Tales of the Old West from Old West Books
The Old West is still alive in Old West Books' Catalog 20.
By Michael Stillman
Old West Books recently issued their 20th catalogue of Rare, Out of Print Books on the American West. Offered are almost 300 items and probably not a dull one in the lot. This was a land of limitless horizons, with characters as big as the West. You will find books about cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawmen, generals and soldiers, explorers, captives, showmen, settlers, traders, and just about anyone else who passed through this land in the 19th and early 20th century. Some of these editions are suited for reading, others for collecting, but with the caveat that you will want to read the collectible books too. The Old West was not an easy place to survive, but it surely was an exciting one. Here are some of the books now available.
Item 109 recalls one of the most brutal nonmilitary raids of the Civil War. William Quantrill was a young man from Ohio who moved west and joined the army as a teamster in 1858. Apparently, the discipline of army life did not agree with him, so he left to become a gambler and, of all things, a schoolteacher in Lawrence, Kansas. He was not much of an example for the young ones, as by 1860, he was wanted for horse theft and murder. At this point he formed his group, "Quantrill's Raiders" they were called, and his sympathies turned dramatically anti-Union and pro-slavery. He and his band would operate independent from, but in conjunction with, Confederate forces. The Confederates must have appreciated the help, even while being appalled by his extreme brutality. On August 21, 1863, Quantrill and some 450 of his raiders crossed from Missouri to Kansas and attacked Lawrence, his strongly pro-Union previous residence (he must have harbored some serious resentments). They proceeded to engage in wanton murder, theft, burning and looting. By the time the raid was over, somewhere between 150 and 200 men and boys were dead (women were spared). One of those men who survived was Henry S. Clarke. Clarke was familiar with Quantrill from his earlier days, and was lucky to survive the infamous raid. His story is revealed in his book (with S.W. Brewster) Incidents of Quantrell's [Quantrill] Raid on Lawrence August 21, 1863. The Remarkable and Heretofore Unpublished Personal Experiences of Hon. Henry S. Clarke (first edition, published in Lawrence in 1898). Quantrill would only survive two more years, dying in prison from wounds received during a raid in 1865 in Kentucky. However, his band retained something of hero status among unreconstructed Confederates after the war, and several who rode with him would become celebrities in their own right, though as just plain outlaws. Among those who received their training with Quantrill (it is unclear whether they were involved in Lawrence) were Jesse and Frank James and the Younger Brothers. Priced at $1,750.
Speaking of Jesse James, item 127 is The Life and Daring Adventures of This Bold Highwayman and Bank Robber...Written by XXX (One Who Dare Not Now Disclose His Identity)... We aren't sure why XXX would not dare disclose his identity as the book was published in 1882, the year James died. Maybe he was afraid of the critics. $500.
Tales of the Old West from Old West Books
If Jesse James served as an example to people in 1882 of how not to get rich, James Brisbin offered an alternative means that year in his The Beef Bonanza; or, How to Get Rich on the Plains Being a Description of Cattle Growing, Horse-Raising and Dairying in the West. Brisbin may have been an unrealistically enthusiastic supporter of the opportunities for wealth in the West, but he came about those views honestly. Brisbin was an abolitionist who joined the Union cause in the Civil War, taking command of one of the Black regiments formed of former slaves and freedmen. After the War, he moved west, and would be one of those operating in the area when Custer went off to conduct his final battle. Brisbin was one of those most critical of Custer's actions, concluding his defeat resulted from his disobeying orders, his disobedience motivated by a desire to gain all of the credit for himself. Brisbin did not mince words, whether enthusing about the West, or criticizing Custer (actually, Brisbin was already less than enamored by Custer's behavior well before his annihilation at Little Big Horn). By 1882, Brisbin had risen to the rank of General when he encouraged easterners, in words similar to those of Horace Greeley, to "Go West." Item 44. $650.
Of course, not everyone felt so negatively about General Custer. He had one undying and totally devoted fan (or at least undying for over half a century after Custer's demise). That would be his wife, Elizabeth Custer, who spent the many remaining years in her life attempting to resuscitate her husband's reputation. It was a difficult job, but she did it well. She wrote three books defending Custer's career. Item 16 is one of them: Boots and Saddles, or Life in Dakota with General Custer. This is an 1885 second issue of the first edition. It contains an interesting inscription from someone who knew the Custers and evidently met them regularly from 1870-1873. The inscriber recalls sitting on Custer's knee. $275.
Item 224 is M.I. McCreight's description of one of the uglier, and now forgotten businesses of the Old West -- Buffalo Bone Days. A Short History of the Buffalo Bone Trade...The Story of a Forty Million Dollar Business from Two Million Tons of Bones... Major Israel McCreight was involved in the business of salvaging and shipping the bones of millions of dead buffalo from the mass extermination, when those seeking hides or just sport virtually wiped out America's bison population. Along with the end of the buffalo's way of life, it signaled the end of the way of life of the Indians who depended upon them. The bones were primarily shipped by rail car to fertilizer factories, the phosphorous in the bones making them a useful ingredient. McCreight moved on as the bone business ran its course in the 1880s, publishing his recollections many years later in 1939. $1,250.
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