An Interior Border Love Song

Between travel and midterms grading I will not be able to post a book review this week. Instead, I have posted the talk that I gave a few weeks ago at the Western History Association Conference in Las Vegas. It was for a panel discussion of Jon Lauck’s The Interior Borderlands: Regional Identity in the Midwest and Great Plains, for which I contributed a chapter (you can check out the book on Amazon or at the Center for Great Plains Studies Online Shop). I hope that no one minds the gratuitous references to early 90s music or cow butts. Have a great weekend! – Matt

This past summer marked the 25th anniversary of the album Purple by Stone Temple Pilots. This was one of the cornerstone albums of my youth, so I’ve been thinking it about it some over the past few months. My favorite track on the album, and probably one of the most popular songs from the 90s overall, is “Interstate Love Song.” While the lyrics themselves are about, according to Scott Weiland, “honesty, lack of honesty, and . . .  heroin],” the song’s title in my fourteen-year old brain became associated with . . . well, the Interstate. And the specific image it brings to mind for me is from a road trip my family took in the spring of 1995. My brother and I piled into the backseat of my parent’s Ford Escort – not the best car choice in the world for a family with two teenage boys, but it wasn’t my call – and we drove from our home in St. Louis to Colorado Springs. I had never traveled west of Springfield, Missouri before that trip, and I’d never seen what folks in the West would call “mountains.”

Anyway, while my parents kept scanning the radio dial for the strongest oldies stations, I fortunately had a Walkman, and a mix tape I made from the radio which had, among other tracks, “Interstate Love Song.” And now, as I think back on that song, and as much as that song and that album for me provided the soundtrack for my early teenage years, the first and last image that comes into my mind when I hear it today is this: the flat, level horizon of the west Kansas prairie along Interstate 70. And me thinking that, somewhere between Topeka and Hays, we had entered someplace new. The rolling hills of Missouri and eastern Kansas were gone. The trees were gone. The curves in the road were gone. And I remember just staring at that distant green horizon, knowing but not quite understanding either the song lyrics or the fact that we had left the Midwest and had entered the Great Plains. 

Kansas from a car window, 1995. Photo by M. Luckett.

This nebulous, invisible border between the two stands in stark contrast to what we found when we arrived in Colorado: the Rocky Mountains rising abruptly and sharply from the prairies below. Flying over the Front Range, you can even see the sudden uplift of the first foothills beginning in peoples’ backyards!

Front Range, Colorado Springs, 1995. Photo by M. Luckett.

But for most people traveling east to west, the eastern border of the Plains is less perceptible. It was even less so for the hundreds of thousands of migrants who made the trip on foot, on wagons, or on horseback. The border was experienced and usually noticed after the fact: alkali water, less interesting terrain, less shade, different animals, taller grass, even more annoying insects. Trail diaries and memoirs are a fantastic resource for getting a sense of where migrants believed this border lay. Of course, these recollections lack the specificity and certainly of Stephen Long’s 1820 expedition report in which he infamously characterized Nebraska as a “Great Desert,” or John Wesley Powell’s claim in 1878 that the 100th Meridian provides a clean and intuitive border between the arid Plains and the more agriculturally suitable Midwest. Many Western Historians – including me – have satisfied ourselves with these so-called official explanations, and have used them to frame both contemporary experiences as well as our own, making them more intelligible and perhaps less surreal. But trail diaries and official reports both lack a broader, dynamic sense of not only where this so-called border lies, but how it changes over time, and how the ecological, agricultural, and geographic borderland it anchors between the two regions affects the evolution and development of communities, institutions, language, and even the stories we tell about how we won the West. 

Selfie from one of my more recent journeys (2016) through the Great Plains. Taken at the 100th Meridian line in Cozad, Nebraska. Photo by M. Luckett

This book, Interior Borderlands, goes a long way in expanding the ways in which we think about this border by treating it as a borderland zone in its own right. And borderland zones are both fascinating and essential in that they force us to think critically and creatively about how borders and transitional zones affect historical change. This book and the breadth of ways in which its authors approach and treat both the border’s definitions and its impact on surrounding peoples, cultures, and economies has already influenced at least one historian’s approach to the middle border: my own. 

Of course, credit for this change lies outside of my own contribution to the volume. The chapter I included for this book utilizes several advertising tracts I found at the Huntington while researching my book on horse stealing in Nebraska These brochures were created by ranch and railroad companies trying to sell off their massive Great Plains land holdings. These tracts were fascinating, providing a wide variety of exaggerations and distortions about the arability of the lands for sale. Yet unlike Scott Weiland in “Interstate Love Song,” who expresses genuine remorse for misleading his girlfriend about his heroin habit, these pamphlets almost exulted in their lies. As a result, the growing desperation and hyperbole that characterized land sales in western Nebraska created a kind of real estate borderland there, where the aridity of the climate in that region forced sellers to either oversell the land’s benefits or, in the case of some less unscrupulous sellers, propose practical solutions to maximize profit, like growing alfalfa or supporting bonded irrigation districts.

Welcome sign at the Grant County, Nebraska border. Grant County is unapologetically and unambiguously ranching country. Photo by M. Luckett

But while I confess to using some of my unused dissertation research for this chapter, once this book came out earlier this year it spurred me to think differently about my research on horse stealing in western Nebraska along the 100th Meridian. Specifically, it helped me recognize a fact that has eluded me for ten years: that the interior border between the Plains and the Midwest not only affects the distribution of stock grower associations and anti-horse thief associations, but the absence of the latter west of that border dramatically impacts how farmers view the morality and necessity of violent vigilantism. 

Stock grower organizations brought self-imposed regulation to the once wild-and-wooly range where ranchers could steal from one another, but could not chase rustlers far beyond their own territory. Unlike the homesteaders and settlers who employed vigilante rhetoric to make up for the perceived inadequacies of law enforcement, ranchers relied on an individualistic, libertarian ethos and rhetoric that fought federal range regulation on the one hand, while promoting advances in veterinary science on the other. Much of this stemmed from the ranchers’ original goal of banding together and busting up the gangs of horse thieves and cattle rustlers that once preyed on their ranches.

Art by H.M. Wilder from the eBook THE VOYAGE OF THE RATTLETRAP by Hayden Carruth. Taken from https://equinequickresponse.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/the-anti-horse-thief-association-circa-1863-1939/

While the inspiration for stock-grower associations came from Texas and Mexico, farmers’ organized responses to horse stealing could be found further east. After the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of farmers across the Midwest joined local, state, and even national anti-horse-thief societies. Similar in organization to stock-grower associations, these groups usually collected dues for income, relied on an executive committee to disseminate stolen horse information and pursue thieves, and often filed articles of incorporation and formally adopted constitutions with county and state authorities. 

Unlike their western counterparts, however, anti-horse-thief associations borrowed heavily from the Freemasons. Members usually gathered in secret and often incorporated rituals into their meetings. These societies grew quickly and over a wide area because anti-horse-thief societies were a tailor-made response to horse stealing. They channeled the concerns of worried farmers across the Midwest, alleviated anxieties over inefficacious law enforcement, and in general expressed the precariousness of the postbellum agricultural economy. 

Despite the popularity of anti-horse thief societies across the Midwest, western Nebraskans expressed little enthusiasm for the idea. This was likely because the conditions that made homesteading in western Nebraska so difficult overall—namely poor rainfall—prompted many sodbusters to leave the state before they had firmed up their land patents. Farmers often moved into and out of townships, creating demographic and population turnover and resulting in the more economically successful and socially connected people in most communities throughout the region being ranchers, not farmers. Homesteaders in Nebraska had common cause with one another, but because too few people stayed on their claims long enough to build stable communities they could not effectively direct their anxieties into productive group-building. This explains why stock-growers’ associations were the primary organizational tool in the region for combatting rustlers and horse thieves, as well as why homesteaders and other farmers in western Nebraska often embraced violent solutions and rhetoric when dealing with horse thieves. 

Anti-horse Thief Associations were typically governed by constitutions and other documents. Some even filed articles of incorporation. From Kansas Historical Society (https://www.kshs.org/km/items/view/226300)

At any rate, in spite of both my own participation in this project and this book’s influence on my own work since it came out, I don’t really believe that the book satisfactorily answers its own question of where this middle border lies. But I don’t think it needs too. Perhaps the interior border is, above all else, impressionistic, biographical, even visceral. The very amorphousness of it demands that we interpret it experientially, though the prism of our own stories and aspirations, which in turn gives it power. It’s why the legendary Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip’s aptly-named song “At the Hundredth Meridian” conjures up such vivid imagery in its lyrics: 

Driving down a corduroy road (crashing through the window)
Weeds standing shoulder-high (through the window)
Ferris wheel is rusting off in the distance
At the hundredth meridian
Where the Great Plains begin

The Tragically Hip, “At the Hundredth Meridian”

And it’s probably why “Interstate Love Song” resonates with me so many years later. Not because of the topical appropriateness of the lyrics I heard through my headphones, but because of the strange, sublime, incomprehensible, and unforgettable beauty of what I was seeing for the first time outside my car window. 

The giant cow outside the Sirloin Stockade in Abilene, Kansas. Photo by M. Luckett
When I was 14 I thought that this was hilarious for some reason. And considering how expensive film was back then, I guess it still is. Photo by M. Luckett.

June 1941: Tiger Sharks and Thank You Notes

Elmer spent the majority of the month at sea, so he had fewer opportunities to write his folks. Not that he had a great deal to say, anyway. “There really isn’t much to write about this time,” he wrote apologetically. “Our duty is the same, and not much to speak of.” His writer’s block appeared to be contagious as well. “Ozzie is writing a few lines also, he is sitting next to me. He doesn’t know what to say either.” His time at sea was not entirely uneventful. In the next paragraph, Elmer recounts spotting various kinds of marine life. “Ozzie and I saw a tiger shark this morning,” he wrote. It is “the most fierce of sharks.” They also watched “flying fish and porpoises” on the trip.

Thank you’s dominated his letters. His mother continued to send him candy. His sister Irene shipped him cookies, which “sure [were] good” despite being delivered a month late. “That happens every once and a while by parcel post,” he offered.” Thanks a million, sis.” He also sent home three Father’s Day cards, as thanks for “being such a swell dad!”

One reason for the lack of commentary was both straightforward and inevitable: after six months, life in the Navy was becoming routine. Elmer stressed in his letters that he still missed his home and his family: “I’m not kicking [out of the Navy] but a home with mom and dad suits me any time.” He also continued to reassure them that he was OK, “safe and shipshape.”

However, he did not fail to mention that he was studying for his new rating, and that the pay increase would be substantial. Compared to his pay in the Navy, “when you stop to think about it I wasn’t doing all that well at home.” Similar economic circumstances drove thousands of men from across the United States to join the Navy during the 1930s and early 40s: the promise of paid room and board, adventure and excitement on the government’s dime, and pay on top of all that. It was a great deal, at least for the time being.

Image result for invasion russia honolulu newspaper
Half a world away, Hawaiians read with foreboding – and maybe a silver lining’s worth of hope – about Hitler’s invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941.

Yet his June letters sounded more ominous notes about the waters ahead. For one thing, the Navy announced it would begin censoring sailors’ mail. Elmer explained that he would have to be careful about what he could say, and that he would no longer be able to describe the ship’s activities, location, or other details that could be intercepted by a potential enemy. He also responded to Hitler’s invasion of Russia that month. “I think Germany has bit off too much time,” he wrote his father. “At least I hope so.”

But Elmer, ever the optimist, expressed no regrets. “It is such a beautiful day today,” he wrote on June 15th. “The waiting room [at the Y] is open around the front and the sun is beating down on the palm trees. A cool breeze is drifting through here and it is refreshing. Gee, it is great to be alive.” Regardless of what was happening elsewhere in a world gone mad, it was a lovely afternoon in Hawaii, and Elmer was determined to enjoy it.

Longer letters were nice, but as far as his parents were concerned, that is all he needed to say.

No Brochures: The Camp Grant Massacre in Local Memory

I was in Tucson last weekend with my family for the Arizona Wildcats football game. My father in law is an alum, and each Fall I watch a game with him in the alumni box. I’m not necessarily a Wildcats fan (not that the Bruins are doing much these days, despite finally beating Stanford this weekend), but the food is good and the company is better.

Anyway, we had most of a day to kill in Tuscon, and one of the things I was interested in doing was going to the site of the Camp Grant Massacre. Located 59 miles north of Tuscon, this location was where on April 30, 1871 a group of Tohono O’odham warriors, Mexican civilians, and six Americans killed 144 Aravaipa Apaches. Without going into too much detail about what led to this brutal event (for those who are interested, I highly recommend Karl Jacoby’s wonderful – if haunting – account, of the massacre, Shadows at Dawn), it was a fairly significant event in the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

What was really surprising to me, though, is that there is no monument. No park, no commemorative plaque, not even a roadside marker. Nothing. Just desert.

Limited access roads? To what I assumed would be a park?

In recent years there has been a great deal of controversy over Confederate monuments and whether or not they should be removed. While I don’t intend to weigh in on that specific issue here, one of the comments often made in defense of keeping Confederate monuments is that by losing them we risk forgetting our history. I don’t agree with that argument (I’m an historian, after all – I am literally paid to make people learn and hopefully not forget history), but it does bring up an interesting point: do we risk forgetting about tragic events if we don’t memorialize them in any way?

I think we do.

How many folks in Tuscon know about this attack? Not many, I’d wager. Yet there they are, sixty miles from what could be a fantastic opportunity for local students and others to learn about the US-Mexico borderlands, regional indigenous groups, and frontier violence . . . and there is nothing.

For a good template for what is possible, one might check out the Massacre Canyon Monument in Trenton, Nebraska, where as many as 100 Pawnees were killed by the Lakota as they hunted bison in the Republican River Valley on August 5, 1873. I discuss this event in my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing and Culture in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890.

Despite its isolation (it is VERY far from virtually everywhere), the monument is respectful, informative, and an enduring tribute to the men, women, and children who died that day.

While it is disappointing to learn that there is no similar monument for the Camp Grant Massacre, it is never too late to build one. And for those who defend existing monuments to more controversial figures, it is never too late to reevaluate their ability to not only teach us about the past, but to inspire us to be better in the future.

[Note: I realized that I promised a blog about why non-academics should attend academic history conferences. Let’s, uh, put a pin on that . . . not that I don’t stand by this sentiment, but I had a number of conversations this past weekend about the present and future direction of the WHA, and about some of the rival organizations out there that are currently attracting more members, that compel me to think about the matter some. Stay tuned . . . I do plan on talking about this at some point. – ML]

[Monday, 10/21 update: I should never try to update and edit a post after a couple pints of Guinness in a casino bar. Lesson learned. – ML]

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Greetings from Las Vegas!

Hi folks,

This morning I flew to Las Vegas to attend the annual Western Historical Association (WHA) conference at the Westgate. The WHA is your typical academic conference: there are dozens of interesting panels, a huge book exhibition, enormous quantities of burnt coffee and tiny danishes, and everyone from prestigious scholars to first-year graduate students can be found milling about the place. But the difference, of course, is that we study Western history . . . probably the least stodgy historical field of them all (with the possible exception of Medievalists, who are pretty wild and crazy . . . in a good way, of course!). We have professors, students, ranchers and cowboys, American Indian historians, US-Mexican borderlands scholars, environmental history folks, lots of pubic and government historians, and this year we have a couple of panels on the relationship between the West and space exploration. It’s going to be an exciting weekend! 🤠

I am on a committee and have some business to attend to this afternoon, but if anyone plans on being at the conference tomorrow I will be participating in a panel conversation about the recently published book Interior Borderlands, for which I contributed a chapter. It is at 8:30 am on Friday morning. And if enough people laugh at my jokes I may post my remarks online later.

Since I will be busy at the conference this weekend there will be no book review tomorrow. However, next Friday I will post a review of Clint Johnson’s Tin Cans and Greyhounds: The Destroyers That Won Two World Wars (thanks to Jackie Smith for the suggestion!). For Monday, I will recap the conference and make an argument for why every self-described “history nerd” should take the opportunity someday to go to a history conference, and on Wednesday I will post a narrative about Elmer’s experiences in June 1940.

By the way, I want to say hello and thank you to everyone who has followed the blog this week, and special thanks to my mom and my cousin Celia for banging the drum! This site’s page view counter is already in the tens of thousands, and I would love to get to 100 followers by Thanksgiving.

Last but not least, thank you to the reader who bought me a Ko-Fi this last week . . . let me know if you would like a shout-out on the blog. And the same goes for anyone in the future who contributes to my Ko-Fi fund . . . I don’t want to out any donors on here without their permission, but I am also more than happy to give them public props.

OK, thanks for reading. Time to go rustle up some grub . . .

– Matt

Image result for mini danish
There goes my diet . . .

Gold Rushes and Golden Leaves

One of the things I miss the most about growing up in Missouri is the fall colors, which light up the bluffs along the rivers with slashes of orange, red, yellow, and brown. When I was a kid, my family and I would travel up the Great River Road from St. Louis, drive to Calhoun County, and buy apple cider from one of the many roadside stands lining the strip of land between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers before taking the Golden Eagle Ferry back. Good times.

After nine years of living in Los Angeles, I became disenchanted with the California fall. I’d find any excuse I could to travel east during the autumn. Sometimes we would go up to Big Bear or even Mammoth Lakes, but it just was not the same. The closest I ever felt like I came to experiencing a real autumn was when I’d go up to Sacramento to visit family for Thanksgiving.

Now that I’ve lived in the Sacramento area for a couple of years now, I have to say . . . the fall up here is spectacular. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it could be a destination fall. Crowds of leaf-peepers back east got you down? Come out to Northern California, where we have all the trappings of fall, including that nice cool autumn breeze, but without the fuss. Check out Apple Hill, near Placerville, with its line of apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and food stands. Or take a drive through Sacramento itself in November, which is sometimes called the “City of Trees,” and enjoy the juxtaposition of color-changing maples against pines, redwoods, and even palm trees. It’s a fascinating sight.

But since this is ostensibly a history blog, I would be remiss if I did not discuss the historical destinations that await travelers here. Autumn is probably the best time of the year to visit one of our local Gold Rush history attractions. Apart from the changing colors, it is not brutally hot (as summers tend to be), nor will you need snow chains for your vehicle.

Here are some places you can visit:

The Gold Rush Museum – Auburn: This is a one-stop shop for all things related to Gold Rush history. Located in historic Auburn, this museum is a fantastic place to get acquainted with one of the most important events in North American history.

Firehouse #1 Museum – Nevada City: After you are done taking in the sights in Auburn, take a picturesque drive up Highway 49 towards Grass Valley and Nevada City. Once you get there, this museum offers both a fascinating look at the region’s history as well as a beautiful view of the surrounding treescape.

Donner Memorial State Park – Truckee: No visit to the Sierra would be complete without a stop at Donner Pass and a visit to the place where the ill-fated Donner Party camped in 1846. Be sure to pack a lunch . . .

National Automobile Museum – Reno: If you make it to the other side of the California-Nevada state line, this museum in Reno is not to be missed. Even though this has little to do with the Gold Rush, it does at least give you a sense of what some of the most successful gold miners might have spent their money on in later years . . .

About the horse stealing book . . .

It’s no secret that most of the stuff I post here stems from my work digitizing, reading, and then blogging about the letters my grandpa wrote to his parents and his future wife, Rose, during World War II. Eventually I am going to work this material into a book manuscript, which I would really like to be available in time for the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 2021).

However, most of my research and historical work until recently has focused on horse stealing in the nineteenth-century American West, specifically Nebraska. I began this research nearly a decade ago, when the Autry National Center in Los Angeles awarded me a fellowship to conduct research on the John Bratt Ranching Collection. My goal was to use Bratt’s voluminous ranching records to better understand how horse stealing affected ranchers and their bottom line. The material, which few historians have used up until now, yielded some fascinating insights, and I used these to get a head start on my dissertation writing.

After finishing my dissertation, “Honor among Thieves: Horse Stealing and Culture in Lincoln County, Nebraska, 1860 – 1890” in 2014, I was slow to pick the project back up and finish it. However, I started getting serious about it a couple of years ago and decided to expand my analysis beyond Lincoln County to Western Nebraska in general. I finally finished the manuscript this summer, and it should be out next fall.

* Not the actual book cover, which has not yet been designed . . . this is just something I whipped up on Photoshop. The photo however will be in the book. (Source: Edward S. Curtis, Brulé war party, [1907?], b&w film copy negative, Edward S. Curtis Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-46958.)

I don’t want to give too much away about the book . . . after all, it is a narrative, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending! But my book, which is the first to tackle both American Indian horse raiding and white horse stealing as related historical phenomena, will cover a lot of ground. As the year goes by I will periodically post updates here, as well as tidbits from the book, items of interest that didn’t make the final cut, and other stuff.

I apologize in advance if the blog seems to ping-pong between the old West and the Pacific Theater, with occasional references to Midwestern earthquakes from time to time. Most academic historians are a bit less cluttered with their varying projects, although I would argue that my grandpa’s letters project would never happen if these letters did not literally fall in my lap (my dad, after my grandpa died, actually dropped a suitcase full of these letters inside right on my lap! It was pretty heavy . . .). In the meantime, once Never Caught Twice is out I would like to write another book about the Great Plains, which I’ve grown to love over the past ten years. I have some ideas, but, for now, I think I’m going to focus on writing just one book at a time. 🙂