Christmas in the West in the 1800’s. For some reason, I get warm-and-fuzzy feelings thinking about the wide open spaces, deep snow, tall pines, warm hearths, homemade gifts, sleigh rides, fiddle music, shy cowboys asking for a dance at the Christmas ball–Whoops! Sorry, I drifted off there for a second!
You can see why I write this stuff!
I’d like to share with you three of my favorite things that put me in mind of a Western Christmas: a certain book, a certain song, and a certain poem. Maybe they’ll set you to dreaming about a Cowboy–er, I mean, an old-fashioned Christmas, too!
THE BOOK-–More than a decade ago, I read A Bride Goes West, the memoirs of Wyoming wife and rancher Nannie Alderson. The book haunts me to this day. You’d have to read it to understand, but Nannie was a fire-cracker with a rebel’s heart! Nothing ever kept her down; she accepted life with grace and grit and lived a grand adventure when the west was still wild and wooly.
Born to an affluent southern family, Nannie grew up in post-Civil War Virginia. Her home and community were spared much of the desolation of war, leaving her to blossom in a world that clung to the most genteel Southern graces. Her petticoats were ironed daily, she never cooked a meal or did her own laundry, but she did learn the most useless graces of high society. Her mother was a vain woman who enjoyed being the belle of the ball and was pleased to groom her daughter for the same fate.
Nannie only felt strangled by the shallow, societal confinements.
In 1880, she had the opportunity to visit a cousin in wild-and-wooly Kansas. Nannie jumped at it. Right from the start, she fell in love with the freedom of the West. No one judged her there; no one treated her like a hot-house flower. What you wore or who you ate dinner with didn’t impress anyone. Folks were measured by their sand, not their silk breeches. Hard work and honest words were all that mattered.
While there, she met the man who epitomized these traits. Walt Alderson had left home at the age of 12 to make his way as a cowboy. He spent years learning to be the best cowboy he could be with the ultimate goal of running his own spread. In all that time, he never made one visit home.
Then suddenly, his future rolled out before him. He and his business partner purchased some land in Montana and started the work of building a ranch. For whatever reason, Walt decided in the midst of all this to check in on his family. The night he came home, Nannie was sitting on his living room settee.
Nannie’s recollections of building a ranch in the wilds of Montana with Walt are fascinating, detailed, peppered with humor, and always honest. She went from gliding across hardwood floors to sweeping dirt floors covered with canvas. She went from living in an antebellum mansion to a drafty, two-room cabin. She went from swirling about at parties with young men in perfectly tailored suits to dancing with dusty cowboys in patched up dungarees.
She had to learn to cook and her tutors were those trail-hardened ranch hands who treated her like a princess and readily forgave her for the rocks she called biscuits. She survived bed bugs and blizzards; delivered children with no midwife and stared down Indians. Nannie even shot a rattlesnake who attempted to take up residence in her kitchen. She readily admits she had moments when she felt sorry for herself, but, mostly, Nannie counted her blessings. She loved her life. She loved the way of life out West.
Like Walt, quitting was never part of the plan, even when the stock market crashed and Indians burned their house. For ten years they worked and slaved to forge a home from the beautiful, desolate, wide-open country in Montana. Even when Walt died, leaving her a widow with two young children, Nannie cowboyed up. She made ends meet; she raised good kids.
The next time your microwave goes on the fritz or you forget to pick up milk at the store, pick up a copy of A Bride Goes West. I guarantee this American woman will put things in perspective for you.
THE SONG–Two-Step ‘Round the Christmas Tree. I was in Wyoming on my honeymoon when I heard this song for the first time. It truly has special memories for me. Give a listen and get to dancin’!
The Poem–The Creak of the Leather. The absolute maestro of cowboy poetry is the legendary Bruce Kiskadon. And if this poem doesn’t make you want to strap on a pair of spurs and jump in the saddle and ride out and cut down a Christmas tree, check your pulse!
THE CREAK OF THE LEATHER
by Bruce Kiskaddon (1878-1950)
It’s likely that you can remember
A corral at the foot of a hill
Some mornin’ along in December
When the air was so cold and so still.
When the frost lay as light as a feather
And the stars had jest blinked out and gone.
Remember the creak of the leather
As you saddled your hoss in the dawn.
When the glow of the sunset had faded
And you reached the corral after night
On a hoss that was weary and jaded
And so hungry yore belt wasn’t tight.
You felt about ready to weaken
You knowed you had been a long way
But the old saddle still kep a creakin’
Like it did at the start of the day.
Perhaps you can mind when yore saddle
Was standin’ up high at the back
And you started a whale of a battle
When you got the old pony untracked.
How you and the hoss stuck together
Is a thing you caint hardly explain
And the rattle and creak of the leather
As it met with the jar and the strain.
You have been on a stand in the cedars
When the air was so quiet and dead
Not even some flies and mosquitoes
To buzz and make noise ’round yore head.
You watched for wild hosses or cattle
When the place was as silent as death
But you heard the soft creak of the saddle
Every time the hoss took a breath.
And when the round up was workin’
All day you had been ridin’ hard
There wasn’t a chance of your shirkin’
You was pulled for the second guard
A sad homesick feelin’ come sneakin’
As you sung to the cows and the moon
And you heard the old saddle a creakin’
Along to the sound of the tune.
There was times when the sun was shore blazin’
On a perishin’ hot summer day
Mirages would keep you a gazin’
And the dust devils danced far away
You cussed at the thirst and the weather
You rode at a slow joggin’ trot
And you noticed somehow that the leather
Creaks different when once it gets hot.
When yore old and yore eyes have grown hollow
And your hair has a tinge of the snow
But there’s always the memories that follow
From the trails of the dim long ago.
There are things that will haunt you forever
You notice that strange as it seems
One sound, the soft creak of the leather,
Weaves into your memories and dreams.
Of course, though, the most wonderful, most amazing, most old-fashioned thing about Christmas is the birth of a savior two thousand years ago. Remember and celebrate the Reason for the Season: the One who was born to die for mankind.
And I hope you all have a very merry, very blessed, very old-fashioned Christmas!
Can you hear me now? I mean literally. Have you ever thought about listening to an audiobook? Several of my books are available for listening and more are coming. Audiobooks are awesome because you can get lost in a story while you’re cooking, cleaning, crafting, or whatever. I love them for long road trips. They make the time fly.
But there is a lot of work that goes into creating and producing an audiobook. One of the things that I have to do is listen to auditions of narrators who would like to read a book to you, gentle reader. So, just for the fun of it, please give a listen to this snippet from Talmadge Ragan’s audition to narrate Love, Lies, & Typewriters! She’s quite the professional.
And just for fun, here is me trying to be a professional narrator! I am reading from Locket Full of Love!
I hope you’ll check out my books over at Audible and give a listen. Listening really frees you up to do more!
Phoebe Wilson Couzins was, to say the least, a trailblazer for women. She was one of the first female lawyers in the United States, the first female U.S. marshal, and, not surprising, an outspoken supporter of the suffragist movement. But temperance, not so much …
Phoebe was born on September 8, 1842 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father John E. D. Couzins was an architect, builder, and a natural leader. Traits he passed to his daughter. During the Civil War, John served as the city’s chief of police and sought to keep Missouri in the Union. Adaline, Phoebe’s mother, was a member of the Ladies’ Union Aid Society in St. Louis and volunteered as a battlefield nurse.
After the war, Phoebe, inspired by her parents, joined the St. Louis Woman Suffrage Association. The inability of a woman to vote incensed her, considering all the things a woman could do. She made a name for herself in the organization and, encouraged by a family friend, applied and was admitted to Washington University Law School in St. Louis.
In 1871, Phoebe became the first female law graduate from GWU! She practiced law for two months but the suffragette movement called her name. She began traveling across the country to give speeches in favor of women’s rights.
In 1884, Phoebe’s father was appointed U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Missouri and he swore her in as one of his deputies. When he died three years later, she served as the interim U.S. marshal, appointed by President Grover Cleveland. She was the first woman to serve in the position.
Not interested in being a lawman, though, she eventually moved to Washington, DC. She made a modest living as a writer, but maintained her involvement with the women’s rights movement. New blood entered into the suffragette arena, though, and Phoebe’s contributions, as well her Old Iron Pants attitude, tended to alienate the more politically-savvy ladies. Not to mention, Phoebe liked her high balls, and many of the suffragettes were passionate about the evils of alcohol. Hence, these last years were stormy ones for Phoebe. She hung in there, fighting the good fight, while, ironically, working as a lobbyist for a brewery.
Phoebe died in St. Louis in 1913 and was buried wearing her US marshal’s badge. Here’s to you, Phoebe!
By Heather Blanton
By Heather Blanton
Recently, many cities and towns across America held municipal elections. The turn-out is abysmally low for these. If you did not vote for your mayor or town council, Abigail Scott Duniway might just have a few choice words for you.
Abigail was the second daughter in a family of nine children. In 1852 she and her parents emigrated to Oregon from Illinois. In 1853, after teaching school for a bit, she married Benjamin Duniway. The couple would have six children.
Benjamin was a decent farmer but not much of a businessman. They sold their first farm in Clackamas County, OR and moved to a new one in Lafayette. During this time, Benjamin co-signed on a note for a friend, putting his farm up for collateral. Abigail, to say the least, was not on board with this plan. The friend defaulted and the Duniways lost their farm. In the throes of eviction, financial chaos, and finding a new place to live, Benjamin was severely disabled in a wagon accident, and upkeep of the family fell to Abigail.
She ran a boarding school and taught for a spell, and eventually opened her own business. In her attempts to keep a roof over her family’s head, Abigail was frustrated on occasion by the necessity to involve Benjamin in even simple legal decisions. Being the man in the house, his signature was often required on documents.
For five years Abigail ran a millinery. She heard countless stories there of other women disenfranchised by the legal system, powerless to fight for their rights, especially in regards to personal property. Just based on her own experiences, it’s easy to see why she thought the system was stupid. Hence, she became loudly and eloquently vocal about the injustices. Recognizing her passion, Benjamin encouraged Abigail to open a newspaper focused on women’s rights and suffrage. The Duniways knew that without the right to vote, nothing would ever change for the women of Oregon.
Interestingly, Abigail’s brother Harvey was the editor for The Oregonian and the siblings butted heads, or columns, vehemently over voting rights for women. Harvey was against them and his opposition was instrumental in seeing the motions defeated time and again.
But the women of Oregon persisted. In 1912 the state finally passed a women’s suffrage amendment. The governor himself asked Abigail to write the Equal Suffrage Proclamation sharing the news.
She was 78 years young.
Anna Smith Strong on AMC’s show Turn is portrayed as a woman more in love with a man than the cause of Liberty. Maybe. But I think it was the other way around.
From a wealthy Tory family, Anna married ardent Setauket patriot Selah Strong III, who became a judge in New York. The Strong family owned much property on what is now Long Island. Property owners, lawyers, and patriots, they made themselves a big target for the Crown. In 1778, her husband was arrested for suspicious correspondence with the enemy and thrown on the dreaded prison ship Jersey. A death sentence, except that Anna would not give up on Selah. She used every connection she had to get permission to take him food, while simultaneously pushing for his release. Between bribes and political pressure, Selah was eventually paroled.
But not cleared. He had no fans in the British army. To stay out of prison, Selah re-located to Connecticut with their children. Anna did not go with him.
Leaving would have meant abandoning their plantation. However, women, considered non-combatants by the crown, could maintain control of property in a husband’s absence. Maybe she stayed behind so the family wouldn’t be destitute after the war. Maybe, as the writers on Turn suggest, she stayed behind to continue her affair with Abraham Woodhull.
Or, maybe, she was willing to risk her life so a nation could be born. I’m on board with that option.
During the time that her husband was on the Jersey, Anna got involved with the Washington’s Culper spy ring. According to folklore, she would hang her black petticoat on the laundry line when Caleb Brewster had come ashore to collect intelligence. The number of handkerchiefs on her line would indicate in which of six coves he was waiting. Woodhull would then meet Brewster and hand-over the intelligence. According to AMC’s Turn, Anna and Woodhull were carrying on a torrid affair.
What we know for sure is that Anna’s home was constantly raided by British troops. She was harassed, and her home invaded whenever the notion struck the soldiers. They didn’t burn it, however, and she hung on to it. When the war was over, she and Selah were reunited. They spent the rest of their lives together in Setauket and named one of their children George Washington Strong.
I think that if she had loved Selah more than Liberty, she would have gone to Connecticut with him. If she loved Abraham Woodhull more than Selah, she wouldn’t have fought so hard to keep her home, nor would she have gone back to Selah at the end of the war. As it was, it seems she was willing to risk it all for an idea: the crazy notion that a free nation would provide a better life for her and her children and their children. Sounds like love to me, and not the kind that involves sex on the kitchen table.
Just my observation.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Antonia Ford, a pretty, sassy spy for the Confederacy, didn’t mind batting her eyelashes at a Union soldier if it got her intelligence. She didn’t count on one man capturing her heart, though, or what their love would cost them.
Born into a wealthy family of loud-and-proud secessionists, Antonia loved her home in Fairfax Court House, VA. When Union troops occupied her town in mid-1861, she eagerly used her money, connections, and feminine wiles to gather intelligence. The officers were awed by her beauty and, clearly, oblivious to her brains. They talked and talked about the Union’s plans right in front of her. And Antonia turned right around and fed intelligence to the Confederacy.
When Union General Edward H. Stoughton was captured in his headquarters (one of the most famous raids of the Civil War), suspicion fell on Antonia, since she had spent some time with the officer. A counter-spy tricked Antonia into revealing the aid-de-camp commission given to her by J.E.B. Stuart himself. Antonia was arrested based on this document. Worse, however, smuggled papers were discovered in her possession. Pretty incriminating.
As fate would have it, she was arrested by 44-year-old Maj. Joseph Willard. Willard was struck right in the heart by the pretty, 24-year-old belle, but did his duty and delivered her to Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. Antonia was also drawn to the major and their romance blossomed…behind bars. Maj. Willard spent several months working at it, but was finally able to secure Antonia’s release. Their love, though, came at a high cost.
Antonia had to swear allegiance to the Union and promise that she would never spy again. Willard agreed to give up his commission and resigned from the Army. Apparently, neither of the two ever regretted these decisions. The couple married in 1864 and took over his family’s business, the Willard Hotel. Sadly, during their short marriage, they lost two babies, and Antonia continually battled health issues that stemmed from her incarceration. She passed away in 1871. Willard was heartbroken by her death and never remarried. Their hotel, now called the InterContinental, still stands on Pennsylvania Ave., mere shouting distance from the symbol of a government she once sought to topple.
Oh, the irony for a lady in defiance.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Sometimes, just existing is such a task.
A college roommate said that to me many years ago. For some reason, I thought of that when I researched the story of Charly Parkhurst. She carried an amazing, isolating secret for over thirty years…
Born in 1812, Charly lost her parents at an early age and wound up in an orphanage in New Hampshire. Either she escaped or they let her go, but when Charly was old enough to take care of herself, she skedaddled. Probably in her early teens. Somehow, she stumbled upon a job with Ebenezer Balch’s livery in Worcester. Working with horses would set her destiny. Charly became one of the Wild West’s most famous stagecoach drivers.
She worked for Balch for several years, then suddenly struck out for California at the height of the gold rush. Skilled, reliable, sober stagecoach drivers were in short supply so she pretty much walked into a job. And the woman proved her metal. She was robbed twice. The first time she was unarmed, the second time the robber chose the wrong victim. Charly shot him dead. Road conditions were abhorrent in Northern California. If Charly wasn’t worrying about bandits or renegade Indians, she was crossing swollen rivers, navigating rickety bridges, driving in ice and snow, and, of course, battling ornery horses. To her credit, she never lost a coach.
Charly liked whiskey and cigars. She could fight and cuss with the toughest of men and did. Small in stature, she was tough as an oak but reclusive. Not many people got close to Charly. She was always picky about her privacy and lived alone her whole life.
Eventually, the demands of driving teams of horses up rugged mountain roads got to be too much for her. She “retired” and dabbled in ranching, and raising chickens. She even worked as a lumberjack for a spell.
Now all this is impressive, but there’s one other thing you need to know about Charly. She lived this remarkable life…as a man.
From approximately 1849 or so to 1879, Charlene Parkhurst’s gender was her deepest secret. The truth was only discovered upon her death. The town doctor, as well as the coroner, also believed that at some point in her life, Charly had given birth at least once. And baby items (either a dress or shoes—accounts differ) were found in a chest at her home.
So why did Charly live her life as a man? I find it interesting that she worked with Balch for several years, even moving with him to Rhode Island, then she suddenly struck out on her own. What if, at some point, Balch discovered that Charly was a woman? According to accounts from the time of Charly’s death, she was “well-endowed,” but hid her curves under baggy, pleated shirts. What if Balch didn’t like being lied to? What if he wasn’t a very nice man?
I realize that’s a heavy dose of speculation. But a small, petite orphan girl would have been easy prey. A young man on the other hand…
A gender-bender or a woman hiding from her past? Will we ever know? What do you think?
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Poverty and physical abuse are two things that will either make you or break you.
In the case of Phoebe Ann Moses, AKA, Annie Oakley, they made her a legend.
Born the sixth of seven children in 1860, Annie had a fairly happy home life in Ohio, until the death of her father when she was six. By all accounts, a compassionate child with wisdom beyond her years, little Annie thought it was her duty to help her mother all she could. Being the practical type, she picked up a rifle and learned to put food on the table.
But poverty was a steady stalker. In 1870, her mother, after being widowed a second time, made the desperate decision to send Annie and her sister to the Darke County Infirmary. Though she wasn’t there for long, Annie did get a little schooling, learned to sew, and helped take care of the younger orphan children. Unfortunately, however, her work ethic brought her to the attention of a local farm family. She was “bound out” to them for the promise of fifty cents a week and some education. She never saw either and the family worked her like a slave. Annie rose before daylight and went to bed well after dark. She did hard, heavy farm hand work as well as whatever other tasks the lady of the house felt like handing off.
Annie was physically and verbally abused, especially by the wife. In her memoirs, Annie referred to the family as “wolves”, but never named them. She was too classy for that. And perhaps she realized that, in an odd way, they’d done her a favor.
In ’72, Annie’s mother re-married and the family was re-united. Determined to stay out of the orphanage, Annie again picked up her gun and learned to shoot it with frightening, almost unnatural, accuracy. It was said she could shoot the head off a pheasant at over hundred yards and kill turkeys using her rifle instead of a shotgun. Patrons at the local restaurants appreciated the fact that they didn’t have to pick buckshot out of their white meat. The buzz on Annie’s uncanny skill with a gun spread. She soon regularly supplied several hotels and restaurants with fresh meat. The money paid off her mother’s farm by the time Annie was 15.
And, thus, it was this unflinching desire to never be hungry again (apologies, Scarlett) that set the course for our heroine to become an honest-to-God Western Legend.
Sharpshooter Frank Butler had the standing offer that he would shoot against any local from the towns where he was performing. Of course, all bets were welcome. Imagine Butler’s surprise when a Cincinnati hotel owner paraded five-foot-tall, pretty, petite little Annie out for the competition. She was barely taller than her rifle.
The two squared off and commenced to shooting. Butler missed on his 25th shot. She didn’t. He lost the match, $100 to the hotel owner, and his heart to Annie. She and Butler would spend the next fifty-one years together, shooting in Wild West Shows, performing for ranch hands and royalty, and living a darn good life.
Best of all, Annie had the last laugh on that farm family from Ohio.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
― Charles Goodnight
The Palo Duro Canyon in the panhandle of Texas is 10 miles wide, 1500 feet deep and almost 100 miles long. And in the 1870’s, it was about as remote as the moon. At least for a white gal from TN.
Yet, Mary Ann “Molly” Dyer Goodnight willingly followed her husband from their ranch in CO to the harsh, unforgiving frontier. Neither she nor Charles could conceive of the fame and legend their JA Ranch would build. Molly Goodnight was a force of nature, as tough as a Texas twister, as indomitable as the landscape, and Charles was all the better for her tenacity.
An orphan who had spent years raising her siblings, Molly met Charles in Fort Belknap, Texas, in 1864 where she was working as a school teacher. After they married, they ran a ranch together in Colorado, but a combination of unstable economics and bad weather drove them out of business. Returning to Texas, Goodnight struck up a friendship with the wealthy Irishman John Adair. Adair agreed to back Goodnight in a new ranch and in 1877 the JA Ranch was born.
At its peak in 1883, the operation encompassed over a million acres and ran 100,000+ head of cattle. While the ranch provided very little in the way of neighbors (much less female neighbors), Molly was not an idle woman. She was the JA’s doctor, tailor, letter writer, teacher, and even spiritual adviser. She had a soft heart for animals as well and kept three chickens as pets.
Even when the money rolled in and life could have been easier, Molly never stopped looking for challenges or caring about others. She rode the high plains rescuing buffalo calves left behind by hunters. Goodnight indulged his wife and let her start her own herd for their preservation. She even crossed some of the buffalo with cattle and coined the phrase “cattalo.” A pretty savvy cattlewoman in her own right, Molly ran a herd separate from her husband’s under the Flying T brand. Somehow, amongst all this, she found time to run a real school in the bunkhouse for the ranch hands’ children.
In the late 1880’s, the couple moved to northeast Armstrong County to start a new ranch, but they discovered other interests as well. Both were active church members, generous philanthropists, and had quite the passion for educating children. In 1898 they established Goodnight College, a school for boys.
The Goodnights never had any children of their own. Perhaps that’s why Molly felt the need to adopt her community. She believed Texas had given her a beautiful life, it was, therefore, only right to give something back.
A true Texas Lady, she was.
By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Born in England in 1868, Evelyn Flower was the daughter of a wealthy East Indian merchant. She was born to a life of leisure and comfort. But not for it.
In 1889, Evelyn decided to walk away from the feather beds and army of servants. She married Ewen Cameron, a man who preferred the stars above to a roof over his head. He and Evelyn honeymooned in the Bad Lands of eastern Montana and fell in love with the area. They both lived to ride, hunt, and explore, and the chance to determine their own destinies was a siren’s song.
Full of hope, they bought a ranch and commenced to raising horses. The venture turned out to be beyond their experience, however, so they down-sized and attempted to breed polo ponies for the boys back in England. If the first ranching effort was a failure, this second idea was a complete disaster. Shipping horses all the way to England wasn’t exactly easy. Horses died in rail road cars, on the docks, on the ships. Adding insult to injury, the bank where the Cameron’s kept their money failed. Evelyn contacted the cousin in charge of her trust fund to request money…her money. Much to her dismay, the gentleman said no.
Plan B. Evelyn started taking in wealthy borders…who made more work for her and often didn’t pay their bills. Even better, Ewen couldn’t step into help, due to poor health. Broke, dispirited, sickly, he had had enough of the Land of Opportunity and suggested they head home.
Evelyn wouldn’t do it. The wide open spaces and seas of grass still held her heart.
So she tried farming. She grew vegetables, harvested them, and carried them all over the range, selling them to everyone from chuck wagon cooks to housewives to cowboys. Again, without any help from Ewen. Her days were long, often lonely, always exhausting. Still, she didn’t want to leave Montana.
One day, a border offered to teach her photography. With the first click of the lens, Evelyn knew she had found her purpose in life. After so much trial and error, it seemed the missteps had been leading her to the wonderful world of Kodak. And in the years to come, sometimes this new passion would even pay the bills!
With natural skill, she photographed friends, families and wildlife. She wrote articles for magazines and submitted them with her photos. She took publicity shots for the rail roads. From 1894 to 1928, Evelyn snapped thousands of pictures and chronicled life in Montana. She also covered with extraordinary honesty the contributions of women on the rugged ranches.
When Evelyn died in 1928, her worldly goods were stored at a friend’s home, tucked away in the basement. Thankfully, a writer, Donna Lucey, discovered the stash in 1978 and brought Evelyn back to life with her book Photographing Montana, 1894–1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron.
Trepidatious about the move to Montana, Evelyn once wrote in her diary, “I wish I would lead a life worthy to look back upon. I am far out of the path now.”
No, she was just taking the long way to it…