THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

ROMAN:A Novel of the West by Douglas C. Jones



"On the day Roman Hasford's father came home from the war in June of 1865, it was raining.  The new green of the Ozark hardwood timber was like washed lettuce, dripping clear crystals in the slow but steady fall of water from a pale sky that held the sun close above the clouds and was about to break through at any moment.  It was not a bleak day.  It was a pearl-gray day, shining and gentle, with even some of the birds ignoring the weather and making their sparkling calls that seemed, like the leaves, to be washed clean by the rain."  

In two of Douglas C. Jones' earlier novels, Elkhorn Tavern and The Barefoot Brigade, the reader learned Roman Hasford's backstory.


Because his father was a soldier in a Confederate regiment fighting in Virginia and Tennessee, Roman, at age fourteen, began to assume the mantle of man of the house as he attempted to protect his mother and sister and their home from bushwhackers and jayhawkers who ravaged and plundered the area.


If that wasn't enough, large Union and Confederate forces clashed in a major battle, the battle of Pea Ridge, sometimes called the battle of Elkhorn Tavern, that was fought on and around the Hasford farm in the Arkansas Ozarks.


But now the war had ended and Roman's father had returned.  Roman couldn't help resenting the fact that he was no longer in charge and that he had to take orders from his father, while realizing that his father had every right to give those orders.  And anyway, after the danger and excitement of the last few years he didn't look forward to settling down to the peaceful pursuits of an Ozarks hill farmer.

Therefore, at age eighteen, seeking independence from father and with an urge to see and experience the wider world, he left home.  And as many young men did after the war, he headed west.  Well, sort of.  He settled in Leavenworth, Kansas, which was actually much more north than west from his home, but in every other way very much a western frontier town.





Leavenworth

Because he was intelligent and industrious he was able to make important connections in Leavenworth and was soon on his way to becoming a prosperous young businessman.  But not all was peace and tranquility.


Post-Civil war jayhawkers and bushwhackers were also experiencing difficulty in making the transition from war to peace and they continued to plague the border land. And to the west the Cheyenne were fighting a holding action against western encroachment and expansion.


Roman, at age twenty-two, even found himself with a small group of soldiers and scouts surrounded by a large group of Indians in eastern Colorado in what came to be called the battle of Beecher Island.  The irony was not lost on Roman that the Indians were led by a Cheyenne chief known to the whites as Roman Nose.



The battle of Beecher Island
As with Jones' other historical novels there is an intermingling of fact and fiction and an interesting mix of colorful fictional and historical characters.  Since Leavenworth was the site of the major frontier military post, it comes as no surprise that a number of real military officers make cameo appearances, including Winfield Scott Hancock, George Armstrong Custer, George Forsyth, John Pope, and Philip Sheridan.

Furthermore, the battle of Beecher Island is an actual historical event and, yes, the Cheyenne warriors were led by a chief known as Roman Nose.


Published in 1986, Roman received the Western Writers of America's Spur Award for Best Historical Western.  Later editions were published under the title Roman Hasford.



"Few writers can summon forth the agonies and joys of the rites of passage as poignantly as Douglas C. Jones, who in 'Roman' counterbalances that highly personal experience with a broader one of the coming-of-age of the American West .... as always Jones' vision is as singular as a thumbprint. -- Loren D. Estleman 








Thursday, May 12, 2016

WYATT EARP: FRONTIER MARSHAL by Stuart Lake, Part I







As Western legends go, Wyatt Earp was a relative latecomer.  In 1927, Walter Noble Burns published Tombstone: An Illiad of the Southwest, but it wasn't the big seller his The Saga of Billy the Kid was a year earlier.  The latter book not only reintroduced Billy to the general public, but it ignored much of the historical record by romanticizing the young outlaw's persona to the point of transforming him into a veritable Robin Hood of the Southwest.

The Tombstone book, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as widely read, and thus Wyatt Earp remained a relatively obscure individual, but not for long.

The general public did become aware of him in 1931 when Stuart Lake published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal.  It became a best seller and established the O.K. Corral in the public consciousness and created the image of Earp as an incorruptible paragon of saintly morality who fought for truth, justice, and the American way (No, wait, that was Superman.  No matter. Lake's Earp successfully fought the same battles, but without the benefit of super powers.)  What Lake began, Hollywood finished.  Four movies were based on the novel as well as a popular TV series that ran from 1955 to 1961.  Lake served as screenwriter and/or "expert" consultant on all the movies and the TV series and thus profited financially from his book right up until his death in 1964.

Lake wrote in the foreword of the book that "Wyatt Earp was a man of action. He was born, reared, and lived in an environment which held words and theories of small account, in which sheer survival often, and eminence invariably, might be achieved through deeds alone."

Furthermore, "[t]he man won from contemporaries who were his most competent judges -- from intimates, from acquaintances, and from enemies alike -- frontier-wide recognition as the most proficient peace officer, the greatest gunfighting marshal the Old West knew."


Okay, but if that recognition was frontier-wide why was Earp virtually unknown in 1931?  The answer is that not only was he not known frontier-wide during his days as a peace officer and, with the exception of some old-timers in the southwest, very few people had even heard of him fifty years after the showdown in Tombstone's O.K. Corral in 1881.  

It was Lake's book that made him famous -- and legendary -- and mythical.  As with all mythical legends some of what Lake wrote was based on fact, but much of it fell into the category of tall tale.  Like Walter Noble Burns, Lake never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

However, what made it believable to so many readers for so long is the fact that Lake had the co-operation of Earp in writing the book.  Not only was he able to interview Earp on several occasions and quoted him verbatim in long passages that go on sometimes for pages, but he also claimed that "[s]cores of eyewitnesses to the scenes portrayed have been interviewed to verify circumstantial details; thousands of miles have been traveled to unearth substantiating material; hundreds of time-worn documents and files of frontier newspapers have been examined for pertinent content; literally thousands of letters have been exchanged with competent old-timers in developing this work."

Then why in light of all that conscientious research described above is the book today shelved in the fiction section?  The answer is because that is where it belongs.


Wyatt Earp in 1923, age 75

My reprint copy of Lake's book, published in 1994, has this blurb on the front cover: "The only authorized biography of the legendary man who inspired two of the year's biggest movie events!"  That would be TOMBSTONE, starring Kurt Russell, and WYATT EARP, starring Kevin Costner.  Both films are fictional of course, but even at that they are more historically accurate than Lake's authorized "biography." 








Tuesday, May 10, 2016

THE BAREFOOT BRIGADE by Douglas C. Jones


"One of the best Civil War novels I have ever read." -- James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

Martin Hasford, torn between his love of his family and devotion to their welfare on the one hand and a sense of loyalty toward his state on the other, reluctantly enlists in the Confederate army.

It is his hope that his unit will remain in Arkansas and defend it from a Yankee invasion.  But as fate would have it, his regiment is sent to Virginia and, as we saw in Jones' Elkhorn Tavern, a major battle erupts back home in his backyard.  To add insult to injury, Hasford learns that his daughter has married a wounded Yankee officer. 

Meanwhile, his regiment sees action in some of the biggest, most significant, most lethal battles of the war -- Antietam, Gettysburg, the Wilderness.  They are even transferred west of the Appalachians for a period of time where they fight in the battle of Chickamauga.


Antietam: the Civil War's deadliest day
Among Hasford's closest friends in his company are the Fawley brothers -- Zack and Noah -- and a Black Welshman by the name of Liverpool Morgan.  This is their story, too.

In a brief introduction, Jones writes a perfect summation of the book:

This is a story of the common soldiers.  It is not a story of causes or politics or social systems, not of generals and grand strategy, but of simple soldiers and how they were in some ways amazingly different from modern soldiers, and in others amazingly the same.  There were a great many like these who, despite all odds, at least attempted to do whatever was asked of them.

"...this is a sturdy, above-average Civil War fiction -- strong on unromanticized detail and day-to-day grit." -- Kirkus Review











Wednesday, April 27, 2016

ELKHORN TAVERN (1980) by Douglas C. Jones

"The characters are unforgettable, the atmosphere wonderfully detailed, the action and suspense skillfully maintained." -- Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee 

Beginning with this book, Jones launched what would become a series of novels recounting the lives of the fictional Hasford-Pay families.  The major theme that runs through them is a sense of family loyalty and solidity, especially during times of stress and social change.  And what could be more stressful or cause more social change than the Civil War, especially if a major battle were fought in your very neighborhood?

It is 1862 and Martin Hasford is away from his home and family serving in the Confederate army in Virginia and Tennessee. Left at home in the Ozark hills of northeastern Arkansas is his wife Ora who must protect their few animals and possessions, but more important, their two teen-aged children, Calpurnia and Roman.

Among her many burdens is the necessity of fending off the depredations of roving bands of Jayhawkers and bushwhackers who are roaming freely around the countryside while indiscriminately stealing for their personal gain.

If that isn't enough, the battle of Pea Ridge, also known as the battle of Elkhorn Tavern, erupts on and around the Hasford farm.  Even though the family sympathizes with the Confederacy, Ora provides shelter for a young Yankee officer, Alan Eben Pay, who has been seriously wounded. Much to the dismay of Roman, it soon becomes evident that his sister is attracted to Allan and that the feeling is mutual.

It is also a coming-of-age story for young Roman, who, as the story progresses, takes on more and more of the responsibilities of the man of the house.


Modern day view looking from Pea Ridge toward a field where ferocious fighting occurred during the battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern)

A major portion of the battle was fought around Elkhorn Tavern, which served as a hospital during and after the battle.  If you look closely at the roof of the reconstructed building you can see the basis for the name of the tavern

"Douglas Jones brings two gigantic themes in American literature together -- the raw struggle for survival on the American frontier and the grand martial conflict of the American Civil War -- and he successfully weaves them into one seamless story." -- Jack Trammel, Civil War Book Review





Saturday, April 16, 2016

SEASON OF YELLOW LEAF (1983) and GONE THE DREAMS AND DANCING (1984) by Douglas C. Jones


These novels are companion pieces that are fictional accounts of Cynthia Ann Parker's captivity by Comanches on the Texas frontier. She underwent a cruel initiation and acculturation process but was eventually accepted as a member of the tribe.  She gave birth to a son, Quanah, who grew up to become a warrior respected by his tribe and feared by his enemies.

In Jones' stories Cynthia Ann's Anglo name is changed to Morfydd Parry, which the Comanches change to Chosen, and Quanah becomes Kwahadi (Antelope).

Season of Yellow Leaf begins in 1838 with the kidnapping of ten-year old Morfydd and ends in 1854 with her "re-capture" and return to a white world that she no longer understands and does not want to live in. By the 1850's, the Comanche were facing a bleak future as they fought to oppose Western expansion by whites and encroachment on their land by re-located tribes.


The Comancheria: the land of the Comanches until about 1850

The capture of Cynthia Ann was also the inspiration for Alan LeMay's novel, The Searchers (1954), which was adapted for the screen under the same title.  Many Western aficionados rank it as the greatest western ever filmed.  It was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne and the spectacular Monument Valley vistas.



Palo Duro (Spanish for 'hard stick') Canyon located a few miles south of modern-day Amarillo, Texas is the second largest canyon in the U.S.  It served as a winter refuge by the Comanches.  The canyon teemed with game, including buffalo, until wiped out by hide hunters.

Gone the Dreams and Dancing takes place after 1870 and is narrated by Liverpool Morgan, the Black Welshman we first met in The Barefoot Brigade (1982).  He is now serving as a civilian interpreter for the military at Fort Sill in the Indian Territory.


In 1875, Morgan first sets eyes on Kwahadi, the last war chief of his Comanche band, defeated but proud, leading his people to the Reservation. Eventually, Morgan becomes Kwahadi's friend and attempts to help the chief with the difficult task of helping his people adapt to a new way of life.

The Western Writers of America awarded Gone the Dreams and Dancing a Spur Award for Best Historical Novel.


"In these works, Jones displays the sensitivity and artistry for which he has become renowned.  His appreciation for the culture and tradition of the Comanches is apparent, and he does not diminish his subjects by romanticizing them.  His balanced treatment of whites reflects that they too are caught in processes of change that they cannot control.  Jones' characters are complex and memorable.  His descriptions of western landscape reflects his artist's eye for color and form, and his careful research recreates settings that disappeared long ago.  His novels are important contributions to Western literature." -- Cheryl J. Foote, Twentieth-Century Western Writers



Cynthia Ann Parker and infant daughter soon after her "re-capture"


Quanah Parker












Wednesday, April 6, 2016

LAW AND ORDER (Universal, 1932)

  Why is this woman prominently featured in this poster?  Only one woman, portrayed by Lois Wilson, has a speaking part, but no listing in the credits. She portrays a lady of obviously low repute who speaks just one line.  That's it.  The only other women in the film appear in a crowd scene, but speak no lines. 

DIRECTOR: Edward L. Cahn;  PRODUCER: Carl Laemmle, Jr.;  WRITERS: adaptation by John Huston and Tom Reed based on W. R. Burnett's novel, Saint Johnson; Cinematographer: Jackson Rose

CAST: Walter Huston, Harry Carey, Russell Hopton, Raymond Hatton, Ralph Ince, Harry Woods, Richard Alexander, Russell Simpson, Alphonse Ethier, Andy Devine, Hank Bell, Walter Brennan, Lois Wilson


THE REVIEWS.
"Exceptional Western that takes a familiar story...and reworks it with style but no flourishes...stark, realistic, with knockout finale." -- Leonard Maltin

"[I]t's a strikingly spare, bleakly downbeat film which hammers home its thesis -- that law and order involves a lot of killing...." Edward Buscombe, The BFI Companion to the Western

"The austere tone, the traditional O.K. Corral shootout notwithstanding, is all the more impressive considering the cheerful vacuity of most Westerns being made at the time. -- Phil Hardy, The Western

"There was a great deal of tension but little traditional physical action throughout the bulk of the film, which literally exploded in its last reel...." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film 

"It's familiar now, but beautifully done, very tense, its atmosphere obviously indebted to William S. Hart....this may well be the definitive Wyatt Earp movie; at least it vies for the honor with MY DARLING CLEMENTINE -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide


Those are rather impressive reviews of a 1932 western written by modern critics.  But modern viewers might be puzzled by all that acclaim.  It is a slow film with most of the story taking place in town and much of that indoors.  At times it comes off clunky and stagey.  But it was 1932.

William S. Hart and a few others had made westerns for adult audiences during the silent era, but the biggest star of that era was Tom Mix, whose fast-moving, action-filled films were geared to a younger audience.  By 1932, Tom, now in his early fifties, was starring in his first sound series which, as it turned out, was his last.  But his kind of western movie still predominated in the films of such notables as Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy, and Buck Jones.


William S. Hart and "Fritz"

Tom Mix and "Tony"
They were entertaining films to be sure, and though they were not geared to an adult audience, I don't quite agree with Edward Buscombe's characterization of "cheerful vacuity." Yes, they were cheerful, but they were also entertaining and gave the front row crowd heroes to cheer and to look up to. There's something to be said for that.

But since William S. Hart never made the transition to sound, westerns produced for adult audiences were few and far between. That fact, as Buscombe notes, is an important reason why LAW AND ORDER is viewed so favorably.
  
Buck Jones and "Silver"
THE PLOT.
Frame Johnson (Huston), along with his brother, Luther (Hopton) and two pals, Brandt (Carey) and Deadwood (Hatton), ride into Tombstone. 

Frame is soon recognized as the famous lawman who cleaned up several Kansas cow towns.  So spotless is his reputation that he has earned the nickname of "Saint" Johnson.

Tombstone is under the collective thumbs of the Northrup brothers (Ince, Alexander and Woods) who control everything in town and the surrounding area. In fact, just as Frame and his compadres arrive the Northrups are in the process of rigging the election of sheriff in order to give the office to one of their henchmen (Ethier).

Judge Williams (Simpson) and other citizens offer the job of town marshal to Frame.  Since it is obvious that the town needs a strong law and order man in the office he reluctantly agrees to accept the job.  This of course places him in direct conflict with the newly elected sheriff and his bosses, the Northrups.  To assist him he deputizes his brother and their two friends.

At one point, Frame faces down a mob that is about to lynch simple-minded Johnny Kinsman (Devine) who accidentally killed a deputy sheriff.  He argues that Johnny should be tried and if convicted he should hang legally rather than being lynched which was the standard procedure in Tombstone.  In the subsequent trial Johnny was convicted and he did hang -- legally.

In his position as deputy marshal, Luther is forced to kill Kurt Northrup (Alexander) in self-defense.  The remaining two brothers retaliate by ambushing and killing Brandt.  This leads to the final shootout.

Luther, Deadwood, and Frame heading to a date with the Northrups

It takes place in a dimly lit barn and only one person survives.  The Northrups and their henchmen are killed, but so are Frame's brother, Luther, and their pal, Deadwood.  

A distraught Frame rides out of town alone.

The screenplay was based on W.R. Burnett's novel, Saint Johnson.  It was a thinly disguised fictional account of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday (Carey's Brandt is the Doc-like character) and the shootout at Tombstone's O.K. Corral.  I almost wrote "the legendary" Wyatt Earp and "the famous shootout," but that would not have been true at the time Burnett's novel was published in 1930.  

Earp did not enter the public consciousness outside the southwestern U.S. until Stuart Lake published Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal in 1931.  Although it was a highly fictionalized biography it seemed to be authentic since the author had the co-operation of Wyatt who consented to being interviewed.  As fate would have it, Wyatt never read the book since he died the year before its publication.

The book was a best seller that created the image of a western lawman who courageously put his life on the line almost daily in the pursuit of justice and the enforcement of law and order. Today the book will be found on the fiction shelf -- or if it isn't, it should be.

But the point is, Burnett enjoyed even more latitude in his book than Lake did precisely because his was a novel and he didn't even use the names of the Earps or Doc Holliday.  And it is doubtful that very many viewers made the Earp connection when the film was originally released. Nevertheless, LAW AND ORDER is considered to be the first Wyatt Earp film.


THE ACTORS.

A still from Walter Huston's last film, THE FURIES (1950)

Walter Huston was born in Toronto in 1884.  A stage actor, he broke into the movies in 1929 and in his second film he hit pay dirt as the villainous Trampas in THE VIRGINIAN (Paramount, 1929), directed by Victor Fleming and starring a young Gary Cooper in the title role.

After a great start with his first two Westerns, Huston appeared in a number of other Westerns down through the years, but they turned out to be hit-and-miss propositions.

He was the best thing in that over-hyped, over-budgeted, poorly acted train wreck, THE OUTLAW (RKO, 1943).  The two young leads, Jane Russell and Jack Beutel (as Billy the Kid), were badly miscast and Thomas Mitchell, the consummate character actor, could do nothing with his poorly scripted role as a cowardly, afraid of his own shadow, Pat Garrett.  And I don't know how Doc Holliday got into the Billy/Garrett story, but there he was in the form of Walter Huston. But he couldn't save the film.

Huston also appeared in DUEL IN THE SUN(Selznick, 1946), another overblown western epic, and though it is better amd much more watchable than THE OUTLAW, it will never be counted among the great western movies.         

After being nominated for an Oscar three times (all non-westerns roles) and not winning, he finally succeeded when he was named the Best Supporting Actor for his outstanding performance in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (WB, 1948).  When discussion of this film comes up there is almost certain to be debate of whether or not it is a western.  I prefer to believe that it is and that it is a great one aided in no small part by Huston's performance.  Also contributing to the success of the film was its director, who just happened to be Huston's son, John, who won the the Oscar for Best Director for his work on the film. 

In 1950, Huston appeared in THE FURIES (WB), directed by Anthony Mann.  The film has its partisans but I don't fall into that camp.  I tend to lump it in the overdone, over blown category with THE OUTLAW and DUEL IN THE SUN. Unfortunately, it was Huston's final film.  He died shortly after its release.

A still of Harry Carey from an unknown film
Harry Carey (1878-1947) was born in New York City, but made his mark on the other coast.  A real film pioneer he began appearing in movies as early as 1909. 

He went on to become a star in silent Westerns that featured plots very much in the tradition of William S. Hart and far removed from those of Tom Mix.  A young John Ford directed several of them.

With the advent of sound, Carey became a dependable and sought after character actor, who also starred in some gritty B-Westerns that owed more to Hart than Mix.

He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Columbia, 1939), but lost out to Thomas Mitchell's portrayal of the drunken doctor in John Ford's STAGECOACH (UA, 1939).  

One of his best, and most underrated, performances was in Howard Hawks' World War II drama, AIR FORCE (WB,1943).  Despite his advanced age of sixty-five at the time, he was quite believable in his bittersweet, poignant role as the crew chief of a B-17 at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Like Huston, he was later cast in DUEL IN THE SUN and was responsible for one of that film's better performances.    

Raymond Hatton (1887-1971) began acting in films at about the same time as Carey, and though he was never a star he sure was busy.  He appeared in over a hundred silent films and then more than 200 films during the sound era.  Over half of his roles in the sound era were in westerns.  In most of those westerns, as in LAW AND ORDER, he filled the role of sidekick.  He is best known as a popular "old-timer" sidekick who provided a comic touch in three B-Western movie series, but one who was more in the tradition of Gabby Hayes rather than Smiley Burnette.  Burnette played the incompetent buffoon who was incapable of lending assistance to the hero unless it was by accident.  Gabby could be funny, but he could also be counted on when the chips were down.  

The same could be said of Hatton when he supported John Wayne and Ray Corrigan, and then Robert Livingston and Duncan Renaldo, in two of Republic's Three Mesquiteers combinations.  He filled a similar role in Monogram's Rough Riders series that teamed him with Buck Jones and Tim McCoy.  When the Rough Riders series ended as a result of Jones' tragic death in a nightclub fire, McCoy became Johnny Mack Brown's sidekick in Monogram's longest-running series.
Raymond Hatton, B-western sidekick extraordinaire

Hatton continued to act right into the '60's, but with the demise of the B-western movie series, he was seen most often on TV.   


THE DIRECTOR.    
There isn't much to be said here about the career of Edward Cahn (1899-1963). William K. Everson stated it in blunt terms when he wrote that LAW AND ORDER, only the director's second film, "was also his artistic zenith; he never again made a film that was one-tenth as good." 

But he did have a long career, but not in the western genre.  In the mid-'50's, he began to specialize in the monster/horror films for which he is most remembered.


THE WRITER.
William Riley "W.R." Burnett (1899-1982) was born in Springfield, Ohio.  He moved to Chicago when he was in his late twenties.  At the time he had already written over a hundred short stories and five novels -- all unpublished.

He took a job as a night clerk in a run-down hotel in a bad section of the city. There he became acquainted with the criminal underworld that inspired his first published novel, Little Caesar (1929), which was made into a movie two years later that gave Edward G. Robinson the role that made him a star.
W.R. Burnett
From that point on Burnett was a successful and busy novelist who also wrote and adapted stories for film.  He was best known for his crime novels. One of them, High Sierra, was turned into a popular Warner Brothers movie in 1941 that starred Humphrey Bogart and was directed by Raoul Walsh.  Eight years later, the studio re-made the film, but as a classic Western, COLORADO TERRITORY, again directed by Walsh, and starring Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo.

He also wrote the story for another outstanding western, YELLOW SKY (Fox,1948), directed by William Wellman and starring Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark.

Universal got good mileage out of LAW AND ORDER.  They subsequently re-made it three times: 

WILD WEST DAYS (1937): a B-western serial starring Johnny Mack Brown


LAW AND ORDER (1940): a B-western feature starring Johnny Mack Brown


LAW AND ORDER (1953): a B+-western starring Ronald Reagan and Dorothy Malone



Ronald Reagan is Frame "Saint" Johnson












Sunday, March 20, 2016

A CREEK CALLED WOUNDED KNEE (1978) by Douglas C. Jones

On December 29, 1890 Custer's old command, the Seventh Cavalry, attempted to disarm a band of 120 Minneconjou Sioux warriors led by Chief Big Foot that had surrendered the day before.  

When one warrior resisted surrendering his rifle and a trooper attempted to wrest it from him, either the rifle or some other weapon fired, and the soldiers began to fire indiscriminately into the group of Sioux, who then began to retrieve their stacked weapons and to fire back.  Since most of them had no weapons they began to flee in an effort to avoid annihilation.  

The Seventh had mounted four Hotchkiss cannons on a nearby knoll and the soldiers manning the guns began to fire into the Sioux encampment located some distance from where the meeting between the Seventh and Big Foot's men had taken place.  It is estimated that 230 women and children were in the camp at the time.  As they and a number of the men attempted to make their escape down a dry ravine, the guns were turned on them and the canister shells from the Hotchkiss guns rained deadly shrapnel up and down the ravine.


Soldiers and Hotchkiss guns at Wounded Knee
On that day, 153 known Sioux, including Big Foot, were killed. Over half of the dead were women and children.  Since many of the captured Sioux later died from wounds and others who were wounded but made their escape probably died as well, some estimates place the total dead as high as 300.

Twenty-five solders were killed and thirty-nine were wounded. However, because the two troops that were charged with the responsibility of disarming the Sioux were formed in an L shape in close proximity to the warriors, there is evidence that most of the Seventh's casualties were the result of friendly fire.




Body of Big Foot frozen into a grotesque shape by a winter blizzard



Monument marking mass grave in Wounded Knee cemetery

A Creek Called Wounded Knee (1978) was the third entry in what became a de facto trilogy on the Indian-white conflict on the northern plains.  The first two were The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1976) and Arrest Sitting Bull (1977).  Since the massacre at Wounded Knee occurred exactly two weeks after Sitting Bull's death, the third novel represents a natural progression.

The latter two events are closely related not only in terms of time, but also because it was the Ghost Dance movement that was spreading like a prairie grass fire among the Lakota Sioux that aroused fear among settlers, U.S. Indian Agents, and the U.S. cavalry.  Sensationalist reporting by competing newspapers not only added fuel to the fire, but also fanned the flames of hatred and distrust.  Adding further symmetry to the three novels is the fact that it was George Custer's reconstituted Seventh Cavalry regiment that was responsible for the massacre.

As he did in the first two novels, Jones utilizes both historical and fictional characters to tell the story, but within the plot he makes the story as factual as possible.  I always knew that he was a thorough researcher, but I discovered in rereading this novel that he was even more meticulous than I first imagined.  

I won't give them away, but there are two incidents in the story that just did not ring true for me.  I thought they were cases of a novelist doing what a novelist is supposed to do, in fact is obligated to do.  I assumed he had manufactured a couple of fictional events in order to spice up the story. However, in doing a little further research I discovered that both were documented events.  I also ran across other examples of a similar nature.

For some readers, this story will at first move slowly, but as a reviewer wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch "[t]he ominous presence of the coming tragedy is on every page."

In the beginning, Jones sets the stage by vividly detailing the fear and distrust that pervaded Big Foot's band as well as the nervous anxiety of the relatively inexperienced raw recruits who comprised a majority of the reconstituted Seventh Calvary, a regiment that had earlier sustained a stunning defeat at the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Bighorn.  Fourteen years later, near a creek in South Dakota, the Seventh and the Sioux clashed again in what was initially called the battle of Wounded Knee, but today is almost universally known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.