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

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.