Archive for the Native American Interest Category

Family in 50 States #4: Montana

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History, Native American Interest with tags , , on November 8, 2016 by travsd


This new series of posts came out of the realization that I have relatives and roots in all 50 U.S. states. My ancestors lived in 14 of them (all on the eastern seaboard or adjacent), and I have already written about many of those folks. But the siblings and cousins of my ancestors kept going west, and this is an attempt, in the spirit of Whitman, to celebrate my connection to every corner of the country. And when I’m done with that, I’ll celebrate all the countries of the world in similar manner. 

November 8, 1889 is the day on which Montana became one of the United States.

Montana is one of our largest  states(behind only the rather obvious Alaska, Texas and California) and also one of our least populous. Now, as always, most people there tend to be involved in either ranching or farming (with ski tourism now joining them as a third major industry). Montana was the site of some of America’s most significant Indian Wars, including Red Cloud’s War, the Great Sioux War of 1876, the Nez Perce War, and the most famous one of all, the Battle of Little Big Horn.

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 territory 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.


Ladd remained in Montana all his life. He passed away in 1926 and is buried in Cascade. He was married but appears not to have had any children.

This would seem to be but a tangential connection at best, but I have an ace in the hole. My brother has lived in the state for 20 years!

Burt Lancaster: The Westerns

Posted in AMERICANA, Hollywood (History), Movies, Native American Interest, Westerns with tags , on November 2, 2016 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood star Burt Lancaster. The toothy tall one made many films in many genres, but for the sake of focus (and because I already have the notes written up) today we take a look at his westerns (warning: we always include spoilers):


Vengeance Valley (1951) 

A bit of a soap opera. Robert Walker plays a shifty, no-account heir to Ray Collins’ ranch…Lancaster is his decent, honest, forthright and discreet foster brother. Walker, a married man, has knocked up his mistress and weasels out of it 50 ways, with Lancaster always picking up the slack…i.e., doing nice things for the woman, and enduring accusations from her brothers. Walker schemes to sell off all their cattle (half owned by the father) in a drive so he can escape the mess his life is in without taking any responsibility. He sets up Lancaster to get shot by the the girl’s brothers. Showdown. Lancaster kills Walker and winds up with his wife — which, any way you look at it, has to be counted as a happy ending.



Apache (1954) 

Blue eyed New York acrobat Lancaster (“I wawk in the ways of the great spirit”) plays “Massai, Last of the Apache Warriors”, in this early stab by liberal Hollywood to balance the scales. God save us! At this early stage the perpetrators apparently still felt that though it’s important to TREAT natives as human, it’s unimportant to DEPICT them as human. Lancaster’s performance is patronizing in the extreme.  Apparently no one told him the title of the film was “Apache”, not “Planet of the Apes”.  He plays the Apache warrior as though he were choreographed by Jerome Robbins, a savage not only noble but nimble. And of course he and his love interest and the other major characters are played by whites with brown shoe polish on their faces. They all seem to have blue eyes—as though terrified that audiences would think, even mistakenly, that the producers had dared to put Native Americans in speaking parts.

It isn’t much of a plot although it’s a template I’ve seen plenty of. Its 1886. Geronimo has surrendered, the last rebellious Apaches are being shipped off to a reservation in Florida. Massai escapes from the contingent somewhere around St. Louis. Making his way to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) he meets a Cherokee who teaches him that it is possible for an Indian to grow corn and still hold his head up high. He returns to his people to relay this revelation—they immediately trap him and turn him over to the authorities. He escapes again of course and remains a fugitive throughout the picture. He does violence at first until he hooks up with his true love and they start to grow corn together. (the rival for her hand is played by Charles Bronson, which is too perfect). The end of the picture is one of those open-ended irresolute finishes I associate with the early 70s. The soldiers and bounty hunters who have been pursuing him throughout the whole picture, upon finding him and his wife (who’s just given birth) on their little farm—decide to let him go, as he’s obviously no threat anymore. Directed by Robert Aldrich. 



Vera Cruz (1954)

Directed by Robert Aldrich, Vera Cruz was co-produced by Lancaster who co-stars with Gary Cooper. It’s strange to see them in the same film, but no stranger than seeing Johnny Depp alongside Robert Mitchum in Dead Man!

I’d be very surprised if this film wasn’t highly influential on the spaghetti western directors. Set in Mexico right after the American Civil War, at a time when Mexico is ruled by the French puppet dictator Emperor Maximilian (George Macready). Cooper and Lancaster are fortune hunters. Cooper is decent but the loss of the South (and his wealth) in the Civil War has made him bitter — he needs money for his starving Louisiana plantation. Lancaster is completely unprincipled and has been since childhood. He grows to like Cooper more and more (he’s the only man who fights and shoots as well as he does), but that doesn’t mean he’ll treat him straight. Their gang includes Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and Jack Elam.

The men are hired to take a beautiful Countess (Denise Darcel) to the port city of Vera Cruz so she can sail to Paris. But something’s not right. Scores of troops plus these American mercenaries just to protect one Countess? The coach turns out to have $3 million in gold stashed beneath the floor, intended to bribe Napoleonic officials to keep Maximillian on the throne. The film becomes a multi-directional contest a) to get the gold to Santa Cruz, and b) to see who’ll get it. In the end, Cooper and Lancaster fight a duel and….


The Kentuckian (1955)

Directed and produced by and starring Burt Lancaster. Definitely charming and pretty to look at (I mean the movie, not Lancaster, though I hear he is) but it’s a little dull. Lancaster is a Daniel Boone type frontiersman in the 1820s. He and his son are striking out for Texas, but quickly spend their traveling money rescuing a pretty indentured servant girl. [THIS IS THE FILM’S COOLEST FEATURE. I DON’T THINK I’VE SEEN THIS MAJOR FACT OF EARLY AMERICAN LIFE REPRESENTED IN ANY OTHER MOVIE!]. With no stake, the three are forced to lay over in a nearby town where Lancaster’s brother and persnickety sister in law (Una Merkel) live. These two and the local schoolteacher contrive to civilize Burt and the boy and get him to settle down there and be a merchant. Lancaster falls in love with the teacher. The indentured servant girl goes to work for Walter Matthau, a mean and cowardly, bullwhip-cracking saloonkeeper. John Carradine is great as a snake oil salesman. The climax concerns a shootout with a couple of rogues who are from a family that’s feuding with Lancaster’s. Lancaster dispatches them and realizes his real nature is to go after adventure in Texas with the boy and the girl (and the dog. Did I mention the dog?)


Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) 

Also directed by John Sturgis. The umpteenth remake of the west’s most famous gunfight, yet still somehow not definitive. The film-makers are still hellbent on mythologizing a story that by now had been picked mighty clean. Seems like a lot of talent wasted in the service of something “less than”. One is accustomed to seeing Lancaster (who plays Wyatt Earp), in far more substantial roles. Kirk Douglas (Doc Holliday), frequently did schlock, but was generally wasted doing so. The movie’s most distinctive feature is a terrible ballad, sung by Frankie Laine, with new verses that come in after every scene and tell the story (seems inspiration for similar technique in Cat Ballou)

This version is somewhat more historically accurate than previous ones and very much concentrated on the relationship between the two men, minutely observing their incremental warming up to each other to the point where they become good friends. Starts in Griffin, Texas. Doc is a bastard. Mistreats his woman. She is a girl with a past, but she does love him and take care of him. Doc hates himself and what he has become, and takes it out on her, treats her like dirt. Three bad men (led by Lee Van Cleef) ride into town looking to kill Doc. Earp comes in around the same time, seeking info on some men Doc has seen. In order to get the info, he lets Doc know one of the bad men has a derringer in their boot. Armed with this information, Doc preemptively kills Van Cleef in a fight. Later, Doc, shows up back in Dodge City, where Earp is marshall. So does a beautiful lady gambler. Earp tries to throw her out — ladies aren’t allowed to gamble (it causes fights) but he ends up letting her stay. Then he gets Doc to help him on a job. While they are out of town, Doc’s girl (whom he has dumped) takes up with one of the Clanton gang, which he discovers when he returns. The guy tries to provoke him into a fight, but he wont bite. Then Clanton goes on a rampage. About two dozen of his gang come into town, shooting the whole place up, including Earp’s deputy, played by Earl Holliman. Earp and Doc, just the two of them, disarm the whole bunch (including the youngest Clanton, played by Dennis Hopper). The gang vows revenge. Earp is now about to quit being a marshall. He and the gambler lady have fallen in love and they plan to “go start a ranch”. Then he gets a telegram from his brotherVirgil (whom we have not heretofore met or even heard about, outside of whatever personal knowledge we have of the legend we bring as audience members) saying he is having trouble with the Clantons in Tombstone (where he is Marshall). Rge girl breaks up with Wyatt, but he has to go anyway: “family”. His brothers include Martin Milner of Adam-12 and Deforest Kelly of Star Trek. The Clantons kill the youngest one, thinking he is Wyatt. Now the stage is set for the big gun fight shootout denouement.


The Hallelujah Trail (1965) 

Yet another one directed by John Sturgis. Comedy western about a shipment of whiskey, bound for the tradionally snowed-in Denver before winter comes. Treated with a mock seriousness, narrated by John Dehner, as is very common in the epic comedies of this era, it works itself up into epochal exertions but to little purpose. It’s just not funny.   Burt Lancaster and Jim Hutton are cavalry officers in the approved Fordian manner. Added to the chaos are a bunch of temperance activist suffragettes led by Lee Remick, a bunch of irish miners and a bunch of Indians after “firewater” led by Martin Landau as “Chief Walks Stooped Over”. Also in the cast are Brian Keith, Donald Pleasance as some sort of “seer” (who only “sees” when he drinks whiskey), John Anderson, Dub Taylor et al. The movie looks beautiful, it’s just irritating, boring and not funny.



The Professionals (1966) 

Well constructed, beautifully shot, tightly edited late classic western — that somehow still seems to be somewhat dull. I think it has to do with the entire cast of fairly bland, two dimensional, dispassionate male actors. Like the title says, they have a job to do, they do the job and that’s the end of the picture.

It is the late nineteen-teens. Texas cattle baron Ralph Bellamy hires four of “the best” to retrieve his wife who has been kidnapped by a captain of Pancho Villa’s and brought to some of the most rugged country in Mexico. The gang consists of Lee Marvin (an expert in weapons and tactics), Lancaster (a demolition expert), Robert Ryan (a horseman), and Woody Strode (for some reason I’d rather not think about, an expert tracker and masterful archer). Jack Palance plays the Mexican captain. The men go down through the desert, steal the woman from a small army in the middle of their compound and then learn that she is in love with the Mexican and with the revolution and doesn’t want to go back. This was always the case. She had never been kidnapped — Bellamy just wants to kill her and her lover. If anyone, Bellamy was the kidnapper. In the end, the heroes free the girl and the Mexican from Bellamy’s men.


The Scalphunters (1968) 

A fairly negligible entertainment, apparently contrived to address changing race relations at the time, and directed by Sydney Pollock of all people. It seems set in Oklahoma or Texas in the 1850s or before. Lancaster is a trapper whose furs get swiped by a band of Kiowas. In exchange, he is given a slave which he does not want. The slave is a highly educated house slave from Louisiana played by Ossie Davis. Lancaster isn’t that nice to the slave: plans to sell him. He plans to take the furs from Indians as they get drunk that night, but just as he is about to, a gang led by Telly Savalas, out for Indian scalps, attacks and takes the furs with him. Needless to say, Savalas is very badly cast, and the character is also misconceieved: stupid, noisy, hotheaded, impulsive and generally urban. As a villain he is about as effective as Yosemite Sam. One doesn’t believe he has done any of the things he is supposed to have done: killed marshals, robbed banks, etc. The gang carries their own whores (Shelley Winters among them) along with them as they go. Lancaster wants his furs back. Pursues the whole gang. The slave gets captured by them and makes himself useful to the whore. He gets to liking the life and hopes to string with them to Mexico. One by one, Lancaster picks off the gang, shoots some, knifes some, causes an avalanche, fills a water hole with loco weed for their horses to drink. Finally, Savalas claims to give up and the gang leaves. Lancaster comes down to get his furs. Savalas emerges from a shallow grave and attacks him, ties him up. The slave kills Savalas, then lords it over Lancaster. The two fight. The Kiowas come back and take their furs back. The two men pursue them again.


Lawman (1971) 

Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Ralph Waite, and the guy who played McCloud’s  NYPD supervisor. This thought provoking film has Lancaster as the the titular constable. He is inflexible, cruel…admirable in some ways in his devotion to getting the job done, but you can’t help wondering if his way isn’t a bigger curse than anarchy. In a sort of prologue, Cobb and his bunch shoot up a small town, accidentally killing an old man. Some time later, Lancaster, the lawman of that small town shows up in their town…where they turn out to be some of the leading citizens. The whole town freezes him out, including the storekeepers and so forth. Some of Cobb’s men are hotheaded and want to kill Lancaster outright. Cobb turns out to be not such a bad guy. He founded this town, he is comfortable. He doesn’t want bloodshed. He wants to make everything “right”, but with money, which is the definition of corruption. Yet this way may have been better than what transpires. The original killing had been the accidental result of some admittedly out-of-hand rough play. Now Lancaster – an admitted professional killer — has a series of shoot-outs where he murders in cold blood some of the otherwise law-abiding and productive citizens of the town. In the end, the whole gang is in jail, wounded or dead. He’s done his job.



Valdez is Coming (1971)

Based on a Leonard novel. Burt Lancaster in the sort of film we associate with Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. We’re in some border town. Lancaster is Bob Valdez, a Mexican-American former Apache fighter who is now a local constable. Some semi-crooked landowner and his lackeys are shooting at a black man for a murder he allegedly committed. Through a snafu, Valdez has to kill the black man, who turns out to have been innocent. When Lancaster tries to collect $100 for the widow (a pregnant Apache), the villain and his minion humiliate and torture him (they even force him to walk around with a crucifix tied to his back, directly after they have shot up a church.)  Valdez, a ridiculously mild man in the beginning, who prefers talking to violence has now been pushed too far. He sends the titular warning (“Tell them, ‘valdez is coming’.”), comes in for the guy, kills one of his lackeys and kidnaps his woman, then rides into the desert, forcing several successive patrols of henchmen to come after him. He kills them all. In the end they do trap him, but the men are too in awe to shoot him. It ends with a stand off between Valdez and the villain. Lancaster is second to no one in machismo, but the brown face paint he wears is ridiculous, as his accent. About ten of the characters seem to be non Mexicans in brown make up. All the men (of all colors) are wearing eye-liner. In short, this is a movie with a lot of men wearing a lot of make-up!


Ulzana’s Raid (1972) 

Critically acclaimed (but now sadly obscure) revisionist western by Robert Aldrich depicting a savage fight between settlers and Apaches.


Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson (1976)

Lancaster played dime novelist Ned Buntline in Robert Altman’s satiral film. Not a western per se but a movie with western themes. Much more about the film is here in my Paul Newman western post. 


Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) 

Fictionized story based on real historical characters. Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer are the titular naughty who are inspired by Ned Buntline’s dime novels to do some crimes. When they encounter the real life Bill Doolin (Lancaster) they goad him and his gang (Scott Glenn, John Savage and others) to be bad again. In the end they are foiled by lawman Bill Tighman (Rod Steiger). 

Family in 50 States #2 and #3: The Dakotas

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History, Native American Interest with tags , , , , on November 2, 2016 by travsd


This new series of posts came out of the realization that I have relatives and roots in all 50 U.S. states. My ancestors lived in 14 of them (all on the eastern seaboard or adjacent), and I have already written about many of those folks. But the siblings and cousins of my ancestors kept going west, and this is an attempt, in the spirit of Whitman, to celebrate my connection to every corner of the country. And when I’m done with that, I’ll celebrate all the countries of the world in similar manner. 

November 2, 1889 was the day North Dakota and South Dakota joined the Union as States.

Prior to that, the Dakotas had been part of territory especially reserved for Native Americas, especially the Lakota Sioux. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, however, all bets were off. Wars were fought with the struggling natives, culminating in the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, considered to be the last major Indian War. But there has always been tension in the region. The two sparsely populated states are among the U.S. states with the largest indigenous populations (9% in South Dakota, 5% in North Dakota). The present protest at Standing Rock (and the government’s unfortunate handling of it) are sadly in keeping with the history of the area.

But it’s a good moment to celebrate some famous Sioux leaders (even if it will make some of my forebears spin in their graves): Sitting Bull! Crazy Horse! Red Cloud! Black Elk! Kicking Bear! 

Wild Bill Hickok met his end in South Dakota, in the lawless town of Deadwood…which would later be the setting for the best tv western ever. South Dakota is home to Mount Rushmore, which — I don’t care what you say — I think is an awesome human achievement. Equally awesome will be the Crazy Horse Memorial — if they ever get it finished:


The Dakotas are also interesting for having a population much higher in Germans and Scandinavians than Anglo-Americans. Perhaps the most visible representative of that unique culture has been, oddly enough, Lawrence Welk, who had that accent because he grew up in a German North Dakota community where no English was spoken!

As to my family connections:


This book on the history of the Dakotas mentions my distant cousin Hartwell Cady, who moved to South Dakota to ranch in 1882. Originally from Malone, New York, he moved west as a young man for the cheap land. In rapid order he had amassed spreads of hundreds of acres. In 1905 he became President of the Farmers State Bank in the town of Mellette, S.D. in the Northeast corner of the state.  Read more about him here. 


Another 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 representing North Dakota, serving until his death in 1925. In his time he was known as a pure food and drug champion.

James Cruze: Of Wagons and Waterfronts

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Native American Interest, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on March 27, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the legendary James Cruze (Jens Vera Cruz Bosen, 1884-1942). Cruze’s early life sounds like excellent preparation for his most famous film as director, The Covered Wagon (1923). Born on an Indian reservation near Vernal, Utah, he was part Ute Indian, and raised in the Mormon faith.  (While his stage name sounds Spanish, he was mostly of Danish extraction. The “Vera Cruz” part of his given name was in honor the Siege of Veracruz, an action in the Mexcican-American War).  Cruze ran away from home as a teenager because he disliked farm work. He is said to have performed in medicine shows, and later worked as a fisherman to earn his tuition for drama school.


Cruze made his fame first as an actor, becoming one of the top stars of the Thanhouser Film Company between 1911 and  1916, in films ranging from classics like David Copperfield (1911) to cliffhangers like the serials The Million Dollar Mystery (1914) and Zudora (1914).  While at Thanhouser, he married another of the studio’s stars Margueritte Snow.


A shake-up at Thanhouser in 1916 resulted in Cruze being let go. He continued acting with various studios for a couple of years, and by the end of the decade he was a director at Famous Players-Lasky, soon to become Paramount. He went on to become one of the most successful directors of the silent era. In the late teens he directed several Wallace Reid pictures; then most of Roscoe Arbuckle’s features in 1920 and 1921; One Glorious Day (1922) with Will Rogers; then his breakthrough western epic The Covered Wagon (1923), one of the most successful Hollywood movies of the silent era. He divorced Snow that year; in 1925 he married actress and frequent collaborator Betty Compson. There came the first screen versions of the Kaufman and Connelly comedies Merton of the Movies (1924) and Beggar on Horseback (1925). He made more historical epics, like The Pony Express (1925) and Old Ironsides (1926). In 1926 he shot a comedy with Raymond Griffith called The Waiter from the Ritz which was never released. In 1927, there was the racy The City Gone Wild with Louise Brooks.

Like many of the people he worked with (Brooks, Reid, Arbuckle), Cruze was known for being a Hollywood hell-raiser, partying wildly and raising the roof through the heights and depths of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Unlike most of the characters about whom that can be said, Cruze suffered no catastrophic downfall. He divorced Compson in 1930, but he continued to direct films nearly ’til the end of his life.


The work of the sound era was solid, if less exalted. There was the delightfully strange The Great Gabbo (1929) a deranged ventriloquism romance starring Erich Von Stroheim and Compson (read my account of it here). He contributed to the multi-partite comedy If I Had a Million (1932). He directed many pre-code gems like She Knew What She Wanted (1930) with Compson and Lee Tracy, and Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932), also with Tracy. Probably his best known sound picture is the gritty crime thriller I Cover the Waterfront (1933). One of his last pictures (1938) was an early attempt to bring Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York to the screen in a script co-written by Sam Fuller for low-budget Republic Pictures.

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


When is a Cherokee Not a Cherokee? Answer: When He’s William Holland Thomas

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History, Native American Interest with tags , , , , on February 5, 2016 by travsd


There is apparently a maxim in the genealogy field, something along the lines of “Genealogy without documentation is fairy tales.’

It’s meant to be an aspersion, but frankly I am unmoved. I like fairy tales. I find them much superior to, much truer than “facts”. Or…rather, I put things in perspective. Where there is an unknown, a story will do very nicely. When empirical facts emerge to replace the products of logic or imagination, who am I to argue? The facts become the new story. But until then….I work with what I’ve got, and that’s good enough for me. And if it ain’t good enough for you — here comes a train; go walk in front of it.

Which brings us to to this gentleman, William Holland Thomas (1805-1893). What an interesting guy. He was born on the frontier of western North Carolina. His father drowned before he was born, making it necessary for Thomas, an only child, to work for a living starting at a young age. He ended up running a general store for Congressman Felix Walker. When their contract was up, Walker found himself pecuniarily embarrassed. Unable to pay Thomas in money, he gave him a large number of books, a certain percentage of which were law books. Thomas studied hard and became a lawyer.

Meanwhile he’d been a storekeeper in a rural area. He’d made a lot of friends. Among them were a group known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee. This was a small group of several hundred Cherokee who’d managed to avoid being marched off in the Trail of Tears with the rest of the Eastern Indians. Thomas became their lawyer, and ended up winning several important Federal cases for them. He became the adopted son of the tribe’s Chief Yonaguska and — remarkably — succeeded him as tribal leader when the latter died in 1839. Thomas thus became the only Caucasian ever to be the official chief of an Indian tribe. He bought large amounts of land for himself and for the tribe, and served as a state senator from 1848 through 1860.

 In 1860 the Civil War broke out and the story gets even stranger. For Thomas was made a Colonel in the Confederate Army, and led Thomas’s Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders. That’s right. He led a unit composed largely of one subjugated people in a war to ensure the continued subjugation of another people. The motives for this mind-numbing tangle are complicated. I’m sure to write about this some more. But even Thomas appears not to have been able to wrap his head around it all. Two years after the war was over, Thomas went insane, and was in and out of mental hospitals for the remainder of his life.

Here’s how and why I learned about Thomas:

  • I have a dead end in my family tree that stops with one of my great-great grandfathers, John Burkley Thomas (1837-1926)
  • John Burkley Thomas was born in North Carolina and moved to Tennessee prior to 1865
  • My paternal grandmother contended that she was part Cherokee, and that her Cherokee connection came from the Thomas line.
  • When you Google “Thomas”, “North Carolina” and “Cherokee”, guess what you get?

Oh, I know it’s an enormous leap. I make no factual claim here. But there are several other facts that intrigue.

Thomas didn’t marry and begin to have his recorded “official” children until 1857, when he was 52 years old. His personal life prior to that is described in the book Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas by E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell. Two facts interest me. One is that, as an orphan himself “Thomas was especially sympathetic with orphans and illegitimate children” and as tribal leader he adopted many of them. The identities of several are known; many more are not.

Then there is this excellent paragraph:

“At what point Thomas abandoned his youthful vow to remain chaste before marriage cannot be known, but as he passed through his twenties, thirties and forties yet unmarried, he apparently surrendered to the demands of his sexual nature…If he fathered illegitimate children by both Indian and white women, their identities rest behind the veils of time, gossip, and legend.”

The latter two of which I fully acknowledge apply to this blogpost. Yet there are times when they will do. A possibility exists that John Burkley Thomas was either an orphaned child adopted by Thomas OR one of Thomas’s own illegitimate children. Perhaps not just a possibility. Perhaps even a likelihood. Perhaps.

Some other pieces: I have had my DNA tested. There is no apparent Native American component. Yet there is a family rumor of Cherokee blood in the Thomas line. Well…here’s a man named Thomas who is a legal Cherokee but not a blood Cherokee.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Until something better comes along.

Today is William Holland Thomas’s birthday.

ADDENDUM (July 5, 2016). I believe I have the key. Some DNA evidence arrived saying I was related to a John Newton who lived in the area of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and died in the town that was there headquarters (Cherokee, N.C.) just a few months before John Burkley Thomas was born, putting him in the right place, time and circumstances for adoption by William Holland Thomas. Furthermore, this deposition shows dealings between newton’s father and Thomas himself (he had supplied grain for the tribe):

A satisfying result, though more proof would be even more satisfying!



Sunday at AMMI: John Ford’s Fort Apache

Posted in AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Irish, Movies, Native American Interest, PLUGS, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2015 by travsd


Hey, New Yorkers! Tomorrow at 4:oopm, as part of their John Ford series, the American Museum of the Moving Image will be showing the classic Fort Apache (1948). (Warning: we always include spoilers).

Fort Apache is the first in Ford’s so-called “Cavalry Trilogy”, the other two pictures being She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. It is one of the first Hollywood movies to acknowledge that Native Americans actually have a perspective and that they may often (probably more often than not) be in the right.

The story is essentially a fictionalization of Custer’s Last Stand, transplanted from Sioux country to Apache Country. John Wayne is a seasoned cavalry officer with much experience in Indian relations who is passed over for promotion to commander of Fort Apache, an army outpost in the middle of the desert. The job goes to a political appointee, a by-the-book, vain martinet played by Henry Fonda, in one of his best performances. Fonda considers the assignment to be a type of exile — he’d rather be fighting “great nations like the Sioux or Comanche”. Wayne’s character knows better — he respects the Apache. The film is all about class distinction, prejudice, and the military life. Fonda’s character is a snob who won’t let his daughter (Shirley Temple) date one of his young officers (John Agar) because he is Irish, and the son of a colorful sergeant at the post (Ward Bond). And in a dispute between the Indians and the crooked federal agent with whom they have a grievance, he sees it as his duty to side with the agent. It inevitably ends in a massacre, one in which Fonda redeems himself somewhat by choosing to die with the men he has incompetently sent to their deaths.

It’s hard to pick my favorite Ford film, but this one is way up there — I think every American schoolkid should see this movie. My only quibble is a coda at the end where Wayne’s character pays lip service to duty, probably obligatory to keep the movie from seeming too seditious. But this is a Hollywood movie after all — our eyes are wide open to the politics that inform and complicate its products.

For information and tickets, go here. 


Tonight on TCM: “White Men Among Native Americans”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Native American Interest, PLUGS, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2015 by travsd

Hey, that’s THEIR title – -I didn’t make it up! The theme tonight on Turner Classic Movies is westerns with “White Men Among Native Americans” at their center.


8:00 pm (EST):  Jeremiah Johnson (1972) 

While Redford was to name his independent film complex after his character in the above in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it is really Jeremiah Johnson that captures the moment he fell in love with the country that became that centre’s location, the area around Provo, Utah. I saw this film many times as a kid as well, and remembered it over the years as a beautiful film full of micro-events in which nothing much happens. Seeing it again a few years ago I realized that this is very much not the case. It is true that the titular character spends much of his time alone, or with mutes, crazies or non-English speakers, hence little dialogue. But there is a huge central event: he acquires a family which he dearly loves and they are tragically massacred. Then he kills several Indians in revenge and from then on his life is a constant harassment, as individual Indians keep trying to pick him off. Set in the mountains and desert of Utah in the early 1850s (it’s hard to tell how much time passes as the story progresses– one of the film’s few flaws, although you could justify it as a choice. For Johnson has no idea how much time passes either, with no calendars around).


A former soldier from the Mexican War, he decides to be a “mountain man”, a trapper, a pioneer among pioneers. There have been few films about this important chapter in the west, for the very good reason that it is hard to make a film about solitude. But this one succeeds. After his rudimentary frontier skills cause him much suffering, he meets the incomparable Will Geer, a favorite character actor of mine, who plays a far better established hermit (who, delightfully, keeps calling Johnson “Pilgrim”). Geer teaches him better skills. After some time, Johnson stumbles on the site of a massacre. There is no sign of a husband, the wife is crazy, and her children have been killed. One boy is left, a mute (whether he was always such or whether it was caused by the trauma remains unanswered). When Johnson gives some horses and rival Indian scalps to the French-speaking Chief of the Flatfeet, he gives him his daughter for a wife. With his new wife and son Johnson builds a home. But the Shangri-La is all spoiled when soldiers come and beg him to be their guide to rescue some starving families trapped in a mountain pass. The soldiers insist that they proceed through a holy Crow burial ground.  This enrages the Crow, who kill Redford’s new family.


The format of the film, an initial voiceover and recurring theme song, make the events feel like a true story which one is being told (and I believe the character is a composite of many such real characters). Anyway, it’s a terrific film. It has many aspects of true epic structure:a mentor (Geer), a series of trials, and of course, the hubris of crossing the Gods and the subsequent retribution.

And of course it represents a chance to see Robert Redford, at his hairiest, living in environmentalist Nirvana.


10:00 pm: (EST) Little Big Man (1970)

Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid this is one I thought highly of in my youth but has sunk a little in my estimation since.  I first saw Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man as a child, and watched it many times thereafter. Looking at it now I realize there is a certain odd inconsistency of tone to the movie. It keeps shifting back and forth between a picaresque satire with slapstick elements to genuine tragedy. As a kid that didn’t bother me but now I am able to look at it with some clarity. In and of themselves, the scenes where the Indians are massacred are completely moving and alarming, shot with a cruel fidelity, benefiting from Dustin Hoffman’s terrific acting. Likewise, the intimate scenes with Hoffman and his adopted Indian grandfather (Chief Dan George) are touching and real, sometimes sad, if occasionally gently humorous. These scenes clearly seem influenced by the book “Black Elk Speaks”.

But one is in a quandary as to how to fit it into the rest of the film, which is a silly tall-tale about a guy who appears to have been everywhere and done everything connected with the legends of the Old West. Hoffman’s Jack Crabbe is rescued from a Crow Indian massacre and raised by the Cheyenne. When his tribe is attacked by soldiers he rather cravenly reveals himself as white and is brought to live with a preacher and his hot, oversexed wife (Faye Dunaway). Disillusioned, he takes up with a snake oil salesman (a somewhat miscast Martin Balsam) who progressively keeps losing body parts. Meeting his sister he becomes a gunfighter, and comes to know Wild Bill Hickok. At various points he is a muleskinner for Custer, who is played by Richard Mulligan (Soap) for broad comedy as a vain, delusional madman. At a certain point Crabbe runs a store with a Swedish wife. Between these interludes he keeps going back to the Cheyenne. There is even broad comedy with some of the Indian segments—a gay Indian, and a rival brave who goes insane with the many inadvertent insults Little Big Man commits against him. He also amasses four wives — screwing three of them in a row as the fourth bears his child. Even Custer’s Last Stand is played for broad, slapstick comedy. (Yet the shooting of Hickok, whom we’ve only spent about two minutes of screentime with, is played for unearned pathos).

Is Little Big Man a tragedy about the destruction of the Indians? A comedy about American myth-making? It can’t be both but it tries to, as though Penn had intercut two different movies together.


12:30 am: The Searchers (1956) 

John Ford’s masterpiece. Texas 1868. John Wayne is a Confederate vet (and outlaw). His family is massacred by Comaches. (The film’s most memorable scene: the horrible tension when the family realizes Indians are coming and they’re all alone. They put the lights out. The daughter screams, goes into hysterics. They hide). Wayne takes a large posse out to look for her, led by Ward Bond, who is both a reverend and a captain in the Texas Rangers. Also along is Wayne’s adopted nephew (Jeffery Hunter), who is an Indian or half-breed.

They keep on the chase long after the rest of the posse quits. One niece is raped and killed. (Wayne is called upon to do some of the most emotional acting of his career in the scene where he finds her. He doesn’t quite pull it off but he gets an A for trying). Another niece (Natalie Wood) is kidnapped. Wayne is mean to the boy the whole time though he has more reason to want his sister back than Wayne does. Wayne is merely an angry man who wants blood payment. In time, the posse drops out and it’s just Wayne and the young man. When they finally reach the girl, several years later, she is now a squaw, the wife of a chief. Wayne wants to kill her. The kid won’t let him. They bring the girl back to live with another family. The film has a lot in common with Red River: an epic cross-country quest led by Wayne with an Ahab-like obsessiveness, and countered by a younger, more reasonable young man, who’d been raised as a son from infancy as an adopted foundling. Wayne’s catchphrase: “That’ll be the day”. The film has Ford’s most famous shot, going from the inside of the cabin to the gorgeous outside of Monument Valley. And the reverse, at the end of the picture. The theme song puts a chill up my spine. This picture makes me wanna bawl just thinkin’ about how great it is.


2:45 am (EST) The Last of the Mohicans (1936)

Reliance Pictures version of the James Fenimore Cooper tale starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye and Bruce Cabot as Magua. I’ve not yet seen this verision, so my DVR is set.


4:30 am (EST) The Paleface (1922) 

Buster Keaton silent comedy short.   In this western parody Buster plays an innocent butterfly collector who accidentally walks onto an Indian reservation whose inmates have vowed to “kill the next white man [they] see”. The natives are treated sympathetically (they are being swindled by unscrupulous agents, a common western theme) though they are a bit on the “how, ugh” side and want nothing more than to burn Buster to a crisp at the stake. Although he hilariously best them at one point by pulling up the stake he is tied to and bonking his captor’s on the head with it while he is still trussed up. In the end Buster saves the day and as his reward picks out a pretty “Indian squab” of his own, kissing her passionately on the lips…for two years! This is racially progressive stuff for 1922, so bravo, Buster.

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