Nuggets to Neutrinos

I spent most of my school years living near, but not in, a company town: Lead, South Dakota.

The company was the Homestake Mining Company, and their prize possession was the Homestake Gold Mine.

I’ve walked through forests owned by the company. I’ve seen its buildings on back country roads and logging trucks on the way to the company’s sawmill.

We went on school field trips to see the mile-long, above-ground milling and processing of the gold ore.

I even made several visits to the house of one of the mine superintendents listed in the appendix. (His son was a friend of mine.)

The very landscape around Lead would change between trips home post-college as Homestake restarted surface mining and built large conveyer belts and tunnels to move ore about.

However, neither I nor any of my family actually worked for the company.

I wanted an historical context for all this, I wanted to know what all those Homestake buildings were for, and I wanted all the book’s pictures, so I picked this one up.

Review: Nuggets to Neutrinos: The Homestake Story, Steven T. Mitchell, 2009.Nuggets to Neutrinos

Mitchell’s book reminds me of one of those old James Michener novels with a place name for a title.

Like those novels, Mitchell starts his tale back in the Precambrian past with a look at the geology of the Black Hills of South Dakota where the Homestake Mine was located. He then talks about Indian settlement in the area and early white exploration of it. The various reconnaissance expeditions the U. S. Army mounted in the upper Great Plains from 1853 to 1874 get a chapter as do early explorations by white prospectors. The Black Hills gold rush has a chapter.

White expropriation of the Black Hills, granted to the Sioux Nation by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, is covered. Mitchell gives an even handed, yet concise, summary of white-Indian relations in the context of the Black Hills and the treaty violations on both sides and resulting wars.

It’s only after five chapters and 133 pages that Mitchell gets to the discovery of the Homestake lode. The outcropping of rock which provided the “lead” to the gold ore gave its name to Lead, South Dakota where the mine operated from 1876 to 2001. Continue reading

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Cow-Boys and Colonels

And the American West series continues.

Raw Feed (1992): Cow-Boys and Colonels: Narrative of a Journey Across the Prairie and Over the Black Hills of South Dakota, Edmond Baron de Mandat-Grancey, 1984.Cow-Boys

“Introduction”, Howard R. Lamar — An introduction putting Frenchman de Mandat-Grancey’s jourey in historical perspective, remarking on de Mandat-Grancy’s wit and sharp reporter’s eye as well as his failing as historian and prejudices as a royalist and not a democrat. The man led an enviously varied life traveling not only to the Black Hills but to French Indo-China, Madagascar, and Hong Kong and was a naval officer.

As to the main text, it’s a rare pleasure to read about a place I’ve actually been to and know something about. Grancey is a witty, keen observer. I liked his accurate descriptions of Western dialect, the failings of frontier women and cuisine, his constant attempts to show how America needs a monarchy (like Canada), the adventures he meets, the descriptions of Western life. I was interested to hear of the geography and fauna of the Black Hills in 1883: swamps, rivers (not creeks as now), and mosquitoes — few of these prominent features exist now.

Grancey has some faults. As Howard Lamar points out in the introduction, Grancy is an awful historian. His accounts of Wild Bill Hickok’s death (apart from Jack McCall’s execution in Yankton) and Custer’s Last Stand are strangely, uniquely very inaccurate. I suspect the same holds true for the second hand stories of frontier violence. (Was someone pulling his leg or was he just bad at noting others’ statements?)  Grancey seems determined to show that, while the Americans are marvelously skilled at making money (but not enjoying it), are egalitarian, skilled craftsmen, economically ambitious (he notes their potential threat to France’s economy), they are very violent and in need of monarchy and not democracy.

 

An index exists for more reviews on books about the American Old West.

 

 

And Die in the West

My mini-series on books about the Old West continues.

And more gunfighters this time in a book about the most famous gunfight in the history of the West. It was largely forgotten, as Wyatt Earp was, until Stuart Lake’s hagiography of him in 1931.

I left it out of my review, but Marks addresses the contention that the Earps and Doc Holiday may have been part-time stagecoach robbers.

As for the inevitable movie question — which cinema version of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral hews closest to history? — I have hardly seen them all, but Tombstone, in its depiction of the gunfight and the surrounding history, is fairly accurate. It even shows Wyatt Earp’s favorite tactic of “buffaloing” and pistol whipping troublemakers.

Raw Feed (1991): And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight, Paula Mitchell Marks, 1989.And Die in the West

This book is so interesting because it scrapes off myth and fading memories and wishful thinking about the legendary event and goes straight to the primary source documents: court statements and newspaper accounts. As far as I know, Marks’ work is still considered the definitive history.

It’s hard to tell what happened October 26, 1881 in the vacant lot between Fly’s Boarding House and Harwood’s house.

There are many different versions. Continue reading

Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes

Since I’ll be putting up a review soon of another book touching on the American West, I thought I’d go back in the archives and put up material on some related topics.
McGrath has written a very detailed and entertaining look at violence in two trans-Sierrian mining camps, Aurora and Bodie. The stories are intriguing, exciting, and often funny given vernacular and sentiment of the time. McGrath challenges some of the myths of the popular West by looking at history as documented in the newspapers of these two camps.
His study reveals no rape, bank robberies, racial violence, gunfights at high noon, or lynch mobs.  He shows a West of little property crime, little violence against women (except prostitutes), opium addicts, high suicide amongst women, and at least token law enforcement and adjudication by courts.
McGrath does verify one conception of the West, though. It did have an extraordinary rate of homicide, most of it provoked by challenges to honor and manhood (a great many other homicides were averted by intervening friends, bad shooting, misfiring guns, and luck — some remarkable recoveries were made from gunshot wounds). The public attitude towards this usually took into account the circumstances of the shooting and the character of the victim.

Continue reading

What If?

The alternate history continues with a collection of essays from various historians and popular writers, a modern sequel of sorts to If It Had Happened Otherwise.

There was a follow up volume I have not read.

Raw Feed (2004): What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, ed. Robert Cowley, 2000.what-if

“Introduction”, Robert Cowley — A cursory look at the current state of academic “counterfactual” writing, teasers for the essays in the collection, and a brief discussion of their genesis in the special tenth anniversary edition of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Infectious Alternatives: The Plague That Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C.”, William H. McNeill — Not surprisingly McNeill, the historian who really first put forth the idea that disease epidemics affected many events in history, chooses a plague as his turning point. We don’t really know why the Assyrian king Sennacherib abandoned his investment of Jerusalem. We know his army suffered severe losses, and it is probable that it was due to disease. McNeill briefly sketches, in cultural and religious terms, the consequences of the Assyrians taking Jerusalem and, thereby, killing Judaism as a cultural force for good. (It really isn’t that much of a stretch. The splinter kingdom of Israel had abandoned Judaism and disappeared in 722 B.C. Several cities in Judah were taken, and the King of Judea ended up paying tribute to the Assyrians.) McNeill sees the main effect of Jerusalem being taken is that the Jewish faith looses further confidence. The unique universal monotheism of Judaism is weakened. When the Jews are taken off in the Babylonian captivity, they become just another locally centered, ethnically based faith and exert no influence on the following centuries.

A Good Night’s Sleep Can Do Wonders“, Barbara N. Porter — A very brief alternate history that imagines the possible consequences (actually, it spends most of its time recounting the historical record and not imagining alternative outcomes) of the Lydian King Gyges not getting a good night’s sleep and impatiently attacking the Cimmerians before he was ready. The Lydians don’t form an alliance with Assyria and, years later, nascent Greek culture is overwhelmed by the expanding Cimmerians. Continue reading

Jack McCall, Assassin

Review: Jack McCall, Assassin: An Updated Account of His Yankton Trial, Plea for Clemency, and Execution, Joseph G. Rosa, 1999.Jack Mccall

It’s the 140th anniversary of Jack McCall’s walk on part in the history of the Old West. James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was playing cards when McCall stepped up behind him and shot him in the head.

A miner’s jury acquitted him. But he hung later in Yankton, the capitol of Dakota Territory. The jury, it was decided, had no right to hold a trial on what was legally Indian land.

McCall’s motives were obscure. His background is seldom mentioned. It was a life only remembered at all for what happened in Saloon No. 10 on that hot August afternoon.

As far as I know, Hickok scholar Rosa is the only one to have actually researched McCall’s life for this slender pamphlet of 24 pages.

 

More reviews of books related to the Old West are indexed here.

To Hell on a Fast Horse

A retro review from January 25, 2010 …

Review: To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, Mark Lee Gardner, 2010.To Hell on a Fast Horse

What do you know about Pat Garrett?

Probably not much more than that he killed Billy the Kid. (Some would even argue that, but Gardner is decidedly not in that camp.) Billy is one of the key foundations of New Mexico tourism. He’s the subject of novels, songs, movies, and a ballet. Every jail break of the Kid’s is commemorated with a plaque, his grave well maintained. Garrett’s grave isn’t. People do DNA tests more than 100 years after the event to prove the Kid didn’t die in 1881. No one much remembers Garrett’s murder, a far more mysterious and interesting death than the Kid’s. The Kid had imposters. Garrett never did.

Part of that may have been the name. If William Bonney aka William Antrim aka the Kid aka Henry McCarty hadn’t been rebranded as Billy the Kid seven months before his death, both men would have ended up as obscure historical figures. The Kid was already famous, but, when Garrett instinctively shot him in that dark room, he was dragged into history’s spotlight with Billy. Continue reading

The Saga of Hugh Glass

Since I brought up Hugh Glass, you might as well get this retro review from September 2, 2013.

Review: The Saga of Hugh Glass: Pirate, Pawnee, and Mountain Man, John Myers Myers, 1963.Hugh Glass

Crawling for hundreds of miles, near naked and armed only with a razor, to take revenge on the men who left him for dead after he was mauled by a grizzly bear, the story of Hugh Glass is a classic story of survival. It very well might be, as Myers maintains, unique in all the history and legends of the world.

It was a story doubted for a long time. The existence of Hugh Glass is certainly documented. We even have a letter in his hand. But no sources actually verifying the attack seemed to exist until one came to light in 1957. Myers spends the first part of this brief book outlining the historiography behind the Glass story and its developments and corruptions by various sources.

It’s a uniquely fascinating life. Glass was a ship’s captain and captured by Jean Lafitte’s pirate gang sometime around 1816. Given the choice to take up piracy or die, Glass seems to have spent about a year as a pirate before escaping Lafitte’s base around Galveston Bay. However, during that escape, he was captured by Pawnee Indians. His companion in the escape was burned alive by the Pawnee, and Glass lived with the tribe, a combination captive and foster son of its chief, until 1822. In 1823, he joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company expedition up the Missouri River and participated in its somewhat farcical battle with the Arikara Indians a few weeks before his legendary encounter with the bear. Seemingly affected by his many traumatic experiences, Glass preferred a solitary life even by mountain man standards, and he met his end in 1833, aged somewhere in the fifties, fighting Indians. Continue reading

Wild Bill Hickok, Gunfighter

A retro review from July 31, 2006.

Review: Will Bill Hickok, Gunfighter: An Account of Hickok’s Gunfights, Joseph G. Rosa, 2003.Wild Bill Hickok

If you’re looking for one book on Wild Bill’s life, this is not it. Instead, read Rosa’s They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok. This book has nothing on Hickok’s Civil War experience, no evaluation of the tales of his shooting prowess, no account of his days on the plains or on the stage.

It is a detailed look at the five documented gunfights — and death — of Hickok. Rosa reconstructs each with contemporary records, presents diagrams and timelines, and looks at the weapons each party used. He also looks at how Hickok wore his guns and the provenance of several guns claimed to have been carried by Wild Bill.

For hardcore Wild Bill devotees, there is some new information uncovered by Rosa since They Called Him Wild Bill.

The illustrations are both plentiful and useful.

 

The Old West page.