What’s Up With the Westerns?


The most loyal readers of this blog, i.e., the ones who read all the posts, will have noticed that many months ago a new content stream began to invade our already established content turf of American traditional show biz: vaudeville, burlesque, side show, circus, mellers, classic comedy films and the like. Westerns. I imagine a lot of my core readers from the urban northeast have been pretty much “WTF”, but the way I see it, even superficially it’s not a stretch…to bridge the gap, we’d certainly already written about wild west shows, medicine shows and 19th century saloon entertainment and certain key figures like Will Rogers, Buffalo Bill Cody, etc etc.

The short answer for why I’ve crossed the border into writing about the western genre is that I began doing research for a western screenplay about a decade ago and quickly realized I had enough material for a book (possibly more than one book). My initial idea was that it would be my third book, although other ideas have raced ahead of it in line, and it might be my fourth, fifth or sixth book, if indeed there are any more. At any rate, as an experiment, I thought I would use the reverse of the process I used for No Applause and Chain of FoolsRather than publishing the book first and then following up with ancillary blogposts as I did with the first two books, I would develop the writing (and hopefully the interest) on the blog first, and THEN turn it into a book. So that’s what’s going on.

But now the longer answer: why the west as a subject at all? After all, I grew up in New England, and though my father was from a family that pioneered Tennessee, my direct ancestors (with one possible exception we’ll get to) never got further west than halfway across that state.

I understand it has no basement

I understand it has no basement

Well, first and foremost, there’s my name.

William Travis was one of the heroes of the Alamo. My father, a native Tennessean and a Western buff, had named me that in a burst of regional pride. He’s not the only one. “Travis” appears as a character name in numerous Westerns, as well as the  related frontier family classic Old Yeller. And think of all the country music stars with that name. There’s a very strong Tennessee-Texas connection. Many or most of the first Texans (including Alamo martyrs like Davy Crockett and father of Texas Sam Houston) were transplanted Tennesseans. Another Tennessean was John Stewart, Daniel Boone’s real-life cohort on his pioneering trip through the Cumberland Gap. (Stewart is my given last name).  In my childhood I liked to imagine a family connection to this historic frontiersman, and I was encouraged to do so.

I was constantly made aware of my pioneer roots. My father’s family was from the Smokey Mountain region. There was a family rumor that we were part Cherokee (although that later proved not to be true). My dad went so far as to decorate my room with rough-hewn wood paneling that resembled the interior of a log-cabin.  My cherished toys included a set of toy cowboy and Indian figures complete with a little cavalry stockade and teepees; a set of Lincoln logs; a cowboy revolver; an Indian bow with suction cup arrows; a harmonica; and my first guitar, which came with a songbook of cowboy songs. Among the first television shows I remember watching were first run episodes of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The High Chaparral, and syndicated episodes of The Cisco Kid and Rin Tin Tin. One of the joys of doing this research was discovering that my childhood nickname Trampas (bestowed on me by a grizzled old sailor friend of my parents) is actually a character from The Virginian, portrayed on television by Doug McClure.

You had these guys, too, right? It's not a subject we intend to take lightly in our book

You had these guys, too, right? It’s not a subject we intend to take lightly in our book

And then there is the less obvious west, the San Francisco, Nevada and Missouri of the writings of Mark Twain, so influential on me as a child, and the Kansas of The Wizard of Oz, my favorite book and movie.

When I became a teenager, I moved on to other obsessions and remained far — very far — from any interest in the subject of the west throughout my young adulthood. But when I was in my late twenties, my then-wife, who was working on a novel about cowboys, orchestrated two major fact-finding trips for us to the Far West (one of them disguised as our honeymoon). And thus we spent two or three weeks in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, doing things like riding horses, staying in bunkhouses, seeing buffalo in their native habitat, cooking coffee over a campfire, sleeping on the ground, hiking in the desert, visiting ghost towns and caves and gulches and old mines and just generally being steeped in the culture. We went through Monument Valley around Moab, Utah (favorite location of John Ford),  stayed in Cody Wyoming (site of the Buffalo Bill Museum), drove past Little Big Horn, spent time in Yellowstone Park, took the Loveland Pass through the Rocky Mountains, etc etc (not in that order). At the time, it felt rather random, as though I were just along for the ride. In retrospect, I’m enormously grateful for the experience, and would do it again in a heartbeat. Here’s proof:


Hippie Trav near a Yallerstone Geezer

Your correspondent photographs a Bison in his native element safely from the car window

Your correspondent photographs a Bison in his native element safely from the car window

Entrance to the dude ranch where we stayed. We were the dudes who stayed with a dude what wasn't a

Entrance to a dude ranch where we stayed. We were the dudes who stayed with a dude what wasn’t a “dude”, if you take my meaning

Ghost Town. Hey, where is everybody?

Ghost Town. Hey, where is everybody?

I want to say this is a frontier cabin we saw in a box canyon near Fruita, Colorado but it's not although we did see that

I want to say this is a frontier cabin we saw in a box canyon near Fruita, Colorado but it’s not although we did see that

Gradually, some of my creative writing began to look west. I adapted Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, set on a Mississippi steamboat. And I wrote Jasper Jaxon, about an Oklahoma Outlaw. And an experimental play called Custer Wore an Arrow Shirt. And of course Horse Play had several western scenes. Which gets us close enough to the present.

But to return to the Tennessee-Texas connection. It’s strong. When I was down in Nashville about ten years ago, people in the industry got testy when I used the phrase “country-western.” Apparently, it’s just “country” now, and I guess they consider it corny to call it anything different. But in that classic Nashville heyday of the mid-twentieth century, you’d better believe “western” was part of the equation. Just look any old television clip. Look at a picture of Hank Williams. He’s dressed like a cowboy. Williams was born in Alabama and died in West Virginia. They don’t have cattle spreads in those states. This is the east. Their imaginations were following their relatives who went west.

Really. Don't tell me 'country

Really. Don’t tell me ‘country” has nothing to do with “western”. I ain’t havin’ it.

Here’s another one I love to contemplate because it’s close to home. I have an aunt named “Juanita”. That’s a Spanish name, of course. It would make its way north to America from Mexico, along with a thousand other cultural borrowings. It’s a feminized form of John and English doesn’t have one, and I suppose that could be one explanation for this non-Spanish woman having that name (If it’s a boy it’ll be “John”. And if it’s a girl?). But another explanation is that there’s a very pretty cowboy song by that name. And we’ve got people in Texas.

So this will briefly turn into another of my family posts. I’ve identified some relatives who went west and that fires my imagination, just as it inspired my Tennessee relatives.


One of my ancestral families which struck of west very early are the Stouts, a family of Quakers who started out in Brooklyn, moved down to New Jersey, then Delaware, then Pennsylvania, then North Carolina, then Tennessee.  My first cousin (7x removed)  Ephram Stout settled in Wayne County, then Iron County, Missouri prior to 1802 — a quarter century before it became a state. He built a log cabin in the area known as Arcadia.  Stout’s Creek remains named after him. In 1826 he moved his brood on to Illinois (this is still six years before the Black Hawk War).


Then in 1843 Ephraim headed west yet again taking a wagon train on the Oregon Trail, settling in Salem, where his branch of the family would settle.


Ephraim’s nephew Hosea Stout fought in the Black Hawk War in Illinois. He concerted to Mormonism while there and moved with the community through each ensuing chapter of their travails, to Missouri, to Nauvoo, to Nebraska, and finally to Salt Lake, Utah by 1848, making him one of the first settlers. For a time he was Joseph Smith’s bodyguard (I am also distantly related to Smith).

Some other early Missouri relatives: my (5) great uncle Obediah Strange brought his family to what would be Lafayette County in 1833. Two years later they were among the first settlers of Monroe County. They settled in a town originally called Madison and later Rose Hill.  The Bear Creek Methodist Episcopal Church was founded at their house in 1837. Strange had been born in Virginia, and started his family in Kentucky, a background very similar to the parents of Mark Twain. Twain (whom I’m also distantly related to) was born in 1835, and is thus part of the same historical migration.

Fort Parker

Fort Parker

One important Texas relation is John Parker, who lived a very full life indeed. Originally from Baltimore, his family moved to western Virginia when he was a child. He fought in the American Revolution, was a scout in what was to become Tennessee and Kentucky, participated in Indian “removal” in those areas, was a friend of Daniel Boone’s, and finally, at quite an advanced age, became an important early settler of Texas at Stephen Austin’s behest. He settled his entire extended family near what is now Limestone County, Texas and founded Fort Parker — which was wiped out by Comanches in 1836. This was when Texas was still an independent republic, a good decade before it came into the U.S. Some of the family were kidnapped in the attack, resulting in this famous descendant:


Parker’s great-grandson was the “half breed” Comanche leader Quanah Parker.  My great grandfather was George Washington Parker. We are all descended from the Virginia colonist Richard Parker (1630-1683).

“Nagadoches is full of roaches!” — Groucho Marx


In that same year of 1836, my 4th great aunt Isabel Stuart moved to Brazos, Texas with her husband Jesse Ellison. Their son, named Jesse Washington Ellison became a famous character thereabouts. I found this entertaining description of him in the book Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest, by Douglas Preston:

…Colonel Jesse W. Ellison was one of the most famous and colorful stockmen of the Rim country. Born in Brazos County, Texas in 1841. He grew into a “reed-thin, habit-bound, hawk-faced” man whose conviction in his own rightness was unshakable. He relished being on the “right” side of a good fight. He started off as a Texas Ranger fighting Comanches and Kiowas, and then he enlisted for the South in the Civil War. He remained an unreconstructed southerner thereafter, went into the ranching business, and drove cattle up the Chisholm trail to the Kansas railheads. Texas became a little too crowded for Ellison, so he moved his family and livestock farther west. In July of 1885 he arrived in Bowie Station, Arizona with a line of railcars containing two thousand head of cattle and horses…

He found a good-looking ranch just west of Cherry Creek, which he purchased from the owner. Ellison’s cows had come from Texas with his brand, a “Q”, and his ranch became known as the “Q” ranch. The fact that the previous owner and many of his neighbors had been ruined by cattle rustlers meant nothing to Ellison: it was just one more fight he was willing to undertake – which he did with devastating effectiveness.


Ellison and his hands branding a steer on the Q Ranch. The photo is from a collection of a distant relative and there are dozens more besides…I think it’s going to merit much more writing…

Ellison had mostly daughters, of which he was very proud. “They were all good ropers and good shots,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1887. “They drove cattle instead of playing bridge and they lived on beans when we could get ‘em.” One of his daughters, Duette, married Arizona Territory’s first governor, George W.P. Hunt becoming the first of Arizona’s First Ladies. She liked to be photographed with a gun.

Here’s another good description of Colonel Ellison. 


Colonel Ellison & Co. He’s 3rd from the left.

A distant cousin on my mom’s side (6th cousin, 3x removed), Charles Dudley Ladd, from New Hampshire enlisted in the army in 1856, and was stationed at various forts in the area that would later become Montana. An account from the Ladd family history:

[He] joined the Thirteenth United States Infantry, which was ordered to the frontier, and came with it up the Missouri river from Leavenworth to the mouth of the Judith river, whence they arrived in July. His regiment was stationed at Camp Cook and Fort Shaw, where it assisted in building those frontier defenses against the Indians. The soldiers were actively engaged in scouting parties which scoured the country, scattering the various bands of hostile Indians, keeping them in motion and too busy to plan attacks. The absolute necessity of the presence of soldiers in those troublous times can only be appreciated by those who were then on the ground. Ranchmen and their families were in continual danger from marauding savages and many a poor fellow was discovered in the cold embrace of death by these scouting parties, with their scalps torn from their heads.

Birdtail Rock, SW of Fort Shaw, 1868

Birdtail Rock, SW of Fort Shaw, 1868

In 1869 Mr Ladd engaged in wood-cutting on the Missouri below the mouth of the Judith. Continuing in this occupation for one year, annoyed considerably by Indians, but suffering no fatalities, he removed to Fort Benton and began freighting and trading with the Indians, these combined occupations being quite remunerative. Large herds of buffalo were roaming at will in the valleys and on the benches. In 1872, he and his two companions were attacked by Indians on Eagle Creek, and after acting on the defensive from daylight until noon of the next day, the Indians withdrew, having succeeded in capturing their horses and killing their oxen. In the Summer of 1873 a squad of Indians from Canada stole some of their horses and ran them safely across the line. In a short time a party of eleven white men and one half breed was organized at Fort Benton to rescue the property, and they followed the Indian’s trial for five days, overtaking them at Farwell’s trading post. From the post the pursuing party proceeded directly to the Indian camp and began to talk with them. The Indians soon exhibited hostility and were about to attack them when the party opened fire and killed between thirty and forty of the savages. The Fort Benton party lost one member, Edward Grace. After the Indians fled, the successful whites followed the trail for some distance but were compelled to return. The horses were never recovered but the punishment administered by Mr Ladd and his brave companions ended the Indian raids into that country.

This next story interested me because it’s another one from my mom’s side (the New England side). My (4th) great uncle Cornelius Jackson had a twisty/turny life journey which eventually brought him to transplant a branch of the Connecticut family to Texas. Originally from Fairfield County, he married and started his family in New York City (which Fairfield County adjoins) circa 1833. I suspect he may have been a sailor, as was my (3rd) great grandfather Morris Jackson, who was based out of NYC for a time. Cornelius lived in New York about 8 years, then moved to Sumter County, Alabama around 1840. This is a MAJOR change. It’s hard to describe how big a change. He must have started a cotton farm, since that was the only thing to do there. The motivation for doing such a thing? For context, the Indian removal in the region had occurred in the years just before (circa 1836). I can only speculate that cheap or free land became available. He was to raise a large family here and in a nearby Mississippi County for the next 30 years. But it was a hard life, for which he was either ill-suited or ill-prepared or perhaps he was just plain unlucky. I glean this from the fact that two of his three wives died there, as did 9 of his 13 children. Starvation? Disease? Neglect? I can only speculate.

The streets of Ft. Worth, at the time of which I write.

The streets of Ft. Worth, at the time of which I write.

In 1859, his adult son William moved to Texas. Sometime in the early 1870s, Cornelius moved with his family to the Fort Worth area. Four of his children grew to adulthood; three of them left progeny. Again, I can only speculate that promise of opportunity brought them to Texas. Fort Worth had stockyards; perhaps there were jobs there.


Oscar Branch Colquitt (1861-1940), the 25th Governor of Texas, is my 3rd cousin 4 times removed. His father (Thomas Jefferson Colquitt) had tried (and failed) to make a go of the family plantation in Georgia after the Civil War. When it went under, the family moved to Daingerfield, TX, where Colquitt got involved in railroads, then got elected to the state legislature as a democrat, then served as governor, 1911-1915. Among the most significant developments during his tenure was a series of border skirmishes with Mexicans during their revolutionary period. Colquitt was also anti-Prohibitionist, which may have hurt his political success.He ran for Senate in 1916 but lost, possibly due to his pro-German sentiments (his mother’s maiden name was Burkhalter).


The Odoms at Home

And a sister of my great grandfather Virgil, Nancy Stewart Odom moved to Cooke County, Texas and started a family sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s. Of course, as Frederic Jackson Turner famously opined, the American Frontier was closed by 1893. But something tells me there were plenty of cowboys left in Texas during these years.

Reverend and Mrs. Hale, reading left to right. No, no, it's right to left, but she looks like she keeps in line pretty good nonetheless

Reverend and Mrs. Hale, reading left to right. No, no, it’s right to left, but she looks like she keeps him in line pretty good nonetheless

Sometime before 1900, a cousin of this generation of Stewarts, Reverend Henry Hale moved to Karnes County, Texas with his entire brood of adult children and all their families. The reason for this major migration so far eludes my modest research but as a preliminary guess I’ll go with, being a reverend, he was assigned to a church out there.

Polk Lafayette Stewart. It's a studio pose of course, but the chosen backdrop speaks volumes

Polk Lafayette Stewart. It’s a studio pose of course, but the chosen backdrop speaks volumes

Around 1869, my first cousin 4x removed John Leonidas Cabe, a veteran of the Confederate army from North Carolina, moved to Leadville, Colorado Territory to be a miner. He must have done okay. Two of his sisters, their husbands and children, followed him out there and stayed. Eventually, their widowed mother Sarah Knight, my (4th) great aunt, followed them out as well. She must have been lonely in the home country, as she was well advanced in age (in her 80s) when she made this arduous move. It is my belief that she had this photo taken during the trip. Creston, Iowa is along the train route to Colorado from Chicago (where she’d need to transfer from the eastern train lines before heading west):


Three of my great-great grandfather James Stewart’s siblings moved westward as well. Polk Lafayette Stewart, Elizabeth Jane Stewart Finley and Nancy Stewart Finley all moved west in hops, first to Missouri in the 1860s, and then to the area around Cherryvale, Kansas around 1880. (The Finleys these two Stewart girls married were cousins of the man many claim was the first American explorer to venture into what would become Kentucky, John Finley). These siblings all move at different times and with some differences in location but that is the general movement and they all wound up in the same place. Polk Lafayette seems to have moved to Missouri first, in 1860 when he was only 15 years old! (A tale must hang there) And he also spent some years in Mississippi. For some historical reference, these relatives moved to Missouri around the same time Mark Twain left — still the era of steamboats. They moved to Saline County, Missouri an area along the Mississippi River known as “Little Dixie” due to the large number of southerners who moved there.

Jesse James -- distant cousin

Jesse James — distant cousin

This was both the breeding and stomping grounds of Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang during these very same years. (James died in 1882 — I am also related to him! ). As for Cherryvale, Kansas, ten years before my relatives moved there, occurred the notorious murders committed by the Bloody Benders. The railheads for Texas cattle drives were located in Kansas, although that was winding down in those years. Dodge City (where Wyatt Earp had been a marshall just a few years before) is in Kansas, as is Wichita and Abilene, all depicted in countless westerns. By the late 20th century, Kansas was a tamer place — more a place of farms and teetotalers (hence a natural place for my relatives to settle as we wrote about here). Kansas was the first state to go completely dry, in 1881, in obvious reaction to the wildness of the cowboy culture that had preceded it. Carrie Nation did some of her worst work in Kansas. In 1906, a future star named Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale. (And later returned there for a time with her tail between her legs).


Sometime prior to 1883 my first cousin (4x removed) David Gallaher Stuart moved with his family to Pocatello, Idaho. This was seven years prior to statehood. About the only thing going on in the state at the time was mining, and I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that that was caused him to move with his family all the way from Alabama to this remote forbidding place. The entire state only had a population of 33,000 at the time. By the time he died 20 years later, Stuart had moved even father north, to Bear Lake. Most of his descendants remained in the area.


Here are some more western characters on my mom’s side. The gentleman in the woodcut is the actual Grizzly Adams, California-based, backwoodsman, trapper, bear trainer and showman. See my full article on that amazing character here. (and while we’re on distant relations who are western celebrities, I am also related to Laura Ingalls Wilder on this side).


My third great uncle Horace Cady from Wrentham Massachusetts got married in Walla Walla, Washington  in 1863, and then passed away at the age of 42 in Elko, Nevada in 1872! These two locations and these dates suggest the trade of gold and silver mining to me. His death at such a young age, suggests a shoot-out! But only because I have been watching too many movies. I have no details as yet as to how he died, or anything else except these beguiling times and places. He had two daughters, one moved to Arizona (when it was still quite wild), and the other moved to Los Angeles. If I unearth new stuff on them, I will share it here for sure.


Interestingly, this book on the history of the Dakotas mentions another frontier Cady, named Hartwell, who had ranches in South Dakota and Texas, starting in 1882. I discovered him because I have two relatives named Hartwell Cady close to home (they are closely related to Horace). This Hartwell, however, was from Malone, New York. I trace him all the way back to one Nicolas Cady in New Hampshire in 1741 and then the line vanishes. So I can’t with certainty link him to my Cadys. But — really — how many people are named HARTWELL? And there are many other first names in common between his Cadys and my Connecticut/ Massachusetts Cadys, enough to give me a strong feeling that they’re connected. Read about him here. 


An interesting LATE western figure, a distant cousin on my mom’s side, Edwin Fremont Ladd went to North Dakota in 1890 to be a professor and dean of chemistry and pharmacology at the agriculture culture in Fargo. In 1920 he was elected to the U.S. senate for North Dakota, serving until his death in 1925. In his time he was known as a pure food and drug champion.

Can I get a “Yee hah”?


How about just a “Yee”?

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