Winter Festivities in the Old West

December 10, 2007

Yule Brings Celebration For All

The snow blows nearly sideways as it blankets the range. Ranch hands hunker down in their saddles, scarves over their ears and their Stetsons protecting them from the fierce wind. They dream of a warm fire and hot buttered rum. But they have livestock to save from freezing and starvation, so they ride on.

It’s Christmas on the open range. Miserable for man and beast. But it isn’t just another day at the office, so to speak. They whittle gifts for one another, sing a few carols as they sit around the campfire warming their hands and feet.  Cook gives them a hot meal–the finest beans with maybe some meat thrown in. And with a little luck, Cook would bake an apple pie. Life couldn’t be better and they thank their lucky stars for a sound horse and solid tack.

(Yes, I know these cattle are a modern breed and very fat, but it’s the only picture I could find.)


Chanukkah in the
mines.

It’s the 1860’s in Silver City, Idaho. The Festival of Lights has been celebrated in the West since the beginning, but not like their counterparts back East who have a warm and dry place to worship with their families. A menorah can be lit anywhere, and the Jewish silver miners do just that. They pray, play a little dreidel, and think a lot of home.

The picture to the left is the oldest continuously used synagogue west of the Mississippi. It’s located in Boise, Idaho, and was built in 1896 by the Beth Israel congregation, now called the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation. Very beautiful.

Christmas on the farm. Everyone has chores to do every day. Cows needs milked, livestock needs watered and fed, eggs need gathered, and the barnyard needs to be tidied (to use a gentile term). So after the chores are done, the family can gather together and celebrate Christmas with what meager resources they have. If they don’t have evergreen trees to spare, they might decorate a sagebrush with popcorn and berries. They make ornaments with precious bits of paper and scraps of cloth. Peach tins make nice ornaments, too, and they shine in the firelight.

1876 Christmas, Harper’s Weekly

Their celebration might be more humble than those in the eastern cities, but they have a grand time, nevertheless. The women cook for days. They’re resourceful and whatever they have available will do for a fine pie or stew. The Christmas feast could consist of chicken, venison, or maybe a ham, along with homemade rolls, freshly churned butter, potatoes and gravy, and pies–maybe one made with dried apples and a vinegar pie. Each family member has made modest gifts for the others and even the smallest child has labored over precious gifts–maybe a drawing or a doll made of sticks. They sing carols, maybe read the Bible, and if they’re close enough to town, maybe even go to church.

For most Christian families, Christmas is a day for family togetherness and to show their love and appreciation for one another, as well as celebrating the religious aspect of the holy day.

Christmas for Outlaws, Gunslingers, and Cyprians.  The saloon owner brings small gifts for the working ladies, the bartender, the resident gambler, and a few of the regulars. A few cowpunchers bring gifts for their favorite girl. They might have a nice meal together before they open for business, and even then, the customers are few. It’s one night they can relax.

Happy Holidays to Everyone!

Jacquie

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Bounty Hunters of the Old West

October 11, 2007

The law was a bit sparse in the Old West, often not a lawman around for hundreds of miles. If a criminal knew how to live off the land and he owned a fast horse, he was pretty well guaranteed an escape. What’s a sheriff to do?

In 1872, the Supreme Court ruled that bounty hunters were a part of the U.S. law enforcement system with a decision in Taylor vs. Taintor:

“When the bail is given, the principal is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. Their domain is a continuance of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up to his discharge; and if it cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. The seizure is not made by virtue of due process. None is needed. It is likened to the arrest by the Sheriff of an escaped prisoner.”

As you can see by this decision, bounty hunters didn’t have to adhere to the same rules of due process that lawmen did. (This is still true in some states.)

One of the greatest bounty hunters was Pinkerton Detective, Charlie Siringo. Siringo had a long and distinguished, if not controversial, career. He had steely nerves and his cleverness got him out of more than one jam. But he wrote a book, and the Pinkerton Agency wasn’t too keen about that, so he spent several years at the end of his life arguing with them. Could be that the Pinkertons were the only ones to ever best him.

Lots of town marshals and county sheriffs supplemented their meager incomes with bounties. Of course, they had to follow the rules of due process while a bounty hunter had no such restrictions. Then again, if there’s no one around for a couple hundred miles, who’s to know? This is part of how the West was tamed. Many lawmen straddled the fence between law-enforcing and law-breaking.

Charlene Sands, author of Bodine’s Bounty, blogged about bounty hunters on Pistols and Petticoats. Really good info at this site on lots of Old West topics. Anyway, she points out that in order for a bounty hunter to get his money in British Columbia, he had to bring the criminal in alive. The US had no such compunctions, but the bounty was half if the prisoner died before making it to jail. She also mentions that the bounty hunters didn’t receive payment until later, so when they brought in prisoners, they’d either have to wait, or have the money sent to a bank. (They’d probably wait, considering the state of banking at the time.) But the most important thing that Ms. Sands mentioned was that bounty hunters’ names were never, ever recorded, because their anonymity was their protection. This little item is what makes research difficult.

Much to movie and TV viewers’ delight, popular lore glorifies the Old West bounty hunter. The role of Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive in the 1950s made Steve McQueen a star. “Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) was a man of few words. A bounty hunter by trade, he tracked his prey all over the West. Randall carried an 1892 44/40 center fire Winchester carbine that he called “Mare’s Laig.” It handled like a revolver by had the punch of a rifle. Unlike other bounty hunters, Randall had scruples. He tried to bring the prisoner in alive and often found himself called upon to protect people in need.”

Then there’s my personal favorite, Paladin, played by Richard Boone on “Have Gun-Will Travel.” (Okay, so he was more gunslinger than bounty hunter, but they go together well.) I’m not the only one impressed with that character: Eminem will be starring as Paladin in a contemporary movie remake. Does Eminem have what Richard Boone had?

We’ll see!

Jacquie

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