody, Wyoming. He went back in 1914 with his friend Winthrop Brooks (grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers clothing company) and in 1915 he opened a dude ranch to offer his West to his eastern friends, which he called the Valley Ranch.

     This wasn’t a new idea. Dude ranches had been around for twenty years, and two of the first and biggest ranches were Eatons’ in Wolf, Wyoming, and the OTO near Gardiner, Montana. But Larom had the enthusiasm of the newly-converted, and within a decade he was dude ranching’s biggest cheerleader.


     Many ranches were seat-of-the-pants operations, and their owners didn’t know much about what the others were doing. Larom, who had grown up in a household devoted to solid American business, thought this needed to change. He believed dude ranching was the future of western tourism. And there were dudes enough for everyone.

     So, ninety-five years ago, Larom and a group of dude ranchers from Montana and Wyoming got together to form an organization of their own. On September 27-28, 1926, they gathered at the Bozeman Hotel and by the time the meeting was over, the group had elected officers (with Larom as President, no surprise) and — more importantly — had chosen their name.

     Writers and journalists called visitors to their ranches dudes, and the term dude ranch had been around since about 1899. But some people sneered when they said the word, because it originally meant a man who wore fancy clothes and didn’t like to get his hands dirty. (Female dudes were dudines.)

     Should they keep on using this word? The answer was yes. To ranch owners, a dude was simply someone who came out West to enjoy the activities they offered: horseback riding, fishing, camping, hunting, swimming, evening entertainments in beautiful lodges, even helping wrangle the livestock. And their guests took pride in being called dudes.

     So, with a unanimous vote, they adopted the name the group still has today: The Dude Ranchers’ Association.


     The “Backed by Northern Pacific” phrase in this newspaper headline meant that railway lines were doing everything they could to keep the dude business going. Hundreds of people took the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific, the Burlington Northern, and other lines to get to ranches near big cities, national parks, and remote wilderness areas. It was easier than ever to take a dude ranch vacation.

     But as the 1920s wore on, more people were buying cars and taking to the road on their own. And sometimes they bypassed the dude ranches. The railroads not only helped the Dude Ranchers’ Association get started, they promoted ranches with beautifully designed brochures and pamphlets.

     DRA members knew that dudes would make repeat visits, and tell their friends about what a great time they had, if they had an authentic Western experience. To help this along, the DRA debuted its own magazine in 1932, called The Dude Rancher.

     It was full of useful advice and is a lot of fun to read today. My favorite column was called House Management. It was all about the life of what some people called “the dude ranch wife,” but was really the dude ranch co-owner. From the beginning, dude ranching was a true partnership between married couples, and was also the kind of business many women ran on their own (that’s a story for another day). 


     For 95 years, The Dude Ranchers’ Association has helped ranches adapt to world events and cultural shifts: Depression, two world wars, changes in the way the West showed up on movie and TV screens, even how people eat.

     Happy Birthday DRA! Keep up the dude work.

Check out the Dude Ranchers’ Association website: https://duderanch.org/

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Bent's Fort, What Happened?

 Post by Doris McCraw

writing as Angela Raines

Photo property of the author

This year they are celebrating the bicentennial of the Santa Fe Trail. One of the stops on the Mountain Route was Bent's Fort also known as Fort William. 

Trade officially opened up with Santa Fe around 1821. The Santa Fe Trail touched the far Southeast corner of Colorado but the Mountain Trail went further north. Although more difficult to transverse than the southern route, it had the advantage of water most of the way.

By 1833 the Bent brothers, Charles and William, along with Ceran St. Vrain, had opened what we know as Bent's Fort on the northern side of the Arkansas River. At the time the river was the dividing line between Mexico and the United States.

Photo property of the author

The fort was the only structure other than a blacksmith shop located in Kansas that one would find on the American side of the trail. Many mountain men, traders, Indians, and for a time the military all used the fort.

William Bent's first wife was Owl Woman of the Cheyenne, and he later married her sisters Yellow Woman and Island. It was from this connection that trade with the Indians grew. 

In addition to the Bent's, the list of those who spent time within the walls of the fort reads like a who's who of the opening of the west. George Ruxton, John Smith, William Guerrier, Francis Parkman, Susan Magoffin, Francis Preston Blair Jr., Lieutenant James Aber, along with Kit Carson and Jim Beckworth.

The trade was not just with the locals, it was a worldwide concern trading goods from around the world. The languages spoken were English, Spanish, French along with the native languages.

Photo property of the author

The Fort was extremely profitable through 1849. It was that year that a cholera epidemic spread across the plains wiping out a substantial number of people. (The epidemic years were 1846-1860.) It was in 1849 that the Fort burnt down. William Bent moved to a spot further about forty miles downriver and built Bent's New Fort.

Did William burn the fort to keep it from being used as a military fort? Perhaps he fired it because of the cholera epidemic that had taken the lives of some of his family. Maybe there was a reason we will never know. Regardless, the fort was a lifeline for so many in the early days of trade along the Santa Fe Trail.  

Photo property of the author

As Susan Magoffin says in her diary." It fills my idea of an ancient castle. It is built of adobes, unburnt brick, and Mexican style so far. The walls are very high and very thick with rounded corners." This reconstructed fort is a trip back to the early days of the country and is rich in history to be excavated. Perhaps one day we'll know what really happened when the fort was destroyed.

Photo property of the author

Doris Gardner-McCraw -
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History
Angela Raines - author: Telling Stories Where Love & History Meet

Post (c) Doris McCraw All Rights Reserved.

Monday, September 27, 2021

My 12 Favorite Western Movies - Part One

Admittedly, any list of anyone’s favorite of anything is going to be subjective and this list is no exception. There will be people who will be convinced that I have lost my mind to include a particular movie on this list, and others who are just as convinced of my mental defects because I didn’t include a particular movie. So, right out of the gate, I’m expecting disagreement, controversy, name-calling, and maybe even some shootouts in the street at high noon.

I have included one film which is not technically a Western. Westerns are generally considered as taking place during the last half of the 19th century. This film is loosely based on an incident in the life of someone that took place in 1823. The movie, however, contains elements and themes that are common stock in the Western genre of film and literature. I’ve also included several titles that were each aired as a mini-series, not as individual films, but I saw no reason to discriminate based on length.

So, here you have it. My list of the twelve Western movies that I like the best. I’ve listed them in order from my least favorite to my most favorite. If you have a favorite that you think should be in everyone’s top twelve, but didn’t make the cut in my list, make your case for it in the comments below.

This post will cover the bottom six movies. My post for the month of October will cover the top six on my list.


#12 – The Searchers

Released in 1956, directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, and Vera Miles. I struggled with where to include this film in the twelve. It could have easily been much closer to the top of the list. This is arguably both John Ford’s best picture and John Wayne’s best performance. Based on the 1954 book of the same name by Alan Le May, the story is based on the true-life account of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker who was abducted from her home on the Texas frontier in 1836 by Comanche Indians.

John Wayne plays anti-hero Ethan Edwards, a bitter Civil War veteran, who returns home to Texas after the war. When his brother’s family is killed or abducted by the Comanche, Ethan sets out on a journey to find the surviving family members and bring them home.

This film was nominated for six awards and won three, including a Golden Globe in 1958.


#11 – Centennial

A twelve-part mini-series that aired between October 1, 1978, and February 4, 1979. Based on the 1974 epic novel by James A. Michener, the movie featured a cast of dozens of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Robert Conrad, Barbara Carrera, Richard Chamberlain, Brian Keith, Andy Griffith, Lynn Redgrave, Raymond Burr, and on and on…

The series tells the story of the founding of the American West by looking at the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado, from its settlement in the late 18th century to the present. At the time it was made, it was the longest, the most expensive, and the most complicated film project of its time. It ran for a total of 26 hours, cost 25 million dollars, had a cast of over 100 speaking parts, four directors, five producers, and several hundred extras.

Several of the episodes were nominated for various awards, including two Primetime Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes.


#10 – Open Range

Released in 2003, Produced and directed by Kevin Costner, starring Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Benning, and Michael Jeter (who passed away before the movie was released).

Open Range is an old-fashioned Western with cowboys, cattle drives, a ruthless land baron, gunfights in the street, and a love interest for Costner’s character. The plot is simple, the characters are well developed and genuine, and the chemistry between Costner and Duvall is apparent.

The movie is based on the 1990 book, The Open Range Men, by Lauran Paine. Paine was a prolific writer who wrote under numerous pen names, publishing over 1,000 books in different genres. Only two of his books were ever made into movies and both of them were Westerns.

Costner and Duvall play two cattlemen driving a herd across the open range. They stop for supplies in a small Montana town where they discover the local land baron has laid claim to all of the open rangeland and is determined to steal the herd and kill the cattlemen. Costner’s character, Charley Waite is tortured by his past as a Confederate sharpshooter and all of the killings that he had done. He and Boss Spearman (Duvall) are not the kinds to stand by and watch their men and cattle be killed and taken from them.

Although there are some authenticity issues with the film (the magic six-shooter that never has to be reloaded), the inevitable shootout with the bad guys at the end is probably the best in any Western film. Open Range would have made it into my top twelve for the final shootout alone—it’s that good.


#9 – How the West was Won

How the West was Won is the story of three generations of the Rawlings/Prescott family as they make their way from New York to California between the years 1839 and 1889. This story of westward expansion includes Indians, river pirates, the civil war, the building of the railroads, outlaws, and lawmen. The cast of stars that were assembled for this film is phenomenal and includes James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Walter Brennan, Gregory Peck, and Debbie Reynolds, to name just a few. The film is also narrated by Spencer Tracy.

The film was directed by three veteran directors, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall. Oddly enough, it was first released in London, in the UK, in November of 1962, and then released in the US in February of 1963. Produced at a budget of fewer than 15 million dollars. It grossed over 50 million at the box office, making it a huge success for MGM, and one of the studio’s last great “epic” films.

The music for the film was composed and conducted by Alfred Newman. The score was nominated for an Academy Award. It lost out but was later selected to fill the #25 spot in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years of Film Scores” list.

How the West Was Won was the winner of ten different awards, including three of the eight Academy Awards that it was nominated for.


#8 – Into the West

Into the West is a 2005 mini-series composed of six two-hour episodes. It chronicles the westward expansion of the United States, beginning in the early 1820s. It’s told through the eyes of two different families, one white, one native, as the family’s fates become intertwined.

Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle) leaves his parent’s home in Virginia and heads west to seek adventure. He is taken under the wing of the legendary mountain man, Jedediah Smith, who teaches him how to survive in the wilderness. Loved by the Buffalo (George Leach) is a Lakota holy man, who’s calling it is to try to understand a prophesy that has his people being wiped out by the encroaching white settlers. Jacob marries Loved by the Buffalo’s sister, Thunder Heart Woman, thus tying the destiny of both families together throughout the rest of the story.

Its scope covers six generations of the two families and depicts both fictionalized and historical events and people.

Into the West has an impressive cast, with over 250 speaking parts. Each of the six episodes had a different director, and the project had eight different producers – most noticeably were Steven Spielberg and Kirk Ellis, who was also one of the writers for the mini-series.

Into the West received 16 Emmy nominations in 2006, picking up two wins. It was also nominated for an award by the Screen Acts Guild.


#7 – The Cowboys

The Cowboys, released in 1972, directed by Mark Rydell, is based on the book by the same name, published in January of 1971 and written by William Dale Jennings, who also wrote “The Ronin.”

This is one of John Wayne’s later films, and also stars Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst, and a handful of young cowboys, notably Robert Carradine and A. Martinez.

The Duke plays an aging cattleman by the name of Will Anderson, who needs to drive a herd of cattle from Butte, Montana to Belle Fourche, South Dakota - four hundred miles away. However, just before the drive begins, his cattle hands get the gold bug and run off to the Montana gold fields leaving him stranded and desperate for help. With no other able-bodied men available to help him move his cattle, he reluctantly enlists the aid of eleven school boys, ages nine to thirteen.

Roscoe Lee Brown does an outstanding job of portraying Jebediah Nightlinger, the camp cook. Probably the best performance by any of the cast comes from Bruce Dern as Asa “Long Hair” Watts, an ex-con who tried signing on as a drover but was turned away by Will Anderson who caught him in a lie. Watts and his gang follow the herd seeking an opportunity to steal it away from the inexperienced cowboys, but the young boys do a lot of growing up throughout the cattle drive, and taking the herd from them is not as easy as Watts and his gang thinks it will be.

The Cowboys was the recipient, in 1972, of the Bronze Wrangler Award (best theatrical motion picture of the year) from the Western Heritage Awards.

(Next month, the top six on my 12 Favorite Western Movies list.)

Mike is an award-winning Western author currently living in a 600 square foot cabin in the mountains of Western Montana. He has been married to his redheaded sweetheart, Tami, since 1989. He is a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Finalist three years in a row and his short stories have been published in numerous anthologies and are available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers as well as brick and mortar bookstores. His first Western novel, The Sons of Philo Gaines, was released in November of 2020. It is available everywhere books are sold. Mike is a member of Western Writers of America and Western Fictioneers. You can find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MichaelRRittAuthor, or at his website https://michaelrritt.com.