A Chat About Frontier Travel With Gar LaSalle, Author of the WIDOW WALK Saga

Last summer I had the opportunity to chat with Gar LaSalle, who, like me, writes historical fiction about the West. Scott James of Solipsis Publishing moderated our conversation, and the audio and transcript are now available on Gar’s blog. The audio will give you the flavor of our conversation more accurately, but if you’d prefer to skim the contents, read the transcript, which will take less time.

It’s odd how different people find their way to writing novels. Gar started as a physician, and as we talked he related how his early experiences as a doctor led him to become interested in writing about the Pacific Northwest.

By contrast, I started as an attorney, although I can’t say that my legal background led me to write about the Oregon Trail—that was because of my family background.

Gar has a new novel out, The Fairness of Beasts, and the ebook version of his first book, Widow Walk, was available for free on Amazon the last time I looked. Widow Walk has recently been optioned for the screen, so read the novel now before you see it on film.

I hope you will check out Gar’s books, as well as my new novel, Forever Mine. Surely you know someone who would enjoy one of our novels. (International Book Giving Day was last Wednesday, but in my mind, every day is a book giving day.)

If you are interested in history (and you probably are, if you follow my blog regularly), what in your background brought you to that interest?

Updates to LEAD ME HOME: The Fremont Expeditions and Pheasants

In addition to putting the finishing touches on Forever Mine this month, I have also made a few updates in Lead Me Home, the first novel I wrote about travel along the Oregon Trail. These two novels both involve characters traveling in the same wagon company in 1847, so part of my challenge was making sure the plots jibed. One of the advantages of self-publishing is that I can make updates on my own when necessary.

One of the Preuss maps of the 1842 Frémont expedition

In Lead Me Home, I had two of my fictional characters, Mac McDougall and Captain Franklin Pershing, referring to maps from the Frémont explorations of the West. In the initial printing of Lead Me Home, I wrote that Captain Pershing had been on Frémont’s 1843 expedition, in part because there is evidence of Army personnel accompanying Frémont that year—a small artillery unit hauled a field cannon for Frémont in 1843. The personnel on the 1842 expedition consisted primarily of fur trappers and other mountain men.

However, the maps created by Charles Preuss and published by Frémont with his report actually depict the 1842 exploration, which more closely followed the route that became the main Oregon Trail. Therefore, as I drafted Forever Mine, I made the decision to change my references to Frémont so that my fictional character accompanied the explorer on his 1842 journey. It’s more important to have the Frémont route accurate than that I match the personnel on the expedition.

Then, so that my two novels about the 1847 wagon company would mesh, I updated Lead Me Home to change all references to the 1843 Frémont journey to 1842. Now both books refer to Frémont’s travels in 1842.

While I was at it, I made a few smaller changes to Lead Me Home. One change that might interest readers relates to pheasants. In the initial publication of Lead Me Home, I referred to the men in the wagon company shooting pheasants. One astute reader told me that he didn’t think there were pheasants in the United States in 1847, because they had not yet been imported from Asia. That was one fact I hadn’t thought to check—I grew up around pheasant hunters, so surely the birds must have been there in 1847!

But a little research proved me wrong.

Although McFarland Pheasants, Inc., reports that pheasants were brought to North America in 1773 (other accounts put the date at 1733), the birds did not survive well in the rugged new continent.  Pheasants were not successfully introduced to the western United States until 1881.

HistoryLink.org Essay 8444, by Kit Oldham, states:

“On March 13, 1881, around 60 Chinese ring-necked pheasants arrive in Port Townsend [in Washington State on the Olympic Peninsula] aboard the ship Otago. United States consul general Owen Nickerson Denny [and his wife] . . . shipped the pheasants, along with other Chinese birds and plants, from Shanghai in hopes of establishing a population in their home state of Oregon. Most of the pheasants succumb as they are transported from the Olympic Peninsula to Portland. A few survivors are released on the lower Columbia River, but accounts differ as to whether this population survives. However, the Dennys ship more pheasants in 1882 and 1884, successfully introducing ring-necked pheasants into Oregon’s Willamette Valley and on Protection Island in Jefferson County near Port Townsend. The colorful game birds prove prolific and popular. Ring-necked pheasants spread throughout Oregon and Washington and are introduced in states across the country, becoming so common that they seem more a native species than one first established in the United States in 1881.”

For more on the introduction of pheasants to the U.S., see here and here.

It’s an interesting coincidence that, although I was wrong about when pheasants were introduced, they were in fact introduced into Oregon and Washington—the part of the nation I wrote about in my novels.

When have you been corrected about some odd historical fact?

Darkest Hour: Reflections on Leadership and Words

I love going to the movies, but I don’t do it much these days. I feel like I should spend the time with the characters in my head, rather than with someone else’s characters on a screen. But this past weekend, friends and I went to see Darkest Hour about Winston Churchill’s early weeks as Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940. The basic conflict is between Churchill who wants to fight Nazi Germany to the bitter end and others in the Conservative Party who want to negotiate peace. As the military news grows more dismal, Churchill is torn. He hates the idea of seeking a truce with Hitler, but (despite his famous V sign) he wonders if victory is possible.

Even though we know what happened—how the British army is rescued at Dunkirk—the tension in the movie is gripping. The acting was great and the relationships depicted between the characters realistic. I found myself caught up in the drama as if the fate of the Western World were truly at stake—which it was.

Married Love, statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill located in Kansas City, MO

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill carried the film, but I also enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas in the part of his wife Clementine. The movie portrayed their support of each other throughout his long political career. There is a statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill in Kansas City called “Married Love,” and locals here have often scoffed at the notion of honoring Winston Churchill for his role as a husband, rather than as a politician or author. But after seeing how Oldman and Thomas played the couple in Darkest Hour, I can almost see the reason for the statue.

I also liked the character of Churchill’s secretary, played by Lily James. I assume this is a mostly fictional or composite character, but her role allowed the film to show a human side of Churchill beyond his curmudgeonly, cigar-smoking, alcohol-imbibing persona. I wouldn’t call him charming, but he was compassionate toward her, after his initial blow-up that almost caused her to quit.

I watched this film in part as a study in leadership. While few leaders are as eccentric as Churchill, his power with words and his focus on pursuing right as he defined it (despite failures of his instincts in the past) are aspects of leadership to which every leader should aspire.

Although the film contains one scene of Churchill relating to common Britishers, for the most part it focuses on the political intrigue that complicated his early days as Prime Minister. It was the rivalries within the Conservative Party along with the menace in Germany that caused Britain’s darkest hour—which was most likely Churchill’s personal darkest hour as well.

The movie depicts Lord Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane) as the political rival most antagonistic to Churchill. Yet even Halifax has reasons for disagreeing with Churchill. While history proved Halifax’s desire to seek a truce with Hitler wrong, the film makes clear that at the time it was quite possible he would be right. We root for Churchill’s desire to preserve liberty and democratic ideals, but we feel the possibility he might not prevail, and therefore have some sympathy for Halifax.

And at the end, Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup), who had been booted out as Prime Minister for his appeasement of Hitler, admits that it is a poor leader who cannot change his mind. He finally supports Churchill after scheming against him for months.

The film also depicted the relationship between King George VI (played by Ben Mendelsohn) and Churchill. Both represented British traditions—the monarchy and Parliament—and they developed from mutual distrust (and even distaste) to respect. Neither man had anyone else with whom confiding was comfortable, yet Great Britain’s future rested on their shoulders. Every leader needs someone to serve as sounding board, and perhaps these men found it in each other.

Darkest Hour also shows another aspect of leadership worth remembering—the importance of leaders telling the truth. Early in the film, Churchill lies in his radio address to the British people about the military situation in Europe. King George reprimands him for this. But Churchill is redeemed when he calls on the British people to overcome the enemy at hand, to fight to the end. And, of course, we know they do.

I had watched Dunkirk a few months ago, which depicted the travails of the soldiers on the beach awaiting rescue as well as the heroic efforts of the civilian fleet that rescued them. While that film did a good job of showing the horrors of war and in humanizing the bravery of both troops and civilian boatowners, I found Darkest Hour much more compelling. Darkest Hour did a better job of describing the stakes for Britain and the Western World in the early days of World War II. There are viewers who disagree with me and prefer Dunkirk to Darkest Hour. But hearing Churchill’s rhetoric brought tears to my eyes.

There is no question that Churchill was a man of words—written words and spoken words, words that inspired his nation and the world. In fact, Churchill made most of his income from writing books and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” His speeches to Parliament are some of the most rousing moments in the movie.

One friend who went to the movie with me decided to read Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which is a four-volume history covering the almost 1900-year period from Caesar’s invasions of Britain to the beginning of the First World War. I’m not that motivated to study British history, but I learned a lot in the two hours I spent watching Darkest Hour. And I appreciated the opportunity to be inspired by a great leader in the midst of desperate circumstances.

What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?

The Charles Preuss Maps of the Oregon Trail

In Lead Me Home, and again in my about-to-be-published novel Forever Mine, I make frequent mention of what my characters call “the Frémont maps.” In fact, these maps were created by Charles Preuss, a German cartographer who accompanied John Frémont on his explorations of the West in 1842 and 1843. The maps were first published in Frémont’s reports to Congress in 1845 and 1846, so my fictional characters could have obtained copies by early 1847.

Preuss’s seven maps are available online

On the 1842 expedition, Frémont, Preuss and their companions followed what would become the main route to Oregon—along the Platte River through what is now Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing to the Sweetwater River, then to South Pass where they crossed the Continental Divide, and then searching for the Snake River, which they followed as far as the Columbia River. Preuss’s maps stop at Fort Walla Walla, where the Snake joins the Columbia. That’s where the 1842 Frémont expedition turned around.

Preuss created seven maps depicting their travels on the 1842 trek. These were later published with Frémont’s report to Congress, and the maps became guideposts for many travelers to Oregon.

Here is the first of Preuss’s maps, showing the trail from Westport to the Little Blue River in Kansas, where the emigrants headed north toward the Platte.

I used the Preuss maps extensively in my research about the Oregon Trail. I often triangulated Preuss’s maps, pioneer journals, and Google Maps to decide where to have my fictional wagon train camp each night along the way. I had to be realistic in how far oxen-pulled wagons could travel (compared to the lighter Frémont convoy), and I had to make sure I thought about what changes to the terrain might have occurred between the 1840s and when Google’s satellite images were prepared. Many of the rivers have been dammed in the intervening 170+ years.

Here is an image from Google Maps reflecting my research into where my wagon train camped in Missouri and Kansas. This private Google Map shows all the waypoints I identified along the trail. I used this as a guide for where to place the emigrants each night of their journey.

Writers, what are some of the unusual research techniques you’ve used?


The Development of Time Zones in the Nineteenth Century

One of my challenges in writing about the 19th century has been trying to determine how to account for time of day. In my descriptions of travel along the Oregon Trail, I mostly refer to time in generalities—midmorning, noon, sunset, and the like. I rarely give a precise hour.

My grandfather’s pocket watch

The captain of my fictional wagon train has a pocket watch, and he occasionally refers to it. But, of course, as the emigrants travel west across the continent, the captain and others with watches would have to adjust their timepieces so they continue to read 12:00 pm when the sun is directly overhead. That’s how time was kept in the 19th century—each community set its clocks so noon coincided with when the sun was at its highest point.

In my novels, I don’t depict the captain or any other character changing a watch, and as I write this post, I wonder how often the emigrants bothered. They moved an average of about fifteen miles per day, so it probably took them a few weeks of travel for the discrepancy between a watch and the sun to be noticeable.

Clock in Union Station, Kansas City (clock is 6 feet in diameter)

But as railroads developed and the pace of travel speeded up, the need for a uniform system of setting the time became more important. Railroads needed to develop a uniform schedule. Before they did, their timetables were a nightmare to maintain—each station abided by its local time, and therefore each station needed its own printed version of the railroad timetable. But many railroads published their schedules based on where their main office was.

Great Britain set a standard time across that nation in December 1847. (Note that this was two months after my fictional wagon train arrived in Oregon City.) But although the clocks were mostly standardized, England did not legally adopt Greenwich Mean Time until 1880.

Great Britain was relatively easy—one time zone sufficed. The problem was more acute across vast spaces, such as the continent of North America.

Time zones in the United States and Canada were not standardized until 1883. The major railroads of North America facilitated the process of setting those standard zones. Having a common time across a latitude of several hundred miles was not as precise as setting noon at the sun’s apex at every locality, but the time zones were a compromise that allowed wider regions to follow a common schedule.

And so the railroads established four time zones for the contiguous United States and Canada. Those time zones survive today—Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific—though there have been some changes at the edges over the years.

Once the zones were communicated, on November 18, 1883, telegraph lines transmitted time signals to all major cities across the nation. And from that point on, the continent has had standardized time settings, even if they were not universally or legally recognized.

A year later in October 1884, Greenwich Mean Time was set as the world’s time standard. GMT lasted until 1960, when it was superseded by the more precise (but almost identical) Coordinated Universal Time (or UTC).

Congress did not legally adopt the time zones until 1918. (The 1918 Calder Act that established legal time in the United States also established Daylight Savings Time, but the debate over Daylight Savings Time is a topic for another post.) Other nations took even longer to legally set their time zones.

I have always set my watch a few minutes fast so that I can avoid being late. Now that I rely primarily on a cell phone and other web-based clocks for the time, I don’t have that crutch. I must get myself ready with a few minutes to spare.

Are you someone who is regularly early or late? Why?

How Did Emigrants in Oregon Celebrate Thanksgiving in the 1840s?

I wanted to write about Thanksgiving in Oregon in the 1840s, but didn’t find anything specifically on that topic. I did, however, find some interesting information about the development of the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it in the United States. See here, here, here, and here.

From this history, I’ve extrapolated what I think happened when the emigrants reached Oregon after their arduous six-month journey.

We’ve all heard the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans having a feast shortly after they arrived in the New World, though this is mostly a myth. The legend of the first Thanksgiving feast did not become a staple of American folklore until after World War I.

The Pilgrims did bring a tradition of giving thanks to God for his divine providence. But it is unlikely that their early feasts consisted of turkey and cranberries, and they certainly did not have pumpkin pie. Some accounts say the Pilgrims held a feast of thanksgiving in 1621 in gratitude to God for their survival. Other accounts place it in 1637 and say that it celebrated the return of colonial hunters who had safely returned from murdering several hundred Pequot Indians.

Moreover, the Pilgrims might have been late to the table. There is some evidence that in 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé and the local tribe in St. Augustine, Florida, dined together after a Mass of gratitude for the Spaniards’ safe arrival in the New World.

Throughout our nation’s early history, recognition of Thanksgiving was mostly a state and local affair. George Washington proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in 1789, to recognize the successful conclusion of the War of Independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. And although later presidents issued similar proclamations, for the most part, recognition of a thanksgiving holiday was up to state governors. Each state chose a different date to celebrate. Most governors chose late November or early December, but the holiday could be as early as September or as late as January.

Also, in the early years, Thanksgiving was mostly a New England tradition. George Washington was a Virginian, but the Southern states did not embrace the holiday until well past the middle of the 19th Century. It was New Englanders who spread the holiday from their northern colonies to Michigan, Ohio, and other “western” territories.

By the 1840s, the traditional New England menu of turkey, cranberries, potatoes, and pumpkin (and other) pies was in place, but recognition of the holiday still varied. Writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale tried for many years to establish a national Thanksgiving holiday, similar to Independence Day. In 1846, she began a letter-writing campaign to fix a uniform date for Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November.

Her support for the Puritanical holiday became interwoven with the abolitionist movement and caused divisiveness between the North and South. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln agreed to Sarah Hale’s request and issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863 that a uniform national date for the holiday was established. The last Thursday in November remained the national holiday until 1939. That year, Franklin Roosevelt set it on the fourth Thursday of November to extend the Christmas shopping season during the Great Depression.

Although I didn’t find any references to 1840s Thanksgiving feasts in Oregon, I did find several articles about the Californian celebration in 1850. There is speculation that gold miners from New England would have held Thanksgiving holidays in California in 1848 and ’49 also, and General Bennett Riley, California’s last military governor, issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1849.

But the first real account of a Californian Thanksgiving is in 1850. That year, Governor Peter Barnett issued a proclamation, and the governor and his guests had a sumptuous repast at the Columbia Hotel.  The holiday was still viewed as primarily a New England tradition, but it had made it to the West Coast.

If California was celebrating by 1850, surely there must have been at least a few Thanksgiving feasts in Oregon by that time also. It is likely that Thanksgiving celebrations in Oregon would have been a mixed bag—New Englanders might have had the tradition firmly in their families, but Southern emigrants might not have recognized it.

In addition, although the emigrants might have rejoiced to have reached Oregon safely, their focus upon their arrival would likely have been on finding shelter and provisions for the winter. There are accounts of feasts on Abernethy Green in Oregon City when new emigrants camped there, but not of regular Thanksgiving celebrations.

Still, I think of the Oregon emigrants celebrating their survival and the bounty of the new land they claimed. Surely they had cause for thanksgiving.

Whatever your Thanksgiving traditions, I hope your celebrations are happy and safe.

A Belated Veterans Day Post

It seems that in over five years of writing this blog, I have never written about Veterans Day. This year, I am finally doing it, albeit a couple of days late.

I never expected to be part of a military family. I didn’t have any veterans among my relatives. Neither of my grandfathers served during World War II. One grandfather was just past draft age in 1942. He also owned a business that made machinery for sawmills—his work was deemed part of the war effort. I don’t know why the other wasn’t called up—he was still of draft age, though at the high end. He was married and had two children, but so did other men. I never heard of any health problems that would have kept him from being drafted.

My father toyed with the idea of joining the Air Force during the Korean War, but his eyes were too bad for flight school (which is what he wanted to do), so he went to college, got married, and had kids.

My brothers did not turn eighteen until after the draft for the Vietnam War ended.

So none of the men in my family served, and of course, it was much rarer for women to serve.

USNA picture

Then I married a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Class of 1971.

My husband and I met after he had served his five-year commitment in the Navy, during which he had both sea deployments and shore assignments. Though he had left active duty, he was still in the Naval Reserve and drilled every month while we were in law school together.

He thought about going back on active duty after law school, but I was adamant that I didn’t want to move our family every few years. I wanted to put down roots in a community. So he didn’t return to active duty, but he stayed in the Naval Reserve until 2001, when he had thirty years and was forced out as a Captain.

For the first twenty-four years of our marriage, then, he was in the Reserve. He drilled every month, often in cities far from our home in Kansas City—a couple of years in Milwaukee, another two in Fort Worth, and there were a few other cities he traveled to as well.

In uniform, as a Naval Reserve officer

In addition, he went on two weeks’ active duty every year. Sometimes he trained on a ship and was at sea. Sometimes he went to a course in Europe or did training exercises in Japan. Sometimes he set up a Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare unit on the coast and trained.

These Reserve weekends and active duty periods always seemed to fall at the worst times.

Both of our kids were born on drill weekends. He had to skip the Saturday drills to be with me at the hospital. But he made the Sunday drills.

Our first dog went into seizures on a drill weekend when hubby was in Milwaukee. I had to take the poor thing (a 60-pound mutt) to an emergency vet clinic by myself to be put to sleep. The only 24-hour vet I knew of was all the way across the metropolitan area. Our son helped me load the dog into the minivan, but I was alone when I dragged him into the clinic.

Our toddler daughter broke her arm on the Friday of a drill weekend when my husband had already left for wherever he was going at the time. I took her to the pediatrician on Saturday morning, five-year-old son in tow. It was the only time in my life I showed up at the pediatrician’s office without an appointment.

Our son almost got our car insurance canceled due to too many speeding tickets. I found out while my husband was in Japan on his two-week stint. Son and I had several lengthy conversations about the issue before hubby returned, and I purchased alternative high-risk insurance for son as well.

All of this in the years before cell phones and text messages made communications around the globe a simple matter.

In addition to the crises, my husband’s stock response when we debated who ought to do what around the house, or which of us should ferry a child to a social or sports commitment, was “I provide national defense,” as if his Naval Reserve obligation should exempt him from all other responsibilities. He said it tongue in cheek, but he did spend many weeknight evenings after working as an attorney all day on Naval Reserve paperwork and training. It’s hard to argue with the importance of supporting the national defense mission.

I do not pretend that the problems our family faced were anywhere near as significant as those of families where one spouse has been deployed for months on end in a war zone. But my husband’s military service did have an impact on our family, and I experienced enough of the single-parenthood caused by a spouse’s service that I can relate to what service members and their families endure.

Our marriage survived my husband’s absences, and we celebrate our fortieth anniversary later this month. Many veterans are not so fortunate, and many military families disintegrate under the pressures of distance and trauma.

Our veterans deserve huge thanks from this nation for their service and sacrifice, and so do their family members who do without them.

A belated expression of gratitude this year—to my veteran and to all our nation’s other veterans.