Tag Archives: Old West

The Jesse James’ of the World

16 Oct

I was watching an NFL game and heard the announcer say something about a player named Jesse James. Obviously, this made me think about the famous outlaw, and I began to wonder something. How many people have this name?

In addition to the football player, there is the television reality star who was once married to Sandra Bullock. He made to it television as an customizer of motorcycles.

A professional wrestler also used Jesse James as a ring name. Of course, character names tend of change in professional wrestling, and he has also wrestled as Road Dogg and a few other things.

Locally, there is a country music singer named Jessie James. I do not know what she sings, but I know she is married to Eric Decker, who plays for the Tennessee Titans.

The list goes on and on, but you get the point. A lot of people are named Jesse James. This begs a question – why are people named for this criminal?

It is a question that has a few answers. In fact, I cover a few of them in class.

First, we tend to think of Old West outlaws as heroes. This could be because they represent independence and the ability to do as they please. It could also be because dime novels and movies convinced Americans that they lived a romantic lifestyle. This definitely happened with the original Jesse James.

However, there is one problem. I am not certain that Jesse James is an Old West outlaw. Some of his most famous robberies took place in Missouri, Iowa, Kentucky and Minnesota. Heck, he lived for a couple of years in Nashville. I am not sure those are places people have in mind when they think of the Old West.

Second, Jesse James is a cool name. It is alliterative and roles of the tongue. When people refer to Jesse James, they never say Jesse or James. They always say his entire name. Consider the brother of Jesse James. Frank James was involved in the robberies, but his name does not live on as a football player, motorcycle customizer, wrestler or country singer. The name does not draw the proper attention.

Yes, people are named Jesse James because of the original’s hero status and because it sounds cool. Heck, if the football player was named Frank James I would not even had heard it. I would not be writing this post, and you would not be reading it.

It sort of makes me sad for Frank James. Of course, Jesse was killed because he was the famous one, and Frank lived to a ripe old age. Frank James may be the cooler name after all.

Listeria – Cattle Towns, Mining Camps and Other Assorted Outposts

14 Feb

True West magazine came out with their list of the “Top 10 True Western Towns of the Year”, and I had to see what they came up with. As it turns out, other lists were included – “True West Towns to Know” and “True West Towns to Watch”. A quick counting brought the total number of towns mentioned to 30.

I decided to weed that list down to those that I have visited. I have no idea what criteria the people at True West used to compile the list, but here is a little information about the places that I know about.

1. Dodge City, Kansas is, in my opinion, the most famous of all the cattle towns. It was the epicenter of a huge industry and the home of real life lawman Wyatt Earp and fictional lawman Matt Dillon. Dodge City is still a player in the cattle industry, but I do not see it as a tourist mecca. Obviously, any lover of the Old West must go there, but they will be disappointed with the fake western town that sits on the main drag. However, the trolley tour is cool.

Inside a fake saloon on a fake streetfront.

Inside a fake saloon on a fake streetfront.

2. Durango, Colorado is a cool western town that has held on to its past. Historic buildings, such as the Strater Hotel, line the streets. The famous train from Durango to Silverton starts its journey at one end of town. There are restaurants, bars and a bookstore with all of the great western historians.

A couple of cars on the Durango and Silverton Line

A couple of cars on the Durango and Silverton Line

8. Lincoln, New Mexico is a state monument that looks almost like it did when Billy the Kid was roaming around. There are all kinds of buildings and museums, but the best is the old building from which he made his famous jailbreak. Billy the Kid is the most famous of those who participated in the Lincoln County War, but I find myself more interested in John Chisum and some of the others.

9. Tombstone, Arizona which its economic peak during the 1880s and had its growth stunted when the minerals ran out. That circumstance makes it still have that feel of a frontier town. Of course, that could also be because they ripped up the concrete sidewalks and put down wooden ones. The OK Corral is cool. The Birdcage Theater is cool. However, the coolest thing is talking to Ben Traywick, the town historian.

If this building could talk, then it would have some real stories to tell.

If this building could talk, then it would have some real stories to tell.

10. Lewiston, Idaho is a place that I have never been. However, I must mention it because the Cumberland University baseball team has won two national championships in Lewiston. It is a western town, but it is also a baseball mecca.

There is half of the Top 10, but some interesting towns are on the other lists, as well.

Prescott, Arizona is listed as one of the “True West Towns to Know” and, on the surface, looks like any other regular old town. However, a walk around its square gives you an idea of what it used to be like. The square is huge and is bustling with activity, as people venture into the historic buildings.

This statue stands in front of the county courthouse.

This statue stands in front of the county courthouse.

“True West Towns to Watch” lists several places that I have visited.

Juneau, Alaska is the state capital and can only be entered by plane or boat. It is a small place that has a frontier and isolated quality. One of my great memories of Alaska is having a drink with my brother in one of Juneau’s saloons.

Cody, Wyoming is another good western town. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is one of my favorite places to visit. A few years ago they had a traveling exhibit in Nashville, and I was able to take my students.

Checotah, Oklahoma sits on Interstate 40, and, frankly, I have never been in the downtown area. We have only stopped a few times for gas. Most people probably know it as the hometown of Carrie Underwood.

Custer, South Dakota is one of the less famous mining camps in the Black Hills and is overshadowed by Deadwood and Sturgis. However, it is a good place to stop and look around. Also, it is named in honor of George Armstrong Custer, the man who led the gold-finding expedition into the Black Hills.

Bisbee, Arizona sits several miles down the road from Tombstone and is a place that I like better. Its economic boom lasted into the 20th Century, which means it has a more modern look than other mining camps. It also has a great mining museum operated by the Smithsonian Institute.

Those are the places listed by True West that I have visited. It would be interesting to read if any of you have been to these places. What are your thoughts and stories? What other towns have you visited that you think may be or should be on the lists?

History in the Buff

15 Jun

I started teaching history a little over ten years ago and have found out something in the intervening years. People want to talk to me about history. In and of itself, that is not a bad thing. It thrills me that people like history and want to discuss it, and I am happy to have a job that people find interesting. After all, I can’t imagine a plumber constantly being asked about fitting pipes or an accountant being asked about ledgers.

However, there is another side to the “let’s talk about history” coin, and I know it before it actually happens. It always begins with a question:

“You are a history buff aren’t you?”

Well, I’m not really a history buff. I am more like a historian, someone who makes their living studying history and providing that information to others. That question always leads to the next one:

“Can you tell me the real story about (fill in the blank)?

When this question comes out of their mouth, I know that I am in a real bind. You see, they don’t want to hear what I think or know. They want me to reinforce what they think they know. Invariably, I have to ask myself a few more questions:

“Do I tell them what the latest research says?” Or,:

“Do I let them continue to think what they want because I am not going to change their mind anyway?”

They are the true history buffs, and they can fall into several categories.

Civil War Buffs – In these parts, this is the worst bunch to deal with. They can be the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Daughters of the Confederacy, or just someone who is obsessed with the Civil War. I can promise you that they know more about the actual “war” than I do. They know regiments, weapons, troop movements, generals, the names of the horses of generals, and a lot more minute information. There is no way I can talk to them about that stuff. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that is not what they ask about. The question is always:

“What was the Civil War really about?”

This is a no win situation. They have convinced themselves that it is about state rights, and have conveniently left out the part about states having the right to keep slavery legal. It was also about the need to spread slavery into the western territories. In short, it was all about slavery, but I can talk until I am blue in the face and they will not have their minds changed.

A few years ago, a member of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans offered our department a sizable donation if we taught the Civil War the “right” way. We turned it down.

Old West Buffs – This category covers several groups: people who like westerns; people who compete in rodeos; people who live in the West; people who wear cowboy hats and cowboy boots. It goes on and on. However, I will use a conversation I had with a Montana rancher to illustrate my point.

Through the years, the rancher has bought cattle from my dad and invited us to see his place. It was a cool experience, but I knew I was in trouble when he found out that I was a historian of the West. I tried to stick with the fun stuff, but he asked:

“What do you think about the way things went with the Indians? Look at them. They don’t work, and they stay drunk. Useless.”

Now, how am I suppose to answer that? I am sitting at a table full of Montana ranchers who make their living off of land that Native Americans were run off from. For all I knew, their ancestors could have fought each other. Was I supposed to say that Native Americans got the biggest screwing ever? Was I supposed to say that they would be drunk too if someone took everything away from them?

I played politician and stayed away from a straight answer. After all, these are people who still believe in the myth of Custer’s Last Stand.

People who play cowboy in the east are almost as bad. They want to hear about the lone cowboy riding across the prairie and living a lifestyle of freedom. They don’t want to hear that it was a job for people who couldn’t anything else. They definitely don’t want to hear that a great many were minorities. And, they would flip upon hearing that cowboys on the trail sometimes found sexual comfort with each other.

Instead, I tell them that it is hard to be a real cowboy without any cows.

Antique Buffs – A lot of people, including old ladies, love to collect antiques. That’s great for them and the pieces they collect. It allows them to hold on to a physical piece of nostalgia, and it protects objects that would otherwise be lost. However, that doesn’t mean I am interested in their collection of dishes.

When an antique person (in interest, not age) finds out my job, they immediately start in with:

“Oh, I should show you my collection. I’m sure you would find it interesting.”

Actually, I wouldn’t.

Old House Buffs – This group is closely related to the prior group. In fact, I could have put them together. These are people who either live in an old home or are involved in the protection of an old home. Now, this is a noble cause because older homes should be protected. I wouldn’t live in one, but I am glad other people do. However, just because a home is old does not mean that it is historic.

Last year, I spoke at a meeting of a group that protects an old home in Nashville. They were nice people who listened intently, but when I was finished they just wanted to talk about how important this place was. Others showed off the work they had been doing on the old places they lived in. I am not an expert on historic preservation and could not do anything except show feigned interest. However, I know that just because a place is old does not mean it is important.

Local History Buffs – These are great people who work in archives and libraries and provide a wealth of information for researchers. However, they tend to place more importance on their local history than is realistic. Not every town has an interesting story to tell or has enough interest to attract tourists. A lot of place have that, but most do not. I am happy that it interests you, but it does not interest me (unless they had a local whorehouse).

For example, my town has pumped up a Civil War battle that was not much bigger than a bar brawl. A sign has been installed to commemorate the event, but the Sons of Confederate Veterans got mad because the map was wrong. Apparently, it had the bar on the wrong side of the square.

Now that I have ranted about people interested in history, I will finish by saying that it is better than the opposite – people who know absolutely nothing. Several years ago, I had the following conversation with a local official. It took place during a meeting about drawing tourism into our community. She began with:

“I don’t see how we can draw people here. We don’t have any history.”

“What do you mean we don’t have any history? We have a university that was founded in 1842 and educated a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. We have the homes of three governors. We have a home that Paul McCartney used to live in. We are the home of Cracker Barrel. We have all kinds of things.”

“Well, we don’t have a presidential home like Nashville does.”

“There have only been 40-something presidents. No many counties have one of those. You go with what you have.”

“Well, I say we don’t have anything.”

With that in mind, if you fit in one of the categories that I bitched about above. I will give you this. At least you have something.

The Shootist

24 Jan

In an earlier post, I referenced an unused radio ad for my university in relaying a bit of Tennessee history. That post provided a brief biography of Grantland Rice, the famed sportswriter. With that being said, here is another footnote in my state’s history.

Did you know that one of the Old West’s most notorious killers was from Tennessee? In 1840, Clay Allison was born in Waynesboro, Tennessee. After serving in the Civil War, Allison moved west, and, among other things, became a cowboy, a rancher and a gunslinger, for which he coined the term “shootist”. His reputation as a killer grew with each shooting and lynching in which he was involved. However, Allison’s most famous episode took place when he and a friend decided to have a contest to determine which was the best dancer. To assist in this endeavor, the two men began shooting as each other’s feet, a scene that has been replayed in many western movies. Considering that Allison lived a life of violence and mayhem, he death was rather mundane. In 1881, he was riding a wagon to Waco, Texas when he fell off and died before reaching help.