Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Blackfoot Attorney and Idaho Supreme Court Justice William Lee [otd 12/11]

The Honorable William A. Lee, Idaho state Senator and Supreme Court Justice, was born December 11, 1859 in the extreme southeast corner of Nebraska. He was only four years old when his father was killed in the Civil War. William graduated from Washington University (St. Louis) with his LL.B. degree in 1885, and established a practice in Nebraska.

In 1892, Lee came west and opened a law office in Ogden, Utah. Five years later, he moved his practice to Salt Lake City. There, he helped write a major revision of the Utah legal code and served four years as Assistant Attorney General.

Meanwhile, in 1896, the American Falls Canal & Power Company retained Lee as an attorney. He became their General Counsel in 1904. Although based in Utah, the company sought to develop irrigation projects in Idaho. They planned for systems along the Snake River from above Blackfoot to below American Falls.

Lee came to Idaho in 1911 to represent the Company, but soon resigned that position to open a practice in Blackfoot. Unfortunately, tragedy struck soon after he arrived there. A son died from what was ruled an accidental gunshot to the head. The Idaho Register reported (June 4, 1912), “The revolver, a 38-calibre, had been borrowed by the boy who left his own gun, a 22-calibre, at home. Five chambers of the revolver had been emptied.”

From his offices in Blackfoot, William handled cases at all levels of the state courts, at federal circuit and district courts, and even the U. S. Supreme Court. He was a member of the American Bar Association, and served as vice president of the Idaho State Bar Association

In 1918, in his first try for public office, voters elected him to the state Senate by “a comfortable majority.” In that body, he served as a member of several committees, including the Judiciary Committee. He also Chaired the Committee on Code and Law Revision.

The Hawley biography for William Lee said that he traced his lineage back to the Lees of Westmoreland County, Virginia. (The Westmoreland Lees played a prominent role in the Revolutionary War, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee was born in the county).
U.S. destroyer laying smoke, 1918. National Archives.

Perhaps because of those roots, he had a strong interest in military history. One of William’s sons graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy and served on a destroyer during World War I. Naturally, the father followed the war news closely, and studied analytical reports after the war.

In 1920, the Idaho ballot included a Constitutional amendment to expand the state Supreme Court from three to five members. The measure enjoyed considerable support, so voters were also asked to select from a slate of candidates to fill the new positions. The amendment passed handily, and William A. Lee was one of the Justices elected at that time. He had ascended to the position of Chief Justice when he died in September 1926.
                                                                                 
References: [Hawley]
Carl F. Bianchi (Ed.), Justice for the times: A Centennial History of the Idaho State Courts, Idaho Law Foundation, Boise (1990).
“Idaho State Supreme Court Justices, 1890-1993,” Reference Series No. 347, Idaho State Historical Society (1993).

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Special Fun at the Barnes & Noble Book Signing

The book signing on Saturday (Dec 1) at the Barnes & Noble store went very well. I did not sell a ton of books, but at least more than last time. Of course, this time I had both books to offer. I was somewhat surprised to sell about the same number of each. I rather assumed that few copies of Boise River Gold County would move, since it has nothing about this side of the state. But then, I suppose the mention of "Gold!" helped.
Chuckwagon at Work.

As you might expect, with the holiday buying season in full swing, there was much more traffic through the store. Although books on Idaho history are not high on many Christmas lists, several people stopped by the talk.

I did sell one book when the conversation turned to where the visitor was from. He had driven in from an area about sixty miles to the northwest of Idaho Falls. When he heard that Before the Spud included the cattle history of where he lived, he bought a book.

But the best fun happened toward the end of the afternoon. In the last chapter of Before the Spud, I write about the “Idaho Century Farms and Ranches.” This is a list kept by the Idaho State Historical Society based on properties that have been “owned and operated in Idaho by the same family for at least 100 years, with 40 acres of the original parcel of land maintained as part of the present holding.”

In reality, some of these holdings go back almost a century and a half – a testament to how well these families have been stewards of their land. Shortly before I decided to call it a day, a couple dropped by to talk about the book. I’m pretty sure they planned to buy one anyway. However, it became a definite sale when we determined that one of them was descended from a century ranch pioneer specifically mentioned in the book. (I won’t say more, to protect their privacy.) For a writer of history, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Signing at Idaho Falls Barnes & Noble

This coming Saturday, December 1, I will be available at the Barnes & Noble bookstore located in the Grand Teton Mall (2300 East 17th Street, Idaho Falls, Idaho). Be glad to talk about either of my recently-published books – Before the Spud and Boise River Gold Country – and sign copies for people who buy them. The event is schedule to begin at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and will likely run to 4:00 or 5:00. The store announcement also links to other events that will be at the store that day.

Before the Spud: Indians, Buckaroos, and Sheepherders in Pioneer Idaho outlines the history of Idaho stock raising. It spans the century that followed the 1805 meeting between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the horse-owning Lemhi Shoshone and Nez Percés Indians ... the “first stockmen of Idaho.” The Indians remained Idaho’s only stockmen until mid-century, when white traders, missionaries, and Oregon Trail emigrants brought cattle into the region.

However, gold discoveries after 1860 brought tens of thousands of prospectors into the region. Supply trains, and droves of cattle to provide meat for the hungry miners followed hard on their heels. That influx led to the creation of Idaho Territory, in March 1863. Stock raising blossomed, and after about 1875, Idaho stockman began driving surplus animals to railway shipping points in Wyoming and Nebraska.

Over the years, Idaho and neighboring regions to the south saw the emergence of the “buckaroo,” a herder whose equipment, dress, and techniques were more akin to the Spanish vaqueros than to the cowboys of Texas and the Southwest. They’ve remained a distinctive feature of Western stock raising ever since.

Shortly before World War I, stock raising and dairy overtook mining as the leading income sector of Idaho’s economy. Before the Spud tells the stories of the Indians, buckaroos, and sheepmen who helped make that happen. For more information, or to order, visit the Createspace “storefront” for this book. You can also visit my blog item about the book, posted on October 23, 2012. That item includes the Table of Contents.

Boise River Gold Country tells the story, in words and pictures, of the rush of miners and settlers into the mountainous regions drained by the Forks of the Boise River. The northern portion of that drainage, comprising a rough divided plain surround by high mountain, came to be called the Boise Basin. Prospectors first found gold in the Basin in August 1862. Within a year, the Boise River region held over half the 32 thousand people enumerated in Idaho Territory.

After a few years, the solo prospector gave way to investors and speculators. Large scale mining continued another ninety years. In the end, miners would extract over $5 billion (at today’s prices) worth of gold out of the region. Later, logging crews
came to harvest the area’s vast pine forests. Today, recreation, small-scale logging, and specialized mining drive the local economy.

In text and vintage photos (over 200 of them), Boise River Gold Country tells the story of those early sourdoughs, investors, loggers, and more. Freighters, merchants, doctors, and others also came to build the settlements. Naturally, that brought in a “rough element” to prey on the honest folks. Some of their stories are here too.

For more information, or to order, visit the Createspace “storefront” for this book. The blog item for this book also shows the Table of Contents.

But, best of call, come by the store on Saturday, buy a book, and let me sign it right then.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Indians, Buckaroos (Cowboys), and Sheepherders in Pioneer Idaho: New Book Published

Say "Idaho" to most people, even Idahoans, and they think "potato." Fair enough, considering decades of relentless marketing. What many do not think of are "cowboys" and "cattle." Yet Idaho was, and is, as much a cowboy state as its more-recognized cattle-state neighbors in the Intermountain West.

My new book – Before the Spud: Indians, Buckaroos, and Sheepherders in Pioneer Idaho – seeks to correct that mis-perception. Published under the "Sourdough Publishing" imprint, the book is now available from a dedicated web site and also online from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Any B&N store can order you a copy, although they will not generally carry independently published books on their shelves. (Sigh.)

Before the Spud tells the story of how the Idaho stock raising industry developed. It begins with the "first stockmen of Idaho" – Shoshone and Nez Percés horse raisers – and carries forward to about 1910, followed by a brief survey of the state of affairs today.

Among the pioneer stories is that of French émigré Alexander Toponce. In the 1870's, he ran "as high as 10,000 head of cattle" on leased land at Fort Hall Indian Reservation. Toponce played many roles: freighter, stage line operator, mining investor, sheep raiser, and mayor of Corinne, Utah.
In 1888, George L. Shoup, in one routine transaction, sold a thousand cattle from his Salmon River ranches. Two years later, he became Idaho's first state governor and then one of its first two senators.
In 1897, a jury convicted hired cowboy-gunman "Diamondfield Jack" Davis of murdering two sheepmen south of Twin Falls. Although two other "respectable" cattlemen soon confessed to the killings, Davis twice came within hours of hanging and was not pardoned until 1902.

Table of Contents
Preface: Ground Rules
Chapter One: The First Stockmen of Idaho
Chapter Two: Fur Trade Era – Canadians Dominant
Chapter Three: Competition Heats Up
Chapter Four: Wagons Across Idaho
Chapter Five: Mining Makes a Territory
Chapter Six: Idaho Meat for Hungry Miners
Chapter Seven: Stock Raising Grows
Chapter Eight: Filling in the Gaps
Chapter Nine: The Last Stands
Chapter Ten: Cattle Drives Across and From Idaho
Chapter Eleven: Rails Across Idaho
Chapter Twelve: Livestock Boom
Chapter Thirteen: Nature Delivers a Lesson
Chapter Fourteen: Range Conflict Heats Up
Chapter Fifteen: A New Century
Afterword

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Edward Moffitt: Mining Manager, Hardware Store Operator, and University Regent [otd 8/22]

Wallace businessman Edward H. Moffitt was born August 22, 1845 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, now a part of Pittsburgh. Around 1858, the family moved to Illinois, where Edward grew to young manhood. In January 1864, he joined the Second Illinois Cavalry.
Union Cavalry Chasing Irregulars. Harper’s Weekly Illustration.

Far from the “glamor” of major battles, Edward’s regiment still saw almost continuous marching and much fighting, from northern Florida into western Texas. Long after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, they chased detached units of the Confederate Army and bands of irregulars. Edward mustered out at San Antonio in January, 1866, and returned home to Illinois.

Moffitt ran a grocery store for two years before heading west to try his hand in the gold fields. He prospected in the Dakotas and Utah, then spent over a decade in the Colorado mines. Then, in late 1879, Edward joined the rush into the lead-silver mines along the Wood River [blog, April 26].

In 1884, however, Moffitt decided the Coeur d’Alene mining districts had greater potential. He located first at Eagle City, on Prichard Creek, where he opened the camp’s first meat market and invested in various mining claims. However, within two years, he became associated with the new town of Murray, located about three miles to the southeast. (Eagle City soon became a ghost town.)

Then, in 1887, Edward recognized even greater potential in the mines around the new town of Wallace, and moved there. Moffitt remained heavily invested in mining properties, but it’s likely he also moved his meat market to Wallace.

At about this time, the consortium led by Amasa Campbell [blog April 6] began investing in Coeur d’Alene mines. Over the next few years, Edward joined several of their ventures. Thus, when the group acquired and re-organized the Coeur d’Alene Hardware Company, Moffitt became the firm’s Secretary-Treasurer. Campbell was Vice-President. An Illustrated History published in 1899 said, “They deal in mining and mill supplies and all kinds of general hardware and have one of the most extensive hardware stores in the west.”
Wallace, ca 1898. Illust-North.

As part of the Campbell consortium, Moffitt also owned shares in the Standard and Hecla mines. In 1899, he became General Manager for their properties throughout the Coeur d’Alene area. Two years later, his duties expanded in an unlikely way. After the timekeeper at the Standard Mine was shot and killed, Edward “gathered a posse and set put in pursuit, eventually capturing the fugitive.” (Convicted and sentenced to hang, the murderer got off with a life sentence upon appeal.)

For a time, Moffitt served as an officer of three or four mining companies, as well as a Director of the First National Bank of Wallace. In 1901, a report in the Idaho Statesman (July 20, 1901) identified him as a Delegate from Wallace to an International Mining Congress, held in Boise.

Moffit was an active member of the Masonic Lodge in Wallace, and served on the school board there for many years. In 1908, he was appointed as a Regent of the University of Idaho, becoming President of the Board in 1911. He retired from hands-on business and service activities a few years after that, and passed away in February 1920.
                                                                                                                                     
References: [Hawley], [Illust-North] [Illust-State]

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A. C. Gilbert: Connecting Idaho, the Olympics, Erector Sets, Model Trains, and More

Even in these days of “instant on, instant gone” news cycles, people are still talking and writing about the Olympics. So why not here? Specifically, about another Idaho connection to the Games. Coincidentally, the Olympic track & field events began on August 3rd – the same day I posted my blog on historic Idaho Olympian Clarence “Hec” Edmundson. Hec, of course, was born in Moscow and competed in several running events.
A.C. Gilbert, Champion Wrestler.
Autobiography.

That same day, Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen sent me a very kind note about the blog. He also pointed out another historic connection to the Olympics: Alfred Carlton “A.C.” Gilbert, who also started his Olympic journey in Moscow. I knew that Gilbert, the “Erector Set Man,” had spent some time in Idaho, but not about his athletic connection. Alfred was born in Salem, Oregon on February 15, 1884.

Although Alfred did well in school, he preferred physical activities, especially sports. The physical component of stage magic – sleight-of-hand – also attracted him to that hobby. He practiced diligently. In his autobiography, A.C. noted that he finally became good enough to “astound and delight my family and my friends.”

Albert’s father, Frank N. Gilbert, was a small-town banker. The family moved to Moscow in about 1892 or 1893, and lived there for a couple years before returning to Salem. About that time, the University of Idaho greeted its first students [blog, October 3].

A robust sports tradition began almost immediately at the University. Albert was naturally drawn to the athletic fields at the school, although he was rather young during the family’s first stay in Moscow.

Naturally, when they returned to Idaho around 1896, he jumped whole-heartedly into outdoor activities, and sports. Their favorite camping spot was Priest Lake, where, A.C. said, “My mother was the first white woman ever to go up to the head of the lake.”

He and his father also visited the Nez Percés Indian Reservation. There, his father bought him an Indian pony, purported to be “quite gentle.” A.C. tried to hide the fact that the pony was actually a wild bucking bronco, which threw him several times. His father eventually found out, and sent the animal back. Still, these and other experiences fed Albert’s life-long passion for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities.

Albert was now old enough to actually try to of emulate the athletes he saw on the fields at the University in Moscow. Although he pursued many different athletic endeavors, pole vaulting became his particular fascination: “I thought it was wonderful, soaring so high in the air just by using a pole.”
Gilbert Vaulting, 1908. Autobiography.

Still too young to take an active part at the school, Albert put together his own “Moscow Athletic Club.” Club members competed among themselves in various sports, and even initiated a boys’ Field Day in town.

They repeated the event the following year (1899) and, “The town officials, the schools and the university all got behind the Field Day, and it was a big success.”

That support was probably enhanced by the fact that his father had been appointed to the University Board of Regents (Idaho Statesman, Boise, April 28, 1899).

In the fall of 1900, Albert enrolled at the Tualatin Academy, the prep school associated with Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. The family moved to Portland shortly after that and neither Albert nor the family returned to Idaho, except for vacations and business trips.

A.C. excelled at several sports at Pacific University and, after 1904, at Yale University. But it was his ability as a pole vaulter that gave him international recognition: He set several world records in the vault and won a Gold Medal at the 1908 Olympics in London, England. He was the first, or among the first, to use a bamboo pole instead of a heavy, stiff wooden rod. He is also credited with inventing the pole vaulting box. For decades, he served as an advisor to the vaulting team at Yale University.

His later business career and many innovations are far beyond the scope of this blog: Magic kits, the famous Erector Set, model trains, chemistry sets, and other educational “toys” made him a millionaire many times over. For more, visit the A. C. Gilbert Heritage Society and A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Museum.
J. Russell School, ca 1902. University of Idaho Archives.

One wonders, as Historian Petersen has done, whether or not A.C. and Hec Edmundson knew each other. In the fall of 1896, when both families lived in Moscow, Albert would have been twelve years old, Hec ten. Both, therefore, would have attended J. Russell School, the only elementary school in town. Given their mutual interest in sports, it seems highly likely that they did meet. However, neither mentions the other in existing records, so we’ll never really know.
                                                                                                                                         
References:  [Illust-North]
Rafe Gibbs, Beacon for Mountain and Plain: Story of the University of Idaho, The Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho (© The Regents of the University of Idaho, 1962).
A.C. Gilbert with Marshall McClintock, The Man Who Lives in Paradise: The Autobiography of A. C. Gilbert, Rinehart Publishing, New York (1954).
Keith Petersen, “A. C. Gilbert: Millionaire with Moscow Roots,” Latah Legacy, Vol. 8, No. 3, Latah County Historical Society, Moscow, Idaho (Summer 1979).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Book Signing at Centerville Sesquicentennial ... and More

The first of our two Sesquicentennial booking signings [blog, Aug 27] went very well. The only slight downside was the weather – temperatures in the high 90s. Thus, because of that heat, my wife Caroline stayed around our hotel room with our dogs (Miniature Schnauzers).

Skip Myers and I first set up our table at the Centerville Fire Station and Community Center. Sales got off to a slow start, so I put up some signs and handed out brochures. Luckily, once people got the message, we had a steady stream come by.

The scheduled sesquicentennial program started a bit after noon, and included some remarks by Idaho’s Lieutenant Governor, Brad Little. After those “festivities,” we moved the table over to the new Interpretive Center. The Center is located in the building that once housed the New Centerville railway station.
Book Signing Setup at Interpretive Center
Fewer visitors came to the Center, but the organizers have made a good start on what could become a very nice period museum. For the day, we sold and signed a couple dozen copies of Boise River Gold Country, which we considered not bad.

Sunday Adventure
On Sunday, Caroline and I visited the Boise Basin together. After a stop in Idaho City, we drove to the Interpretative Center, and then on to view the Station where the Sesquicentennial had kicked off on Saturday. If anything, it was even hotter on Sunday, so we could not leave our dogs locked in the car for any longer hikes.
View from Near Grimes Pass
From there, we continued on the same road through Pioneerville. We intended to go all the way to Grimes Pass, where we could see the renovated George Grimes monument. However, we discovered that the turn onto the pass is rather tight, and we missed the small area where we might have parked. Before we quite knew it, we were headed downhill. We did get a good look from the top, but we rather assumed we could quickly go back up.

That, unfortunately, was not the case. Although we did find some slightly wider sections, there was no place where a car could safely turn around. In fact, most of the road (by far) was too narrow for two cars to pass. We did meet one motorcycle coming up, and that was not too bad.
Grimes Pass Road
By the time we passed the motorcycle, we had decided to go on down -- even if we had found a place where turning around was possible. Neither of us is particularly fond of narrow roads with big drop-offs, so we simply had no desire to go back up.
Road View. Note how close the road edge is (bottom) ... we're stopped right in the middle.
 Anyway, we’re not sure how long the white-knuckle descent took, but we finally made it. Luckily, we were down to a mostly wider stretch when we met a car coming up. We stopped to chat (and warn them), but the driver said he had been hunting the area for years ... and knew all about it. The road, by the way, drops over a thousand feet in a bit under 2 miles -- over a 10% grade.
Grimes Pass Road from Below
Heading out, we followed the Payette River, where we saw an almost uncountable number of people -- on rafts, kayaks, and inner tubes -- floating the rapids. Beautiful white water, but incredibly crowded. (Understandable, given the hot weather.)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Sesquicentennial Signings in the Boise Basin

In August 1862, George Grimes and Moses Splawn led a party of prospectors into the Boise Basin, 25-30 miles northeast of today’s Boise. They soon found gold at the spot that became Centerville, and set off a gold rush into the region. Before the year was out, numerous gold camps sprang up. Towns in the Basin are now set to celebrate the Sesquicentennial of that event.
Opening events will take place on the morning of Saturday, August 28th, in Centerville. For a look at the schedule, visit the Boise Basin Boosters web site

Book Signings
Skip and I plan to be at the opening events in Centerville to sign copies of Boise River Gold Country. Our book, of course, covers more that the 150 years of the history of that region. For more information and the Table of Contents, follow the link to my earlier post about the book.

We definitely plan to be in Centerville, at or near the Community Center, starting around 10:00 A.M. on the 28th. However, our overall arrangements are somewhat open-ended because – as some of you may know – Centerville does not have a lot in the way of business infrastructure.

Watch for our signs.

Also, if we have a lull, I will be wandering around handing out brochures about the book to those who might be interested.
Fixing Flat, Road into Idaho City, ca 1923.
Matters get a bit more complicated on the following Saturday, August 4th, for the closing ceremonies. We plan to spend a couple hours at Donna’s Place in Idaho City (200 Main Street), starting about 9:00 in the morning. We will then relocate to Donna’s Place in Placerville (110 East Granite) about 1 P.M. We will stay there, basically, as long as there are people who want to buy books and have them signed.

We are also trying to set up additional book signings during the week. If you’re interested, contact me through Sourdough Publishing: 208-524-3868 or e-mail Sourdough(at)earthlink.net

Sesquicentennial Events
The sesquicentennial celebration has a “plethora” (a bunch) of neat events: pancake breakfasts, aerial flyover, gold panning, music and dancing, living history re-enactments, carnival games, tours of historical sites, and more. (You can even listen to remarks by “legislative dignitaries,” if you so desire.) Driving and walking tours will continue throughout the week. We plan to be in and out all the time, and hope to see you there.

Monday, July 16, 2012

What Happened during the Night? Sorcery, Sewing, Sex, and More?

According to the latest research, nighttime in pre-industrial society was not just the haunt of criminals, astrologers, desperate commoners, or “things that go bump.” This essay was, in fact, inspired by a discussion in one of my Groups on the LinkIn forum. Thoughts there arose about time keeping, sundown and sunrise, and how all that impacted people’s behavior. That brought to mind the results of one of the most thorough studies of pre-industrial nighttime behavior, which are described in the book by A. Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.

One of his key findings had to do with what he calls “segmented sleep.” People slept differently when simple flames (fireplace, candle, or smoky lamp) were their only sources of artificial light. Depending upon the season, they generally went to bed no later than nine or ten o’clock. After roughly four hours of “first sleep,” they awoke. After an hour or two of wakefulness, they dropped into another four hours of “second sleep.” Ekirch focused mostly on accounts from Western Europe, with some emphasis on the British Isles ... and on the years before about 1750.

However, the professor also cites results obtained by modern sleep researcher Dr. Thomas Wehr. Wehr found that test subjects deprived of artificial light for several weeks reverted to a pattern of segmented sleep. Overall, Ekirch makes a strong case that awakening in the middle of the night was the norm in pre-industrial societies. That gives it some relevance to Americans pioneers living in the countryside away from cities, and on the Western frontier.

Ekirch found references to “first sleep” in translations of the Homeric epics, recorded almost three millennia ago. He also cites Plutarch’s Lives (written in roughly 50-80 AD). Although he did not give specific instances, I easily found several. In the “Life of Marcus Brutus” (he of Julius Caesar and the “Ides of March” infamy), Plutarch writes, “... after his first sleep, which he let himself take after his supper, he spent all the rest of the night in settling his most urgent affairs.”

People had good reason to fear the night -- criminals attacks, of course, plus accidents of many kinds, and “the unknown.” Even so, during those normal periods of wakefulness, they did not sink into paralysis. They studied the sky (for astronomical knowledge or “portents”), played games, went to a tavern or restaurant (whatever their equivalent), or visited their neighbors. According to Ekirch’s research, groups would gather with a shared light source (each contributing to the cost), to tell stories and/or engage in communal tasks such as sewing, mending, and so on.

It is significant, I think, that almost without exception, pagan religions had a deity to personify the Moon. We generally think of those deities as goddesses, but that’s largely our Greco-Roman bias. The early Greeks worshiped the moon goddess Selene, whose attributes are indistinguishable from those of the Roman goddess Luna. The Greco-Roman pantheon also included female deities for the dawn (Eos in Greek terminology, Aurora to the Romans). However, worldwide, societies seem about evenly split as to whether their moon deities were male or female.

Early stargazers went outside at night to do more than just bow down to their deities. They discovered that knowledge of those objects in the sky could warn them about momentous events: when the Nile River would rise, impending lunar eclipses, when to plant crops, and more. From there, they made a very natural progression: If we can predict an eclipse by studying celestial objects, surely we can foretell what might happen to a specific individual. Even as they do today, early astrologers -- most of whom sincerely believed in their art -- worded their prophecies with careful ambiguity.

When you understand the very real dangers, and the fears (rational and irrational) that preyed upon the ordinary people, you have to marvel at their determination. First of all, they faced the crucial problem of just getting around. Even with bright moonlight, night shadows play tricks on your vision. The feeble lanterns of the time would have only ruined your night vision, without casting enough light to walk confidently. According to a Smithsonian article, “People began as children to memorize their local terrain -- ditches, fences, cisterns, bogs.”

Naturally, night travelers could not avoid mishaps -- often injurious and sometimes fatal -- under these circumstances. They would stumble over newly-present obstacles, fall into forgotten pits, or walk off a rude bridge. Also, as Ekirch noted, “Accidents were especially common when alcohol was involved.”

Given those totally realistic fears, many people did stay home. They might then perform many mundane activities: relieve themselves, make sure the banked fire is okay, check the livestock, and perhaps have a smoke. Women might do some wash, prepare ingredients for the next day’s meals, and do some further mending.

Of course, those gaps during the night played a role in sex and procreation. Recall that most people in pre-industrial societies spent their days in brutally difficult physical labor -- men and women alike. They surely slept “like logs” during their periods of “first sleep.” Sex would have been the last thing on their minds. But ... refreshed by four hours of solid rest, that would surely change.

The medieval church knew all about segmented sleep -- they designed their nighttime prayer services to fit them. We tend to see monastic prayer sessions deep in the night as a sacrifice, an imposition on what we moderns consider “normal.” That was not at all the case. They were designed to fill those normal hours of wakefulness, and, not incidentally, steer the monks and nuns minds away from “sinful thoughts.”

Similarly, the night watches aboard early ships -- especially warships -- seem not quite so onerous when considered under these observations about sleep patterns in the absence of artificial light.

Of course, all that changed as artificial light -- gas lamps and then electric lights -- became more common.

It’s a shame that we have no comparable documentation on these matters from the frontier, or from Native American societies. Still, given the results from Wehr’s sleep research, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the same sort of nighttime activity patterns might have held there.

It is somewhat encouraging that Dr. Ekirch’s research is gaining more and more recognition, as in this recent article in the BBC News Magazine.
                                                                                
References: A. Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, W. W. Norton & Company (June 2005).
Michael Jordan, Encyclopedia of Gods, Facts on File, Inc. (1993).
Joyce and Richard Wolkomir, “When Bandogs Howle & spirits Walk,” Smithsonian Magazine (January 2001).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Conference Update and Book Signing Announcement


Promotion Alert! Yes, here I am “plugging” my book, Boise River Gold Country, again. (I do try not to overdo it.)

The next planned book signing will be this weekend – July 7 – at the Barnes & Nobles Booksellers store at the Grand Teton Mall here in Idaho Falls. The official signing will start at about 1:00 PM and, if there is sufficient interest, go until the store closes at 10:00. Those of you in the area, please come by. To refresh your memory about the book, visit my earlier blog about it.

Conference Brief
The book signing at the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference basically ... wasn’t. I “gave a signing and nobody came.” As predicted by the conference chair, only the most popular authors signed any books at all. Oh well, my fellow attendees expressed a lot of interest, so we may see a bump in online sales. (For some strange reason, people who face long airline flights – like to Atlanta or Boston – don’t want to load themselves down with heavy mementos.)
Downtown Jackson. Tourism photo.

The organizers revamped their schedule this year, starting earlier on Thursday and ending on Saturday evening. Eliminating the “rump” session, Sunday morning to noon, was probably not a bad thing. They still had plenty of excellent presenters, both for individual talks and for their panel discussions.

The “craft classes” were very good. Except for one (which will remain nameless), they could have gone on much longer and still have sustained our interest.

 One of the most interesting was “Going Digital.” The two presenters Lise MClendon and Jeremy Schmidt, first gave a passing nod to some of the exciting new forms that have become available for electronic publications. They then spent a good deal of time on digital publishing in terms of print on demand (POD) and electronic readers (Kindle™, et al). Lise is now re-issuing her “backlist” of books. These are earlier novels that her traditional publishers have declared “out of print.” Readers who discover her new novels and want to read the earlier ones – especially those with a series character – can now buy fresh copies rather than making do with a “Used” from Amazon.com.

In all the back and forth, I did not quite catch whether or not Jeremy is re-issuing his backlist yet, but he is certainly considering it seriously.

I do have to say the organizers might have tried to squeeze in perhaps too much, in a couple areas.

First, to fit in more “student readings,” they cut the time allotment from 4 minutes to 3. That worked fine for the poets, but made life difficult for the rest of us. And I’m not just saying this because I did not find out about the cut until just before the readings began. In several cases, readers had just got to the climactic part when they had to stop. Others seemed rather rushed. (Unless you have a lot of experience, or practice a lot, it’s hard to gauge how long a reading might take.) I had about decided not to use my time slot, but was able to prune it down while still keeping the best parts.

They also reduced the face-to-face time for the writing sample critiques to just 15 minutes. Even the critiquers (is that’s a word?) seemed frustrated by the tight time limit. If they stick with that length, I shall not be submitting in the future.

Overall, as usual, a great time to meet and chat with other writers.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is History Boring? If So (And Many People Think It Is), Why?

My participation in LinkedIn Groups continues to provide fodder for some very interesting blog topics. Another discussion that I joined recently is the "History Enthusiasts Group." One of their threads starts: "History 'is boring', says bestselling historical novelist."
Boring Lecture - Note the newspaper reader in the back.
Duke University Archives

Of course, the fact that "History Enthusiasts" are exploring such a topic is somewhat ironic. We're all essentially "preaching to the choir." But many people do consider history boring. Often, this is because they were required to take one or more history courses, and the instructor never managed to catch their interest. (And, unfortunately, some history teachers manage to actively turn off interest.)

To me, the basic ingredient that makes history, or any topic, not boring is the enthusiasm of the presenter. In fact, in my experience, that ingredient "trumps" about anything (except inadequate preparation).

As those of you who follow this blog know, my degrees are in chemistry, which I also love. (I wasn't so sure I could make a living with history as a major.) I had a full-time research job, but was also fortunate enough to teach college chemistry part time, from freshman through graduate level. I was certainly not the smartest professor my students ever had, or the slickest presenter, but I was not afraid to show my enthusiasm for the subject. I have quite a few kind notes from former students thanking me for what they learned. (I was even credited with a few promotions for my working adult students, which is surely "a stretch." Knowledge must be applied.)

Still, one Group participant commented that the teacher or presenter should also show some degree of "relevance" for the historical information. I agree. Enthusiasm "buys you time," but you must use that time to connect with your students, or your audience if it's some sort of public lecture. Fortunately, except for the most calcified intellects (which can happen at a sadly early age), people do generally like to learn new things. So you don't necessarily have to teach them something that will advance their career, improve their sex life, or whatever. (Although those would certainly help.)

They just need to be able to relate to the information. I once gave a talk on the history of technology to a group of scientist and engineers. I called it "Inflation, Gunpowder, and Freeze-Dried Potatoes." [Aside: Since I live in the state of Idaho, any reference to potatoes earns "bonus points."] Everyone in the room knew about dried potatoes ... but no one knew that the Incas of South America were freeze drying them as far back as 1,500 years ago. Instant connection, and an attentive audience.

I never taught pre-college classes, but I did give "guest lectures" and demonstrations to most of those grade levels. The break in routine and my introduction as a "real" scientist gave me an natural advantage ... to start with. But I had watched other guests lose a room, by (1) not connecting with the kids, whatever their age level, and (2) droning on like they'd rather be anywhere but talking to a bunch of children.

I always asked the teacher(s) what they were covering in class, and then tried to tailor my presentation to that. (Not always easy when other teachers heard I was in the building and asked me to add their class to my agenda.) Not claiming any special insight; it just seemed to make sense.

A pet peeve of mine is teaching science/technology as a disembodied collection of facts and "laws." (I understand the constraints on class time, but that does not change the frustration.) Anyway, I always tried to work in at least one or two quick scientific biographies, i.e. history. (Madame Curie was always a star, but surprisingly -- and sadly -- few had heard of Aldo Leopold, a star in the American environmental movement.)

The extra effort was worth it: No one is more eager to learn than youngsters who are treated with respect and a degree of affection. To see their faces light up when they "get it" is definitely a thrill for the presenter. (BTW: Not going to say I never lost a class, or an audience, but enthusiasm and relevance almost always "saved the day.")

This topic also cross-connects with the other Group I am in: "Historical Fiction." Well-written and properly researched historical fiction can be a very useful tool in "making history come alive" to students. However, the author must do his/her "homework" (research). Obviously, the writer must adhere to the known facts about historical events and people. Equally importantly (but much more difficult unless there is a personal memoir), the political and social forces driving the characters should be true to the period.
Basis for Hit Movie Gettysburg

"Technical" anachronisms -- artifacts used in a story before they were known to be invented -- are generally easy to spot. Earlier, I posted a blog about language anachronisms, which can be much harder to detect. I won't repeat that material here.

But what I'll call -- for want of a more precise term -- "societal" anachronisms are actually more pernicious.

An easy example: "Pensions," in the sense of financial support for older people from a governing body or a large corporation, are a relatively recent innovation ... although we now consider them almost a right. To say even a highly skilled craftsman in Medieval times was living on a retirement pension would probably be considered an anachronism. Without a good explanation of why this commoner had received such special treatment, the author is presenting a totally inaccurate picture of what life was like at that time. (I have other, more upsetting examples, but this should make my point.)

Of course, minor anachronisms can actually provide worthwhile "teaching moments," if they're properly used. For example, the presence of a Medieval pensioner in a novel could easily provide a springboard for a class discussion of how those who could no longer work were really treated.

Bottom line: History can indeed be boring ... but it need not be if the historian, or history teacher, makes the effort. (And carefully chosen readings of historical fiction can help.)

New Happenings for Boise River Gold Country: Book-Signings Scheduled

Old-Timer Panning for Gold.
Idaho State Historical Society.
I have updated my earlier blog article about the book with this information, but I'll repeat the news here: Boise River Gold Country is now available from Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers. In general, that means you can go into a local "bricks and mortar" bookstore and order it. (For more details about the book itself, visit that article, or click on the cover photo on the left.)

At the end of this month, I will be attending the Jackson Hole Writers Conference. They have scheduled a general book signing on the evening of June 30. There, you can buy the book and I will sign it. However, if you chose to order the book online (use the CreateSpace store – I get a bigger royalty) and it's delivered in time, I'll be happy to sign it any time you can catch me at the conference. If you can't be there for the signing, see me earlier and I can sell and sign one directly. On the advice of many other published authors, I always carry a supply with me. (You will need to go to Idaho City, if you'd like Skip Myers to sign it also. The book was his idea.)

Now that Barnes & Noble can order the book for their customers, they have agreed to host a book signing at their store in the Grand Teton Mall here in Idaho Falls. The date is now set as Saturday, July 7. The B&N outreach person has ordered posters to promote the event and plans to list it on our newspaper's "community bulletin board" and with other local media. We will start the signings at noon and continue at least two hours ... and as long as there's interest. (Well, out to closing time anyway.)

 At some point, we hope to do similar signings at the B&N stores in Twin Falls and Boise, but that is just a notion right now.

The next book signing in the Boise Basin will be during their overall Gold Discovery Sesquicentennial Celebration, July 28 - August 4. Although they have devised an overall schedule, some of the details still seem to be "up in the air."

We hope to have one book signing event scheduled around the Opening Ceremonies on July 28 in Centerville. Then we would probably have another toward the end of the week, in Idaho City.

Preview Available
Amazon.com now has a preview of Boise Basin Gold Country available with their listing. When you click on the "Look Inside" tag, it shows the Copyright page, the Table of Contents, a couple pages of the preface, all of Chapter One, and then the photo credits and references.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The “Unreview” : Anachronisms in Historical Fiction

As those of you who follow this blog know, I sometimes include book reviews here. Recently, a writer asked me if I would review a piece of historical fiction, a novel set in ancient times. I was pleased at the request and agreed. However, for reasons that will become clear, I decided against a standard assessment of the book.

That’s because major problems in the treatment kept jerking me out of the narrative flow. The reasons why are instructive. But I do not plan to identify either the author or the book title. I will also do my best to mask the exact nature of the story itself. The problems I encountered illustrate, I’m afraid, why many historians don’t much like historical fiction.

The sample copy arrived in the mail and I immediately read the back-cover blurb. (I hasten to note that the cover art was very well done.) A glance at the first page or so heightened my excitement. Novels set in Classical Greek or Roman times are rather unusual. The story I was to review was set over a time period that spanned the later years of the Seleucid Empire.

To refresh your memory, the Seleucid Empire ruled a large part of the Middle East after the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire. Antiochus the Great ascended to the Seleucid throne in 223 BC. He expanded and stabilized the empire, but also suffered a painful defeat against the Roman Republic in 188. After his death the following year, the empire declined. Thus, around 140 BC, the Jewish Maccabees wrested a semi-independent kingdom from the Seleucids.

The novel is written as the memoirs of three men, linked by family, whose lives overlap during this period. Each serves with the Roman Army. I began reading with much anticipation. However, after not too many pages, I began to lose the flow. I’d have a spurt of interest, and then feel like I’d been thrown off track.

I had been reading as a reader, but now I backed off a bit and began to read analytically. At first, I thought the problem arose from some distracting matters of writing “craft” – not directly relevant to the subject of this blog. But then came (cliché alert) “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The narrator says that another character “needed to vent” about something terrible that had happened. This phrase, used in the sense of an emotional catharsis, is a rather modern Americanism. In fact, “vent” with a meaning of “express freely” did not appear in the language until around 1590 AD.

An “anachronism” is something considered “out of its time.” Some are blatant: A character using an automatic pistol during the American Civil War. (Automatic pistols – like the famous Colt .45 automatic – were not invented until the 1890s.) Others are harder to spot: A character checking his wristwatch while he waited for the Admiral Horatio Nelson funeral procession to start. (Lord Nelson was killed at Trafalgar in 1805; the first wristwatch appeared in 1868. Knowledgeable readers would consider this a blatant anachronism, but I suspect others might miss it.)

Of course, “the master,” William Shakespeare, is often accused of anachronisms in his plays – and rightly so. However, back then, very little study had been devoted to “what life was like” in those earlier times. Even classically-educated Elizabethans learned few details of daily life in ancient times. The lower classes knew nothing at all. So playwrights selectively used upper-class artifacts shown in historic statuary and frescoes, or contemporary props that would at least be familiar to their audience. Moreover, as just one example, reproducing Roman costumes, weapons, etc. for a stage production of Julius Caesar would have been far too costly.

But perhaps the most difficult anachronisms occur in the use of language … and that turned out to be why I could not really “get into” the story. The narrators of these memoirs are meant to be Romans, living in the period 220-140 BC. Although one endured years of slavery (as a captured soldier), they are from the upper classes of Roman society and are well-educated.

Early on, the story-teller refers to the first “Punic War.” Well … the Romans of the time did not call it that. The epic poem, Punica, was not written until at least 170 years after the Romans destroyed Carthage. The term “Punic” for “pertaining to Carthage” did not come into general usage until around 1530 AD.

No big deal. The reference quickly set the time frame, and I barely noticed the anomaly the first time through. But on the very next page, the narrator’s father remarks that he had “grown like a weed.” Somehow, that did no sound like something a Roman would say, so I checked it out. The first known use of that analogy was in John Heywoods Proverbs, published in 1546 AD. In fact, “weed” has no Latin cognate; it is Old English, from about 1400 AD and based on a Germanic root.

On the next page, the narrator states that he knew he could not “talk back to” his father. That phrase, in the sense of disagree or argue, dates from around 1800 AD, or later. Beyond that, both “talk” and “back” are of Germanic origin.

The use of specific words also began to distract me. “Booty,” as applied to captured wealth, dates from around 1450 and has a Germanic root. (The narrator later speaks of the “spoils” of war, a more appropriate term.) “Intelligence” in the sense of “information obtained from scouts and/or spies” did not come into usage until around 1550 AD. The narrator also says he participated in a “debriefing,” an egregious anachronism since that term did not exist until around 1945.

You may well feel that I’m being too picky. And it’s true that the presence of any one, or even a few of these anachronistic references would not necessarily be a problem. (Although even one would be a “deal breaker” for some readers.) But there are so many, including some that are considered modern clichés. When the reader cannot get through a few pages without encountering another one, the anachronisms become a major distraction.

And it did go on like that. At one point, in a span of three pages, the narrator used “intelligence” (for “information”) again, plus “britches” to describe some barbarian’s trousers. Besides these specific words, he also used the phrases “weak kneed” and “be his own boss.” First of all, “britches” is a Twentieth Century term. (There is a perfectly good Latin word – bracae – for trousers, by the way.) “Weak kneed,” used to show concern or nervousness, did not come into usage until 1850 AD. Moreover, “weak” is from a Germanic root. The “boss” phrase is quite modern. The word itself, from a Dutch (i.e. Germanic) term for “master” (baas), did not appear in English until 1640 AD

I tried to persevere after that, but a few pages later I hit the “needed to vent” usage. After that, I began skipping through the book, jumping ahead pages at a time. I continued to find language anachronisms, some repeats plus many new ones. To bolster this “unreview,” I even made notes about phrases whose origins I could trace. The examples I’ve used in this blog are only a third of those I recorded – and that list came from less than a third of the book. (There were also others that caught my attention, but I could not easily find their sources.)

Right toward the end, the narrator says, “What’s done is done” to denote unhappy circumstances that cannot be changed. This phrase first appeared in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, published around 1605 AD. “Done” itself, as the past participle of “do” is from Old English and is therefore of Germanic origin.

An author must tread a fine line between authenticity and being understandable to his/her audience. And English offers many, many choices in how to say something. Here, the author’s choices just didn’t sound right, coming from those characters. Thus, the narrators never convince me that they are actual Romans, telling their own stories. And without that “willing suspension of disbelief,” I did not much care what happened to them.

In the end, as noted above, I decided not to publish a standard review of this book. Sad. I really wanted to enjoy the book. The story itself is well-conceived, and the characters seem like they could be interesting. The author has clearly done a lot of research about that period of history, and has crammed an amazing amount of it into the text.

Some will surely think I’m being too picky about the anachronistic language, and perhaps they’re right. Without that, I would have probably enjoyed the characters, solid historical research, and a pretty good story. If you think you might be interested in reading the novel, send me a separate e-mail and I’ll identify it for you. (It’s available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Stagecoach and Freight Routes in South-Central Idaho

Before railroads entered Idaho, animal-drawn stagecoaches and wagons transported most people and freight. Main routes connected large settlements, while feeder lines came and went as events dictated. One of the more interesting side routes operated in South-Central Idaho in the early 1880s.
Wagons on the Oregon Trail. Utah State Historical Society.

When Congress created Idaho Territory in March 1863, many emigrant wagons, mostly drawn by ox teams, still crossed the region. They followed the Oregon Trail, but there was no stagecoach service along that route. Not until August of 1864 did scheduled stagecoach service arrive in Boise City. From there, the line continued more or less along the old Oregon Trail to The Dalles in Oregon.

That route across southern Idaho from northern Utah became the most traveled road in the Territory. The second most favored track ran across eastern Idaho into Montana. There, coaches and freight wagons took a path that was generally similar to the later railroad route.

Then, in 1869, crews completed the transcontinental railroad. A station at Kelton, Utah, near the northwest tip of the Great Salt Lake, became the preferred link for central Idaho and points west. Except in the winter, passengers and freight followed the so-called Kelton Road through City of Rocks. From there, they turned north and then west to the station at Rock Creek, about 12 miles southeast of today’s Twin Falls.
Stagecoach on Kelton Road. Idaho State Historical Society.

During part of the winter, passengers traversed the City of Rocks segment on horse-drawn sleighs. Meanwhile, freight wagons avoided that area, taking a track through Albion, then the seat of Cassia County, and on to Rock Creek. For nearly a decade, the route crossed the Snake River via a ferry 25-30 road miles from Rock Creek. (Over the years, at least two, and possibly three operators ran a ferry in this general area.) Coaches and wagons then followed the old Oregon Trail into Boise City.

About every twelve miles, stage lines of that day positioned stops where fresh teams replaced jaded ones. So-called “home stations” were located about fifty miles apart. Here, passengers could purchase a rough meal and perhaps accommodations for the night. The town of Rock Creek started as one such home station.

In 1878, John Hailey’s Utah, Idaho, and Oregon Stage Company (UI&O) improved the road along the south side and switched the route to cross via Glenns Ferry. They followed a different track onto the high ground, but rejoined the Oregon Trail further west before continuing into Boise.

The following year, the discovery of fabulous lodes of silver in the Wood River drainage set off a rush into that area. By 1881, the towns of Ketchum, Hailey, and Bellevue were booming. The Idaho Statesman headlined (February 22, 1881), “Stage Line to Wood River.”

The UI&O had work crews out stocking stage stops along two branches. One split off from the old Oregon Trail in an easterly direction, headed for the soon-to-be town of Shoshone. From there, it continued into Bellevue. Stages on this branch carried passengers to and from Boise City.

Stage Station Footprint. Landowner photo.*
The other new branch left the Kelton Road at Goose Creek, about twelve miles west of Albion. This route crossed the Snake via Starrh’s Ferry, which had been granted an operating license in July 1880. From the ferry, the track headed generally northwest. Traces of the first station north of the river on this branch can still be seen.

The track passed through some rugged country, including several miles where sand dunes impeded progress. It finally linked up with the Boise branch to continue into Bellevue. In the spring, the Idaho Statesman reported (April 23, 1881), “Two daily stages are to be run from Kelton to Wood River.”

Stagecoach (green) and Railroad (gray/black) Lines.
The UI&O did not have the field all to themselves, however. They has to contend with a stage line that linked with the Utah & Northern (U&N) Railway at Blackfoot. The competition was not always friendly. Blackfoot boosters claimed (Blackfoot Register, April 16, 1881) “that a report had been circulated in Ogden that the new iron bridge over Snake river had been washed away.” They blamed their competitor for circulating false rumors to scare customers away.

When the Wood River mines first opened up, operators had no way to process their complex lead-silver minerals locally. Thus, for the first few years, they hauled their best ore over the Starrh Ferry route to Kelton. Rails cars then carried the ore to smelters in Salt Lake City, Denver, and as far away as Omaha.

Wagon Ruts in the Lava.
Landowner photo.*
So far as is known, none of the ore went to the railroad station at Blackfoot … for a very good reason. The U&N tracks were then narrow gauge – they would not switch to standard gauge until July 1887. The transcontinental line was all standard gauge, so operators would have faced the added expense of transferring the ore or using special rail cars.

In any case, this lucrative freight business did not last very long. All through 1882, crews for the Oregon Short Line Railroad (OSL) laid tracks west from Pocatello. Early that year, the town of Shoshone came into being, and the tracks reached there in February 1883. Three months later, the OSL completed a branch line from Shoshone into Hailey. By then, long haul traffic – passengers and freight – had stopped using the Kelton Road and its branches.

Nonetheless, most segments continued in use for local traffic. Of course, the railroad caused some rerouting. The Idaho Statesman reported (July 1, 1884) that a new route was “contemplated from Goose Creek, via Starrh’s ferry to Kimama, on the O. S. L.” (Kimama is now a railroad siding a bit over 20 miles north of Burley.)

Starrh’s Ferry manipulated the power of the river current to move back and forth. It thus ceased operation in 1904, when Milner Dam stopped the free flow of the Snake. Even then, well-worn stage and freight tracks served local traffic, and some eventually became major highway routes.

Around 1910-1920, “auto stages” finally replaced horse- or mule-drawn stagecoaches on most passenger routes around the state. These usually employed gasoline-powered touring cars; what we call “buses” arrived a few years later. Although hard evidence is lacking, seasonal stagecoach traffic on some back-country roads may have continued well into the 1930s.

* I am being deliberately vague about specific locations along this route, which was brought to my attention by a landowner in the area. Much of the old line passes through private property. The station remnants are on public land, but need to be preserved for possible future study.
                                                                                 
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
John Bertram, et al, Rock Creek Station and Stricker Homesite: Idaho Historical Site Master Plan, Idaho State Historical Society (2001).
“Ben Holladay’s Overland Stage Line in Idaho,” Reference Series No. 1002, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1993).
Larry R. Jones, “Snake River Ferries,” Reference Series No. 54, Idaho State Historical Society (October 1982).
"Site Report - Wood River," Reference Series No. 206, Idaho State Historical Society (1981).
“Stage Lines – Overland and Kelton,” Reference Series No. 146, Idaho State Historical Society

Friday, May 11, 2012

History, Historical Fiction, and Related Thoughts on Writing the Same

Early yesterday, I received an invite to join a Historical Fiction Group hosted on LinkedIn, the business-slanted social media network. Since I am currently working on a historical novel, I decided to join it. One of the Group’s forums was discussing “What is considered historical fiction?” That made me chuckle because I’ve been involved with similar “religious” arguments about “What is science fiction?” (More on the science fiction issue in a bit.)
Taylor's Bridge at Eagle Rock (Idaho Falls), 1871.
Library of Congress

As some of you who follow this blog know, I write stories and novels in addition to my historical articles and books. The historical novel I'm working on grew out of information gleaned from my research on Idaho history. I have also written a few Western short stores. Some people refuse to consider Westerns even as a sub-genre of historical fiction ... and certainly the classic Western involves some conventions that seem contrived and overly restrictive in terms of historical fiction.

Be that as it may, an “easy” definition of historical fiction uses what I call the “age test.” That is, if the average reader – whoever that is – would have been too young to remember, personally, the actual world events of that period, then a book about that time would be historical fiction. Some simply reduce that to “fifty years” in the past and leave it at that. For me, these notions are amusing but unhelpful because there’s no way we can agree on a time value.

One of my favorite “historical” artifacts is the annual list put out by Beloit College to help college professors understand what is already “dated” for their freshman students. Some items don’t surprise us older folks, while others make us say Huh? for a moment. Examples:
#69 The Post Office has always been going broke.
#32. Czechoslovakia? Wasn’t that conquered by Attila the Hun? Or did he found it? (So if we write a “young adult” novel, can we treat events in Czechoslovakia as ancient history? Maybe so.)

As usual in such matters it’s generally easier to say what is not (really) historical fiction. Most of us would probably not consider novels written as adventures, mysteries, etc. in their own time – when their own time was long ago – as historical fiction. Yet the light thrown on historical times is half the fun of reading most anything written by Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Arthur Conan Doyle, and so on. The fact that Dickens actually wrote some of his novels as historical fiction complicates matters, of course.
It was the best of times ...

Yet all that may offer one “rule of thumb” to encompass the genre. Think about the famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. ...” Dickens felt the need to clearly set the timeframe at a point in past history. Some novels do open with a prologue in the past (sometimes distant past) but they then jump to something that is recognizably the “present” of the writer’s day.

So from a practical standpoint, the author of a historical novel must establish, generally within the first few pages, that the story is set some time in the past. Requiring a minimum time span is arbitrary and probably unnecessary, depending upon the rest of the author’s treatment.

A second rule of thumb involves the use of historical events. Actual past events should materially affect what the characters do, and how they behave. If outside events don’t change the characters or their actions, then what’s the point of having the story set in the past?

Finally, the crucial episodes of the historical novel should not “catch up” with the present. For me, this is a practical matter involving reader expectations.

Suppose a novel traces the fictional history of a political family, pointing toward one prominent member of that family. The final chapter cannot open with that politician running for office in the present time, with issues still unresolved. Forget the reader, because your novel won’t get to them. The editor or agent who gets the manuscript will say: “You should have told me this was a contemporary political novel.” After all, for most people, what’s happening now is all-important. You would be expected to “frame” the historical buildup between a contemporary opening and a present-day ending.

 A novel that traced the history of an important medical development, or heroic physician, would be subject to the same scrutiny if it ended with a present-day climax. (You can fill in the blanks for other topics.) It seems to be all right to complete the novel, with climax and closure, and then show some present-day impact as a triumphant, ironic, bitter-sweet, or even tragic Afterword.

Now let’s shift gears a bit to “future history” – a (weak) definition of one sub-genre of what we generally call science fiction. A few years back, I attended a science fiction conference where a famous, much-published author was guest of honor. During a question-and-answer panel, I asked him if he thought a knowledge of history was important for writers who wanted to create realistic future societies for their novels. He clearly agreed that it was, but the panel time limit expired before he/we could develop the idea.

Historical background is vital because, no matter how futuristic we make the setting, we are the only intelligent (no jokes, please) creatures we know. It is incredibly difficult to create a truly alien society (believe me, I’ve tried). And the “baseline” by which we – authors and readers – judge their “alienness” is us. But we only know us, collectively, by our history.

That brings us to an odd science fiction sub-genre known as “alternative history.” Most such stories posit that a member of the author’s contemporary society is transported by some unknown mechanism into our past or (projected) future, or to an “alternate timeline.” Sometimes the time traveler to the past changes history, thus creating a new timeline. (Much hand-waving usually ensues to “prove” that he couldn’t have changed his own timeline.) Diana Gabaldon uses a time travel gimmick, but then her characters fit themselves into known history, more or less as in traditional historical fiction.
Suppose the Axis Powers Won?

Perhaps the most interesting alternative history novels don’t bother to create any “convenient” connection to our present day. These stories examine what might have happened if some historical turning point had gone the other way: Suppose Carthage survived the Third Punic War as a counter-check to Roman power? Napoleon had won at Waterloo? Roosevelt died during his first term? The variations are endless. The characters know no other history/society besides their own – there is no other history. Of course, the author must sooner or later let the reader know where/when this history diverged from ours.

Done well, with the ramifications worked out in ways that make sense, such novels are fascinating to read. As you might expect, doing them well requires a careful study of history as we know it.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Boise River Gold Country. Book Signing Successful

Old-Timer Panning for Gold.
Idaho State Historical Society.
(Follow-up to book signing "report.")

Those who follow the blog regularly may recall that on Monday, April 23rd, I sat in the living room and wondered, “What the heck am I going to do with one hundred copies of my book?”

On Sunday afternoon (April 29th), I looked at four meager copies and wondered, “Gee, how many more should I order?”

As you can tell from the numbers, the book signing in Idaho City -- at Donna’s Place -- went far better than I could have ever hoped. THANK YOU! to all of those who showed up to buy books and have them signed. There for awhile Skip Myers and I had a kind of “assembly line” going where we’d sign a copy and then swap so the other could finish.

Honestly, I’m not exactly sure how many we signed. At the end of the day, Skip wrote a check to me for 85 books. Perhaps 10-15 of those were unsigned copies held for future sales. (We sent two unsigned copies to the Placerville store early that morning.) Thanks to "Mindy" and Skip, I now have some photos taken during the event. Here are two samples:
Skip in Suspenders, Me in the Hat, Plus Two Happy Buyers
One of Several People Who Bought Two Copies

We certainly expect to do more signings, but right now the only “for sure” joint event is the one planned for Memorial Day weekend (May 26-28) at Donna’s Place in Idaho City. I’ll let you know about other events as our plans “gel.”

(For more information about the book, go to the previous book blog, which includes the Table of Contents, or click on the cover image on the left.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Boise River Gold Country Information

As mentioned earlier, Boise River Gold Country is now available for purchase online at its dedicated CreateSpace eStore. (It looks like you might be able use an existing amazon.com account at the eStore, but I'm not sure about that.) You can also order the book from Amazon and other online booksellers, such as Barnes & Noble. (If you prefer not to order online, local "bricks and mortar" bookstores will order it for you, but those stores will generally not stock ready-to-buy copies.)
Idaho Gold Dredge, ca 1912. H.T. French (see References Page).
The book is being produced under the imprint of Sourdough Publishing, Idaho Falls, Idaho, with the eStore and Amazon handling retail production and distribution. We will consider bulk orders at special discounts for educational purposes, fund-raising, or corporate gifts. Museums, historical associations, and schools are particularly encouraged to apply. Contact me through Sourdough Publishing or at the blog e-mail address.

The book tells the story, in words and pictures, of the settlement of the mountainous regions drained by the Forks of the Boise River. It all began in 1862, so 2012 is the 150th anniversary of the first towns in the area. That looming milestone prompted Idaho City merchant Skip Myers to ask me to write a new history of the region. (The few existing books on the topic were all out of print.) Boise River Gold Country is the result.

On every page, from the Introduction (“Setting the Scene”) through all the chapters, the book contains at least one image – generally historic photographs. Overall, I used over two hundred photos to supplement and illustrate the textual material. I have included a couple comparable samples here. These are images I was unable to work into the story.
Boise Basin Gold. Found ca 2009

Prospectors first discovered Idaho gold in late 1860, on the tributaries of the Clearwater River in North Idaho. Hordes of miners poured into the region. However, two years later, a party led by Moses Splawn and George Grimes found gold in the Boise Basin, a mountainous area northeast of today’s Boise. These fields proved far more extensive than the earlier finds.

Thus, it was Boise River gold that “gave legs” to the creation of Idaho Territory. The first Territorial census, in September 1863, counted nearly five times as many people in the Basin as in the northern camps and towns. A year later, that imbalance had increased to nearly seven to one. Large-scale gold mining continued in Boise River gold country for almost a century. Also, at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, logging began to increase in importance. Large-scale timber harvesting surpassed mining in value after about 1955, peaking around 1980.

Boise River Gold Country
Table of Contents
Setting the Scene    i
Chapter One: Before the Golden Age    1
Chapter Two: Gold Rush Creates Idaho    7
Chapter Three: Cooperative Mining Replaces the Sourdough      23
Chapter Four: Placer Mining Fades, Lode Mining Grows  38
Chapter Five: Dredging and Hardrock Mining  58
Chapter Six: Big Timber Takes an Interest  77
Chapter Seven: Mining Revisited  96
Chapter Eight: Recreation and Tourism105
Chapter Nine: World War, and Afterwards119
Chapter Ten: Identity TBD131
Image Sources138
Bibliography141

Fixing a Flat on Road into Idaho City.