The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890

Since I mentioned the Ghost Dance in the last posting, I thought I’d post this about the classic work on the subject.

Raw Feed (1995): The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, James Mooney, 1896, 1991. 

I liked this ethnography from 1896. Mooney does a good job tracing Indian messianic movements from 1762 to the Ghost Dance of the late 1880s and the eventual Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. The 1991 introduction says some of Mooney’s statements about Ghost Dance prophet and messiah Wovoka being the son of the Paiute Ghost Dance prophet of 1870 are untrue but that his suspicions of a long, direct line of Indian messianic religious revivals were correct. 

I was fascinated to learn that most of these religions postulated not only a revival of the old life (particularly the return of the buffalo, the tribe’s old means of support) – often forsaking white man tech along the way, the resurrection of the dead and also a moral rededication with calls for marital fidelity, sobriety, and intratribal harmony. 

I was interested to see the cultural influences on the Ghost Dance (the use of Jesus’ name, Catholic type gestures, Mormon sacred garments becoming the Ghost Dance shirts) and predecessors like the Indian Shakers (not related to the Christian denomination of the same name) of the Northwest. 

I was also surprised to learn that it was only among the Sioux that the Ghost Dance turned violent because of their many justifiable grievances over U.S. treaty violations. Social conservatives like Sitting Bull fought – literally – with the progressive elements who thought the Sioux should try to adapt to the changing order rather than fight it. Sitting Bull’s death was the result of resistance offered by one of his followers when tribal police tried to arrest him. 

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Porter Rockwell

Essay: Porter Rockwell, Richard Lloyd Dewey, 1986, 2002.

Orrin Porter Rockwell wasn’t just any Mormon gunfighter. He was the first Mormon baptized after the parents of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith. He was a man Rockwell revered like an older brother.

While you may have never heard of Rockwell, he is a saint-like figure among the Saints, an anti-Peter in the Mormon story of their founder’s martyrdom. It’s no coincidence that I first came across him in the weird westerns of Mormons Joel Jenkins and David J. West and not in accounts of Old West gunfighters. He supposedly appeared in his own dime novels of the 19th century (a claim I have not confirmed) and as a character in several films, it took a Mormon – Dewey himself – to write and direct movies centering on him. Statutes, songs, and places are named after him. There are Rockwell bobblehead dolls. And, of course, you can get his likeness on t-shirts.

Several Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ affiliated sites favorably mention him.

It’s no mistake that, according to one of his descendants (he had many but was never a polygamist), historians who might be interested in Rockwell stray away from writing about him. Too many undocumentable stories, good and bad, about him.

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Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills

You didn’t really think I was done with Bitter Bierce did you?

I came across this book entirely accident while hanging around the Spearfish Public Library with my mother. Bierce expert Don Swaim says it’s the only book on an obscure part of Bierce’s life.

How could I resist this one?

Review: Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills, Paul Fatout, 1956.Ambrose Bierce and the Black HIlls

In May 1879, Bierce’s column in the San Francisco newspaper Argonaut suddenly stopped appearing, and he spent the next year-and-a-half in an experience which was to embitter him further, yield little money, and which he spoke of very little in later years.

He became involved with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company.

Bierce finally gave into his wife and mother-in-law and left England in 1875 though he was a successful journalist in London. On his return to San Francisco, he worked in the Assay Office at the local branch of the United States Mint. That, along with all the talk about California mining and the Black Hills gold rush which started in 1874, may have gotten him interested in mining. His father-in-law, Captain H. H. Day, was a famous mining expert, and Bierce liked him a lot more than Day’s daughter or his wife.

In March 1877, Bierce was back at the Argonaut. Fatout thinks it was this period that the Black Hills began to show up in Bierce’s fiction. The title “The Night Doings at Deadman’s” may have been inspired by the name Deadman Gulch near Rockerville, in Dakota Territory, and it was Rockerville which was to be at the center of Bierce’s time in the Black Hills. I think Fatout’s on far less certain ground when he says the “gulches, sluice boxes, pans, and a Territory” of Bierce’s “The Famous Gilson Bequest” may derive from the gold rush in Dakota Territory. Those appurtenances of placer mining certainly would have been in California too. Continue reading

Dodge City

Authors, you really can sell some books on C-SPAN. (For the non-Americans, that non-profit company puts out three tv channels worth of “public affairs programming” and, on weekends, Book TV.) That’s where I saw Mr. Clavin talk about his book.

His talk was entertaining; I’d never read a full biography of either Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson before, so I picked this one up for the annual Old West reading during one of my trips to South Dakota.

I definitely got my money’s worth.

Review: Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterton, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, Tom Clavin, 2017.Dodge City

If you were an ornery “cow boy” in the Dodge City of 1876 who got too rowdy in a saloon or hassled a prostitute or took your guns past the Dead Line, you could expect to encounter the law. And the lawmen you met might have been Marshal Wyatt Earp or his deputy Bat Masterson.

Wyatt probably wouldn’t shoot you. The town had had quite enough of that with its first marshal, Bill “Bully” Brooks. He shot 12 men in his first month on the job.

If you didn’t comply with Wyatt’s orders, he’d keep you talking though he was a laconic man himself. Reasonable conversation usually kept the gunfire down. If he or his deputies slapped leather, it was with an eye towards accuracy and not speed. And they wouldn’t be shooting to kill but just to wound.

Those were Earp’s guidelines for his men. I am somewhat skeptical how often the third rule was followed. It’s hard enough to shoot a man with a handgun while under stress much less do fancy aiming. However, the city wasn’t paying a bounty for dead men, just prisoners in the jail. And Earp’s encounters were no doubt at a very close range. Continue reading

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

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.

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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.