Thursday, October 18, 2018

Stagecoach King

Benjamin Holladay, the Stagecoach King, who owned the world's largest stagecoach line, hired William Parker Carr as a hunter.

"The Republican River valley," Holladay said, "is a world-class place for game."

So Carr headed west, riding for miles. The Republican River wiggled and jiggled but its path, as a whole, ran straight. 

Enormous flocks of birds cast shadows on Carr's path. Wild grasses undulated. Leaf-shedding trees hugged the river into a canopy that shimmered in the wind. 

When Carr stopped, bird calls crescendoed, chirps and chatter, trills and twitters, warbles, whistles, and hoots.

Finding game was easy. Carr could kill hundreds and fail to dent the enormous herds. Elk covered more than an acre; scads of black-tailed and white-tailed deer and antelope dotted the plains. 

Other game also flourished. Wild turkeys and rabbits, grouse and coyote had multiplied so that thinning seemed impossible. 

All these zillions of creatures had been drawn to the valley for the same reason: a profusion of tender grasses and clear spring-fed creeks.

This lush paradise would become Harlan County. Ninety years later, I lived there.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

“Wild Jim” Lane

Kansas folks got het up about "Wild Jim" Lane, a Free State leader.

His hair stood every which way; his mouth slashed across his face. When he spoke, he swore and worse. Laughter rippled his belly. His energy was amazing.

When the Topeka legislature elected "Wild Jim" to the U.S. Senate, he carried a Topeka Constitution to Washington, D.C. Before he could serve, Congress must accept that constitution. But it did not.

If he returned to Kansas, federal troops would imprison him for treason. So he toured. How he swayed an audience! Sometimes his voice wooed like a lullaby, sometimes stirred like a bugle. 

In Chicago, his speech created pandemonium. Gamblers threw pistols on the stage. Staid businessmen tossed in their wallets. Even newsboys cast up pennies. "Wild Jim" collected thousands of dollars, and a thousand men joined his army.

"Wild Jim" and his army ferried over the Missouri River, then cut across Nebraska Territory. Near Kansas, they dared not be seen on regular roads, so Free Staters marked a trail through the Kansas sea of grass with tall poles and piles of stone. "The Jim Lane Trail," they called it. 

On January 29, 1861, President Buchanan signed a free Kansas into the Union. At once, Kansas voters elected "Wild Jim" Lane, no longer wanted for treason, to the U.S. Senate.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Senate Revenge

Hostility about slavery thrived in the U.S. Senate.

On May 22, 1856, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an arrogant abolitionist, launched a tirade against Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, calling him an imbecile who has taken "a mistress who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; I mean, the harlot, Slavery."

Two days later, Sumner, writing letters at his desk, failed to notice Representative Preston Brooks.

"Mr. Sumner," Brooks said, "Your speech libels South Carolina, and my white-haired relative, Senator Butler. I've come to punish you."

Sumner rose. Brooks smashed Sumner's skull with a gold-headed cane, knocking him under his desk. The tall Senator struggled to rise from under the desk, bolted to the floor. Blood gushed down his face.

Using thighs as levers, Sumner ripped the desk from its bolts, freeing himself. Blinded by blood, he staggered. Brooks rained blows that shattered his cane. 

Sumner lurched, buckled and passed out. Brooks pummeled Sumner until legislators restrained him.

Brooks left, as others carried the unconscious Sumner, spurting blood. Three years would pass before he could resume his Senate duties.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Colonel Manypenny’s “Gift”

Congress, eager to open Unorganized Territory for whites, eyed Indian land bordering the Missouri River. 

In January 1854, the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Colonel George Manypenny, traveled from Washington, D.C., to "talk" with those Missouri River tribes.

They met in Bellevue, population fifty, the only white settlement on the river's west side.

The Missourians and Otoes arrived together. Then sixty Omaha chiefs, or "those going against the wind," breezed in.

Colonel Manypenny talked the tribes into selling land for cash, goods, and a reservation all their own. That gift to Congress settled, he left. 

In Washington, Colonel Manypenny made major reductions in the treaties—above all, in the amount of money. 

Colonel Manypenny's dirtiest deal? 

Reducing the $1,200,000 promised to the Omahas to $84,000. That came to two cents an acre for the 4 million acres from the Niobrara River to the Platte and from the Missouri River to the Sandhills.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Hauling Mail on a Mule

If it weren't for William Parker Carr, the county I grew up in wouldn't be named "Harlan." Not that Carr planned this. No, when he left New England forever and traveled to the swift Missouri, he just intended to find work. Plus maybe a girlfriend.
Carr found his first job: delivering mail on a mule. If he'd known better, he might have declined. The mail route crossed the land of the Pawnee, those skilled robbers of horses and mules. But Carr needed a job so he took it. 
One night, Carr's mule acted queerly. 
"What's eatin' him?" Carr wondered. Then an image crossed his mind: a half-naked savage swinging a tomahawk, a ridge of porcupine hair rising from his shaved head. 
"Pawnee!" he shrieked, and dug his heels into his startled mule's flanks. They tore along, galumphing over the moonlit path, Carr starting at each night noise. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Dirtiest Deal

The dirtiest deal in my home county happened when settlers near the tiny town of Alma snagged the Harlan County seat in the late 1800s.

A native of that Nebraska county seat, I didn't find the affair that scuzzy, but descendants of the nearby town of Orleans still do.

Mention the county seat there and faces redden and glower, voices snarl and snap.

Indeed, Orlean's descendants seem to think that locating the county seat in Alma was Harlan County's worst calamity, more unfortunate than the 1935 Republican River flood that killed 110 people, destroyed 11,400 head of cattle, and wiped out trees, houses, barns, bridges, and railroad tracks.

"At least," they say, "we recovered from the flood," but not the Harlan County seat fight, still taking its toll in Orleans.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Cadaver Dogs

It's June 2013, and the FBI is at it again: searching for Jimmy Hoffa's remains, missing since July 30, 1975. 

This time the agents bring in a bulldozer, a backhoe, and shovels. 

They dig and dig in a field of waist-high grass where a barn used to be. 

The agents are so certain they'll find the famous ex-Teamsters' boss that they bring in cadaver dogs to sniff out his decomposing body and they hire Michigan State forensic anthropologists to identify his remains. 

But on the third day of the excavation, the FBI agents give up. 

Where is Jimmy? They don't know.