Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West—Nick explores a dusty, old-fashioned book of social history

Posted by – April 9, 2012

This is the first in a series of book and article reviews I’ll write, taking you through the stacks and exploring old and not so old books about humanity’s story (history). In this case, I’m exploring a fairly rare social history from 1965, probably not something you’d find on the shelves of your local public library or Barnes & Noble. If you like this review, leave a comment below 🙂
Nick

Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old WestHeroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West by Jack Schaefer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s seldom that a historical writer captures both the close up, the individual stories, attitudes and essence of the people who contributed to an era, and the wide-view, what the society was like, simultaneously. But by telling the stories of how a diverse cross-section of men contributed to Western settlement, Jack Schaefer did just that with Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West. Schaefer offers detailed portraits of the good men that made building communities in the unforgiving wilds of the territories possible; as Louis L’Amour once wrote—and I’m paraphrasing from memory—”this was a big country and needed big men and women to fill it, big of spirit, big of heart” and it’s these “big” goodmen that Schaefer focuses on. The goodmen, instead of oft-discussed badmen, desperadoes like Billy the Kid, Black Bart, Jesse James and the Younger Gang, Butch Cassidy and “The Wild Bunch” gang and the whole rogues gallery of Western history, who were evidently the subject of frenzied interest at the time of this book’s first publication (1965). In the preface, Schaefer places himself squarely against what he dubs “the cult of the badman,” denouncing the “cultists” for capitalizing on the morbid interest in the “badmen,” who he says impeded growth out West, tearing down and attacking civilization.

This is a book about the goodmen who built the West, a book of lengthy, in-depth biographies of the unheralded pioneer mailmen, explorers, doctors, cowboys, etc. who made the territories livable. Schaefer is clearly drawn to men of extreme patience and fortitude, men of action, not of words. Thus he spends time profiling men like the nearly non-verbal John “Snowshoe” Thompson, a self-described “slow, simple Norski” who used Norwegian snowshoes and techniques to deliver the first mail and supplies (including life-saving medicines) from Nevada to California over the treacherous pass in the Sierra Nevadas. And man of few words and many cows, John Chisum, one of the first cattle barons. He begins the book with eccentric trapper James Capen Adams (“Grizzly” Adams) who spent almost all his life wordlessly among his favorite grizzly bears, in nature. This book made me think about how the Old West ethos, with its focus on action uber alles and the man of action eking out a living from undeveloped wilds as opposed to the buffoonish and idle man of words back east, changed what’s considered manly from the close of the Victorian era up into the present-day. Perhaps without intending to, Schaefer gives us insight into what would become the mold for “manliness” throughout the 20th century.

Why I gave this book Four stars: I’m a big believer that social history is where it’s at, that to really understand the people of a certain time and place, you need to read the words of the people who were there and learn from those everyday folks the rhythms of that past culture, how the society functioned, etc. This book does that. How new settlements functioned, how U.S. territories in the 19th century worked, really fascinates me. As always, the little details hook me; the fact that the biggest bear “Grizzly” Adams ever caught became the model for Charles Nahl‘s design of California’s bear flag (though keep in mind that there were literally over a dozen bear flag designs adopted to varying degrees until a standardized design was finally adopted in 1953), that bovine thievery was a problem, cows trying to break into horse stables and steal the horse’s hay a constant issue out west, that John Chisum maintained his wealth as a Texas cattle baron through the trials and tribulations of the Civil War because he had the foresight to realize that Confederate currency may not hold up, so whenever he got his hands on rebel money, he exchanged it for more cows as soon as possible. I love that stuff.

My favorite part of the book is its biography of Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner. Originally from New York, where King of England, Charles I, had granted the Gardiner family a private island off Suffolk County—Gardiner’s Island—in 1639. In the mid-1800s, Charles Fox Gardiner trained as a doctor in New York City, on Roosevelt Island—then known as Blackwell’s Island—at one of the predecessors of Goldwater hospital. Then he took his skills west to aid the frontier mining communities in Colorado Territory. That this book contained an account of pioneer medicine is why I picked it up. It doesn’t disappoint on that score.

Gardiner built a shanty for his office with a blue and gold sign outside. No one trusted the new guy initially, but slowly his reputation grew by word of mouth and he had a steady and growing practice on his hands. “Patient after patient was unable to pay, then out of nowhere one would pay $100. Unusual but fascinating,” Gardiner said. I found the insights into pioneer doctors fascinating, and I hope to find the book Gardiner himself wrote about his experiences, Doctor at Ridgeline, in an accessible format soon.

The downsides of Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West. come with the author’s old-fashioned views and ancient prejudices that really filter the content, and in some cases really stink it up, especially regarding the native tribes of the West. The only Native American “goodman” profiled is Chief Washakie, leader of the Eastern Shoshones. Washakie was indeed a great leader of the Shoshones, and a pivotal figure in not only American Indian history, but also of the Old West in whole. Indeed, we may not even know the name Shoshone today if not for Washakie; the loose band of Shoshone tribes may have been wiped out by enemy tribes, and probably wouldn’t have even become a federally-recognized tribe without his forceful leadership. Most important was his political skills; Washakie secured a large reservation, Wind River Indian Reservation, in what is now Wyoming, for his fairly small band of Eastern Shoshones because he was such a forceful and well-known leader and peacemaker for his people. Schaefer artfully highlights Washakie’s remarkable achievements, but disturbingly, Schaefer seems to herald Washakie more for his exceeding patience with the constant oppression, control and expropriation of lands previously reserved for the Shoshone. Every decade, Uncle Sam would bite off another giant piece of the land he’d promised to them, and one year they forced them to half the Wind River Reservation with the Arapaho, their ancient rivals. Washakie didn’t—probably couldn’t—fight back, and shared all he could with the Arapahoes.

The Indian leaders that met such humiliations with arrows and repeating rifles aren’t mentioned here. It’s also sucky that this book doesn’t profile a single woman; that amounts to cleaving the history of the West in half! Going in with a wide open mind, one can still appreciate this stuff. But no mind is open enough to like the biography Schaefer includes on Valentine T. McGilicuddy. I thought the chapter on McGilicuddy would focus on his years as a trailblazing frontier Army surgeon and surveyor, but is mostly an account of McGilicuddy’s long tenure as Indian Agent on Pine Ridge Reservation in the Dakotas; it’s one of the more offensive views of Indians you’ll find, paternalistic, infantilizing, ugh. You can skip this chapter if you’d like. But it’s also historical evidence of how loathsome the reservation system has been.

It can be invaluable to read older perspectives. I give this four stars because it’s a rare social history, with great detail of how it really was in biographies of (in order of appearance) Grizzly Adams, George A. Ruxton, John “Snowshoe” Thompson, John Phillips, Washakie, John S. Chisum, Thomas J. Smith, Valentine T. McGillycuddy, Charles Fox Gardiner, and Elfego Baca. Definitely worthwhile for Wild West aficionados and history buffs.

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