January 2012

Review: Centennial Campaign: The Sioux War of 1876

A look at the classic work by John Stephens Gray

There are books about the Little Big Horn campaign … and then there are books about the Little Big Horn campaign.  This one –by the late John Stephens Gray- falls into the latter category.

The centennial year of 1876 dawned with another showdown between the Democrats and the Republicans over the White House, scandals in the Grant administration, a Centennial exhibition to be held in Philadelphia celebrating the first 100 years of the United States of America … and trouble swirling around a certain piece of land supposedly granted the Indians forever by the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868: Paha Sapa, the Black Hills.
The trouble was that gold had been found, and the US Army had been unable (or unwilling) to stem the tide of gold prospectors flooding into the sacred lands.   The offer to buy the Black Hills from the tribes was rejected, the US Government did some fancy paperwork that declared “hostile” all Indians not on the reservation by a certain date… and created yet another war; this war.   One destined to witness the violent end of one of America’s most famous soldiers: George Armstrong Custer.

Gray divides the book into two sections: a narrative and one devoted to facets of the campaign such as the medical service and just how many Indians were “off the reservation” in actuality.   All done in an even-handed, clear-eyed manner that at the same time mercifully does not blindly follow what Gray calls “The reams of melodramatic and partisan verbiage …” written about the Little Big Horn.  In fact, Gray found the very obsession over Custer’s fate at the Little Big Horn to be something of an obstacle: “Like the bicycle rider who concentrates so hard on avoiding an obstacle that he inevitably runs into it, I found that Custer battle constantly in my road.  So I tried to read around it in order to learn what happened before and after.”  He notes in his introduction.

Happily enough, as this book demonstrates, Gray found out just what happened before and after the Little Big Horn.  At the same time the book is a double-miracle in that Gray does not subscribe to the “Custer the Villain” approach so many partisan or sensation-seeking writers have done over the years, nor does he go out of his way to pander to the “Custer the Saint” crowd; here we see a view of “Custer the human being” when Gray must devote time to G.A.C.’s role in the trumped-up war that cost him –and many a family member and friend- his life.

Book Review: The Gunfighters

A look at a glorious gem from Time Life books





A leather-bound book sat on the shelf in the basement of my grandparent’s home in Darien, Illinois, just waiting for a kid crazy about the Wild West to open its pages.  Years later, it also wound up on the shelf at my old childhood home in Minnetonka, Minnesota.  

In both places the kid crazy about the Wild West opened its pages to read, read, and read some more.

The kid in question: me.  The book: The Gunfighters, one of a series of Time Life books about the Old West.

Review: Legends And Lies

Dale Walker's take on "Great mysteries of the American West"


When I got stuck in a hotel in Savage, Minnesota, ten years ago about the only fun I had was hiking up to the Savage Public Library and browsing through books.   I soon found this one, and proceeded to devour certain chapters over and over each time I hiked up and in through the libraries doors.

Walker has a delightful way of “setting the stage” for the Old West “legends and lies” under his microscope, such as how he sets up his discussion of the alleged “survival” of Jesse James in his chapter entitled The Man Who Would Be Jesse James: J. Frank Dalton Vs. DNA:

On July 18, 1995, a backhoe punched through the grass on Jesse James’ grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri.  For three days a team of forensic experts shaped, troweled,  and brushed their way to the disintegrated wooden coffin and picked among the pieces of skull, miscellaneous other bones, teeth, cloth, and bullet fragments.