Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lives on the Frontier

By examining the lives of four people who lived in the "frontier west," we will examine the effect of the frontier myth upon their lives, and what their lives tell us about the lives of others living in the West.

Becoming a man
Of the four, Theodore Roosevelt is perhaps the best known person. Born in New York City in October 1858. Roosevelt was extremely sickly as a child, suffering from chronic asthma probably induced by allergies to smoke and dust--two things extremely prevalent in 19th century New York City. Treatment prescribed included smoking cigars and drinking strong hot coffee. Despite this ridiculous remedy, Roosevelt lived into adulthood, although his delicate condition precluded him from attending school outside his home until he was an adolescent. Spurred on by a fatherly talk at age 10 about "bucking-up" to overcome his sickness, Roosevelt embraced what he called the "strenuous life"--boxing, shooting, and riding horses at breakneck speeds. Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee in 1880 (immediately after graduating from Harvard), and entered politics, becoming a New York assemblyman. In 1884, his wife became pregnant, but at the birth of his daughter, tragedy struck. Shortly after giving birth, his wife became extremely ill, and died just before he arrived home from Albany; even more tragically, his mother passed away that same evening from an illness she contracted. Disconsolate, Roosevelt left "Baby Lee," his newborn daughter, to the care of his older sister, and left for a ranch he had purchased in North Dakota. Roosevelt rode with his hired hands, performing much of the same work--but at the same time, he was the man who paid the wages. Roosevelt seemed mainly to use his experience to assert his manhood (including punching out loutish drunks when the occassion presented itself).

Deadwood Dick

Nat Love (pronounced Nate) was born in Davidson County, Tennessee. After the end of the Civil War, Love's father, Sampson, a tobacco farmer, died. Being the oldest boy, Love felt that he had to provide for his family, so by the age of fourteen, he not only brought in the crop his father planted, but also took a second job. Several years of working odd jobs in the area, Love won a horse in the raffle. Love sold the horse for $100, gave half to his mother, and used the other half to leave Tennessee for points west. Landing in Dodge City, Kansas, Love caught on with a group of cowboys heading back to a Texas ranch; his skill as a horseman prompted the others to begin to refer to him as "Red River Dick." Love worked with this group for several years, and was part of a group that drove a heard north from western Texas to Deadwood, South Dakota. At a rodeo held there on July 4, 1876, Love proved to be the superior cowboy in town, winning the grand prize of $200, and prompting the townspeople to begin calling him "Deadwood Dick." While you may have heard of someone named Deadwood Dick, but not someone named Nat Love, because cowboys like Love have been written out of the history of the west--because Love was a former slave, and African American.


Mary Harris was born near Cork Ireland, probably around August 1, 1837--although she claimed a birthdate of May 1, 1830. Mary immigrated to Canada with her family when she was about 14 or 15 years old, and finished her education in Toronto. After graduating from school, Harris obtained a job teaching at a Roman Catholic convent in Monroe, Michigan, but left after several years, first to Chicago, and later to Memphis, Tennessee, where she married George Jones in 1861. Between 1862 and 1867, she and George Jones had four children together. After the end of the war, Memphis was the scene of a great deal of turmoil, with freed slaves and others moving into the city that could provide them neither with adequate housing or services. In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic swept through the city, killing hundreds--including George Jones and the four children, but sparing Mary. Bereft, Mary moved first back to Chicago, where she took up the dressmaking trade again, until she lost her shop and most of her possessions, in the Great Chicago Fire in 1872. By the late 1880 she had moved to Denver. After several years, her named dropped off the rolls of the city directory, which indicates that she probably fell on hard times; her enemies later in life claimed that she was a prostitute during these years, a charge she, not unexpectently, denied. Little is known about her life from this period until she emerged, just before the turn of the 19th century, as an organizer with the United Mine Workers known as Mother Jones.

Big Bill

William D. Haywood was a true son of the West, born in Salt Lake City in 1869 to a former Pony Express rider and his wife. Haywood's father died when he was just 3, however, and the family quickly fell into poverty. At the age of nine, after an accident with a knife left him blind in one eye, Haywood went to work in a nearby mine--work that would occupy much of his life into his early twenties. Deeply affected by the Haymarket Square riot and the subsequent trial of those accused of planning it; the Pullman Strike in 1893 also played a role in shaping Haywood's growing conviction that the United States government, as it was then constituted, favored the rich over the working class. In 1896, after hearing a speech by the Western Federation of Miners president Ed Boyce, Haywood joined the group, and began a rapid ascent up the ranks of the union, eventually becoming first vice-president. Haywood's conviction that government favored the interests of capital over workers was based upon his experience as a miner, when strikes were often put down without negotiations taking place by police and state militias. Haywood advocated violent resistance to such tactics, which made him a target for state action when followers seemed to take his advice. The most serious charge Haywood faced involved allegations that he was involved in the assassination of the former governor of Idaho. Haywood was arrested by Colorado authorities, and the put on a private train--essentially kidnapped--before an extradition hearing could be held, and taken to Idaho. Haywood's accuser, Harry Orchard, was so unseemly that the jury did not believe his story, and Heywood was acquitted. Haywood went on, in 1905, to help found the Industrial Workers of the World--the IWW.

Of the four brief biographies presented, only Haywood was a native of the region (and, more ironically, Haywood had his greatest successes as a labor leader in the East). The other three moved West to create new lives for themselves. Roosevelt and Jones moved West after suffering tremendous personal tragedies, and after some time in the wilderness, found their life's calling. Love later fell into one of the few careers open to a black man of his educational standing, working as a Pullman Porter. The only reason we know of his life as a real cowboy was that he published an autobiography in 1921, just before his death. The lives of these four people demonstrate that life in the West is much more complex than the myth would lead you to believe.

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