Family: The Connective Tissue of the American West

by Elliott West
Professor of History, University of Arkansas
Presented to the Montana Heritage Project
1998 Summer Institute
Mother Lode Theater, Butte



by Seamus Heaney

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening--
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up,
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

This seemed a good poem for today not only because Butte, Montana is a place to salute a beautiful Irish voice, but Heaney is also raising a question we all wrestle with. He is contrasting our American restlessness with his Irish rootedness. In a later essay, Heaney remembered that he wrote "Bogland" after several days of reading about the American frontier and the powerful hold it has on us. We're always looking toward the horizon, forever wanting to light out for the territories. But when we do that, we tend to lose sight of our past. That's part of what we're trying to do, of course: make a fresh start, break away from our beginnings. But by turning our back on where we have come from, it's hard to know who we are. Heaney stays in one place and pays attention to what is there, literally under his feet. He pioneers downward, as he puts it, into his deep past: the bones of great extinct creatures, the food of his ancestors. He stays home and roots himself in a history that is, to use his word, bottomless.

Heaney is raising the question of connection. Most of us here today are history teachers. That means we are all in the connecting business. We try to show our students how today is connected to yesterday, "now" to "back then." We work with a particular time and place (say, Puritan New England or the antebellum South). We try to show how its many parts were connected to each other, and then how those connections grew into the intricate mesh of our own day. This is important business. As far as we know, we are the only animal that does this. Only people can remember beyond their own generation. When we help our students learn how to connect, we're engaging in a profound human enterprise.

But it's not easy. For one thing, as you might have noticed, our popular culture today (of MTV, of instant celebrity and instant obscurity, of "image is everything," of public figures competing vigorously in thumbing their noses at tradition) does not place a whole lot of value on relating to the past. None of us escapes this nasty influence. I'm an historian, but I have to admit that even I don't really want to know where Dennis Rodman came from. Beyond that, there's a special problem for all of us interested in western history. As Seamus Heaney points out, the West seems to be all about breaking connections. When people are always leaving, always starting over, or trying to, they work against the very things we need to reconstruct the past. To put it another way, as historians we are trying to put a story back together. But when we start to tell that story, as western historians, we see it's all about people trying to break the story apart.

The trick is to find something that can help to tie things back together. It would also help if students could identify with whatever tool that turns out to be. As you might guess from the topic of this talk, I think that something--that tool--is family. Through families we can dig down, like Seamus Heaney, and find and connect the parts of our past. We've got butter in our bogs. We just need to practice how to look for it.

Here's one way to use families as entry into western history: find a prominent one and follow its lines, just as we trace our own tree of strange relations. I'll give you one example that I've found very useful in my own teaching: the remarkable Bent family of St. Louis. Silas and Martha Bent, prominent in the city's society and politics, produced eleven children. Some stayed put, but several headed elsewhere, including two older males, Charles and William. In the late 1820's they became trappers in the southern Rockies. While there they met and befriended a prominent Cheyenne, Yellow Wolf, who suggested they establish a trading outpost along the Arkansas River.

The result, Bent's Fort, near present day LaJunta, Colorado, became the economic pivot of the central Great Plains. It induced several Cheyenne bands to settle permanently in that area, creating the modern division of Southern and Northern Cheyenne. Bent's Fort also sat along the Santa Fe trail, and soon the brothers were established among the Hispanic elite of New Mexico. Charles lived in Sante Fe and married into the powerful Jamarillo family. He was Kit Carson's brother-in-law. William stayed at the fort and married Owl Woman, sister of Grey Thunder, who held the Cheyenne' most revered position of Keeper of the Arrows. Through their marriages Charles and William Bent became the cultural bridges between the expanding white society from the east and the Native American and Hispanic cultures of the West. The lives, actions, loves and rivalries of these two brothers shine into virtually every corner of the West at this crucial and complex place and time.

The men pushed forward the broader changes outlined in our textbooks. William was Indian agent as well as the chief economic force on the plains. Charles, as the most prominent Anglo in the southwest, negotiated the peaceful surrender of New Mexico at the start of the Mexican War and was named the territory's first governor. And with all this, they were caught up in the West's tragedies. Once again, it's best shown through the family. The new regime did not sit well with many in New Mexico, and when the Taos Indians rebelled in 1847, they killed Charles and scalped him with a bowstring.

William's fate was to watch his Cheyenne kinsmen as their world rapidly unraveled, destroyed by the changes that he, more than any individual, had promoted. He had several children by Owl Woman and his second wife, her sister Yellow Woman: Mary Bent married a prominent local rancher. William's sons moved back and forth between white and native cultures. When John Chivington led his militia into the infamous Sand Creek massacre, he found his way there by forcing Robert Bent to be his guide. Waiting at the village were Charlie and George Bent. Both survived to lash back at their white kin over the next few years. Charlie tried to kill his father, and came close. He became the most feared raider of his generation (and was in part the model for Larry McMurtry in creating the terrifying mixed-blood killer, Blue Duck, in Lonesome Dove). George eventually came into the reservation and in time, through roughly a thousand letters reconstructing his memories, became our finest source for recreating the history of this part of the West through native eyes.

One family--two brothers, their wives and in-laws and lives and offspring--leads us through the essential public events in forty years of the western past. They are telling us that in history, as in nature, everything finally is tied to everything else: whites and Hispanics and Indians, trappers and diplomats, the success of fabulous ambitions and the heartbreaking vulnerability of the most powerful men and women. And as important as anything else, the Bents take us, as only personal stories can, into the emotional world of people long dead, the elusive intimate inner histories that our students almost never hear or read about. That part of history engages us as nothing else can. Students are hungry for it, and through families like the Bents we can help to feed them.

The Bent family has another lesson for us: Never stop with the obvious. The more you probe for connections, the more you are likely to find. Many of you probably have heard something about Charles and William Bent. They were movers and shakers who helped create a West that the next generation would start to turn into a colorful mass dream, the West of the imagination. The Bent family had a hand in this, too. William and Charles's sister, Lucy, stayed home and married a St. Louis businessman, James Russell. She named their son for her beloved older brother and her father: Charles Silas Russell. He too remained in St. Louis and married. When he and his wife produced a son in 1865, they kept the Charles and added a name from the wife's family: Marion. Charles Marion Russell: Charlie Russell, who took off for Montana to become this state's most revered artist. So the Bent lineage connects the West of economic and political power to the West of art and the making of its myths.

And it goes on. The farther we look, the deeper this family takes us. Maybe Charlie Russell's most famous drawing is a starving, slat-ribbed cow waiting for death in a blizzard during the terrible winter of 1886-87: "Waiting for a Chinook," or "The Last of the 5,000." It's a vivid reminder of the erratic, often vicious weather in the interior West.

Environmental historians love this drawing because it drives home something we must teach our students about the West. Living here in the western heartland is, and always will be, a crapshoot. The reason has to do with how and where the West sits in the world. We're the middle of a great continent, and geography has decreed that we will have a volatile, highly unpredictable climate. Even worse than storms blowing up out of nowhere is the problem of rainfall, or lack of it. We can never count on much rain, and what we do get will vary wildly from year to year. This is a central message from today's historians to our classes: Our climate sets rigid limits around the edges of our hopes. This is a fact of life. Learn to live with it, or you'll end up like Charlie Russell's cow.

So what we have here is a kind of family dialogue we can use to show different views of the West and our deepening understanding of it. Charlie Russell is talking back to his great uncles. Charles and William Bent were part of that generation that walked into the West with those long John Wayne strides, utterly and absolutely sure that they could make it into what they dreamed. That included ranchland. The first commercial stock raising in the Arkansas valley, maybe the earliest ranching on the entire plains, was at Bent's Fort, where William pastured cattle to drive to market. It turned out that plains ranching, to put it mildly, was not a sure thing. Charlie Russell was one of thousands who learned that lesson. His drawing fifty years later might have warned William--as it still warns all of us--about the chanciness of trying to make a living in our part of the world.

But in fact we don't need to wait for Charlie to paint us a picture. Let's put a little farther into this amazing family. Back yourself down Charlie Russell's branch of the Bent family tree, slide down this main trunk, closer to the base, and take another branch. It's the last one that leads from Silas and Martha, but it's one of the most fascinating. And oddly, it's one that western historians seem almost never to have crawled out on.

The youngest of the eleven Bents was Silas, born in 1820 and named for his father. He was only a boy when Charles and William left on their great adventure, and when it was his turn, he turned away from the continent's interior to the sea. He did, however, head west--so far west that it was the East. As a young naval lieutenant he accompanied Matthew Perry in the 1850's on that famous voyage to Japan. There Silas established his reputation as one of the greatest hydrographers of that era. He studied and mapped the oceanic movements of the western Pacific. He was the first outsider to map the prime force of the region, the Japanese Current, which he called, with a fine sense of drama, the "Black Tide."

This alone made him important enough, but Silas was far from finished. He helped map Pacific currents north of the equator, then resigned his commission, returned home and thought about what he had seen. In 1869, the year William died, he made an astonishing and controversial claim. Throughout the world, he said, ocean currents, those powerful rivers within the sea, not only influence the oceans they flow through. They also play a key role in shaping the climate of the continents that surround them. The weather in, say Butte, Montana depends partly on where and how the water swings and surges around the Pacific rim. To most authorities of the day, this was outrageous, and Silas Bent triggered a ferocious mudslinging debate.

We know today, of course, that he was right. The course and timing of ocean rivers are all bound up with atmospheric streams, those powerful currents of air running through the heavens, and all this combines with continental land forms and much more to determine the climate across the planet. Specifically, conditions on the Great Plains, where another Bent had tried to raise cattle, are governed by fronts that roll out of the Pacific northwest, fronts that are made in part by the meanderings of Silas Bent's ocean rivers. Those fronts roll up and over the Cascades and Rockies. They dump their moisture generously in places like Butte. By the time they blow down the plains, toward Bozeman and Billings, they are a sponge wrung dry. They don't bring water; they actually sop it up from the soil.

Silas Bent was telling us something our students need to know. Life here (and everywhere) is lived inside a weather machine that sets boundaries around what we do. It muscles us around. This past year has been the most dramatic demonstration I can think of. When one of those ocean currents shifts a little, or arrives early, the results ripple outward. The weather changes thousands of miles away. Millions of people feel the bump. [Note El Nino.] The scientist who first developed this connection among streams of water and air, and climate, and human dreams and foolishness was Charles and William Bent's baby brother, Owl Woman's and Ignatia Jamarillo's brother-in-law, the uncle of the scary plains raider Charlie Bent, Charlie Russell's great uncle.

But was Silas through? Not yet. In the 1880's he turned to--what else?--ranching in the Arkansas valley near where William had made his mark. In 1885 he went back to St. Louis to address a national cattleman's convention. He spoke some hard truths. Drawing on what he had learned half a world away in Japan, applying it to what he had seen on the plains, he explained that ranching and farming in the interior West would always require a sense of humor. Nature said so. Sure, he said, we fiddle with adjustments. The present land system, for instance, with its piddling homestead units of 160 acres, made no sense at all. Silas told the government to wake up and smell the sagebrush and give more land to people like himself trying to make it in the land of little rain.

But beyond this tinkering, he said, what could you do? You can hope to change this weather machine. But as he might have put it today, you can also try to hope your pocket calculator into a vacuum cleaner. One wish will be about as useful as the other. Here we are, he was saying. Accept the facts, or you'll step into a mess of trouble.

The next year showed that Silas was terribly, painfully right. In the fall of 1886 plains cattle were thin from trying to feed on over grazed land withered by two blistering dry summers. Then the jet stream changed course, probably nudged by shifting Pacific currents. A series of terrifying northers bellowed down out of the arctic. Cowboys as far south as Texas sat inside and listened to the wish and said, "Ain't nothin between here and the North Pole but a bob-wahr fence--and it's down." And up in Montana the cattle froze where they stood. The Black Tide and the rivers of air were having their way, and Silas Bent's great nephew pulled out his brushes, and sketched the consequences on a card, and sent it to his boss.

Think for a moment about how much of the West our students can stitch together by following this one family's bloodlines--how many cultures they can touch and angles of vision they can see, what a fine conversation they might make among what seems at first and second glance such a mishmash of experience.

The Bents, of course, were extraordinary. Surely, you might think, there aren't that many families our students can use to reach back and link together this part of the past and that. But I'm not so sure. In fact, I'll go farther. I will bet that if you ask your classes to take and trace the most ordinary family, maybe the one next door, the chances are pretty good of tying some things together and learning plenty by doing it.

Here's one example I recently put together. The western anchor point in this case--the Charles or William Bent of this family--was John W. (Jack) Swilling. He was born in South Carolina in 1831 and moved to northwest Georgia in 1833, in time to see the Cherokees rounded up and herded west. He lied about his age and enlisted as a bugler in the Mexican War at sixteen, ending up afterwards in Missouri, where he got his skull cracked in a bar fight and acquired a lifelong addiction to morphine. He went from there to Texas, where he drove an overland stage, and fought briefly for the South in New Mexico but defected to the union.

Swilling scouted for the army, and was a key figure in the betrayal and capture, under a flag of truce, of the greatest war leader of the eastern Apaches, Mangus Coloradus (Red Sleeves). The night of his capture Mangus was goaded into a fight and murdered. He was decapitated and his skull, which held a brain as large as Daniel Webster's, was boiled clean for study. This murder precipitated another generation of bloody war by new leaders, including He Who Yawns (or Yawner), known to whites as Jerome (or in Spanish, Geronimo). In the late 1860's Jack Swilling helped found a town on Arizona's Salt River alongside the gouges of irrigation canals dug by the Hohokam people more than 1500 years earlier. He knew his mythology, and in the spirit of renewal of that long-vanished culture he suggested naming the town for the legendary bird that rose from its own ashes: Phoenix.

Jack Swilling married a Mexican woman and adopted an Apache boy, Chicken Hawk. He engaged in gold mining and other speculations, but finally got his comeuppance. When deep in his cups Jack was fond of inventing all sorts of boasts, and one day a barroom claim that he had robbed a stage just happened to overlap with an actual event. He was arrested and tossed into Yuma prison, where he died, perhaps of heat stroke, maybe murdered, or from drug withdrawal, or maybe just worn out and disgusted with himself. He was forty-seven.

This looks like one more case of someone breaking his bond with the past, one more western isolate in a swirl of disconnected events. But go back and follow the lines. Back in Georgia, Swilling's sister married a man named Johnson. Their daughter Virginia came west to marry William Matchett, born in the now-vanished capital of the former Texas Republic, Washington-on-the-Brazos. The Matchetts dabbled for a time in cattle speculation in the west Texas town of San Angelo, where their daughter, also Virginia, fell in love with "the ugliest man I ever saw," Houston Page, a sweet-natured, dark, small-handed Mississippian sent to the desert by his family in a try to cure his dissolute habits. They married, and their daughter, Elizabeth (Betsy), was born in a north Texas oil boomtown a scandalous seven months later, square in the middle of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Thinking she was stillborn, the doctor set her aside to work on his fevered patients (by one version it was on a pile of bricks) until someone noticed her squalling.

The Pages later moved to Dallas. One day Betsy, eighteen, was settled on a train pulling out of the city's main station when she saw a tall young man sprint along beside the moving car, grab on at the last moment, swing aboard, and walk down the aisle toward her with a cocky smile, whistling "Time On My Hands." "That man's a fool," she thought, but he sat down beside her and, of course, they got married. He was Dick West, a newspaperman who had grown up in Cisco, in west Texas, a dusty town where Conrad Hilton had opened his first hotel. Dick would go on to be the youngest editorial director in the history of the venerable, enormously powerful, arch-conservative Dallas Morning News. Dick and Besty's second son was born on April 19, 1945, the very day Franklin Roosevelt was buried. That child grew up to be: Me.

There's a lot of history to learn by listening to your family. Reach back. Hang your hook on somebody who makes you look twice. Follow the line between the two of you. Look at what you pass along the way. In the rough genealogy I've just laid down, from great-great-great uncle Jack Swilling to me, there's the Cherokee crisis, Mexican War, Missouri frontier, stage-driving, Indian wars, town-making (and town-naming), ancient desert irrigators, the Texas revolution, the rise and spread of the cattle industry and the oil boom, a global epidemic, entrepreneurs of the service industry (and through my father) lots of talk about recent politics. It's a rich, steady flow from then to now. One of the most irritating things about the way western history has been written and taught has been the tendency to concentrate on the frontier era of the last century, to see western history stopping around 1900. But that boundary dissolves when we see the West through parents and children, uncles and nieces. Families are by nature seamless, and so is good history. My lineage has plenty of bumps and sharp turns, but all of it, the best and the worst, runs unbroken from Jack Swilling and his adopted Apache boy and the murder of Mangas Coloradus, to Dick West and his middle boy, who sat together in Dallas at Market Hall on November 22, 1963, at a luncheon table, waiting for a president who never showed up.

Most of what I know about my family comes from stories. These are often twisted, of course, but they pull me into the past as nothing else does. It's not that the stories finally all lead to me, but rather that they run the other way. Family stories give us a sense of engagement. They place us into a weave, and once we're in, we never really come out. The fact that what I'm pulled into is also my craft and my job is a very nice bonus, but this magic is not only for historians. Or rather, I believe that we need these stories because we're all historians. This connectedness is essential, not to being a scholar, but to being human. And following our own families is a powerful way of getting connected.

Our students can find their way back, too. Stories help, but luckily we've got other ways. As a last suggestion, I think we should all ask our students to keep their eyes open for family letters, diaries, reminiscences, and all the other documents and artifacts that root us more directly into history. There is something about holding a letter or an axe written or swung by someone you know a little about--something about the tactile moment that speaks powerfully against the lie so much in the air today: that we have nothing to do with what happened before us, or it with us.

These physical links to our past are not just in archives. They turn out to be all over the place. Sometimes I get the impression that it's hard to get out of bed in the morning without stubbing your toe on some diary or clutch of letters. It's as if there are all these voice out there--thoughtful, pompous, funny, brave, cruel, eloquent, all of them talking at once, gabbling at us, only waiting for us to climb into an attic or open a shoebox and suddenly hear them.

And when we and our students listen, what do they tell us? The most common thread running through it, I think, is family. These voices are the strongest testimony of how family has always been the shaping force in most of our lives. I'm not saying the news is always good. The letters of homesteaders often are depressing litanies of disaster and deprivation. Babies die, crops fail and families go hungry. Some letters testify especially that the homesteaders' West could be a terrible trap for women caught there with few or no options.

But it's not all so grim. In the deeply weird family connections department, I recently ran across what must be one of the all time champions. The third son of Charles Dickens, Francis (Frank) Dickens, ended up as an inspector in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, on the far western plains. He served mostly at Fort McLeod, from 1874-86. It's true that he wasn't much of a Mountie. A commentator writes that his career "was marked by recklessness, laziness and heavy drinking...Dickens can be blamed for worsening relations [with] Blackfeet and for the growing antipathy of the officer cadre toward Englishmen." Whatever his failings, however, he clearly inherited some of his father's talent, and his letters are prime entertainment and a wonderful, if jaundiced, look at the Canadian West.

There are more connections. He met several famous characters, including Liver Eating Johnson and Louis Riel. He commented on local drinking habits and preserved for us the recipe for a drink called "The Paralyzer." He found and adopted a dog, which he gave his father's famous pen name, Boz. He described Indian life and gives his side of the central role he played in a troublesome incident with the Blackfeet. It's an elaborate story that I won't go into, except to say that it involved a very large Christmas tree and a severed gangrenous leg. Like many others, he was disturbed by the steady disappearance of the plains bison. He tried to keep a count of the nearby herds, and he saw that Indians as well as whites were to blame for overkilling. Unlike other critics, however, Dickens was not one to sit around and complain. No, he had an answer to how to stop the great buffalo slaughter: Hindus. He had spent time in India and knew firsthand the reverence of Hindus toward all things bovine. Stop with the Presbyterians and Anglicans, he said. The government should allow only Hindu missionaries to the plains tribes.

This is as good a note as any to end an argument for using family as a kind of connective tissue in western history. What else is there that can link together me and Mangas Coloradus, Charlie Russell and El Nino, Charles Dickens and Dudley Doright. Families intertwine the chaotic details of every past time and bind them with the present and with us. For those of us interested in how societies have worked, families have always been the center of ordinary human lives. Their greatest power is to implicate you and me in the emotional world of real people who have come and gone, people we will join soon enough.


by Ben Saenz

Broken, Incan roads. The stones laid perfect
on mountains of snow so stubborn
not even blazing suns could beat it into water.
But the Incans could tame such mountains. With a fire
of their own, they knew how to melt that ice.
Stone by stone, step by step, the ancients
walked the highest paths of earth. Stones,
tight knots that tied the world together. Roads, higheró
now stones are buried deep like bones
of Incan lords. I walked there barefoot
on cold stones. Those roads were perfect once again
until I woke. Those roads, like Incan hands
who built them, refuse to lie still
in the ground. They loosen the wasted land.

My mother lost him young, her older brother. She gave
my brother his name "because the moment he was born
his name rose to my lips." Ricardo, "A friend
took a stone, and broke his skull wide openó
and broke my mother's heart." She walks with him
on a path they took to school. There, in the sun, he laughs
until she wakes. Been forty years,
and grief is glued to her. Anger rises
in her voice: "But here," she grabs his picture,
"Here he is perfect. Here he is not broken."

The beer I drink is good tonight,
almost sweet, but cold. The dead are close.
Calm, I sit, touch the photographs of those
I walked with. Grandparents, uncles, not one
generation was spared. A brother. A niece.
In the country of their final exile
their legs will not cross the border.
Their feet will not touch my earth again
but tonight I hear their steps. I swallow,
must finish the beer I have started. Take this
all of you and drink. This is my blood. Tired,
I drink from the cup, take the cold, within me now,
and wrap myself in the faces of the dead:
stones which form a path where I walk still.

The Mimbres buried their dead beneath their homes.
At night, softly, the buried
rose, re-entered the rooms of the living
as blankets woven with the heavy threads of memory,
blankets on which the Mimbres rested,
on which they slept, and dreamed.

Ben Saenz's poem is a kind of answer to Seamus Heaney's, a reply to the Irish bogland from the desert West. We are not as disconnected as you might think, he is saying. The images here are also of the earth, and of persistence and cohesion: hidden stones that knot together the world, paths and roads linking places across the land, today's memory (much of it painful) of yesterday, things woven and bound in union, and above all the common blood of family, the dead dreamed alive. Saenz looks downward, like Heaney, and finds his connections: uncles, nieces, mother, the spirits beneath the floor.

I think he is telling us that all of us sleep with ghosts. When we invite them into our own day, we learn about the world they knew, and how it grew into ours. But we do something more. We resurrect our humanness. It's an exercise we and our students should practice and do as well as we can.


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